29 is the birthday of writer Anton Pavlovich Chekhov. Born in
the small seaport of Taganrog, Ukraine, in 1860, he was the son of a grocer and the
grandson of a serf who had bought his freedom and that of his three sons in
1841. When Chekhov was sixteen, his father's grocery store failed, and
the family, except for Anton, left for
Moscow. Young Chekhov stayed behind to finish school and try to make a
living. He lived in the corner of a house and scraped out a meager existence by tutoring
family friends. He later called his adolescence a "never-ending
After being graduated from high school, Chekhov left for Moscow to study
medicine. While he was in school, he began writing for comic
magazines to earn money for his family and himself. He produced
hundreds of short,
funny stories in his spare time and later admitted that it had been a relief to write in
the evenings after spending the day pouring over chemistry and anatomy.
For years, though, Chekhov couldn't decide whether to devote his life to medicine or
literature, so he split his efforts between the two. In 1884, he received
his medical degree and began a career as a doctor, which he continued until
1892. He later referred to this period as his "sporadic second career which was to bring much hard work but little income."
He treated mostly peasants whose poverty reminded him of his childhood, and
he rarely asked for payment. He set up
free clinics in provincial Russia, and he fought the cholera and famine
epidemics of 1891 and 1892.
was embarrassed about his love for writing and wrote under a number of
pseudonyms for years. He once told a friend, "Medicine takes itself
seriously; the game of literature requires nicknames." After being
graduated from medical school, he continued to write stories for weekly
magazines and newspapers. His friends encouraged him to try writing
something more ambitious, but he didn't think he was a good enough writer.
The magazines he wrote for gave him strict
limits on the number of words per story, and he often started and finished
a short piece in a single sitting. He wrote to a friend, saying that he
thought of writing "frivolously, casually [and] nonchalantly." It
wasn't until he received encouraging advice from an editor that he began to
take writing seriously and to use his real name.
One of the inventors of the modern short story,
Chekhov fills them with passive characters and a light plot. His
stories don't have overly emotional, grandiose climaxes, and they usually end with a
moment that reveals something about the lives of his main characters.
During his career, he produced several hundred stories.
Palata No. 6 (Ward No. Six), written in 1892, is his
classic story of the abuse of psychiatry. In it, Gromov is convinced
that anyone can be imprisoned. He develops a persecution mania and is
incarcerated in a horrific asylum, where Doctor Ragin becomes interested in
his case. Their relationship attracts attention, and the doctor is tricked
into becoming a patient in his own ward. He dies after being beaten by
a worker. The symmetrical story offers numerous similarities to the
works of Samuel Fuller's film, The Shock Corridor (1963), and Ken
Kesey's novel, One Flew Over Cockoo's Nest (1975).
first play, The Seagull, opened in 1885. It was so bad that the
author walked out on it at intermission. He vowed never to write
another play. But two years later, it was produced again, this time to
rave reviews. The success inspired him to go on to write other plays,
Uncle Vanya (1897),
Three Sisters (1901), and The Cherry Orchard (1904), now considered classics.
Chekhov bought a country estate in the village of Melikhove
in 1892. There, he wrote several of his best stories, including
Neighbours, Ward Number Six, The Black Monk, The Murder, and Ariadne.
He also served as a volunteer census taker, participated in famine relief,
and worked as a medical inspector during the cholera epidemics. In
1897, he was stricken by tuberculosis and lived the remainder of his life
either abroad or in the Crimea.
In Yalta, Chekhov wrote his famed stories, The Man in the
Shell, Gooseberries, About Love, Lady with the Dog, and In the Ravine.
His last story, The Betrothed, is an optimistic tale of a young woman
who escapes from provincial dullness into personal freedom.
1901, Chekhov married Moscow Art Theater actress Olga Knipper (1870-1959).
She had played several of Chekhov's leading roles over the years. She
enjoyed his plays because--like his short stories--they reflected a
multitude of possible viewpoints. Surprise and tension, staples in
most dramas of the day, were foreign elements in Chekhovian theater, where
the dramatic movement is subdued, the characters are harmonious, and the
endure their fate with stoic patience. In the end, they usually learn
something about themselves and their false hopes.
mirroring the philosophy behind his own work,
Chekhov once said, "Any idiot can face a crisis; it is this day-to-day living
that wears you out."
The words proved to be prophetic. By 1903, the health
of the author/playwright was failing. Anton Chekhov died on July 15,
1904, in Badenweiler, Germany, and was buried in the cemetery of the
Novodeviche Monastery in Moscow.
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