"The Chorus Girl" by Anton Chekhov (1886, 5 pages)
"The Russian Point of View" by Virginia Woolf (1925, 4 pages-essay)
The Reading Life Virginia Woolf Project
short stories and one of his short novels, My Life.) He has a good claim to the title "world's best short story author". Frank O'Connor devotes a chapter to Chekhov in his The Lonely Voice-A Study of the Short Story. I plan to return to Chekhov soon and look at the stories O'Connor talks about. Today I just want to talk briefly about two of his short stories from 1886 and an essay by Virginia Woolf on the major Russian writers.
"The Husband" and "The Chorus Girl" have some important similarities. Both stories are about marital infidelity and the reactions of the victimized spouses. In "The Husband" a wife may not actually commit adultery but she clearly behaves in a way that it outside the bounds of proper wifely behavior. In "The Chorus Girl" a husband does commit adultery with a chorus girl. In both stories Chekhov shows us how guilt is used to punish straying spouses.
"The Husband" is centered in a small town in Czarist Russia. Something very exciting is going to happen soon. A military regiment will be staying in the town for a while. The tavern owners, food suppliers, drink merchants, and brothels all know they will make a lot of money. All of the women of the town (single and married) are very excited over a big party that has been announced. The wife in the story has been married a few years but she still feels she is attractive. She goes to the party with no intention but to have a good time and one must admit have her sense of self worth validated by having the young soldiers show interest in her. On the dance floor she feels more beautiful than she has for years. Her husband goes to the party looking for her. He drags her out and we see the terrible consequences that the husband's condemnation has on the wife. The wife is not a fully innocent party. As the story closes we know she will pay a life long price for one evening of good times.
You can read "The Husband" HERE
"The Chorus Girl" is a very interesting study in the uses of guilt to manipulate people and the penalties the wronged can extract from those who stray from conventional morality. Chorus girls in the 1880s were sort of the exotic dancers of their day. Even if nothing happens, no husband wants to have to explain to his wife what his relationship with a chorus girl might be. Married women assume chorus girls are gold diggers if not out right prostitutes and treat them that way. This is really a brilliantly told story. In just a few pages it has clear exposition of the lives of the characters, it has drama (a married man is having an affair with a chorus girl) and it has a big development when his wife confronts the chorus girl. The wife demands to know what presents he has given her and how much money she has received from her husband. The wife will not allow herself to believe it when the chorus girl tells her she has real feelings for the husband and has never been paid at all. Maybe what happens next is sad or maybe it is poetic justice but you will have to read this great story to find out.
"The Chorus Girl" can be read HERE
In her 1925 essay included in her The Common Reader, "The Russian Point of View" Virginia Woolf talks about Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov. (She does not mention Turgenev.) I really do not feel comfortable paraphrasing Woolf. She gives us a brilliant account of the power of each of the three great Russian writers. Dostoevsky for his capture of the soul, Tolstoy for his panoramic creations and his great sanity and Chekhov (she spells it Tchekov") for his minute observations and incredibility subtle observations and his creation of whole worlds in a few pages.
You can read her essay HERE
Both of these stories center on guilt. In just a few pages they bring marriages in the provinces of Czarist Russia to life for us. More than this, even if you have no idea when or where the stories take place, you will still feel their power.
No translated by credit is given for the stories but I think it is Constance Garnett.
Do you have a favorite Chekhov story?