The Autobiographical and Metapoetic Significance of Čexov’s “Rasskaz neizvestnogo cheloveka”

Michael C. Finke, Washington University

Motifs of seeing and being seen, hiding and showing comprise a thematic complex that proves absolutely central to Čexov’s life and works. Stories structured around this theme are ubiquitous in his oeuvre (though especially prominent when Čexov is climbing a new rung in the ladder of his literary career); and the theme points to a fundamental coherence between the comic trifles of the early Čexov and his mature productions. It is implicated in a persistent self-reflexive dimension to his writings; it is key to his identities as a physician, an author, and an ill patient; and it points toward a terminology and conceptual framework that makes sense of some of the most remarkable episodes of his life and some of his oddest personal behaviors. This thematic complex knots together Čexov’s writings and his life, and exploring its appearance on these mutually implicated planes lets us see Čexov and his writings anew.

As part of a larger project of demonstrating this thesis, my paper will offer a reading of “Rasskaz neizvestnogo cheloveka” (1893). This lengthy story has long been considered one of Čexov’s oddest works, if not an outright failure (as in Janet Malcom’s recent book on Čexov). Readers have been distracted by the hero-revolutionary, the Petersburg setting and aristocratic milieu—all uncharacteristic for the mature Čexov. The story’s political content riled the ideologically oriented readers of Čexov’s day on both left and right. Tolstoj, always an idiosyncratic reader of Čexov, lauded the hero’s conversion to non-violence, but this positive evaluation was only possible through a skewed reading of the story that willfully overlooked the motifs of impotence and illness accompanying that turn, not to mention its insidious results. Overt allusions to Turgenev and the traditional theme of the “superfluous man” create yet another frame of reference for reading the story, and commentators have proposed several real-life prototypes for the anonymous hero, including a former naval officer and revolutionary who repented and wrote a memoir.

All of these interpretive paths have diverted readers from what this story has in common with other of Čexov’s works—the thematic complex of seeing, being seen, hiding and showing—as well as from the story’s autobiographical implications. (One exception is the interpretation in Senderovich, Čexov s glazu na glaz.) The narrator is a spy who becomes deflected from his mission; not surprisingly, motifs of seeing and being seen define the overarching plot, and his failure can be understood as following from a change in the way he sees. In this story, as is the case elsewhere in Čexov, motifs of peeping, eavesdropping, and hiding play out in association with a broader series of themes involving: anonymity and pseudonymity; the implications for professional identity; the activities of reading and writing; the peculiar erotic position of the voyeur; illness and degeneration. Such an inventory makes “Story of an Anonymous Man” appear paradigmatically Čexovian.