Criticism of Chekhov's Work


While many of Chekhov’s short stories and even more of his plays are wildly famous today, he was not so famously accepted in his own day.  Charles Meister explains, “Chekhov’s works were known earlier in France and Germany than in England, and earlier in England than in America” (109), and for the most part, the critics were very harsh towards Chekhov’s innovative objectivity to his characters and settings.  While this might be the case with Chekhov’s audience, his contemporaries recognized right away the talent that Chekhov brought to the art.  Tolstoy, one of the better-known Russian artists of Chekhov’s time, was quoted as saying, “Chekhov is an incomparable artist [. . .] an artist of life…Chekhov has created new forms of writing, completely new, in my opinion, to the whole world [. . .] Chekhov has his own special form, like the impressionists” (Pevear VIII).

            The critics did not quite agree with Tolstoy.  One of the leading critics of Chekhov’s time, Nikolai Mikhailovsky, considered Chekhov’s works “a waste of Chekhov’s genuine talent” (Pevear XII).  Chekhov’s reception in England was much the same.  A good example of Chekhov’s reception in England would be E.J. Dillon’s comments in 1891, which was one of the first Chekhovian criticisms from England.  Dillon stated that “the effect on the reader of Chekhov’s tales was repulsion at the gallery of human waste represented by his fickle, spineless, drifting people” (Meister 109).  Chekhov received a similar review from R.E.C. Long, the first person to translate one of Chekhov’s volumes of tales into English in 1902.  Long started by “praising Chekhov highly for an unerring eye that could choose the proper trait for portraying the quintessence of human life and emotion” but then he went on to say that “Chekhov’s characters were repugnant, and that Chekhov reveled in stripping the last rags of dignity from the human soul” (Meister 110).

            Chekhov was received this way until several years after his death in 1904 when his plays became more widely performed, especially in England.  The conclusion of WWI also brought a rising interest in Russian literature and theater that brought with it a revival of Chekhov’s works (Meister 115).

Annotated Bibliography

Pevear, Richard. “Introduction.”  Anton Chekhov: Stories.  Ed. Richard Pevear &        Larissa Volokhonsky.  New York:  Bantam Books, 2000.  VI-XXIII.


            Pevear provides the introduction to a collection of Chekhov’s short stories.  Within this introduction, Pevear gives both a brief overview of Chekhov’s biography while also discussing Chekhov’s critical reception during his life.  His gives very useful critical commentary from the likes of Chekhov’s contemporaries, Grigorovich and Tolstoy, as well as from one of the most famous critics of Chekhov’s time, Nikolai Mikhailovsky.  This review is important because it gives both the biographical information that the reader needs to fully understand Chekhov’s position as a writer while tying in how Chekhov was received by both his contemporaries and the critics of his time.


Meister, Charles W.  “Chekhov’s Reception in England and America.”  American        Slavic and East European Review  12.1  (1953) :  109-121.


            Meister takes a historical look at how Chekhov’s works were first received in England and America.  He quotes many famous critics both during and after Chekhov’s life and gives an idea how Chekhov went from unnoticed in England and America during his life to becoming very famous years after his death.  This review is important to the understanding of Chekhov’s critical success because it continues on after Chekhov’s life to explain what events, specifically WWI, brought about the rising interest in Russian literature that led to a revival of Chekhovian criticism.


Lewis, Dr. Tom J.  “Untranslatable ‘You’ in Chekhov’s Lady with Lapdog.”  Babel       50.4  (2004) :  289-297.


            Lewis presents a very common problem with Chekhov’s works:  translation.  He points out how the Russian language has two words for the English “you.”  These words are “ty,” which is informal, and “vy,” which is a formal term used to show respect.  When “Lady with a Dog” is translated to English, we lose this distinction, and thus, we lose a large meaning behind how the lovers address each other at different points in the story.  Since those distinctions help to move the plot of the story along, the loss of them is crucial to the complete understanding of the interactions taking place within the story.  This review is important because it addresses one of the key issues of the Russian-to-English translation that readers must face when reading Chekhovian literature.  There will always be holes in the understanding of cross-cultural literature.


