Gooseberries, by Anton Chekhov (2 of 2)

Uppercut commeth.

Truth is, I don’t quite know how to deliver on the promise that my post on Camus and Nagel and absurdity is really about Chekhov’s short story Gooseberries.

If there are a hundred ways to skin a book, there are a million ways to make connections between them. Which is why I’m Hamletizing on doing what needs to get done.

The bit from my previous post that’s important is the idea that perspectives can collide within us, or not. It’s a neat idea. It helps us understand all manner of interesting subjective phenomena: conflicts of duty, clashes of memory and pride, struggles of intellect and conscience, and double-think, absurdity, and even ideaological tribalism and sectarian stupidity.

A good deal of this is made possible by imaginative empathy, our ability to inhabit different perspectives, to regard the world from an ego-structure and a larger family-, community-, nation-, or cosmic-structure.    

Imaginative empathy (IE) has a lot of upside, to be sure. Not even an elephant or a porpoise or a bonobo can go cosmic. But IE can be a drag, too: absurdity and its discontents. (Sure, Freud was a great artist with his intuitions, but his science sucked.)

For those of you who are familiar with Chekhov, you know that an atmosphere of congenial acceptance pervades his prose. He’s very healthy-minded that way. I suspect he laughs a lot. Even the bleakest aspects of experience—vanity, indignation, deception, hypocritical outbursts, disease and death—are regarded by him as the common stuff of life.

Gooseberries is no different in this respect: Chekhov doesn’t judge things, he just shows them, cheerfully.

It’s a story about a man who tells a story about his brother who is a poor clerk-turned-landowner. What makes Gooseberries such an interesting study is the manner in which the man’s story fails, not the nesting story (which succeeds), but the nested story (which doesn’t). 

The nested story’s failure has lot to say about the lack of contact between perspectives, on the one hand, as well as the novelist’s and short story writer’s task, on the other.


Two friends, Ivan and Burkin, are walking in the countryside. Burkin, who has precisely five lines in Chekhov’s story, says, “Last time we were in Prokofy’s barn, you were about to tell me a story.”

Ivan loves telling a good story, and as he clears his mighty throat, it begins to rain, hard. Then we get Burkin’s second line: “We must shelter somewhere; let’s go to Alehin’s; it’s close by.” They do.

Alehin is a landowner (this is important) who’s farm boasts a windmill (this is important, too), a grassmeadow (as is this, and everything else, so note them well), a millpond, and a bathhouse. 

These features of bucolic life are noteworthy because they’ll reappear in Ivan’s story, which is a thinly veiled denunciation and a highly sententious tale with an object lesson. Ivan’s goal is to reprove his listeners, to instruct and change them. He has a very specific goal in mind.

Now Ivan’s story is a rather conventional one. He relates his brother’s life as a poor clerk before becoming a landowner with a house that sports—yep, you guessed it—a windmill, a grassmeadow, a millpond, a bathhouse, and garlands of gooseberry bushes.

Well, after sketching the outlines of his brother’s life, Ivan proceeds to rip him a new one. He tells Burkin and Alehin that he, Ivan, visits his brother one day only to learn that everybody grunts like a pig: the dog grunts like a pig, the cook grunts like a pig, and his brother grunts like one, too. Satisfied pigs wallow in a “general hypnotism” and pursue a kind of monastic egoism that ignores the suffering of others.

Then comes Ivan’s rousing call to action:

Don’t be calm and contented, don’t let yourself be put to sleep! There’s no happiness, and there ought not to be; but if there’s a meaning and an object in life, that meaning and object is not our happiness, but something greater and more rationale: Do good!

As you might suspect, neither Burkin nor Alehin are satisfied with this story, especially Alehin. They yawn. It’s rather dreary, hardly enjoyable. And after an awkward silence, Ivan’s story disappears beneath the surface of idle chit-chat like a stone thrown into a river, and is gone.

Ivan’s story fails because he desperately wants to produce a collision of perspectives. His story is delivered from a larger, more universal structure than egoism, and is designed to achieve a very specific effect: moral instruction. Problem is, his story doesn’t overlap with the highly egoistic-structure and concerns of his listeners who want “talk of groats…, of hay…, of tar…, of something that [has a] direct bearing on life….”

The surest way for a novelist or short story writer to fail is to write too resolutely bent on a definite object, beyond composing a story well, such as entertaining his audience, amusing them, instructing them, edifying them, and so on. If he identifies success with these goals, he’s lost. Beyond writing surpassingly well, Chekhov doesn’t pursue an extra-textual goal. He’s content to show as a glimpse of provincial Russian life, of the countryside, of a man who tells a heart-felt story but ends up only irritating his friends. Chekhov’s nesting story succeeds precisely because Ivan’s nested story fails.

Moral (without a moral) of the story: Write a good one, realease it into the wilderness, and hopefully the gooseberries will grow.

