Reading Chekhov IV: “The Student”

Anton Tschechow in Moskau/1891 - Anton Chekhov in Moscow / 1891 - We’re in my living room again with a group of friends drinking wine and reading Chekhov, the great short story writer of Russia and the reading world. We love him for so many reasons, including the fact that he invites us to digress. We’re reading a famous story called “The Student.” It’s a late winter, early spring night in the 1890s, Easter weekend.  A student is coming home from shooting, and he pauses to share a Gospel story — Peter’s denial of Jesus — with peasant women. Chekhov liked to say this was his favorite story; a lot of people disagreed with him, some vehemently. I think he liked to say it because the story ends on an exalted note, as if to answer those who thought he was desperately gloomy and dark and atheistic. He may have said that he loved it as a sort of sop to his critics.  It is for me not only the most perfect, postage-stamp little dose of Chekhov’s moods, alternately bleak and ecstatic;  it also sets a complex reflection on betrayal, hardship, history and hope in an unforgettably beautiful scene.

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  • Listening to this group recite and discuss Chekhov is a delight —- I enjoy hearing the different voices and styles of reading, and also the various reactions to the text — I hope that you all continue to do many more of these types of programs!

    …….I’m agreeably baffled by the notion that ‘The Student’ was the author’s personal favorite — I have a penchant for enigmas, so this news about his preference pleases me ….. While wondering if anything more could be made of this, I kept coming back to a few thoughts about age —- for what it’s worth, Chekhov died at 44; and he authored ‘The Student’ at 33 (traditionally, the age when Jesus died); and, according to the text, the character Ivan Velikopolsky, “the student,” is 22 years old. So there’s a decade separating the author from his newly buoyant subject, and a decade till death as well. ……I read the story in Avrahm Yarmolinsky’s translation – & near the beginning are these words:

    Cringing in the cold, he reflected that just such a wind had blown in the days of Ryurik, Ivan the Terrible, and Peter the Great. Their times had known just such ferocious poverty and hunger. There had been the same thatched roofs with the holes in them, the same ignorance and misery, the same desolation on all sides, the same gloom and sense of oppression. All these horrors had been, still were, and would continue to be, and the passing of another thousand years would make things no better.

    …..then, near the end, after the student’s auditors have reacted to his telling of the story, occurs this passage:

    Joy suddenly stirred within him. He even stopped for a moment to catch his breath.
    “The past,” thought he, “is linked to the present by an unbroken chain of happenings, each flowing from the other.”

    –So “the passing of another thousand years would make things no better” becomes “The past [. . .] is linked to the present by an unbroken chain of happenings, each flowing from the other.” This reminds me of the change that occurs in Wallace Stevens’ poem THE SNOW MAN (when ‘One’ who ‘regards’ becomes ‘the listener’ who ‘beholds’) a text which, I think, presents a similar type of development as Chekhov’s ‘The Student’. I’m sure everyone who follows this site is familiar with it already, but, because it is enjoyable to type and spread around things like this online, here is the full poem by Wallace Stevens:

    One must have a mind of winter
    To regard the frost and the boughs
    Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

    And have been cold a long time
    To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
    The spruces rough in the distant glitter

    Of the January sun; and not to think
    Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
    In the sound of a few leaves,

    Which is the sound of the land
    Full of the same wind
    That is blowing in the same bare place

    For the listener, who listens in the snow,
    And, nothing himself, beholds
    Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

    …..I would say that the external atmosphere & weather of ‘The Student’ is wholly unfriendly, even inhuman; but the positive movement in the mind of Chekhov’s student—the joy that suddenly stirs within him, despite the bad environs—seems to be related, in some way, to the following passage from the conclusion (Third Essay, Section 28) of Friedrich Nietzsche’s “On the Genealogy of Morals” (I use Walter Kaufmann’s translation; and, since I’m not sure how to type italics in a comment here on the internet, I’ll put the italicized words in ALL CAPS)—

    [Man’s] existence on earth contained no goal; “why man at all?”–was a question without an answer; the WILL for man and earth was lacking; behind every great human destiny there sounded as a refrain a yet greater “in vain!” [. . .] man was surrounded by a fearful VOID–he did not know how to justify, to account for, to affirm himself; he SUFFERED from the problem of his meaning. He also suffered otherwise, he was in the main a sickly animal: but his problem was NOT suffering itself, but that there was no answer to the crying question, “WHY do I suffer?” [. . .] The meaninglessness of suffering, NOT suffering itself, was the curse that lay over mankind so far [. . .] any meaning is better than none at all [. . .] suffering was INTERPRETED; the tremendous void seemed to have been filled; the door was closed to any kind of suicidal nihilism. [. . .] Man was SAVED thereby, he possessed a meaning, he was henceforth no longer like a leaf in the wind, a plaything of nonsense–the “sense-less”–he could now WILL something; no matter at first to what end, why with what he willed: THE WILL ITSELF WAS SAVED.

