Chexov's "Chernyj monax" and Early Russian Symbolism

Kirsten Lodge Borovik, Columbia University

Commentators have traced themes and motifs of Chexov's "The Black Monk"--especially the ideas expressed by the monk--to a number of sources, including Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Romanticism. Few scholars, however, have explored the story's connection with early Symbolism, which combines aspects of those sources. The most detailed reading of the story in the Symbolist context published to date is Paul Debreczeny's "'The Black Monk': Chexov's Version of Symbolism." Building on Debreczeny's observations, in my paper I investigate in greater depth specific connections between Chexov's story and early Russian Symbolism. My approach combines literary history with a close reading of the text. In particular, I read "The Black Monk" as a response to ideas and sentiments characteristic of the movement as expressed in Zinaida Vengerova's 1892 essay "The Symbolist Poets in France,"published in Vestnik Evropy, which introduced Symbolism to the Russian milieu while reiterating contemporaneous popular allegations of the French Symbolists' "megalomania." In addition, I relate the story to Dmitrij Merezhkovskij's 1892 lectures "On the Reasons for the Decline of, and New Currents in, Contemporary Russian Literature" and themes of his 1892 poetry collection Symbols. I further look at the personal and intellectual relationship of Merezhkovskij and chexov in the early 1890s, when the two were as yet on friendly terms, and speculate on the relation of Chexov's story to Merezhkovskij's views on materialism and the need for a new idealist Russian literature. In a word, I interpret the protagonist of "The Black Monk," Kovrin, as embodying an exploration of these and other early Symbolist ideas.