Wednesday: What I'm Reading

Each day I try to read a new short story. Today’s was “An Upheaval” by Anton Chekhov. Those of you who have read 19th century Russian literature know that it’s particularly dark and pessimistic; this is no exception.

Anton Chekhov

It is this very quality that makes the reader analyze and engage with the text. Chekhov’s ability to examine a mundane event in a new light has a similar effect.

In “An Upheaval,” Mashenka works as a governess for a couple, Nikolay and Fedosya. A brooch has been stolen from Fedosya, and she is determined to search every room in the house to find it–including Mashenka’s. She returns home during this process and feel a deep sense of violation, which leads to her decision to quit her job and return home to her parents.

A fairly simple plot, but Chekhov always includes a twist. I’ll not expose it here because I think you should read it for yourself (the full text can be found online here or here). The surprise ending, if you will, support’s Chekhov’s love of irony, especially in showing the contrast between expectations of success and the reality of achieving it.

Chekhov’s brilliant characterization also serves to enhance the otherwise simple plot. In six pages, he creates three main characters with depth, completeness, and quirks. They are each flawed, yet redeemable. Chekhov creates no hero, no villain, instead showing that conflict can arise between two imperfect people who both feel justified in their opinions and actions.

To this end, he uses economy of words in his characterization: “Fedosya Vassilyevna, a stout, broad-shouldered, uncouth woman with thick black eyebrows, a faintly perceptible moustache, and red hands, who was exactly like a plain, illiterate cook in face and manners…” He gives a satisfying understanding of now just her physical appearance, but of her mannerisms and inherent qualities as well. Unlike many genre authors, Chekhov does not give a complete physical description–he highlights the prominent, relevant features, leaving the rest for the reader to fill in.

One final feature that distinguishes Chekhov from many of his contemporaries is his reluctance to vilify the upper class. If anything, this story unifies the wealthy and the working class through shared experience and emotion. No matter how much money one has, all can feel the same sense of violation when one’s possessions are tampered with.

I am a huge fan of Russian Lit, so I may be predisposed to like his work, but this story was beautifully composed, perfect in it’s simplicity. I’ll definitely be returning to his works.

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