The Russian writer Anton Chekov is widely recognized as a master of short fiction. It is interesting that many people seem to dislike Chekov’s short stories because they tend to be open ended, lacking a comfortable, reassuring resolution. But Chekov’s place in the pantheon is secure. His influence on later writers has been enormous.
In a recent article in The New Yorker, Siddahartha Mukherjee claims that Chekov “invented a new kind of literature at Sakhalin. It was a literature inflected with clinical humanity—a literature of keen, nearly medical observation about human nature and its imperfections and perversions, but also a literature of expansive sensitivity and tenderness.”
Sakhalin is the Russian island where Chekov spent three months at a penal colony, observing the suffering and the extreme depravity of humanity. His time there became a turning point in his life and his writing.
Mukherjee quotes Chekov as saying, “Six principles that make for a good story . . . are: 1. Absence of lengthy verbiage of a political-social-economic nature; 2. total objectivity; 3. truthful descriptions of persons and objects; 4. extreme brevity; 5. audacity and originality . . . and; 6. compassion.”
The second and third of Chekov’s principles, “total objectivity” and “truthful descriptions,” no doubt come from his being a physician with a scientific turn of mind. His going to Sakhalin had more to do with Chekov the scientist than with Chekov the writer. But the last two of his six principles, “audacity and originality” and “compassion,” are perhaps the cause of his being so widely loved.
His “audacity and originality” are, I believe, part of why he insisted on the open endings of his stories. Open endings were not popular in the Victorian Period. The Victorians wanted the moral of the story to be clear. They wanted the good characters to end well and the bad characters to end badly. Chekov provides fully realized characters in a tragic situation, but offers no resolution. The reader must search for resolution in his or her own understanding.
But Chekov’s compassion for his characters, his intense feeling that they are simply human beings trapped in their circumstances, driven by their desires, endears him to readers. He does not judge his characters. He leaves judgment to the reader. But his sympathetic, humane treatment challenges readers to look in the mirror before they judge.