Chexov's Identity Games

Konstantine Klioutchkine, Pomona College

In the introduction to a recent collaborative study Reading Chekhov's Text, Robert Louis Jackson has summarized the prevalent critical understanding of Chexov's personality by writing that despite the superabundance of material about Chexov's life, his "inner person" remains elusive. Chexov's reluctance to speak about himself directly accounts for the elusive nature of his identity and prompts his readers to search for the traces of his self in his art. My paper explores the patterns of Chexov's figuration of the self in his letters and fiction of the second half of the 1880s when he faced the challenge of becoming a professional writer. I argue that during this period Chexov embraced the opportunity to imagine himself as a professional, that is, as a person who agrees to and delights in playing a game in accord with a set of preassigned rules.

In a letter to Marija Kiseleva written in 1886, Chexov responded to her and other critics' accusations of pornography by invoking a series of identities, readily available in the culture of the time, including: a chemist who dispassionately records the results of his experiments; a journalist who has an obligation to report the facts of life; a common reader who looks to literature for excitement and entertainment; and, finally, a highly moral person who recoils from literary naturalism because of its pornographic aspect. The purpose behind Chexov's projections of identity was not to explain who he was, but rather to hide from his correspondent by using cultural clichés. In other letters from the period, Chexov rejected the view prevalent in Russian culture of his time that a writer had to be a moral guide for society and aim to advance in his texts the ideal of an "integral personality" (nedelimyj individ, cel'naja lichnost', in the words of Nikolaj Mixajlovskij). Instead, he struggled to articulate a narrowly professional understanding of himself and his work by pointing out that his obligation as a writer was to satisfy specific expectations of his readers and publishers and not those of his critics whose demands were conditioned by the highly presumptive conception of the writer's role in Russian social life.

In terms of narrative design, Chexov's rejection of the demand that he express his vision of a model self was in large measure responsible for the diminishing presence of an authorial voice in his fiction. I read his stories from the 1880s to explore the indirect manner by which he, nonetheless, attempted to project himself into his text by imparting his personal features and his biography to the weaker characters of his fiction.

Chexov's most notable attempt to address the problem of identity took place in the story "Skuchnaja istorija", whose hero, Nikolaj Stepanovich, although thirty years older than the author, shares with him the understanding of the human condition. In the story, Chexov monitors the decomposition of the self as his diary-writing protagonist records his failure to take control of his body, thoughts, emotions, and behavior, as well as of his family and professional life. In thinking about his existence, Nikolaj Stepanovich, a professor of medicine, is able to find consolation only in his performance in the classroom. He sees his teaching as a kind of competition in which he struggles with himself, his students, and his material within the framework of a university lecture. This professional game allows the character to transcend the exigencies of his existence and gain a sense of ecstasy by achieving control over his performative self.

Chexov's view of identity as fragmented between different spheres of life and his vision of a writer as involved in a professional game reflected the sense of insecurity about the human condition characteristic of the modern world. The elusive figuration of the self in Chexov's writing suggested that the "inner person," evoked by Robert Louis Jackson, as well as the "integral personality," championed by nineteenth-century Russian critics, might, ultimately, be nothing more than illusions. Yet, Chexov's professional attention to the verbal, psychological, and cultural games that underlie such illusions made his world palatable for him and his fiction fascinating for his readers.