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Saturday, October 19, 2019

Chekhov and Forms Part 2 (In Exile)

"In Exile" is a nearly plotless story about a young Tatar whose name we are not given. He has been exiled to Siberia for crimes his brothers and uncle committed and has found work during the flood season assisting in old ferryman, Semyon, nicknamed "Preacher." The Tatar misses his wife, his home province of Simbirsk, where "even the stars were quite different, and so was the sky." He is an open-hearted boy, looking for some small comfort, from the fire, from the natural world, perhaps from old Semyon, a veteran of this life. Certainly from the latter he will not find any. Semyon is preacher of a most cynical faith, telling the young Tatar to forget his wife, Simbirsk, anything of his former existence; to abandon any dreams of change or salvation, for even to hope, Semyon says, is "mere foolishness . . . the devil confounding you."

The bulk of the story is taken up with another story, recounted by Semyon. We all recognize the framing device, "a story within a story," and should bear in mind that this formal structure calls to our notice at least two things: that the real story is most likely not in either the frame or the picture but in dialogue between the two and that the nature of the telling itself—the form of the story—will be worth attending.

The inner story is of Vassily Sergeyich, a nobleman exiled to Siberia fifteen years ago, who has refused to give up hope. He first checked the post constantly for money and messages from home. He convinced his wife, young and beautiful, to join him in exile, and, even after she ran off with an official and left him with a child to raise, he persevered, raised a beautiful young woman, doted on her. His credo, which he made the mistake of repeating to Semyon, is "Even in Siberia people can live!" Now his daughter has taken ill with tuberculosis, and Vassily is obsessed, as any father would be, with finding a cure. He travels con­stantly to far-off villages to seek medical assistance, all of which brands him, in Semyon's eyes, a fool, a dreamer, confounded by the devil. She will die in any case, Semyon assures us, and Vassily will hang himself or run off, only to be caught and thrown in prison.

The Tatar breaks into Preacher's narrative here to say "Good! Good!" his broken speech a nearly strangled affirmation of everything moral in the face of Semyon's cold, eloquent cynicism. Semyon asks him what is good, and the Tatar says:

    His wife, his daughter. . . .What of prison and what of sorrow!—any­way, he did see his wife and his daughter. . . .You say, want nothing.

    But "nothing" is bad. His wife lived with him three years—that w a gift from God. "Nothing" is bad, but three years is good.

The Tatar tells Semyon of his wife, her own promise, like Vassily Sergeyich's wife before her, to join him and ease his exile. Semyon, having finished the vodka he was drinking, goes off to sleep, and the Ta thinks of home, wonders how he will care for his wife, should she actually come, and then, in a turn reminiscent of Marya in the previous story, nods off and dreams that this life is just a dream from which h need only rouse himself to be returned to Simbirsk and his old, his true existence.

What rouses him, instead, is shots from the far side of the rive Vassily Sergeyich on yet another journey to find a doctor for his dying daughter. As they ferry Vassily back across, Semyon mocks him. The father gone, the Tatar launches another tirade at old Semyon, saying Vassily "is good, but you are bad. God created man to be alive, and t' have joy and grief and sorrow; but you want nothing so you are no alive, you are stone, clay! . . . God does not love you but he loves the Gentleman!"

Everyone laughs; all but the Tatar head for the hut and sleep. From inside they hear the Tatar crying. Semyon has the last word, saying "he'll soon get used to it," and then they fall asleep, too lazy or cold to rise and close the door.

On first reading, this, too, might seem a straightforward, even simple story, a tale of morality and cleaving to life versus a dark and life-denying cynicism. Certainly the Tatar, open-hearted, emotionally responsive, is more attractive to us than old Semyon, who has remained outside the hut just so he won't be forced to share any of his vodka, who laughs at the devotion of the father to his sick child, who espouses n creed beyond an arrogant and dark fatalism. The Tatar invokes life as it should be, and Semyon, in rejecting this view, seems beyond the scope of what we would call reasonable human behavior.

But if we look a little deeper we see Chekhov countering, having activated, our reasonable, not to say romantic, notions of life. Once the Tatar, near the end of the story, actually begins to think on his wife's arrival in Siberia he himself realizes almost immediately that he would have no way to keep her, that life here, barely enough to sustain him, would be fatal to her. While his plea that even a moment of his wife' company would make all the loneliness after it bearable is, again, sound], human and attractive, we have the living example of Vassily Sergeyich, who amiably rises from the inner story to demonstrate to us, a page later, how wrong the Tatar is: Vassily had his wife three years, his daughter ever since, and has found no such contemplative satisfaction. And last, while Semyon's habit of mocking others' misery is not endearing, one can't, on the face of it, much dispute his claims. Prisoners under the pars, as later under the Soviets, were not sent to Siberia to be rehabilitated in preparation for a return to life but to be eliminated, forgotten, erased. To hold onto beliefs that life will improve, seems, on the evi­dence, to be foolhardy indeed, even mad, and perhaps it is only the devil's prompting that makes men continue.

So who is right? Our moral leanings favor the boy and the long-suffering Vassily, but practical considerations of reality seem to favor Semyon. We want to know. Are the old moralities upheld? Is life, after all, good? Or a cruel, sustained joke? Our (My?) Hollywood-impregnated minds want clear answers, the balm of resolution. Is it to be John Wayne strutting his certainties across a landscape of lesser men and ideals; is it to be Hepburn?—feisty and talented and smart but finally meeting her fate, and salvation and comeuppance, Tracy reining her in as wife nonetheless? Or is the whole old outmoded, complacent system junk, and we thumb it in the eye, simpering along with James Dean, barely able to enunciate our contempt, like Brando? Which side is Chekhov taking?

Neither.

While I think it fair to assume Chekhov would like to side with the Tatar, would like to be writing of a world where the simple, old verities abide, he knows this is not the case. This story, like many from this period in his writing, arises from a year-long trip Chekhov made to the prison island of Sakhalin, where he gathered information about the conditions of the prisoners, their treatment, their medical problems. While we, and even Chekhov, might have earlier felt that nothing could shake our certainties about family, loyalty, faith in God and man, he saw a dif­ferent world in the east. This, from the book he published about his journey, is Chekhov's description of the lashing of a prisoner:

    The torturer stood to one side and struck the victim in such a way that the lash hit the body diagonally. After each five lashes he slowly moved to the other side, allowing the victim a thirty second respite. The victim's hair soon stuck to his forehead. After only five or ten blows his flesh, covered with weals from former beatings, turned crimson and deep blue; his skin peeled with each blow. "Your wor­ship!" we heard through the screams and tears, "your worship! Spare me, your worship." After twenty or thirty blows he started lamenting, as if drunk or delirious, "I'm an unfortunate man, a broken man. . . .Why are they punishing me?" Suddenly his neck unnaturally, and we heard vomiting. . . . He did not say another word, only moaned and wheezed.

The world Chekhov writes about is the world where man's intentions are pitted against his failures, where the will to live is tested by crushing lessons. Semyon, in his vitality, in his finding a path to s manner of living, has, I believe, some of Chekhov's approval. And does the Tatar, with his battered sensitivity, his clinging, along with Vassily, to a life become illusory, a form of imaginative self-torment. I lit Semyon is damned to his darkness, he is Charon ferrying the dead like himself endlessly across the night river, while the Tatar lives: he will be disappointed, his faith is naive, foolish, no doubt evanescent, but ii I worth noting.

The quality I believe Chekhov admires most is striving. Marya and Semyon bear his gentle and sympathetic censure because they ha v heeded life's lessons and turned from it in fear (Marya) or come!' It (Semyon). He may not admire, finally, their choices, but he understand them. The parallel notions of accomplishment and idealism are lit td abstract to Chekhov, who takes man's measure not by what he claims to have done or believed but by the minute-to-minute life he has lived. III his long story "My Life" he puts is this way: "Alas, the thoughts and doings of living creatures are not nearly so significant as their sufferings.”

How does setting play into this reading of "In Exile"?

Let me suggest, again, that Chekhov activates, indeed counts on, eat reading this story as a simple battle between good and evil, assuming most of us will side with the good, the life-affirming. Then he pits these chubby complacencies against quite irrefutable arguments, to show not that these other, darker truths are vindicated but that neither can be, that life is an endless shuttling between the dark and light, the hope filled ail the despairing, and it is the shuttling itself that matters. These characters, then, are stuck, suspended between realities, and the method Chekhov uses to fix them is inversion, a tipping over of our expectations.

Let's begin again with the title. "In Exile" syntactically suggests location, a place to be "in," but contradicts itself, for, while exile has become idiomatic of a place outside, it is actually a nonplace, a constant negation, defined by what it is not. The characters, from the start, then are in a nonplace, are nowhere. Consider our hero, the Tatar, a man with no name, imprisoned for a crime he did not commit, sent to a place' that is a negation of place.

The landscape Chekhov gives us is nearly a negation as well. It is night, and cold. There is a hut on a dark river, a small fire; lights can be seen in the distance. That's all. He brilliantly dramatizes a landscape of near insubstantiality using the dark and the cold, the bumps of the ferry and the murmurings of the river.