Antsyferova, Olga.  “The Ideologem of Loss in Chekhov and James.”  American          Studies International  Feb. 2003:  124-139.  Encyclopedia Britannica.  Hewes    Library, Monmouth, IL.  8 Nov. 2005.


            Antsyferova points out the similarities between Anton Chekhov and Henry James, two authors seemingly unrelated in their subjects who were writing a the same time period.  She points out how both authors speak of an “ideologem of loss” within their themes, and, by comparing some of the more famous works of both authors, she draws the conclusion that both authors are writing from a similar emotional atmosphere in which their characters are craving the Ideal form of existence.  This is a very interesting comparison because Chekhov’s works were not very famous in America at this time, and he and James really had no contact with each other during their lives.  Their works, however, tie the two together within a literary category.




Precis 1:


"Untranslatable "You" in Chekhov's 'Lady with Lapdog'" by Dr. Tom J. Lewis


            This article, found in a 2004 publication of Babel, explores one of the most important issues to consider while reading works by Anton Chekhov:  the Russian-to-English translation.  Dr. Lewis specifically deals with the word "you" in one of Chekhov's more anthologized stories, "The Lady with the Lapdog." 

            Lewis points out that in the Russian language there are two words for "you."  The first word, "vy," is used to establish formality and respect.  The other word, "ty," is used to establish informality and a casual and equal relationship.  When translated to English, both these forms become "you," losing their significance.  The only way that these distinctions could be translated to English is to use the words "thou" and "you," but as Lewis explains, "the resulting text would be constantly interrupted by archaic English forms, a distraction that most readers would not tolerate and one that is certainly not found in the Russian original" (289-290).  This lead translators to simply use "you" in English in place of both "vy" and "ty," losing the distinction and, in turn, changing the relationship between the two main characters in the story.

            This article is very important to the proper understanding of the story "The Lady with the Lapdog" because there is an underlying distinction between Anna's and Gurov's statuses.  Anna starts out the story addressing Gurov as "vy," showing a level of respect for him and letting the reader know that she does not feel his equal, but she later begins to address him as "ty," showing their growing love and equality.  The same is true of Gurov; he begins addressing Anna as "ty," but later addresses her as "vy."  This distinction shows how the characters grow and change throughout the story as they are both able to find love and happiness in each other, but it is lost in the English translation where the two different forms of the word cannot be effectively shown.  This reading brings a whole new light to the story and allows the reader a deeper understanding of the changing relationships within the story.  This being one of Chekhov's most anthologized, and thus most representative pieces, in English literature books, the facts that Lewis points out within his article are crucial to truly understanding Chekhov's intentions in "The Lady with the Lapdog."

Citation:  Lewis, Dr. Tom J.  "Untranslatable 'You' in 'Lady with Lapdog."  Babel  50.4             (2004):  289-297.

Precis 2: 

"The Ideologem of Loss in Chekhov and James" by: Olga Antsyferova


            This article compares some of the works of Russian author Anton Chekhov with those of American author Henry James.  Both authors were writing at the same time period, and appear at first glance to have very different styles that set them apart.  While coming from two separate cultural vantage points, Antsyferova illustrates how both Chekhov and James had similarities in both their themes and writing careers.

            Antsyferova points out, "Chekhov's prose is laconic and transparent, devoid of self-reflexiveness, its main purpose being the realistic mimesis of contemporary Russian life” (3).  She goes on to point out, "James is famous for his verbosity, his overcomplicated syntax; his artistic universe is overtly cosmopolite" (3).  Antsyferova makes comparisons between many of the authors' works such as:  Chekhov's "Verochka," "Gooseberry," and "In the Cart" and James' "Daisy Miller," "The Diary of a Man of Fifty," and "The Beast in the Jungle."  While working with evidence from these texts and some briefly-mentioned others, Antsyferova draws the conclusion that both authors have an "ideologem of loss," or a "fin-de-sciecle," as an on-going theme in each of his stories.  She comments, "Many of the tales of both authors are imbued with a similar emotional atmosphere, with a certain languid craving for the Ideal, for some other form of existence" (3).

