Narrative Realms and Narrative Limits: Čekhov’s Story “Doma” (“At Home”) in the Context of Modernity

Nikita Nankov, Indiana University

Čexov’s short story “Doma” (“At Home,” 1887) is about a father, the prosecuting attorney Bykovskij, who tries to convince his little son Sereža that he must quit smoking. After applying different pedagogical tactics Bykovskij succeeds by telling Sereža an improvised didactic fairy tale.

This paper explores the tension between the narrative realms and the narrative limits in “Doma” in the context of modernity. The story is viewed as a literary representation of a fundamental contradiction of modern civilization as it was formed after the 18th century: the contradiction between objectivism and expressivism. Objectivism means that the world is viewed as an object to be manipulated for pragmatic goals. Expressivism is a reaction to the objectivism; for it, human lives are intrinsically valuable and express what we authentically are.

Modern society is expressivist in its private and imaginative life and instrumentalist in its public and effective life; the latter encapsulates the former.

A realm of narrative means an artistic form representing expressivism. The connection between the philosophic expressivism and the literary narrative is that they both stand for something hidden, for a potential which tries to reach its fulfillment.

Conversely, the limit of narrative is a fictional representation of objectivism; in it a narrative is impossible.

Initially, I explore the narrative limits. Bykovskij views the world as a system, whereas Sereža as particulars. By means of Roman Jakobson’s theory of language functions I show how the father translates the son’s referential (non-systematic), emotive, and poetic language aspects into his referential (systematic) one and thus imposes the dominance of the narrative limits/objectivism over the narrative realms/expressivism.

Then, using Paul Ricoeur’s doctrine of narrative identity, I analyze the opposite, narrative, tendency in the story. The fairy tail is the ultimate form of narrative realms because it reveals and structures human uniqueness.

Finally, by using Jakobson’s doctrine of child language as a pidgin that mediates between the child and the adult, I show that the narrative realms and the narrative limits in “Doma” coexist not only in opposition but in balance as well and this is a literary representation of the relationship between objectivism and expressivism in modernity. This conclusion goes against the traditional interpretation of the story, according to which the relation between the father and the son is seen only as antagonism between either the adult and the child, or between reality and art. The critics solve this antagonism one-sidedly in favor of Sereža, art, and expressivism and at the expense of Bykovskij, institutional rationalism, and objectivism.

The paper suggests that “Doma” is symptomatic of an important feature in Čexov poetics in general, which has not been formulated so far: the juxtaposition but also the coexistence of the narrative realms and the narrative limits.