The main physical attribute of the story is the river. Rivers, throughout history and literature, evoke a specific imagery. They are borders, crossed to begin or to end journeys. They are demarcations between old lives and new, old lands and new. And here, on the surface, the river seems to be functioning in the same way. Semyon ferries people across, presumably to continue their journeys. But an odd thing happens on this river—no one leaves. The only character to cross the river is Vassily, who is defined by his endless futile crossings and recrossings. Charon and the River Styx seem appropriate analogies: no one crosses this river to leave, they are permanent crossers, there is no world beyond the dim fire and the cold-battered hut. The river does not demarcate a larger world; has become the world.

These inversions set up the inversions that follow in Semyon's logic. To have faith is to listen to the devil. To pray is to blaspheme; to hope to despair. The tag line he applies to Vassily, "one can li-i-ve," in its mockery suggests that life itself is a joke. In this world loyalty, hope, fatherhood, family, are all illusion. The life the Tatar hopes to regain is effaced as if it never had existed, and once the flood season is over he will disappear himself into Siberia, leaving no trace. All that is left is the river: "The dark, cold river . . . floating ten paces away; it grumbled, Flopped against the hollow clay banks and raced on swiftly to the faraway sea" this boy will never reach.

Still, life goes on, in the boy's longings, in Vassily's futile travels, in the motion of the ferry and the river and the seasons' unpausing cycle. Chekhov shows us, through the setting of this piece, that the world will upturn our pieties, our assumptions, our dearest, most closely held beliefs. Neither one creed nor the other prevails here, simply the dialec­tic, the tension between the two. And fittingly we end on a note of Ambiguity, as the door to the hut remains open, physically, allowing in both the cold and the living cries of the boy near the fire, and formally, suggesting there is no certainty, no closure, no end to this story.

In a letter Chekhov wrote, "When I am finished with my characters I like to return them to life," and it is life, not the Good Life or the Bad Life, not the proclamation of a triumphant creed either over or through his characters but the characters themselves, their vital, their "significant," sufferings, that Chekhov shows us in his small, miraculous stories.

There is much more in these stories, much that could be said about char­acterization, dramatic line, point of view, other matters of form. It has been my intention to demonstrate how one formal device—setting can help illuminate part of the subtle, mysterious machinery Chekhov's art. These two stories, leeched of their setting—the cart at flood, the river and ferry—become something else entirely, something perhaps more tenable and unambiguous, solid, moral tales, but become so much less: inert, hortatory, check marks on one or the other side those lists of Virtue and Vice now being compiled and admired, where message is all.


Also see:

Chekhov and Form Part 1

Old Semyon, nicknamed Canny, and a young Tatar, whom no one knew by name, were sitting on the river-bank by the camp-fire; the other three ferrymen were in the hut. Semyon, an old man of sixty, lean and toothless, but broad shouldered and still healthy-looking, was drunk; he would have gone in to sleep long before, but he had a bottle in his pocket and he was afraid that the fellows in the hut would ask him for vodka. The Tatar was ill and weary, and wrapping himself up in his rags was describing how nice it was in the Simbirsk province, and what a beautiful and clever wife he had left behind at home. He was not more than twenty five, and now by the light of the camp-fire, with his pale and sick, mournful face, he looked like a boy.

"To be sure, it is not paradise here," said Canny. "You can see for yourself, the water, the bare banks, clay, and nothing else. . . . Easter has long passed and yet there is ice on the river, and this morning there was snow. . ."

"It's bad! it's bad!" said the Tatar, and looked round him in terror.

The dark, cold river was flowing ten paces away; it grumbled, lapped against the hollow clay banks and raced on swiftly towards the far-away sea. Close to the bank there was the dark blur of a big barge, which the ferrymen called a "karbos." Far away on the further bank, lights, dying down and flickering up again, zigzagged like little snakes; they were burning last year's grass. And beyond the little snakes there was darkness again. There little icicles could be heard knocking against the barge It was damp and cold. . . .

The Tatar glanced at the sky. There were as many stars as at home, and the same blackness all round, but something was lacking. At home in the Simbirsk province the stars were quite different, and so was the sky.

"It's bad! it's bad!" he repeated.

"You will get used to it," said Semyon, and he laughed. "Now you are young and foolish, the milk is hardly dry on your lips, and it seems to you in your foolishness that you are more wretched than anyone; but the time will come when you will say to yourself: 'I wish no one a better life than mine.' You look at me. Within a week the floods will be over and we shall set up the ferry; you will all go wandering off about Siberia while I shall stay and shall begin going from bank to bank. I've been going like that for twenty-two years, day and night. The pike and the salmon are under the water while I am on the water. And thank

God for it, I want nothing; God give everyone such a life."

The Tatar threw some dry twigs on the camp-fire, lay down closer to the blaze, and said:

"My father is a sick man. When he dies my mother and wife will come here. They have promised."

"And what do you want your wife and mother for?" asked Canny. "That's mere foolishness, my lad. It's the devil confounding you, damn his soul! Don't you listen to him, the cursed one. Don't let him have his way. He is at you about the women, but you spite him; say, 'I don't want them!' He is on at you about freedom, but you stand up to him and say: 'I don't want it!' I want nothing, neither father nor mother, nor wife, nor freedom, nor post, nor paddock; I want nothing, damn their souls!"

Semyon took a pull at the bottle and went on:

"I am not a simple peasant, not of the working class, but the son of a deacon, and when I was free I lived at Kursk; I used to wear a frockcoat, and now I have brought myself to such a pass that I can sleep naked on the ground and eat grass. And I wish no one a better life. I want nothing and I am afraid of nobody, and the way I look at it is that there is nobody richer and freer than I am. When they sent me here from Russia from the first day I stuck it out; I want nothing! The devil was at me about my wife and about my home and about freedom, but I told him: 'I want nothing.' I stuck to it, and here you see I live well, and I don't complain, and if anyone gives way to the devil and listens to him, if but once, he is lost, there is no salvation for him: he is sunk in the bog to the crown of his head and will never get out.

"It is not only a foolish peasant like you, but even gentlemen, well-educated people, are lost. Fifteen years ago they sent a gentleman here from Russia. He hadn't shared something with his brothers and had forged something in a will. They did say he was a prince or a baron, but maybe he was simply an official -- who knows? Well, the gentleman arrived here, and first thing he bought himself a house and land in Muhortinskoe. 'I want to live by my own work,' says he, 'in the sweat of my brow, for I am not a gentleman now,' says he, 'but a settler.' 'Well,' says I, 'God help you, that's the right thing.' He was a young man then, busy and careful; he used to mow himself and catch fish and ride sixty miles on horseback. Only this is what happened: from the very first year he took to riding to Gyrino for the post; he used to stand on my ferry and sigh: 'Ech, Semyon, how long it is since they sent me any money from home!' 'You don't want money, Vassily Sergeyitch,' says I. 'What use is it to you? You cast away the past, and forget it as though it had never been at all, as though it had been a dream, and begin to live anew. Don't listen to the devil,' says I; 'he will bring you to no good, he'll draw you into a snare. Now you want money,' says I, 'but in a very little while you'll be wanting something else, and then more and more. If you want to be happy,' says I, the chief thing is not to want anything. Yes. . . . If,' says I, 'if Fate has wronged you and me cruelly it's no good asking for her favor and bowing down to her, but you despise her and laugh at her, or else she will laugh at you.' That's what I said to him. . . .

"Two years later I ferried him across to this side, and he was rubbing his hands and laughing. 'I am going to Gyrino to meet my wife,' says he. 'She was sorry for me,' says he; 'she has come. She is good and kind.' And he was breathless with joy. So a day later he came with his wife. A beautiful young lady in a hat; in her arms was a baby girl. And lots of luggage of all sorts. And my Vassily Sergeyitch was fussing round her; he couldn't take his eyes off her and couldn't say enough in praise of her. 'Yes, brother Semyon, even in Siberia people can live!' 'Oh, all right,' thinks I, 'it will be a different tale presently.' And from that time forward he went almost every week to inquire whether money had not come from Russia. He wanted a lot of money. 'She is losing her youth and beauty here in Siberia for my sake,' says he, 'and sharing my bitter lot with me, and so I ought,' says he, 'to provide her with every comfort. . . .'

"To make it livelier for the lady he made acquaintance with the officials and all sorts of riff-raff. And of course he had to give food and drink to all that crew, and there had to be a piano and a shaggy lapdog on the sofa -- plague take it! . . . Luxury, in fact, self-indulgence. The lady did not stay with him long. How could she? The clay, the water, the cold, no vegetables for you, no fruit. All around you ignorant and drunken people and no sort of manners, and she was a spoilt lady from Petersburg or Moscow. . . . To be sure she moped. Besides, her husband, say what you like, was not a gentleman now, but a settler -- not the same rank.

"Three years later, I remember, on the eve of the Assumption, there was shouting from the further bank. I went over with the ferry, and what do I see but the lady, all wrapped up, and with her a young gentleman, an official. A sledge with three horses. . . . I ferried them across here, they got in and away like the wind. They were soon lost to sight. And towards morning Vassily Sergeyitch galloped down to the ferry. 'Didn't my wife come this way with a gentleman in spectacles, Semyon?' 'She did,' said I; 'you may look for the wind in the fields!' He galloped in pursuit of them. For five days and nights he was riding after them. When I ferried him over to the other side afterwards, he flung himself on the ferry and beat his head on the boards of the ferry and howled. 'So that's how it is,' says I. I laughed, and reminded him 'people can live even in Siberia!' And he beat his head harder than ever. . . .

