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Booklog: The Black Monk & Peasants

May 2, 2007

The Black Monk & Peasants
Anton Chekhov
Read: 4.27.07
Rating: Good

Nothing spectacular here — just a cute Penguin 60s volume I picked up at a library book sale a few weeks back. I’ve been wanting to read more of Chekhov’s short stories, and there’s nothing like an adorably small (4″ x 5″) book for motivation. I could use this book for a Frisbee, now that I’m finished with it. I don’t like the notion of disposable books any more than you do, but in this case the format fit the contents: two nice, good but not great, short stories by the Russian master.

“The Black Monk” tells the tale of Andrey Kovrin, a scholar who suffers from “exhausted nerves” and decides to take a holiday in the country, away from his urban university life, in hopes of recovering. He visits the estate of “his former guardian and mentor,” Pesotsky, who is a famous botanist with a famous garden — and a pretty daughter, Tanya, who Andrey has known for years. Of course, Andrey and Tanya fall in love, and are soon married with the blessing of her father. Complicating matters are Audrey’s bad nerves, and his frequent hallucination: a black monk who mysteriously appears and speaks to Audrey alone. The monk encourages and flatters Audrey’s feverish dreams of intellectual greatness: “What the black monk had told him about God’s Chosen, Eternal truth, humanity’s glittering future and so on lent his work a special, remarkable significance and filled his heart with pride and awareness of his own outstanding qualities.” Audrey launches into his studies with mad desperation, which exacerbates his condition and ruins his marriage. By the end of the story, Audrey is broken, having realized that his dreams were simply an illusion and his “greatness” no more than madness. Chekhov’s story is a parable of artistic genius and its being akin to madness: the Black Monk’s flatteries are foolish, of course, but his ideals are inspiring. Audrey has been “healed,” but he does not truly wish to be:

In the long run doctors and kind relatives will turn humanity into a lot of morons. Mediocrity will pass for genius and civilization will perish.

“Peasants” is a simpler work, and I’m tempted to reduce it to an attempt by Chekhov to raise awareness about the plight of peasants and stir empathy in the hears of his readers. A Moscow waiter named Nikolay falls ill and loses feeling in his legs, and therefore his job. In order to survive, he takes his wife and daughter back to his hometown, where his father, mother, and siblings live in squalor. The villagers are ignorant, superstitious, nasty, and cruel, obsessed with survival and death. Their lives simply fall apart:

Yes, it was terrible living with these people; nevertheless, they were still human beings, suffering and weeping like other people and there was nothing in their lives which did not provide some excuse: killing work which made their bodies ache all over at night, harsh winters, poor harvests, overcrowding, without any help and nowhere to find it.

What redeems to story is Chekhov’s insistence on showing the lives of peasants as miserable, yet refusing to romanticize their plight. His moral is honest and true: yes, these people are miserable, yes, they are ignorant and foolish, yet they are still human beings, and they deserve better.

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3 comments

  1. I realize that reading short stories on a computer monitor is not the same as reading them on the printed page, but you may want to sample more of his work at this link:

    http://chekhov2.tripod.com/

    There are 201 of his short stories there.


  2. Woops…I just noticed on the left hand sidebar here that you already had the link. Sorry about that. 🙂


  3. Too bad the stories weren’t as good as you had hoped. But at least the book itself was a pleasant thing.



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