Freedom in Captivity: Identity and Non-Identity with Oneself in Chekhov's Short Story "Mechty"

Nikita Nankov, Indiana University

This paper entwines two lines in Chekhov studies: research on the poetics of his prose fiction (Kataev, Chudakov, Tulloch, De Sherbinin, and Zubarev), and interpretation of this prose fiction within the framework of philosophy, especially existentialism and phenomenology (M. Senderovich, "Chekhov's Existential Trilogy").

In some of Chekhov's short stories such as "Mechty," "Shutochka," or "Potselui," two opposite characteristics of the same literary phenomenon (a character, setting, narrative viewpoint, etc.) exist simultaneously. For example, the nameless vagrant in "Mechty" is both a peasant and nobleman. These phenomena are non-identical to each other. In Chekhov's prose fiction, such ambivalent phenomena are combined with phenomena identical with themselves. Generally speaking, non-identity with oneself is a positive ethical and aesthetic category that connotes the human in its full potential, whereas identity with oneself is a negative ethical and aesthetic notion and stands for a life that has not achieved its potential.

It is methodologically convenient to explore this peculiarity of Chekhov's poetics with the help of existentialism and phenomenology not because Chekhov "quotes" these philosophical trends (he does not), but because both Chekhov and these traditions in philosophy speak of human existence in close terms. The philosophical concepts parallel to Chekhov's juxtaposition of the non-identical and the identical are the understanding of man as something that constantly creates him- or herself by free choices and practical activity and thus always transcends him- or herself; on the one hand; and the non-human is seen as always unchangeable (Jose Ortega y Gasset, Heidegger, Sartre), on the other.

"Mechty" enacts the problem of identity and non-identity with oneself on several narrative levels: 1) the portrayal of the two village policemen oscillates between their identity with themselves as representatives of institutional authority and their non-identity with themselves as human beings; 2) the depiction of the hobo's portrait, social and educational background, and his speech makes him the most complex character in the story; 3) Russian nature is described as both a space of constriction where the laws of physics do not operate but also a space of freedom and opulence; and 4) the two narrative viewpoints in "Mechty"--the concrete and the universal --are explained by comparing two themes in the story: a) that of speaking and/or keeping silent and b) that of constricted and/or expanding space.