"Then he began longing for freedom. His wife had slipped off to Russia, and of course he was drawn there to see her and to get her away from her lover. And he took, my lad, to galloping almost every day, either to the post or the town to see the commanding officer; he kept sending in petitions for them to have mercy on him and let him go back home; and he used to say that he had spent some two hundred roubles on telegrams alone. He sold his land and mortgaged his house to the Jews. He grew gray and bent, and yellow in the face, as though he was in consumption. If he talked to you he would go, khee--khee--khee,. . . and there were tears in his eyes. He kept rushing about like this with petitions for eight years, but now he has grown brighter and more cheerful again: he has found another whim to give way to. You see, his daughter has grown up. He looks at her, and she is the apple of his eye. And to tell the truth she is all right, goodlooking, with black eyebrows and a lively disposition. Every Sunday he used to ride with her to church in Gyrino. They used to stand on the ferry, side by side, she would laugh and he could not take his eyes off her. 'Yes, Semyon,' says he,

'people can live even in Siberia. Even in Siberia there is happiness. Look,' says he, 'what a daughter I have got! I warrant you wouldn't find another like her for a thousand versts round.' 'Your daughter is all right,' says I, 'that's true, certainly.' But to myself I thought: 'Wait a bit, the wench is young, her blood is dancing, she wants to live, and there is no life here.' And she did begin to pine, my lad. . . . She faded and faded, and now she can hardly crawl about. Consumption.

"So you see what Siberian happiness is, damn its soul! You see how people can live in Siberia. . . . He has taken to going from one doctor to another and taking them home with him. As soon as he hears that two or three hundred miles away there is a doctor or a sorcerer, he will drive to fetch him. A terrible lot of money he spent on doctors, and to my thinking he had better have spent the money on drink. . . . She'll die just the same. She is certain to die, and then it will be all over with him. He'll hang himself from grief or run away to Russia -- that's a sure thing. He'll run away and they'll catch him, then he will be tried, sent to prison, he will have a taste of the lash. . . ."

"Good! good!" said the Tatar, shivering with cold.

"What is good?" asked Canny.

"His wife, his daughter. . . . What of prison and what of sorrow! -- anyway, he did see his wife and his daughter. . . . You say, want nothing. But 'nothing' is bad! His wife lived with him three years -- that was a gift from God. 'Nothing' is bad, but three years is good. How not understand?"

Shivering and hesitating, with effort picking out the Russian words of which he knew but few, the Tatar said that God forbid one should fall sick and die in a strange land, and be buried in the cold and dark earth; that if his wife came to him for one day, even for one hour, that for such happiness he would be ready to bear any suffering and to thank God. Better one day of happiness than nothing.

Then he described again what a beautiful and clever wife he had left at home. Then, clutching his head in both hands, he began crying and assuring Semyon that he was not guilty, and was suffering for nothing. His two brothers and an uncle had carried off a peasant's horses, and had beaten the old man till he was half dead, and the commune had not judged fairly, but had contrived a sentence by which all the three brothers were sent to Siberia, while the uncle, a rich man, was left at home.

"You will get used to it!" said Semyon.

The Tatar was silent, and stared with tear-stained eyes at the fire; his face expressed bewilderment and fear, as though he still did not understand why he was here in the darkness and the wet, beside strangers, and not in the Simbirsk province.

Canny lay near the fire, chuckled at something, and began humming a song in an undertone.

"What joy has she with her father?" he said a little later. "He loves her and he rejoices in her, that's true; but, mate, you must mind your p's and q's with him, he is a strict old man, a harsh old man. And young wenches don't want strictness. They want petting and ha-ha-ha! and ho-ho-ho! and scent and pomade. Yes. . . . Ech! life, life," sighed Semyon, and he got up heavily. "The vodka is all gone, so it is time to sleep. Eh? I am going, my lad. . . ."

Left alone, the Tatar put on more twigs, lay down and stared at the fire; he began thinking of his own village and of his wife. If his wife could only come for a month, for a day; and then if she liked she might go back again. Better a month or even a day than nothing. But if his wife kept her promise and came, what would he have to feed her on? Where could she live here?

"If there were not something to eat, how could she live?" the Tatar asked aloud.

He was paid only ten kopecks for working all day and all night at the oar; it is true that travelers gave him tips for tea and for vodkas but the men shared all they received among themselves, and gave nothing to the Tatar, but only laughed at him. And from poverty he was hungry, cold, and frightened. . . . Now, when his whole body was aching and shivering, he ought to go into the hut and lie down to sleep; but he had nothing to cover him there, and it was colder than on the river-bank; here he had nothing to cover him either, but at least he could make up the fire. . . .

In another week, when the floods were quite over and they set the ferry going, none of the ferrymen but Semyon would be wanted, and the Tatar would begin going from village to village begging for alms and for work. His wife was only seventeen; she was beautiful, spoilt, and shy; could she possibly go from village to village begging alms with her face unveiled? No, it was terrible even to think of that. . . .

It was already getting light; the barge, the bushes of willow on the water, and the waves could be clearly discerned, and if one looked round there was the steep clay slope; at the bottom of it the hut thatched with dingy brown straw, and the huts of the village lay clustered higher up. The cocks were already crowing in the village.

The rusty red clay slope, the barge, the river, the strange, unkind people, hunger, cold, illness, perhaps all that was not real. Most likely it was all a dream, thought the Tatar. He felt that he was asleep and heard his own snoring. . . . Of course he was at home in the Simbirsk province, and he had only to call his wife by name for her to answer; and in the next room was his mother. . . . What terrible dreams there are, though! What are they for? The Tatar smiled and opened his eyes.

What river was this, the Volga?

Snow was falling.

"Boat!" was shouted on the further side. "Boat!"

The Tatar woke up, and went to wake his mates and row over to the other side. The ferrymen came on to the river-bank, putting on their torn sheepskins as they walked, swearing with voices husky from sleepiness and shivering from the cold. On waking from their sleep, the river, from which came a breath of piercing cold, seemed to strike them as revolting and horrible. They jumped into the barge without hurrying themselves. . . . The Tatar and the three ferrymen took the long, broad-bladed oars, which in the darkness looked like the claws of crabs; Semyon leaned his stomach against the tiller. The shout on the other side still continued, and two shots were fired from a revolver, probably with the idea that the ferrymen were asleep or had gone to the pot-house in the village.

"All right, you have plenty of time," said Semyon in the tone of a man convinced that there was no necessity in this world to hurry -- that it would lead to nothing, anyway.

The heavy, clumsy barge moved away from the bank and floated between the willow-bushes, and only the willows slowly moving back showed that the barge was not standing still but moving. The ferrymen swung the oars evenly in time; Semyon lay with his stomach on the tiller and, describing a semicircle in the air, flew from one side to the other. In the darkness it looked as though the men were sitting on some antediluvian animal with long paws, and were moving on it through a cold, desolate land, the land of which one sometimes dreams in nightmares.

They passed beyond the willows and floated out into the open. The creak and regular splash of the oars was heard on the further shore, and a shout came:

"Make haste! make haste!"

Another ten minutes passed, and the barge banged heavily against the landingstage.

"And it keeps sprinkling and sprinkling," muttered Semyon, wiping the snow from his face; "and where it all comes from God only knows."

On the bank stood a thin man of medium height in a jacket lined with fox fur and in a white lambskin cap. He was standing at a little distance from his horses and not moving; he had a gloomy, concentrated expression, as though he were trying to remember something and angry with his untrustworthy memory. When Semyon went up to him and took off his cap, smiling, he said:

"I am hastening to Anastasyevka. My daughter's worse again, and they say that there is a new doctor at Anastasyevka."

They dragged the carriage on to the barge and floated back. The man whom Semyon addressed as Vassily Sergeyitch stood all the time motionless, tightly compressing his thick lips and staring off into space; when his coachman asked permission to smoke in his presence he made no answer, as though he had not heard. Semyon, lying with his stomach on the tiller, looked mockingly at him and said:

"Even in Siberia people can live -- can li-ive!"

There was a triumphant expression on Canny's face, as though he had proved something and was delighted that things had happened as he had foretold. The unhappy helplessness of the man in the foxskin coat evidently afforded him great pleasure.

"It's muddy driving now, Vassily Sergeyitch," he said when the horses were harnessed again on the bank. "You should have put off going for another fortnight, when it will be drier. Or else not have gone at all. . . . If any good would come of your going -- but as you know yourself, people have been driving about for years and years, day and night, and it's alway's been no use. That's the truth."

Vassily Sergeyitch tipped him without a word, got into his carriage and drove off.

"There, he has galloped off for a doctor!" said Semyon, shrinking from the cold. "But looking for a good doctor is like chasing the wind in the fields or catching the devil by the tail, plague take your soul! What a queer chap, Lord forgive me a sinner!"