9 Responses to Gooseberries, by Anton Chekhov (2 of 2)

  1. PJ says:

    Is the problem really that Ivan has an extra-textual moral agenda, or is it that he lacks the skill to craft it into a compelling narrative? A good message does not a good story make; but neither, I’m sure you’ll agree, does a driving ideological conviction necessarily contaminate any stories it inspires one to tell.

    All narrative includes a dimension of ethical evaluation. Chekov’s attitude, which I too admire, is broadly affirmative of the dignity of ordinary human life. “Gooseberries” invites us to smile at the genuine happiness attained by the brother who Ivan presents as such a sad figure (and, importantly, to see it as genuine happiness, and not as the false consciousness Ivan depicts it to be). To side with Ivan would be to condemn a poor man who, like the rest of us, is only doing the best he can to make his way through a cold and indifferent world. And indeed, to Chekov’s considerable credit, we sympathize with Ivan as well–in spite of his narrative failings, or perhaps even because of them. His act is appreciated, even if not in the way that he intended it to be.

    Consider Steinbeck as a counter-example to your thesis. Here’s a writer with a social message: the end of the _Grapes of Wrath_ is a kick in the gut, brought tears to my eyes. And it seems wrong to say that this is because Steinbeck subordinates message to story. Rather, it is because he’s master enough of the narrative craft to effectively deliver his message. Dickens is another such author.

    Other Russians provide interesting cases. Tolstoy is a story-teller who, in my (not uncommon) opinion, succeeds in spite of his ideological agenda. Dostoevsky, as Bakhtin persuasively argues, works in a different way, setting competing ethical assessments against one another without ever siding with any one of them–a collision of perspectives taken to the next level.

  2. Hi PJ, it’s great to see you here. I only wish that my post were worthy of such a considered response. You know, typically, when I write something, I eagerly await replies, comments, or challenges. Three or four days after Gooseberries went up, I was quite relieved that no one said a word. I’m dissatisfied with it in the extreme. It’s trying too hard to connect dots that need not be connected and to make a compelling point without actually going to the trouble of establishing it. Truth is, I don’t know what makes for a succesful story, beyond a few generalizations. It seems to me that stories can succeed (or fail) in any number of ways, and that it’s difficult to classify them in a manner that applies to all literature. The Grapes of Wrath, for instance, succeeds differently than The Iliad. In any event, I do think that style and treatment of subject matter is more important than this or that moral conviction, and that formal inventiveness is worthy of aesthetic appreciation. Hope things are going well at your end. Many cheers, Kevin

  3. PJ says:

    Yes, the ambitions of the post rather exceeded the space constraints of a blog post. It grabbed my attention nevertheless because you raise several inter-related issues that interest me very much.

    1. How does a narrative affect and perhaps even transform us?
    2. How much active participation is required on the part of the audience? (Also: participation of what kind, and when are we warranted in acceding to this narrative solicitation?)
    3. What are the criteria for narrative success? In particular, to what extent are they ethical and to what extent formally aesthetic, and how are these categories related?

    Your notion of imaginative empathy strikes me as a promising way to link these questions together. A story asks us to temporarily bracket our ego, so to speak, and step into another subjectivity (or rather, other subjectivities: that of the implied author and those of the characters). This requires a measure of assent. The reintegration of this narrative experience into one’s own subjectivity can then be transformative. A good narrative deepens or expands our perspective on the world and our sense of human possibility.

    Consider that storytelling takes as its theme the sphere of human action and is as well a form of action itself, and it may be possible to address the third question as well. The action of the the narrative is separable from the act of narration only in thought: sometimes it is the sequencing of events that captures our imagination and other times it is the mode of treatment. They are always present together and are ontologically of the same kind, capable of affecting and transforming us in the same way. Whether we are moved primarily by a character’s stance on the world or by the author’s may be of little import. In both cases what we are doing is taking up and exploring new ways of inhabiting the world.

    What do you think?


  4. PJ says:

    Another point, “ethical,” as I’m deploying it, is an ambiguous term. On the one hand, it is a positive ethical contribution of literature to enrich our presence in the world, deepening and expanding subjectivity. As Hegel expresses it, fine art presents the world as a home, a place we are meant to be: this is the experience of beauty. On the other hand, however, “ethical” encompasses a more critical sense: ethics is not only about pursuing the good but about condemning and avoiding the bad. Too much emphasis on the latter sense can damage the aesthetic integrity of a story, leaving one with the sense that it is not so much an artwork as a moral argument posing as a story, politics by other means, as it were.

    What is quite interesting about narrative artforms, the novel in particular, is their ability to do both kinds of work. By presenting human action within its natural and institutional context, it depicts the full struggle: our spiritual ambitions and the obstacles we must confront along the way. Discussing this in the framework of German Idealism and Critical Theory, we could say that narrative art is capable of mediating between the claims of Hegel and those of Adorno. The world is neither fully rational nor hopelessly irrational: we can find beauty and achieve happiness in even the most indifferent or even hostile circumstances, and, if this achievement is always partially compromised, it is no less genuine on this account.

