Chekhov’s Christmas Message

Tim Langen, University of Missouri-Columbia

Chekhov’s verbal minimalism has been noted many times, and for good reason. His own stories exhibit a great economy of means, and he was always critical of excessive verbiage in others. This paper is an attempt to examine the mystical tinge of such minimalism, when it is pushed as far as Chekhov pushed it.

“Na sviatkakh” (1900) displays several of the qualities commonly associated with its author’s work. A brief story in two parts, it depicts first an elderly peasant couple’s attempt to send a letter to their daughter, and then the daughterís reception of the letter in St. Petersburg. The letter, written not by the illiterate parents but by a half-literate soldier they hired for the job, consists almost entirely of meaningless, misspelled bombast. The daughter, we learn, has tried several times to send letters to her parents, but her thoroughly detestable husband forgets to send them. Replete with frustrated communication, petty tyranny, and triumphant nonsense, the story seems a classic Chekhovian dead-end, and reading it one understands why Lev Shestov called Chekhov the annihilator of human hope (“tvorchestvo iz nichego”).

But there is a quasi-mystical aspect to the story as well, for the daughter does not succumb to — does not even appear to register — the grandiose gibberish that follows the letter’s initial salutation. Rather, that salutation (the only part of the letter actually dictated by her parents) prompts a stream of warm feelings and recollections that was, presumably, the letter’s true purpose in the first place. In keeping, perhaps, with the season named in the story’s title, a miracle of grace appears to rise above the cruel, dreary, stifling world. This moment of transcendence — modest, unadvertised, and followed by a prompt return to the depressing surroundings — animates not only the story (which would otherwise sink under the weight of its own dense, hopeless pain), but also the whole view of human communication as presented by Chekhov. The words in the letter seem superfluous, and Chekhov’s hostility toward unnecessary words gives rise in this story to the suspicion that all words are unnecessary. In addition to the story itself, reference will be made to theoretical and critical work by Roman Jakobson, Petr Bitsilli, and Gregory Bateson.