The Tatar went up to Canny, and, looking at him with hatred and repulsion, shivering, and mixing Tatar words with his broken Russian, said: "He is good . . . good; but you are bad! You are bad! The gentleman is a good soul, excellent, and you are a beast, bad! The gentleman is alive, but you are a dead carcass. . . . God created man to be alive, and to have joy and grief and sorrow; but you want nothing, so you are not alive, you are stone, clay! A stone wants nothing and you want nothing. You are a stone, and God does not love you, but He loves the gentleman!"

Everyone laughed; the Tatar frowned contemptuously, and with a wave of his hand wrapped himself in his rags and went to the campfire. The ferrymen and Semyon sauntered to the hut.

"It's cold," said one ferryman huskily as he stretched himself on the straw with which the damp clay floor was covered.

"Yes, its not warm," another assented. "It's a dog's life. . . ."

They all lay down. The door was thrown open by the wind and the snow drifted into the hut; nobody felt inclined to get up and shut the door: they were cold, and it was too much trouble.

"I am all right," said Semyon as he began to doze. "I wouldn't wish anyone a better life."

"You are a tough one, we all know. Even the devils won't take you!"  Sounds like a dog's howling came from outside.

"What's that? Who's there?"

"It's the Tatar crying."


"I say. . . . He's a queer one!"

"He'll get u-used to it!" said Semyon, and at once fell asleep.

The others were soon asleep too. The door remained unclosed. 


Also see:

In Exile By Anton Pavlovich Chekhov

Old Semyon, nicknamed Canny, and a young Tatar, whom no one knew by name, were sitting on the river-bank by the camp-fire; the other three ferrymen were in the hut. Semyon, an old man of sixty, lean and toothless, but broad shouldered and still healthy-looking, was drunk; he would have gone in to sleep long before, but he had a bottle in his pocket and he was afraid that the fellows in the hut would ask him for vodka. The Tatar was ill and weary, and wrapping himself up in his rags was describing how nice it was in the Simbirsk province, and what a beautiful and clever wife he had left behind at home. He was not more than twenty five, and now by the light of the camp-fire, with his pale and sick, mournful face, he looked like a boy.

"To be sure, it is not paradise here," said Canny. "You can see for yourself, the water, the bare banks, clay, and nothing else. . . . Easter has long passed and yet there is ice on the river, and this morning there was snow. . ."

"It's bad! it's bad!" said the Tatar, and looked round him in terror.

The dark, cold river was flowing ten paces away; it grumbled, lapped against the hollow clay banks and raced on swiftly towards the far-away sea. Close to the bank there was the dark blur of a big barge, which the ferrymen called a "karbos." Far away on the further bank, lights, dying down and flickering up again, zigzagged like little snakes; they were burning last year's grass. And beyond the little snakes there was darkness again. There little icicles could be heard knocking against the barge It was damp and cold. . . .

The Tatar glanced at the sky. There were as many stars as at home, and the same blackness all round, but something was lacking. At home in the Simbirsk province the stars were quite different, and so was the sky.

"It's bad! it's bad!" he repeated.

"You will get used to it," said Semyon, and he laughed. "Now you are young and foolish, the milk is hardly dry on your lips, and it seems to you in your foolishness that you are more wretched than anyone; but the time will come when you will say to yourself: 'I wish no one a better life than mine.' You look at me. Within a week the floods will be over and we shall set up the ferry; you will all go wandering off about Siberia while I shall stay and shall begin going from bank to bank. I've been going like that for twenty-two years, day and night. The pike and the salmon are under the water while I am on the water. And thank

God for it, I want nothing; God give everyone such a life."

The Tatar threw some dry twigs on the camp-fire, lay down closer to the blaze, and said:

"My father is a sick man. When he dies my mother and wife will come here. They have promised."

"And what do you want your wife and mother for?" asked Canny. "That's mere foolishness, my lad. It's the devil confounding you, damn his soul! Don't you listen to him, the cursed one. Don't let him have his way. He is at you about the women, but you spite him; say, 'I don't want them!' He is on at you about freedom, but you stand up to him and say: 'I don't want it!' I want nothing, neither father nor mother, nor wife, nor freedom, nor post, nor paddock; I want nothing, damn their souls!"

Semyon took a pull at the bottle and went on:

"I am not a simple peasant, not of the working class, but the son of a deacon, and when I was free I lived at Kursk; I used to wear a frockcoat, and now I have brought myself to such a pass that I can sleep naked on the ground and eat grass. And I wish no one a better life. I want nothing and I am afraid of nobody, and the way I look at it is that there is nobody richer and freer than I am. When they sent me here from Russia from the first day I stuck it out; I want nothing! The devil was at me about my wife and about my home and about freedom, but I told him: 'I want nothing.' I stuck to it, and here you see I live well, and I don't complain, and if anyone gives way to the devil and listens to him, if but once, he is lost, there is no salvation for him: he is sunk in the bog to the crown of his head and will never get out.

"It is not only a foolish peasant like you, but even gentlemen, well-educated people, are lost. Fifteen years ago they sent a gentleman here from Russia. He hadn't shared something with his brothers and had forged something in a will. They did say he was a prince or a baron, but maybe he was simply an official -- who knows? Well, the gentleman arrived here, and first thing he bought himself a house and land in Muhortinskoe. 'I want to live by my own work,' says he, 'in the sweat of my brow, for I am not a gentleman now,' says he, 'but a settler.' 'Well,' says I, 'God help you, that's the right thing.' He was a young man then, busy and careful; he used to mow himself and catch fish and ride sixty miles on horseback. Only this is what happened: from the very first year he took to riding to Gyrino for the post; he used to stand on my ferry and sigh: 'Ech, Semyon, how long it is since they sent me any money from home!' 'You don't want money, Vassily Sergeyitch,' says I. 'What use is it to you? You cast away the past, and forget it as though it had never been at all, as though it had been a dream, and begin to live anew. Don't listen to the devil,' says I; 'he will bring you to no good, he'll draw you into a snare. Now you want money,' says I, 'but in a very little while you'll be wanting something else, and then more and more. If you want to be happy,' says I, the chief thing is not to want anything. Yes. . . . If,' says I, 'if Fate has wronged you and me cruelly it's no good asking for her favor and bowing down to her, but you despise her and laugh at her, or else she will laugh at you.' That's what I said to him. . . .

"Two years later I ferried him across to this side, and he was rubbing his hands and laughing. 'I am going to Gyrino to meet my wife,' says he. 'She was sorry for me,' says he; 'she has come. She is good and kind.' And he was breathless with joy. So a day later he came with his wife. A beautiful young lady in a hat; in her arms was a baby girl. And lots of luggage of all sorts. And my Vassily Sergeyitch was fussing round her; he couldn't take his eyes off her and couldn't say enough in praise of her. 'Yes, brother Semyon, even in Siberia people can live!' 'Oh, all right,' thinks I, 'it will be a different tale presently.' And from that time forward he went almost every week to inquire whether money had not come from Russia. He wanted a lot of money. 'She is losing her youth and beauty here in Siberia for my sake,' says he, 'and sharing my bitter lot with me, and so I ought,' says he, 'to provide her with every comfort. . . .'

"To make it livelier for the lady he made acquaintance with the officials and all sorts of riff-raff. And of course he had to give food and drink to all that crew, and there had to be a piano and a shaggy lapdog on the sofa -- plague take it! . . . Luxury, in fact, self-indulgence. The lady did not stay with him long. How could she? The clay, the water, the cold, no vegetables for you, no fruit. All around you ignorant and drunken people and no sort of manners, and she was a spoilt lady from Petersburg or Moscow. . . . To be sure she moped. Besides, her husband, say what you like, was not a gentleman now, but a settler -- not the same rank.

"Three years later, I remember, on the eve of the Assumption, there was shouting from the further bank. I went over with the ferry, and what do I see but the lady, all wrapped up, and with her a young gentleman, an official. A sledge with three horses. . . . I ferried them across here, they got in and away like the wind. They were soon lost to sight. And towards morning Vassily Sergeyitch galloped down to the ferry. 'Didn't my wife come this way with a gentleman in spectacles, Semyon?' 'She did,' said I; 'you may look for the wind in the fields!' He galloped in pursuit of them. For five days and nights he was riding after them. When I ferried him over to the other side afterwards, he flung himself on the ferry and beat his head on the boards of the ferry and howled. 'So that's how it is,' says I. I laughed, and reminded him 'people can live even in Siberia!' And he beat his head harder than ever. . . .

"Then he began longing for freedom. His wife had slipped off to Russia, and of course he was drawn there to see her and to get her away from her lover. And he took, my lad, to galloping almost every day, either to the post or the town to see the commanding officer; he kept sending in petitions for them to have mercy on him and let him go back home; and he used to say that he had spent some two hundred roubles on telegrams alone. He sold his land and mortgaged his house to the Jews. He grew gray and bent, and yellow in the face, as though he was in consumption. If he talked to you he would go, khee--khee--khee,. . . and there were tears in his eyes. He kept rushing about like this with petitions for eight years, but now he has grown brighter and more cheerful again: he has found another whim to give way to. You see, his daughter has grown up. He looks at her, and she is the apple of his eye. And to tell the truth she is all right, goodlooking, with black eyebrows and a lively disposition. Every Sunday he used to ride with her to church in Gyrino. They used to stand on the ferry, side by side, she would laugh and he could not take his eyes off her. 'Yes, Semyon,' says he,

'people can live even in Siberia. Even in Siberia there is happiness. Look,' says he, 'what a daughter I have got! I warrant you wouldn't find another like her for a thousand versts round.' 'Your daughter is all right,' says I, 'that's true, certainly.' But to myself I thought: 'Wait a bit, the wench is young, her blood is dancing, she wants to live, and there is no life here.' And she did begin to pine, my lad. . . . She faded and faded, and now she can hardly crawl about. Consumption.

