Known for his ability to recreate Russian life succinctly through representative anecdotes, Anton Chekhov creates female protagonists who uphold morals and expose flaws of Russian society through silent suffering and endurance. Due to their honesty and innocent malleability, these females are wronged and exploited as marginalized members of society. Olenka, Anyuta, and Vanda, from “The Darling”, “Anyuta”, and “A Gentleman Friend”, respectively, are characterized distinctively from their male counterparts by their silence and passivity. Chekhov demonstrates the power and dominance of society over individuals who are bound by an identity based on how they are viewed, which is represented by a name. Furthermore, the good nature of these individual characters does not merit the ill treatment that ultimately befalls them.
Chekhov uses names – a seemingly commonplace method of identification used in society – to explore the status, the self-image, and the attitudes of other characters towards these female protagonists. Merely a social construct, the importance of the naming system is elevated in Chekhov’s stories to identify class, not identity, to the disadvantage of marginalized citizens. It is not within the control of the name-bearer how she is viewed, leaving her helpless and powerless. In “The Darling”, Olenka alternates between having a chorus of admirers gushing out her nickname, “you darling!” during her high times, and being met by silence during her low spells. Her nickname follows her cycle of circumstance and how she appears to the outside world. In Russian, the word for darling, “Dushechka”, is an idiom meaning literally “little soul”, with endearing overtones of childishness. Chekhov chooses a seemingly immature nickname for an adult, but because of her tender loveliness, no neighbor can think ill of her. Olenka begins to personify the very idea of her name when she has someone to love, but seems to lose her soul when alone (Poggioli 326). Vanda, from “A Gentleman Friend”, has two names that show different sides of her identity: “The charming Vanda, or, as she is described in her passport, the ‘Honorable Citizen Nastasya Kanavkin’” (34). As a prostitute she is known as Vanda, a different person compared to how she feels at the present, leaving the hospital disorientated and ordinary. Simply because she does not have her stylish hat, dress, and shoes, Vanda “no longer [thinks] of herself as Vanda, but as the Nastasya Kanavkin she used to be in the old days” (35). Vanda’s name evidently determines her self-worth. In “Anyuta”, Chekhov introduces the protagonist only by this name, lacking a surname, as if she’s not as important or substantial as the medical student, who is presented as “Stepan Klockhov, a medical student in his third year” (20). Indeed, she is looked down upon by her male companions, and accepts this without resistance.
Silently yielding to male dominators, Chekhov’s female protagonists demonstrate a higher moral stature. Both Vanda and Anyuta suffer at the hands of a controlling figure in command of the situation. In “Gentleman”, Vanda comes to the dentist Finkel for help, remembering her flirtatious times with him in the past, but he does not remember her, even as she hardly recognizes herself. Glimpsing her reflection in the mirror by his magnificent staircase, she is dismayed by her common appearance and lowers her pride, posing as a patient upon the realization that he no longer recognizes her in this state. The dentist’s indifference contrasts with the humble Vanda, who has only a simple, material goal in mind: money for clothing and shelter. Chekhov presents her as merely as an object, a task to be attended to and dismissed by the doctor, who is “waiting to be left in peace” (37). While the image of Vanda evokes pity, everything about the doctor is “loathsome and repellent” (36). Yet she displays remarkable strength, refusing to cry and retaining her hope to become Vanda once again. Anyuta is revealed to be ultimately stronger than Klochkov: they are contrasted as she conceals her suffering, while Klochkov, “vexed at his own weakness…[shouts] to her roughly” (23). While “his mouth [is] dry and his forehead perspiring from the unceasing effort” of learning anatomy, Anyuta is equally engaged, “sitting with bent back she [is] busy embroidering…working against time”, in a more understated manner (20). Anyuta is subject to the whims of the students, who use her as specimen and model, ironically contributing “for the sake of art” while fulfilling selfish needs (22). While they use the end to justify their means, Anyuta’s virtuous efforts go unappreciated. Even as she shivers and turns blue from the cold, like a true martyr, Anyuta’s primary concern is that “the student, noticing it, would stop drawing and sounding her, and then, perhaps, might fail in his exam” (21). She is characterized as meek and long-suffering, scarcely speaking, in contrast to the self-serving, indifferent students, who see her as merely a dispensable and interchangeable object. Her only complaint, “Your fingers are cold!” is rather a statement in response to the question, “Why are you wriggling?” as Klochkov counts her ribs in a dehumanizing manner (21). When Anyuta leaves with the artist, she murmurs a profound grievance: “The things I’ve had to put up with there” (22). Chekhov’s tone, “put up with”, demonstrates a moral superiority, wisdom, and patience in Anyuta that is not present in any other character in the story.