            Antsyferova's article is an important source for comparing Russian and American literature at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th.  While Chekhov and James had no social connection and came from very different cultural backgrounds, their themes reflect a lot of similar human ideals.  Their works help to tie different cultures together by utilizing very universal human feelings and problems.  Antysferova uses these connections between the authors to illustrate her point that Russia had a huge literary influence on America at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th.  The human ideals in writing began to overlap, and this can be seen through the writings of Chekhov and James.

Antsyferova, Olga.  “The Ideologem of Loss in Chekhov and James.”  American Studies          International  Feb. 2003:  124-139.  Encyclopedia Britannica.  Hewes Library, Monmouth, IL.  8 Nov. 2005.

Precis 3: 

Gooseberries" by:  Theodore Dalrymple


            While this article is mostly a form of memoir rather than a direct criticism of Anton Chekhov's short story "Gooseberries," it has several very remarkable paragraphs that summarize the story, make some suggestions at analysis for the story, and also give some cultural context to gooseberries.

            Dalrymple focuses mainly on his own childhood experience with gooseberries and how the story reminds him of his own father, whom he directly ties to the main character.  Even in the personal issues discussed within the article, however, Dalrymple draws some very precise conclusions about Chekhov's purpose with the story, "The point of "Gooseberries" is the ironic contrast between Nikolai Ivanovich's mean-spirited pursuit of his goal and the smug satisfaction to which its attainment gives rise" (2).  He continues discussing this very "Chekhovian" theme by stating, "In having sacrificed for so long enjoyment of the present for a thoroughly worthless vision of the future, he has become so desiccated and devoid of human feeling that the pleasure he takes is as appalling as the cruelties he has inflicted" (2).  He also goes on to give a very useful interpretation of the fruit itself in the English culture, "In English parlance, to be a gooseberry means to be left awkwardly at the margin of a social event such as a dance or a party" (4).

            This article, while not technically focused around Chekhov's story "Gooseberries," gives very useful incite into Chekhovian themes and the meaning of the fruit that is used to title the story.  Not only does Dalrymple bring out Chekhov's very bleak view of human nature and existence by talking about his own experiences with the fruit and establishing them as very simple, plain, and sour, nothing to build one's life around, but he also presents the social context of the term gooseberry, which means that one is an outsider in society.  Taking this information about gooseberries into consideration brings a whole new light to the reading of the Chekhovian short story and its overall theme.


Dalrymple, Theodore.  “Gooseberries.”  New Criterion  18.3  (1999):  77-80.             EBSCOhost.  Hewes Library, Monmouth, IL.  10 Nov. 2005.  

Precis 4:

"On Chekhov's Craftsmanship:  The Anatomy of a Story" by:  Gleb Struve


            In “On Chekhov’s Craftsmanship:  The Anatomy of a Story,” Struve uses Chekhov’s short story, “Sleepy,” to illustrate Chekhov’s artistic style as a writer.  He goes through and breaks “Sleepy” down bit by bit to show the different methods Chekhov employs.

            Struve says of Chekhov’s story, “The story is a model of terseness, of a truly compact use of most effective artistic means, and [. . .] an excellent illustration of the compositional and stylistic devices which underlie Chekhov’s mastery as a short-story writer” (466).  These stylistic techniques that Struve discusses are:  how Chekhov’s story is based on an earlier one by Grigorovich called “Karelin’s Dream” that he praised so much through letters, the use of anthropomorphism to make “Sleepy” a very musical piece with refrains, the use of “verbal suggestion” (with different conjugations of Russian verbs) to illustrate very closely related actions, his detached ending, and his use of impressionism to carry the plot of the story.  Struve goes through and spells out each of these points with evidence from the story in order to illustrate some very “Chekhovian” techniques applied to many of Chekhov’s short stories.

            This article was both very interesting and important to the study of Chekhov’s writing.  Not only does it point out several recurring thematic devises in Chekhovian literature, but it also helps the reader understand certain Russian literary devices, such as “verbal suggestion,” that may be missed in the English translation, as some forms of Russian verbs are not able to be translated perfectly to English verbs.  Since “Sleepy” is one of Chekhov’s earlier short stories, it is the establishment for many of these later-famous “Chekhovian” devices that Struve points out.