"So you see what Siberian happiness is, damn its soul! You see how people can live in Siberia. . . . He has taken to going from one doctor to another and taking them home with him. As soon as he hears that two or three hundred miles away there is a doctor or a sorcerer, he will drive to fetch him. A terrible lot of money he spent on doctors, and to my thinking he had better have spent the money on drink. . . . She'll die just the same. She is certain to die, and then it will be all over with him. He'll hang himself from grief or run away to Russia -- that's a sure thing. He'll run away and they'll catch him, then he will be tried, sent to prison, he will have a taste of the lash. . . ."

"Good! good!" said the Tatar, shivering with cold.

"What is good?" asked Canny.

"His wife, his daughter. . . . What of prison and what of sorrow! -- anyway, he did see his wife and his daughter. . . . You say, want nothing. But 'nothing' is bad! His wife lived with him three years -- that was a gift from God. 'Nothing' is bad, but three years is good. How not understand?"

Shivering and hesitating, with effort picking out the Russian words of which he knew but few, the Tatar said that God forbid one should fall sick and die in a strange land, and be buried in the cold and dark earth; that if his wife came to him for one day, even for one hour, that for such happiness he would be ready to bear any suffering and to thank God. Better one day of happiness than nothing.

Then he described again what a beautiful and clever wife he had left at home. Then, clutching his head in both hands, he began crying and assuring Semyon that he was not guilty, and was suffering for nothing. His two brothers and an uncle had carried off a peasant's horses, and had beaten the old man till he was half dead, and the commune had not judged fairly, but had contrived a sentence by which all the three brothers were sent to Siberia, while the uncle, a rich man, was left at home.

"You will get used to it!" said Semyon.

The Tatar was silent, and stared with tear-stained eyes at the fire; his face expressed bewilderment and fear, as though he still did not understand why he was here in the darkness and the wet, beside strangers, and not in the Simbirsk province.

Canny lay near the fire, chuckled at something, and began humming a song in an undertone.

"What joy has she with her father?" he said a little later. "He loves her and he rejoices in her, that's true; but, mate, you must mind your p's and q's with him, he is a strict old man, a harsh old man. And young wenches don't want strictness. They want petting and ha-ha-ha! and ho-ho-ho! and scent and pomade. Yes. . . . Ech! life, life," sighed Semyon, and he got up heavily. "The vodka is all gone, so it is time to sleep. Eh? I am going, my lad. . . ."

Left alone, the Tatar put on more twigs, lay down and stared at the fire; he began thinking of his own village and of his wife. If his wife could only come for a month, for a day; and then if she liked she might go back again. Better a month or even a day than nothing. But if his wife kept her promise and came, what would he have to feed her on? Where could she live here?

"If there were not something to eat, how could she live?" the Tatar asked aloud.

He was paid only ten kopecks for working all day and all night at the oar; it is true that travelers gave him tips for tea and for vodkas but the men shared all they received among themselves, and gave nothing to the Tatar, but only laughed at him. And from poverty he was hungry, cold, and frightened. . . . Now, when his whole body was aching and shivering, he ought to go into the hut and lie down to sleep; but he had nothing to cover him there, and it was colder than on the river-bank; here he had nothing to cover him either, but at least he could make up the fire. . . .

In another week, when the floods were quite over and they set the ferry going, none of the ferrymen but Semyon would be wanted, and the Tatar would begin going from village to village begging for alms and for work. His wife was only seventeen; she was beautiful, spoilt, and shy; could she possibly go from village to village begging alms with her face unveiled? No, it was terrible even to think of that. . . .

It was already getting light; the barge, the bushes of willow on the water, and the waves could be clearly discerned, and if one looked round there was the steep clay slope; at the bottom of it the hut thatched with dingy brown straw, and the huts of the village lay clustered higher up. The cocks were already crowing in the village.

The rusty red clay slope, the barge, the river, the strange, unkind people, hunger, cold, illness, perhaps all that was not real. Most likely it was all a dream, thought the Tatar. He felt that he was asleep and heard his own snoring. . . . Of course he was at home in the Simbirsk province, and he had only to call his wife by name for her to answer; and in the next room was his mother. . . . What terrible dreams there are, though! What are they for? The Tatar smiled and opened his eyes.

What river was this, the Volga?

Snow was falling.

"Boat!" was shouted on the further side. "Boat!"

The Tatar woke up, and went to wake his mates and row over to the other side. The ferrymen came on to the river-bank, putting on their torn sheepskins as they walked, swearing with voices husky from sleepiness and shivering from the cold. On waking from their sleep, the river, from which came a breath of piercing cold, seemed to strike them as revolting and horrible. They jumped into the barge without hurrying themselves. . . . The Tatar and the three ferrymen took the long, broad-bladed oars, which in the darkness looked like the claws of crabs; Semyon leaned his stomach against the tiller. The shout on the other side still continued, and two shots were fired from a revolver, probably with the idea that the ferrymen were asleep or had gone to the pot-house in the village.

"All right, you have plenty of time," said Semyon in the tone of a man convinced that there was no necessity in this world to hurry -- that it would lead to nothing, anyway.

The heavy, clumsy barge moved away from the bank and floated between the willow-bushes, and only the willows slowly moving back showed that the barge was not standing still but moving. The ferrymen swung the oars evenly in time; Semyon lay with his stomach on the tiller and, describing a semicircle in the air, flew from one side to the other. In the darkness it looked as though the men were sitting on some antediluvian animal with long paws, and were moving on it through a cold, desolate land, the land of which one sometimes dreams in nightmares.

They passed beyond the willows and floated out into the open. The creak and regular splash of the oars was heard on the further shore, and a shout came:

"Make haste! make haste!"

Another ten minutes passed, and the barge banged heavily against the landingstage.

"And it keeps sprinkling and sprinkling," muttered Semyon, wiping the snow from his face; "and where it all comes from God only knows."

On the bank stood a thin man of medium height in a jacket lined with fox fur and in a white lambskin cap. He was standing at a little distance from his horses and not moving; he had a gloomy, concentrated expression, as though he were trying to remember something and angry with his untrustworthy memory. When Semyon went up to him and took off his cap, smiling, he said:

"I am hastening to Anastasyevka. My daughter's worse again, and they say that there is a new doctor at Anastasyevka."

They dragged the carriage on to the barge and floated back. The man whom Semyon addressed as Vassily Sergeyitch stood all the time motionless, tightly compressing his thick lips and staring off into space; when his coachman asked permission to smoke in his presence he made no answer, as though he had not heard. Semyon, lying with his stomach on the tiller, looked mockingly at him and said:

"Even in Siberia people can live -- can li-ive!"

There was a triumphant expression on Canny's face, as though he had proved something and was delighted that things had happened as he had foretold. The unhappy helplessness of the man in the foxskin coat evidently afforded him great pleasure.

"It's muddy driving now, Vassily Sergeyitch," he said when the horses were harnessed again on the bank. "You should have put off going for another fortnight, when it will be drier. Or else not have gone at all. . . . If any good would come of your going -- but as you know yourself, people have been driving about for years and years, day and night, and it's alway's been no use. That's the truth."

Vassily Sergeyitch tipped him without a word, got into his carriage and drove off.

"There, he has galloped off for a doctor!" said Semyon, shrinking from the cold. "But looking for a good doctor is like chasing the wind in the fields or catching the devil by the tail, plague take your soul! What a queer chap, Lord forgive me a sinner!"

The Tatar went up to Canny, and, looking at him with hatred and repulsion, shivering, and mixing Tatar words with his broken Russian, said: "He is good . . . good; but you are bad! You are bad! The gentleman is a good soul, excellent, and you are a beast, bad! The gentleman is alive, but you are a dead carcass. . . . God created man to be alive, and to have joy and grief and sorrow; but you want nothing, so you are not alive, you are stone, clay! A stone wants nothing and you want nothing. You are a stone, and God does not love you, but He loves the gentleman!"

Everyone laughed; the Tatar frowned contemptuously, and with a wave of his hand wrapped himself in his rags and went to the campfire. The ferrymen and Semyon sauntered to the hut.

"It's cold," said one ferryman huskily as he stretched himself on the straw with which the damp clay floor was covered.

"Yes, its not warm," another assented. "It's a dog's life. . . ."

They all lay down. The door was thrown open by the wind and the snow drifted into the hut; nobody felt inclined to get up and shut the door: they were cold, and it was too much trouble.

"I am all right," said Semyon as he began to doze. "I wouldn't wish anyone a better life."