While Anyuta and Vanda forbearingly endure their circumstances, Olenka willingly and actively submits herself to whomever she loves, at times unintentionally and ironically gaining dominance in the relationship. This can be explained by her distinctive archetype: one who has no personality, independent thought, or character, and who takes on the traits of those she loves with complete identification. Her head is either full of others’ thoughts, which bring her happiness, or completely empty (Poggioli 325). Because her character and needs are simple, Chekhov creates in her a heart that is pure; giving substantial love and devotion in return for an identity that she can take a part in. However, this makes some of her male counterparts uncomfortable, and turns the loved one from the dominator to the dominated. In Olenka’s first marriage, as she grows stouter and beams with satisfaction, Kukin grows “thinner and yellower”, as if she is consuming his being (213). Her relationship with the veterinary surgeon, though they are both happy for a short time, results in him becoming “dreadfully embarrassed” because her instinct to express his opinions for him is uncontrollable (217). Finally, Olenka’s motherly love for the boy Sasha has become so oppressive that it comes to the point that he cries out in his sleep, which is how the story ends. Therefore, not only is she providing something sublime through her ability of total identification, she herself rises in power and vigor when doing so. On the other hand, Chekhov reveals that without someone in her life to keep her going, Olenka becomes desolate and ultimately helpless, taking in and putting forth nothing. She is made too vulnerable through her emotional purity.
What ill treatment society brings on these female characters does not match the honesty of their character. Vanda, from “Gentleman”, is characterized as genuine and simple-minded with simple needs; however her shame and lack of confidence and appropriate clothing take away her only ruble and one of her teeth, leaving her “brooding on…her ugly, wretched life” (37). Despite Olenka’s all-consuming devotion, love, and kindness, she continues to sacrifice her heart in exchange for loneliness, each time suffering as greatly as before, living in an “emotionally intense present that totally obliterates the past” (Heldt 167). This means that after each loss, Olenka feels bereavement and despair as if it were her first. Anyuta’s story implies that she too, follows a cycle, having “known five students like Klochkov” who had “gone out into the world, and…like respectable people, long ago forgotten her” (21). Ironically here, “respectable” is not a character trait but a status, but if it were, these former students would fall short of the description while, truly, Anyuta would meet it. Indeed, for all her toil, all the concern she receives is nearly being cast out by Klochkov. Yet, she returns to her stool as before and continues to suffer as she always has.
Chekhov exemplifies the human capacity to endure hardship through the female characters of Anyuta, Vanda, and Olenka. He emphasizes their simple virtues, and suggests that, as one critic remarked, “even in the profane prose of life there may lie hidden poetry’s sacred spark” (Poggioli 320). Although they are not quite willing to change and indeed return as before again and again, their tolerance and remarkable ability to overcome injustice shine a light in a seemingly dark world that Chekhov presents.
Word Count: 1435
Chekhov, Anton. “Anyuta.” Trans. Constance Garnett. Anton Chekhov’s Short
Stories: Texts of the Stories, Backgrounds, Criticism. Ed. Ralph E. Matlaw.
New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1979. 20-23. Print.
Chekhov, Anton. “The Darling.” Trans. Constance Garnett. Anton Chekhov’s Short
Stories: Texts of the Stories, Backgrounds, Criticism. Ed. Ralph E. Matlaw.
New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1979. 211-221. Print.
Chekhov, Anton. “A Gentleman Friend.” Trans. Constance Garnett. Anton
Chekhov’s Short Stories: Texts of the Stories, Backgrounds, Criticism. Ed.
Ralph E. Matlaw. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1979. 34-37. Print.
Heldt, Barbara. “Chekhov (and Flaubert) on Female Devotion.” Ulbandus Review, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Fall 1982). 166-174. Columbia University Slavic Department. Web.
Poggioli, Renato. “Storytelling in a Double Key.” The Phoenix and the Spider. (1957) Rpt. in Anton Chekhov’s Short Stories: Texts of the Stories, Backgrounds, Criticism. Ed. Ralph E. Matlaw. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1979. 307-328. Print.
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