    (Hope you don’t mind me co-opting this thread for my own ruminations…)

  5. Hi PJ, let’s see…

    “How does a narrative affect and perhaps even transform us?”

    In my case, good literature affects me at the most basic level, that of mood, of thoughts and feelings. Some times the change is easy to register, especially if a book really delights me or challenges me or is particularly memorable in some key respect. Other times the change isn’t so easy to register. I hate Ulysses, as you know, but still snot-green sea and the inner organs of beasts recur to me, pleasantly, even now. Joyce’s voice has affected me, even though the reading experience was quite dreadful.

    “How much active participation is required on the part of the audience? (Also: participation of what kind, and when are we warranted in acceding to this narrative solicitation?)”

    Whatever kind of participation good reading requires. Inquisitiveness. Subtlety. Empathy. Sleuthing. Humility. Imaginative conception. Reason, especially as this pertains to the logic of a plot. The whole gamut of cognitive engagement, it seems to me. Sorry, this is less than helpful, I’m sure. But it’s all I got. Oh, one last thing: a willingness to have one’s order of rank of values transvalued, in good Nietzschean fashion. That seems to me an important requirement, and it sounds sufficiently learned that I’d like to include it!

    “What are the criteria for narrative success? In particular, to what extent are they ethical and to what extent formally aesthetic, and how are these categories related?”

    I’ll pass over this one in silence for now.

    Although when you write, “A good narrative deepens or expands our perspective on the world and our sense of human possibility,” I fully agree. This reminds me of Shattuck, and the importance he places on abbreviation, intensification, and finally recognition.

    However, when you continue, “Another point, ‘ethical,’ as I’m deploying it, is an ambiguous term. On the one hand, it is a positive ethical contribution of literature to enrich our presence in the world, deepening and expanding subjectivity,” I stop short of agreeing with you. Yes, literature enhances subjectivity, but whether this is a “good” thing or a “bad” thing very much depends on how the agent goes about living his or her life when the book is closed. A good reader of fine literature can be a Tea Partying racist or a reactionary statist, or create whatever label of waywardness you want. Anyhow. Because, it seems to me, the conditions under which a narrative can make us better people or more moral agents is very poorly understood, I balk at the use of “ethical,” even though you’re likely using the term in a very broad sense.

    How do you feel if I lift this conversation out of the comments section, where others might contribute to your line of thought? Let me know. Cheers.

  6. PJ says:

    You write, “In my case, good literature affects me at the most basic level, that of mood, of thoughts and feelings.” I think this is completely right. Right now I’m exploring Paul Ricoeur’s efforts to develop this claim by arguing that the most basic level of selfhood has, itself, a narrative structure. He advances an unfortunately technical theory of “threefold mimesis” to explain the transformative effects of narrative reception. I’ll see whether I can manage a concise summary to share sometime soon.

    To your second answer, again, yes–particularly to the last point, which you associate with Nietzsche. I’d rather follow Wayne Booth and discuss it in terms the ability to form what Charles Taylor calls “second-order desires,” that is, desires not for particular objects, but rather the desire to be a certain kind of desirer, a certain kind of person.

    This brings us to the ethical import of narrative. Your suspicion that I am using “ethical” in a perhaps unusually broad sense is well-founded. I’d refer back to Aristotle and emphasize the original link with ethos, distinguishing this carefully from the more narrow domain of moral law. Ethics is about living a good life, where the criteria for goodness are unavoidably subjective (though not, I would argue, completely arbitrary). They are founded not upon any universal abstractions, but upon the structure of subjectivity. The object of ethics is to live a successful life that you can affirm as the product of your own free will. (Notice that the qualifier “successful” does a lot of work here: the failure to take into account and reconcile oneself to the various constraints on human action, institutional and otherwise, can result only in frustration or a false, delusional satisfaction.)

    If you’re still so inclined, please do move this up into the body of the blog. I’d love to hear from others.

    Cheers, PJ

  7. […] I wrote a bit on Gooseberries by Chekhov. It was flabby. Good friend and trusted commentator, PJ Welsh, a philosophy graduate […]

  8. R.C. says:

    to me, what really makes the story so great is the way chekhov completly grabs your mind and takes it on a tour of moral and ethical dillemas and all i can do as i read it is to say “wow”. what captures me the most is how he puts us in the position of a ‘thinking man’, who acknoledges the poor (with the help of other stories like ‘small fry’), then shows as the ugly side of true happiness, then, us as readers, clearly get into a position where we hate that state of happiness (rich..?) but obviously don’t want to be poor. which basically makes me think about my world and how my concious accepts and doesn’t, and what my uncounciousness ignorantly accepts on the price of others.
    This is just my opinion,

    just a regular guy that’s lost.

  9. From one regular guy who’s lost to another, welcome. New commenters are always a pleasant surprise.

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