"You are a tough one, we all know. Even the devils won't take you!"  Sounds like a dog's howling came from outside.

"What's that? Who's there?"

"It's the Tatar crying."


"I say. . . . He's a queer one!"

"He'll get u-used to it!" said Semyon, and at once fell asleep.

The others were soon asleep too. The door remained unclosed. 


Also see:

A Journey By Cart By Anton Pavlovich Chekhov

THEY left the city at half past eight.

The highway was dry and a splendid April sun was beating fiercely down, but the snow still lay in the woods and wayside ditches. The long, dark, cruel winter was only just over, spring had come in a breath, but to Maria Vasilievna driving along the road in a cart there was nothing either new or attractive in the warmth, or the listless, misty woods flushed with the first heat of spring, or in the flocks of crows flying far away across the wide, flooded meadows, or in the marvelous, unfathomable sky into which one felt one could sail away with such infinite pleasure. Maria Vasilievna had been a school teacher for thirty years, and it would have been impossible for her to count the number of times she had driven to town for her salary, and returned home as she was doing now. It mattered not to her whether the season were spring, as now, or winter, or autumn with darkness and rain; she invariably longed for one thing and one thing only: a speedy end to her journey.

She felt as if she had lived in this part of the world for a long, long time, even a hundred years or more, and it seemed to her that she knew every stone and every tree along the roadside between her school and the city. Here lay her past and her present as well, and she could not conceive of a future beyond her school and the road and the city, and then the road and her school again, and then once more the road and the city.

Of her past before she had been a school teacher she had long since ceased to think—she had almost forgotten it. She had had a father and mother once, and had lived with them in a large apartment near the Red Gate in Moscow, but her recollection of that life was as vague and shadowy as a dream. Her father had died when she was ten years old, and her mother had soon followed him. She had had a brother, an officer, with whom she had corresponded at first, but he had lost the habit of writing to her after a while, and had stopped answering her letters. Of her former belongings her mother's photograph was now her only possession, and this had been so faded by the dampness of the school that her mother's features had all disappeared except the eyebrows and hair.

When they had gone three miles on their way old daddy Simon, who was driving the cart, turned round and said:

"They have caught one of the town officials and have shipped him away. They say he killed the mayor of Moscow with the help of some Germans."

"Who told you that?"

"Ivan Ionoff read it in the paper at the inn."

For a long time neither spoke. Maria Vasilievna was thinking of her school, and the coming examinations for which she was preparing four boys and one girl. And just as her mind was full of these examinations, a landholder named Khanoff drove up with a four-in-hand harnessed to an open carriage. It was he who had held the examination in her school the year before. As he drove up alongside her cart he recognized her, bowed, and exclaimed:

"Good morning! Are you on your way home, may I ask?"

Khanoff was a man of forty or thereabouts. His expression was listless and blasé, and he had already begun to age perceptibly, but he was handsome still and admired by women. He lived alone on a large estate; he had no business anywhere, and it was said of him that he never did anything at home but walk about and whistle, or else play chess with his old man servant. It was also rumored that he was a hard drinker. Maria Vasilievna remembered that, as a matter of fact, at the last examination even the papers that he had brought with him had smelled of scent and wine. Everything he had had on that day had been new, and Maria Vasilievna had liked him very much, and had even felt shy sitting there beside him. She was used to receiving the visits of cold, critical examiners, but this one did not remember a single prayer, and did not know what questions he ought to ask. He had been extremely considerate and polite, and had given all the children full marks for everything.

"I am on my way to visit Bakvist" he now continued to Maria Vasilievna. "Is it true that he is away from home?"

They turned from the highway into a lane, Khanoff in the lead, Simon following him. The four horses proceeded at a foot-pace, straining to drag the heavy carriage through the mud. Simon tacked hither and thither across the road, first driving round a bump, then round a puddle, and jumping down from his seat every minute or so to give his horse a helpful push. Maria Vasilievna continued to think about the school, and whether the questions at the examinations would be difficult or easy. She felt annoyed with the board of the zemstvo, for she had been there yesterday, and had found no one in. How badly it was managed! Here it was two years since she had been asking to have the school watchman discharged for loafing and being rude to her and beating her scholars, and yet no one had paid any heed to her request. The president of the board was hardly ever in his office, and when he was, would vow with tears in his eyes that he hadn't time to attend to her now. The school inspector came only three times a year, and knew nothing about his business anyway, as he had formerly been an excise-man, and had obtained the office of inspector through favor. The school board seldom met, and no one ever knew where their meetings were held. The warden was an illiterate peasant who owned a tannery, a rough and stupid man and a close friend of the watchman's. In fact, the Lord only knew whom one could turn to to have complaints remedied and wrongs put right!

"He really is handsome!" thought the schoolteacher glancing at Khanoff.

The road grew worse and worse. They entered a wood. There was no possibility of turning out of the track here, the ruts were deep and full of gurgling, running water. Prickly twigs beat against their faces.

"What a road, eh?" cried Khanoff laughing.

The school teacher looked at him and marveled that this queer fellow should be living here.

"What good do his wealth, his handsome face, and his fine culture, in this God-forsaken mud and solitude?" she thought. "He has abandoned any advantage that fate may have given him, and is enduring the same hardships as Simon, tramping with him along this impossible road. Why does anyone live here who could live in St. Petersburg or abroad? "

And it seemed to her that it would be worth this rich man's while to make a good road out of this bad one, so that he might not have to struggle with the mud, and be forced to see the despair written on the faces of Simon and his coachman. But he only laughed, and was obviously absolutely indifferent to it all, asking for no better life than this.

"He is kind and gentle and unsophisticated," Maria Vasilievna thought again. "He does not understand the hardships of life any more than he knows the suitable prayers to say at the examination. He gives globes to the school and sincerely thinks himself a useful man and a conspicuous benefactor of popular education. Much they need his globes in this wilderness! "

"Sit tight, Vasilievna!" shouted Simon.

The cart tipped violently to one side and seemed to be falling over. Something heavy rolled down on Maria Vasilievna’s feet, it proved to be the purchases she had made in the city. They were crawling up a steep, clayey hill now. Torrents of water were rushing noisily down on either side of the track, and seemed to have eaten away the road bed. Surely it would be impossible to get by! The horses began to snort. Khanoff jumped out of his carriage and walked along the edge of the road in his long overcoat. He felt hot.

"What a road!" he laughed again. "My carriage will soon be smashed to bits at this rate!”

"And who asked you to go driving in weather like this?" asked Simon sternly. "Why don't you stay at home?"

"It is tiresome staying at home, daddy. I don't like it."

He looked gallant and tall walking beside old Simon, but in spite of his grace there was an almost imperceptible something about his walk that betrayed a being already rotten at the core, weak, and nearing his downfall. And the air in the woods suddenly seemed to carry an odor of wine. Maria Vasilievna shuddered, and began to feel sorry for this man who for some unknown reason was going to his ruin. She thought that if she were his wife or his sister she would gladly give up her whole life to rescuing him from disaster. His wife? Alas! He lived alone on his great estate, and she lived alone in a forlorn little village, and yet the very idea that they might one day become intimate and equal seemed to her impossible and absurd. Life was like that! And, at bottom, all human relationships and all life were so incomprehensible that if you thought about them at all dread would overwhelm you and your heart would stop beating.

"And how incomprehensible it is, too," she thought, "that God should give such beauty and charm and such kind, melancholy eyes to weak, unhappy, useless people, and make every one like them so!"

"I turn off to the right here," Khanoff said, getting into his carriage. "Farewell! A pleasant journey to you!"

And once more Maria Vasilievna's thoughts turned to her scholars, and the coming examinations, and the watchman, and the school board, until a gust of wind from the right bringing her the rumbling of the departing carriage, other reveries mingled with these thoughts, and she longed to dream of handsome eyes and love and the happiness that would never be hers.

She, a wife! Alas, how cold her little room was early in the morning! No one ever lit her stove, because the watchman was always away somewhere. Her pupils came at daybreak, with a great noise, bringing in with them mud and snow, and everything was so bleak and so uncomfortable in her little quarters of one small bedroom which also served as a kitchen! Her head ached every day when school was over. She was obliged to collect money from her scholars to buy wood and pay the watchman, and then to give it to that fat, insolent peasant, the warden, and beg him for mercy's sake to send her a load of wood. And at night she would dream of examinations and peasants and snow drifts. This life had aged and hardened her, and she had grown plain and angular and awkward, as if lead had been emptied into her veins. She was afraid of everything, and never dared to sit down in the presence of the warden or a member of the school board. If she mentioned any one of them in his absence, she always spoke of him respectfully as "his Honor." No one found her attractive; her life was spent without love, without friendship, without acquaintances who interested her. What a terrible calamity it would be were she, in her situation, to fall in love!

"Sit tight, Vasilievna!"

Once more they were crawling up a steep hill.

