The Poetry of Prose: The Motif of Clouds in Chekhov’s “Beauties”

Radislav Lapushin, University of Chicago

The poetic side of Chekhov’s prose, analyzed in scholarship from different perspectives (Girshman, Jackson, Nilsson, Schmidt, Winner, and others), requires, however, a further elaboration. The focus of my presentation will be on various poetic devices (a network of motifs and allusions, sound and rhythmic texture, etc.) that create a unique verbal environment in Chekhov’s mature prose. As a model, I have chosen the short story “Beauties” (1888), which has received little critical attention.

Clouds represent the central poetic motif of the story. The subsequent transformations of this image (clouds of dust – clouds on the horizon – clouds of golden chaff – tenderly pink clouds of smoke – black clouds of smoke) comprise an integral poetic discourse crucial for the story’s interpretation. They embrace all of space and time -- reaching from the sky to the ground, from the nearness to the horizon, from antiquity to modernity. As a result, they produce a wide spectrum of borderline meanings: from life-affirming to life-negating, none of which, however, can be seen as final and closed to further development. In addition, such a dynamic finds its subtle parallelism in representation of human characters. In Chekhov, as I intend to demonstrate, the development of poetic images always leads the reader in several directions, without bringing him to any definite point of destination. A number of intertextual parallels (The Book of Ecclesiastes, The Terrible Vengeance by Gogol) will be employed as indicative of this point.