    —–Also (this is just an afterthought) — since I am happily unable to discern whether any text that Chekhov writes is a comedy or a tragedy, the famous passage from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay ‘Nature’ also comes to mind:

    Not the sun or the summer alone, but every hour and season yields its tribute of delight; for every hour and change corresponds to and authorizes a different state of the mind, from breathless noon to grimmest midnight. Nature is a setting that fits equally well a comic or a mourning piece. In good health, the air is a cordial of incredible virtue. Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear. In the woods too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life, is always a child. In the woods, is perpetual youth. Within these plantations of God, a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years. In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life,—no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground,—my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate though me; I am part or particle of God.

  • Michael burke

    The above comment has a lot to say and hits the mark on technique within the story.
    Nietzsche is probably everyone’s favorite non believer philosopher and rightly so, no one else matches his prose and electric strikes on the minds ease. Checkov would however reject his stridency and his paganism. Like Camus, he has an aversion to anything grand.
    It may be the good doctor simply was pleased at the completed story and it’s comprehensive intellectual reach within the context of a simple narrative. His greatest stories, not to mention the great plays (to me the best plays since the Bard, and “three sisters” the most beautiful play of all time—-truly an opening into eternity), were in the future and he knew he was on a roll.
    In every sense he is a greatest writer, equal to the best except Dante and Shakesphere,
    …..Russian literature of Tolstoy et. al. Is one of three great periods of world literature
    (Greek tragedy, Elisebethian England, Russia of Dostoiefskei, Tolstoy, and Checkov………Dante looms over all inhis uniqueness) but of those writers it. Is Checkov whom we feel an attachment, perhaps because he is close in time, perhaps he refuses to draw conclusions beyond the edge of our humanity………….

    • Mr. Burke, I think what you said here is very helpful, and I agree with you! (In case it’s not clear, I wrote the March 7 comment.) On reading your remark about Nietzsche, I saw your point at once: I now realize that by citing N’s ‘Genealogy’, I was revealing more about myself than about either ‘The Student’ or its author – this is something that I catch myself doing often with Chekhov…… I think it’s because, as you rightly say, “he refuses to draw conclusions beyond the edge of our humanity”— & upon seeing that he refrains from doing so, I am enticed to try out a conclusion of my own (maybe a little too recklessly!)…… The enchanting effect that Chekhov’s stance has upon the interpretive part of my mind makes me recall these lines from Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’ (sec. 25)—-

      Speech is the twin of my vision, it is unequal to measure itself,
      It provokes me forever, it says sarcastically,
      “Walt you contain enough, why don’t you let it out then?”

      …Anyway, I just meant to voice my agreement and thank you for sharing your knowledge!

  • Potter

    Amazing how much Chekhov can pack into a short story, this the shortest of short.

    Again I am drawn in by the descriptions of nature so animated as a player in the story. Winter leaves reluctantly, by the way as now, and the cold pierces still near Eastertime. “Nature herself felt dismayed”

    The time of the ages seems to stand still with regard to poverty hunger oppression; the future holds no promise that this will change. But there is a link to that present from ancient times in the gospel story the student (son of a verger) offers the widows. It’s meaningful because the suffering is essentially the same. Chekhov, if he could be here now, might think that that link is broken.

    I still prefer to read the story first and so have not listened to your guests yet.
    Please keep us going with these stories. Thank you!

  • Potter

    I listened and could not recognize any of the interpretations immediately but as I write maybe I do. That is, except for one of your guests that mentions the effect on student’s feeling about his purpose in life, what meaning he derived from his epiphany. My own first impression had to do with the loss of the connection between the stories of Jesus from so long ago to our present day. But it works for the widows and it gives the student a sense that he can effect lives in the telling. And to have a purpose, to see/help people get through is enough to make one so elated.

    The man on the stove, his father, I thought had consumption, as he was coughing.

    But the beauty in Chekhov for me always is really the art of the telling, the love of nature and it’s intertwining with human life.

    Interesting too was the comment about your guest’s telling of shared a birthday (birth date) between a child and a 92 year old. My granddaughter just turned 4 on the day that my mother turned 100. Now if you put the two of them together, and we did, you can see the communication, how it happens and what it is. So it is feelings, indescribable. But Chekhov does this all brilliantly and it’s a pleasure to read him.