She had felt no call to be a teacher; want had forced her to be one. She never thought about her mission in life or the value of education; the most important things to her were, not her scholars nor their instruction, but the examinations. And how could she think of a mission, and of the value of education? School teachers, and poor doctors, and apothecaries, struggling with their heavy labors, have not even the consolation of thinking that they are advancing an ideal, and helping mankind. Their heads are too full of thoughts of their daily crust of bread, their wood, the bad roads, and their sicknesses for that. Their life is tedious and hard. Only those stand it for any length of time who are silent beasts of burden, like Maria Vasilievna. Those who are sensitive and impetuous and nervous, and who talk of their mission in life and of advancing a great ideal, soon become exhausted and give up the fight.

To find a dryer, shorter road, Simon sometimes struck across a meadow or drove through a back-yard, but in some places the peasants would not let him pass, in others the land belonged to a priest; here the road was blocked, there Ivan Ionoff had bought a piece of land from his master and surrounded it with a ditch. In such cases they had to turn back.

They arrived at Nijni Gorodishe. In the snowy, grimy yard around the tavern stood rows of wagons laden with huge flasks of oil of vitriol. A great crowd of carriers had assembled in the tavern, and the air reeked of vodka, tobacco, and sheepskin coats. Loud talk filled the room, and the door with its weight and pulley banged incessantly. In the tap room behind a partition someone was playing on the concertina without a moment's pause. Maria Vasilievna sat down to her tea, while at a near-by table a group of peasants saturated with tea and the heat of the room were drinking vodka and beer.

A confused babel filled the room.

"Did you hear that, Kuzma? Ha! Ha! What's that? By God! Ivan Dementitch, you'll catch it for that! Look, brother! "

A small, black-bearded, pock-marked peasant, who had been drunk for a long time, gave an exclamation of surprise and swore an ugly oath.

"What do you mean by swearing, you!" shouted Simon angrily from where he sat, far away at the other end of the room. "Can't you see there's a lady here?"

"A lady!" mocked someone from another corner.

"You pig, you!"

"I didn't mean to do it—" faltered the little peasant with embarrassment. "Excuse me! My money is as good here as hers. How do you do?"

"How do you do?" answered the school teacher.

"Very well, thank you kindly."

Maria Vasilievna enjoyed her tea, and grew as flushed as the peasants. Her thoughts were once more running on the watchman and the wood.

"Look there, brother!" she heard a voice at the next table cry. "There's the schoolmarm from Viasovia! I know her! She's a nice lady."

"Yes, she's a nice lady."

The door banged, men came and went. Maria Vasilievna sat absorbed in the same thoughts that had occupied her before, and the concertina behind the partition never ceased making music for an instant. Patches of sunlight that had lain on the floor when she had come in had moved up to the counter, then to the walls, and now had finally disappeared. So it was afternoon. The carriers at the table next to hers rose and prepared to leave. The little peasant went up to Maria Vasilievna swaying slightly, and held out his hand. The others followed him; all shook hands with the school teacher, and went out one by one. The door banged and whined nine times.

"Get ready, Vasilievna!" Simon cried.

They started again, still at a walk.

"A little school was built here in Nijni Gorodishe, not long ago," said Simon, looking back. "Some of the people sinned greatly."

"In what way?"

"It seems the president of the school board grabbed one thousand rubles, and the warden another thousand, and the teacher five hundred."

"A school always costs several thousand rubles. It is very wrong to repeat scandal, daddy. What you have just told me is nonsense."

"I don't know anything about it. I only tell you what people say."

It was clear, however, that Simon did not believe the school teacher. None of the peasants believed her. They all thought that her salary was too large (she got twenty rubles a month, and they thought that five would have been plenty), and they also believed that most of the money which she collected from the children for wood she pocketed herself. The warden thought as all the other peasants did, and made a little out of the wood himself, besides receiving secret pay from the peasants unknown to the authorities.

But now, thank goodness, they had finally passed through the last of the woods, and from here on their road would be through flat fields all the way to Viasovia. Only a few miles more to go, and then they would cross the river, and then the railway track, and then they would be at home.

"Where are you going, Simon?" asked Maria Vasilievna. "Take the right-hand road across the bridge!"

"What's that? We can cross here. It isn't very deep."

"Don't let the horse drown!"

"What's that?"

"There is Khanoff crossing the bridge!" cried Maria Vasilievna, catching sight of a carriage and four in the distance at their right. "Isn't that he?"

"That's him all right. He must have found Bakvist away. My goodness, what a donkey to drive all the way round when this road is two miles shorter! "

They plunged into the river. In summer time it was a tiny stream, in late spring it dwindled rapidly to a fordable river after the freshets, and by August it was generally dry, but during flood time it was a torrent of swift, cold, turbid water some fifty feet wide. Fresh wheel tracks were visible now on the bank leading down to the water's edge; someone, then, must have crossed here.

"Get up!" cried Simon, madly jerking the reins and flapping his arms like a pair of wings. "Get up!"

The horse waded into the stream up to his belly, stopped, and then plunged on again, throwing his whole weight into the collar. Maria Vasilievna felt a sharp wave of cold water lap her feet.

"Go on!" she cried, rising in her seat. "Go on!"

They drove out on the opposite bank.

"Well, of all things! My goodness!" muttered Simon. "What a worthless lot those zemstvo people are.”

Maria Vasilievna's galoshes and shoes were full of water, and the bottom of her dress and coat and one of her sleeves were soaked and dripping. Her sugar and flour were wet through, and this was harder to bear than all the rest. In her despair she could only wave her arms, and cry:

"Oh, Simon, Simon! How stupid you are, really!"

The gate was down when they reached the railway crossing, an express train was leaving the station. They stood and waited for the train to go by, and Maria Vasilievna shivered with cold from head to foot.

Viasovia was already in sight; there was the school with its green roof, and there stood the church with its blazing crosses reflecting the rays of the setting sun. The windows of the station were flashing, too, and a cloud of rosy steam was rising from the engine. Everything seemed to the school teacher to be shivering with cold.

At last the train appeared. Its windows were blazing like the crosses on the church, and their brilliance was dazzling. A lady was standing on the platform of one of the first-class carriages. One glance at her as she slipped past, and Maria Vasilievna thought: "My mother!" What a resemblance there was! There was her mother's thick and luxuriant hair; there were her forehead and the poise of her head. For the first time in all these thirty years Maria Vasilievna saw in imagination her mother, her father, and her brother in their apartment in Moscow, saw everything down to the least detail, even to the globe of goldfish in the sitting-room. She heard the strains of a piano, and the sound of her father's voice, and saw herself young and pretty and gaily dressed, in a warm, brightly lighted room with her family about her. Great joy and happiness suddenly welled up in her heart, and she pressed her hands to her temples in rapture, crying softly with a note of deep entreaty in her voice:

"Mother!"

Then she wept, she could not have said why. At that moment Khanoff drove up with his four-in-hand, and when she saw him she smiled and nodded to him as if he and she were near and dear to each other, for she was conjuring up in her fancy a felicity that could never be hers. The sky, the trees, and the windows of the houses seemed to be reflecting her happiness and rejoicing with her. No! Her mother and father had not died; she had never been a school teacher; all that had been a long, strange, painful dream, and now she was awake.

"Vasilievna! Sit down! "

And in a breath everything vanished. The gate slowly rose. Shivering and numb with cold Maria Vasilievna sat down in the cart again. The four-in-hand crossed the track and Simon followed. The watchman at the crossing took off his cap as they drove by.

"Here is Viasovia! The journey is over!"


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Thursday, May 2, 2019

Fiction Writing: Characters and Characterisation by Grant Richards

CHARACTERS AND CHARACTERISATION

 

 

The Chief Character

 

In the plot previously outlined, which figure is supreme? It depends. In some senses the supremacy is not a matter of choice, but is decided by the nature of the story. If the man is making the greater sacrifice, it means that, whether you like it or not, his is the struggle that calls for a larger measure of sympathy; and you must assign him the chief place. Still, there are circumstances which would justify a departure from this law—something after the fashion of respecting the rights of a minority. But in our projected narrative, the woman is undoubtedly the supreme character; for the man's battle is mainly one of religious scruple, and only secondarily a question of race; whereas, the Jewess has a vigorous conflict with both race and religion.

Well, what do you know about women? Anything? Do you know how their minds work? how they talk? what they wear? and the thousand and one trivialities that go to make up character portrayal? If you do not know these things, it is a poor look-out for the success of your novel, and you might as well start another story at once. It may be a disputed question as to whether women understand women better than men: the point is, do you understand them? Perhaps you know enough for the purposes of a secondary character, but this Jewess is to be supreme; you must know enough to meet the highest demands.

Where to obtain this knowledge? Ah! Where! Only by studying human lives, human manners, human weaknesses—everything human. The life of the world must become your text-book; as for temperaments, you should know them by heart; social influences in their effect on action and outlook, ought to be within easy comprehension; and even then, you will still cry "Mystery!"