Struve, Gleb.  “On Chekhov’s Craftsmanship:  The Anatomy of a Story.”  Slavic Review          20.3  (1961):  465-476.

Precis 5:

“Down the Intertextual Lane:  Petrushevskaia, Chekhov, Tolstoy” by:  Lyudmila Parts


            Parts examines how the Russian writers Petrushevskaia, Chekhov, and Tolstoy all have a running dialogue through their respective works “The Lady with the Dogs,” “The Lady with a Dog,” and Anna Karenina in order to establish their differing views on morality.

            Parts goes through each piece, starting with the most recent, Petrushevskaia's "The Lady with the Dogs" and works her way through intertextual criticism to Tolstoy's Anna Karenina.  All three of the stories use the theme of adultery to carry their characters along, but each one has a differing view on the outcome of the adultery.  Parts explains of the intertextual linkages of pieces, "The effect of such a linkage is twofold:  as the new text encapsulates the older one's themes and images in order to use them for its own starting point, the older text is reread through the prism of the new one" (77).  The Chekhov-Tolstoy dialogue that takes place between "The Lady with a Dog" and Anna Karenina has been critically established many times over the years.  Chekhov is "challenging Tolstoy's conservative approach to the themes of love, family, morality, and judgement" by using a seduction scene almost identical to that in Anna Karenina but taking a drastic turn in his own messages "with the subtlety that earned him the title of a writer without principles" (80,83).  Chekhov does not directly dispute Tolstoy's ideals in Anna Karenina; he just subtlely shoots them down in his own version of the story that he embeds within "The Lady with a Dog."  Petrushevskaia comes along and does the same thing nearly one hundred years later by naming her story similar enough to Chekhov's for readers to make an obvious connection between the two, though her storyline more directly resembles that of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina.  Petrushevskaia, as Parts points out, uses a more modern-day twist on adultery and morality to deal with Tolstoy's original themes.

            Parts makes very important observations about the similarities and differences among the three Russian pieces.  By establishing this running dialogue that takes place among the pieces, Parts shows how ealier literature influences later literature.  Though Tolstoy and Chekhov wrote a hundred years ago, their themes and ideals, while slightly altered by time, are still very important and prevalent in today's literature.  Each author's differing views on morality, however, reflect the social standards that each author was living through.


Parts, Lyudmila.  "Down the Intertextual Lane:  Petrushevskaia, Chekhov, Tolstoy."  The Russian Review  64  (2005):  77-89.

Precis 6:

“Literature and Medicine: Physician-Writers” by:  Faith M. McLellan


            In the article “Literature and Medicine:  Physician-Writers,” McLellan discusses the three representative types of literary works of authors who were also physicians.  She presents the three different types as: physicians who just expanded on their case histories (the example given is Freud), physicians who combined the “factual and fictional elements” because “they do not have sufficient scientific explanations” (2), and physician-writers who are “informed by medical training or practice” that write fiction, which she goes on to describe in detail in the rest of the article (2).

            McLellan focuses on Chekhov as one of her main physician-writers.  She states, "Practitioners of both arts share a curiosity about other people's lives, as well as needs and desires to communicate.  Both are engaged in an often complex process of identification with and detachment from their subjects--close enough for compassion, distanced enough for critique" (3).  In other words, physicians are in the perfect profession to get to know intimate facts about many people while never truly getting inside those people's heads.  According to McLellan, Chekhov was quoted to say, "My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love, and absolute freedom, freedom from force and falseness in whatever form they express themselves" (3).  Chekhov was truly interested in the human experience in all of his works, not just specifically the ones with medical themes. 

            While this article only briefly discusses Chekhov's specific works, namely "Ward Six," it gives a very in-depth incite into how physicians often made some of the best writers.  Their vast personal contact with people, their knowledge of the human body and its deficits, and their ability to reinterpret knowledge and scientific ideas leads doctors, Chekhov being a prime example, to write many famous, human life-centered, fictional pieces.


McLellan, Faith M.  "Literature and Medicine:  Physician-Writers."  Lancet  349 (1997):  564-567.     EBSCOhost, Hewes Library, Monmouth, IL.  10 Nov. 2005 <>.