The Ocean, Sky, and Private Gusev: The Philosophy of Space in Čexov

Radislav Lapushin, Chicago

In his article devoted to the twenty-fifth anniversary of Čexov’s death, Vladislav Xodasevič speaks of “more significant and tragic perspectives” that will be discovered by future generations of readers in Čexov’s characters. I understand Xodasevič to be talking about what today we might call existentialist philosophical positions and life struggles. Taking as an example the short story “Gusev”—the first written by Čexov after his journey to Saxalin—I intend to demonstrate that such perspectives are encoded also in the structure of space in Čexov’s fiction.

In “Gusev”, space is organized by the opposing elements of sky and ocean. The latter is associated with “darkness and disorder”; all of the waves in it are equally hideous, cruel, and faceless. On the contrary, each cloud and ray of the sun has its own shape or distinctive color, and the totality of clouds and sunbeams form an integral and harmonious whole: “the magnificent, enchanted sky.” But unlike the ocean, which is the dominant environmental motif throughout the story, the sky really displays itself only at the very end of “Gusev.” This “divine end” (Bunin) has received many different and contradictory interpretations (e.g. Bjalyj, Ehre, Kataev, Suxix, and others). The critics have asked what happens in the finale. Why does the ocean, previously described as having “no sense, no pity” and being the sky’s “antagonist,” become an embodiment of harmony and beauty—in the story’s semantics, virtually a second sky—in the last paragraph? It is my contention that before the ocean is calmed down under the influence of the sky, it is “conquered” by private Gusev in the scene on the deck. The sky, ocean, and this man do not exist independently of each other. The lines of force of both sky and ocean pass through, as it were, this character posed at the center of narration. Gusev unwittingly participates in their opposition, and he influences the opposition’s resolution. It is significant also that a protagonist’s inner structure includes his own “sky” and “ocean,” so to speak, such that a man’s world and that of nature appear to be congruous. The character and the space mutually create, shape, and condition each other.

I intend to proceed to demonstrate that such congruence and intercommunication are general features of Čexov’s artistic world. I take the sky and the ocean as appropriate metaphors for the defining features of the metaphysical space in Čexov’s poetic world generally speaking. In my paper, I will provide very brief discussions of how this metaphoric opposition operates in other works: “Murder,” “At Home” [“V rodnom uglu”], “In the Ravine.” It is through the imagery associated with the sky and the ocean that the quests of Čexov’s characters acquire a metaphysical dimension. Resolving the questions of their own lives, they find themselves engaged in existential questioning about sense and pity, truth and beauty, life, death, and immortality.