 

How to Portray Character

 

The first thing is to realise your characters—i.e. make them real persons to yourself, and then you will be more likely to persuade the reader that they are real people. Unless this is done, your hero and heroine will be described as "puppets" or "abstractions." I am not saying the task is easy—in fact, it is one of the most difficult that the novelist has to face. But there is no profit in shirking it, and the sooner it is dealt with the better. The history of character representation in drama is full of luminous teaching, and a study of it cannot be other than highly instructive. In the early Mystery and Morality plays, virtues and vices were each apportioned their respective actors—that is to say, one man set forth Good Counsel, another Repentance, another Gluttony, and another Pride. Even so late as Philip Massinger's "A New Way to Pay Old Debts," we have Wellborn, Justice, Greedy, Tapwell, Froth, and Furnace. Now this seems very elementary to us, but it has one great merit: the audience knew what each character stood for, and could form an intelligent idea of his place in the piece. In these days we have become more subtle—necessarily so. Following the lead of the Shakespearean dramatists, we have not described our characters by giving them names—virtuous or otherwise—we let them describe themselves by their speech and action. The essential thing is that we should know our characters intimately, so intimately that, although they exist in imagination alone, they are as real to us as the members of our own family. Falstaff never had flesh and blood, but as Shakespeare portrayed him, you feel that you have only to prick him and he will bleed. The historical Hamlet is a mist; the Hamlet of the play is a reality.

This power of realisation depends on two things: Observation with insight, and Sympathy with imagination. Observation is a most valuable gift, but without insight it is likely to work mischief by creating a tendency to write down just what you see and hear. Zola's novels too often suggest the note-book. Avoid photographing life as you would avoid a dangerous foe. The newspaper reporter can "beat you hollow," for that is his special subject: life as it is. Observe what goes on around you, but get behind the scenes; study selfishness and "otherness," and the inter-play of motives, the conflict of interests which causes this tangle of human affairs—in other words, obtain an insight into them by asking the "why" and "wherefore."

Above all, learn to see with other people's eyes, and to feel with other people's hearts. For instance, you may find it needful to attend synagogue-worship in order to obtain a first-hand knowledge of the religion of your Jewish heroine. When you see the men in silk hats, and praying-shawls over their shoulders, you may be tempted to despise Judaism; the result being that you determine not to cumber your novel with a description of such "nonsense." Well, you will lose one of the most picturesque features of your story; you will fail to see the part which the synagogue plays in your heroine's mental struggle, and the portrayal of her character will be sadly defective in consequence. No; a novelist, as such, should have no religion, no politics, no social creed; whatever he believes as a private individual should not interfere with the outgoing of sympathy in constructing the characters he intends to set forth. Human nature is a compound of the virtuous and the vicious, or, to change the figure, a perpetual oscillation between flesh and spirit. Life is half tragedy and half comedy: men and women are sometimes wise and often foolish. From this maze of mystery you are to develop new creations, and actual people are your starting-point, never your models.

 

Methods of Characterisation

 

By characterisation is meant the power to make your ideal persons appear real. It is one thing to make them real to yourself, and quite another thing to make them real to other people. Characterisation needs a union of imaginative and artistic gifts. In this respect, as in all others, Shakespeare is preeminent. His characters are alike clear in conception and expression, and their human quality is just as wonderful as the large scale on which they move, covering, as they do, the entire field of human nature.

There are certain well-known methods of characterisation, and to these I propose to devote the remainder of this chapter. The first and most obvious is for the author to describe the character. This is generally recognised as bad art. To say "She was a very wicked woman," is like the boy who drew a four-legged animal and wrote underneath, "This is a cow." If that boy had succeeded in drawing a cow there would have been no need to label it; and, in the same way, if you succeed in realising and drawing your characters there will be no need to talk about them. The best characterisation never says what a person is; it shows what he or she is by what they do and say. I do not mean that you must say nothing at all about your creations; the novels of Hardy and Meredith contain a good deal of indirect comment of this kind; but it is a notable fact that Hardy's weakest work, "A Laodicean," contains more comment than any of the others he has written. Stevenson aptly said, "Readers cannot fail to have remarked that what an author tells us of the beauty or the charm of his creatures goes for nought; that we know instantly better; that the heroine cannot open her mouth but what, all in a moment, the fine phrases of preparation fall from her like the robes of Cinderella, and she stands before us as a poor, ugly, sickly wench, or perhaps a strapping market-woman."

There is another point to be remembered. If you label a character at the outset as a very humorous person, the reader prepares himself for a good laugh now and then, and if you disappoint him—well, you have lost a reader and gained an adverse critic. To announce beforehand what you are going to do, and then fail, is to put a weapon into the hands of those who honour you with a reading. "Often a single significant detail will throw more light on a character than pages of comment. An example in perfection is the phrase in which Thackeray tells how Becky Crawley, amid all her guilt and terror, when her husband had Lord Steyne by the throat, felt a sudden thrill of admiration for Rawdon's splendid strength. It is like a flash of lightning which shows the deeps of the selfish, sensual woman's nature. It is no wonder that Thackeray threw down his pen, as he confessed that he did, and cried, 'That is a stroke of genius.'"

The lesson is plain. Don't say what your hero and heroine are: make them tell their own characters by words and deeds.

 

The Trick of "Idiosyncrasies"

 

Young writers, who fail to mark off the individuality of one character from another, by the strong lines of difference which are found in real life, endeavour to atone for their incompetency by emphasising physical and mental oddities. This is a mere literary "trick." To invest your hero with a squint, or an irritating habit of blowing his nose continually; or to make your heroine guilty of using a few funny phrases every time she speaks, is certainly to distinguish them from the other characters in the book who cannot boast of such excellences, but it must not be called characterisation. It is a bastard attempt to economise the labour that is necessary to discover individuality of soul and to bring it out in skilful dialogues and carefully chosen situations.

Another form of the trick of idiosyncrasy is the bald realism of the sensationalist. He persuades himself that he is character-drawing. He is doing nothing of the kind. He takes snap-shots with a literary camera and reproduces direct from the negative. The art of re-touching nature so that it becomes ideal, is not in his line at all: the commercial instinct in him is stronger than the artistic, and he sees more business in realism than in idealism. And what is more, there is less labour—characters exist ready for use. It is easy to listen to a lively altercation between cabbies in a London street, when language passes that makes one hesitate to strike a match, and then go home and draw a city driver. You have no need to search for contrasts, for colour, for sound, for passion: you saw and heard everything at once. But the truth still remains—the seeing of things, and the hearing of things, are but the raw material: where are your new creations?

The trick of selecting oddities as a method of characterisation is superficial, simply because oddities lie upon the surface. You can, without much difficulty, construct a dialogue between a blacksmith and a student, showing how the unlettered man exhibits his ignorance and the scholar his taste. But such a distinction is quite external; at heart the men may be very much alike. It is one thing to paint the type, and another to paint the individual. Take Sir Willoughby Patterne. He is a man who belongs to the type "selfish"; but he is much more than a typically selfish man; he is an individual. There is a turn in his remarks, a way of speaking in dialogue, and a style of doing things which show him to be self-centred, not in a general way, but in the particular way of Sir Willoughby Patterne.

There is one fact in characterisation for which a due margin should always be made. Wilkie Collins, you will remember, says of his Fosco: "The making him fat was an afterthought; his canaries and his mice were found next; and the most valuable discovery of all, his admiration of Miss Halcombe, took its rise in a conviction that he would not be true to nature unless there was some weak point somewhere in his character." You must provide for these "afterthoughts" by not being too ready to cast your characters in the final mould. Let every personality be in a state of becoming until he has actually come—in all the completeness of appearance, manner, speech, and action. Your first conception of the Jewess may be that of one who possesses the usual physique of her class—short and stout; but afterwards it may suit your purpose better to make her fairer, taller, and slighter, than the rest of her race. If so, do not hesitate to undo the work of laborious hours by effecting such an improvement. It will go against the grain, no doubt; but novel-writing is a serious business, and much depends on trifles in accomplishing success; so do not begrudge the extra toil involved.


Characterisation is the finest feature of the novelist's art. Here you will have your greatest difficulties, but, if you overcome them, you will have your greatest triumphs. Here, too, the crying need is a knowledge of human nature. Acquire a mastership of this subtle quantity, and then you may hope for genuine results. Of course, knowledge is not all; it is in artistic appreciation that true character-drawing consists.


Excerpt from "How to Write a Novel"

Friday, April 26, 2019

Fiction Writing Tips: Kinds of Description

Kinds of Description

by Lewis Worthington Smith

Description is primarily of two kinds, that which is to give accurate information, and that which is to produce a definite impression not necessarily involving exactness of imagery. The first of these forms is useful simply in the way of explanation, serving the first purpose indicated in paragraph four. The second is useful for other purposes than that of exposition, often appealing incidentally to our sense of the beautiful, and requiring always nice literary skill in its management. It should be borne in mind always that literary description must not usurp the office of representations of the material in the plastic arts. It should not be employed as an end in itself, but only as subsidiary to other ends.

 

The Subjective and Objective Writer

The Subjective and Objective Writer

by Lewis Worthington Smith

Writers, in their methods of presentation, may be broadly divided into two classes, those who write subjectively and those who write objectively. A subjective writer is one whose own personality, point of view, feeling, is insistent in what he writes. An objective writer, on the other hand, is one who leaves the things of which he makes record to produce their own impression, the writer himself remaining an almost impassive spectator, telling the story with little or no comment. Chaucer, in the prologue to the "Canterbury Tales," betrays his personal feeling for his characters continually, and so is subjective. Shakespeare in his plays is objective, presenting all sorts of men and women without show of his own attitude toward them.