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By Anton Chekhov
Translated by Constance Garnett
New York: HarperCollins, 1998
ISBN: 10-0-06-115386-9 301 pages

Bob Corbett
December 2015

The title of this work is slightly misleading. While there are 11 short stories in this volume, there is also one longer work, not full “novel” length, but certainly not a short story either. Rather, “My Life” is more like a novella than a short story and the text of that “story” is just about as long as the 11 stories counted together.

Further, “My Life” is far and away the best writing in the volume. However, the short stories themselves are also a delight.


The Chorus Girl is so duped she gives up her own valuables to the wailing wife of her current lover, who pleads that their lives will be ruined if these items aren’t returned. However the items she gives up weren’t even from him! Nice twist to the tale.


29 year old scholar, Ogniov, has spent some months in a rural area doing research for a technical book. He is often at the home of an older scholar, Kuznetzov and his 21 year old daughter, Vera. Ogniov is so utterly lost in his scholarly pursuits that he is unaware that Vera has fallen in love with him.

When it is time for him to return to the big city and write his book she finally gets the courage and tells him of her love and that she would make him a wonderful wife. He is embarrassed and has no idea how to deal with the situation. He stumbles and makes her feel very unwanted. He deeply regrets his ineptitude in this area of love, but returns to his lodging and packs his bags to return to the city.


This story is less a short story than a novella. It is 133 pages in the edition I’m reading. It is also the strongest piece of literature in the volume. Chekhov tackles the theme of the breaking down of the “old” world where the notion of a division of society into the nobility and the commoners was being seriously challenged, and a newer notion of the equal value of all persons was being put forward.

Misail is the main character. He has been born into a family of the nobility, however, he is not only not interested in that form of life, but he is vehemently opposed to it and wants to earn his living as an ordinary citizen. Actually he is even more radical than that and believes that the nobility are unjustly feeding upon the ordinary people and are sycophants.

His father is a well-known architect and simply cannot understand what is wrong with his son. He berates him; insist he takes a proper “appointment” within the way of life of a typical member of the nobility. Misail has tried this several times but just hates it and finally he breaks with the family and just gets a normal working class job.

His sister, Kleopatra, at first thinks he is just crazy and being difficult, but eventually she comes to be much more sympathetic to his desires and ways of life. Yet she can’t herself make such a break and really isn’t inclined to do so, at least not at this time in her life.

Misail likes to hang around with and work with the Azhogin family who live near his father’s estate. This family is deeply involved in theatre and has plays at their own home. They are in and from the elite, but their theatre interests make their position more “acceptable” even within their own circle. Misail works on the sets and others things back stage, but has nothing to do with performing or being on the stage. However, he has developed a decent friendship with Anyuta Azhogin, a young woman about his age in the “theater” family.

Eventually he can’t stand his life at home and he breaks with his father and goes off to make his living as a working man, utterly ignoring his status as a member of the elite. This causes a great deal of problems for his former friends and his loss of Anyuta as a friend is part of that loss.

He eventually gets job working on a new railroad project. It is hard work, but he likes it. At that job he becomes good friends with Andrey Ivanitch (called Radish) who is a house painter, and Misail eventually takes a job with him when the railway project is temporarily on hold.

All Misail’s old friends are ashamed of him and will have nothing to do with him.

He begins to truly live the life of a working man living with his old nurse. He is basically a house painter and enjoying the work, but does find it demanding.

The setting is just about the end of the 19th century and there is much discussion of the “old” order of nobility as opposed to the newer notion of a capitalism which does not necessarily hold the nobility up as a special class having special privileges.

Dr. Blagovo is one of his friends from the world of nobility who has not abandoned him or attacked him. He comes to visit and the two men develop a friendship and spend a great deal of time discussing the nature of social relations and what the role, if any, in the modern world, is for the nobility. The two men argue a great deal, but each with great respect for the other and acceptance of each other.

Their relationship is sort of an interlude in the development of the story, a time out for philosophical reflection. However, it works quite well within the story.

Through Dr. Blagovo he meets Masha Viktorouna, daughter of one of the doctor’s friends from the nobility, and the two of them get along very well, but her father no longer likes or respects Misail.

Finally his father increases the heat and goes to the officials arguing that his son is a scandal to society since he is a “noble” but acting as though he is a commoner. His father puts pressure on the officials that his son does one of three things:

  1. Reforms
  2. Goes away to work in some other place
  3. Is punished, presumably with prison

Misail still is bashful about his new status. But Masha Viktorovna is not and she chastises him for “dressing up” in more proper clothes when he visits her. She challenges him.

“Your workman’s dress does not feel natural to you: you are awkward in it. Tell me isn’t that because you haven’t a firm conviction, and are not satisfied?”

Her father returns and fully approves of him. Misail is very conflicted. He has adopted the working man’s life, but hangs out with the upper class. He thinks that Masha’s father is more playing with him and mocking him than respecting him, and with good reason.

Finally Masha pushes him and they try to create her dream of a productive farm at her family’s country estate. They are very happy and do marry. Only his sister came to the wedding. The farming is much harder than they’d thought. Further they have much less success with the peasants than they expected.

However, Marsha tires of the farm life and returns to town. He comes to find her. She’s singing at the Azhogins’ and has a lovely voice. She tells him she has to go away for now to Moscow, she begs him to be understanding.

He awaits word from Masha whom he does not expect will return to him. He’s right about that since soon she informs him she’s going to America with her father.

He makes a last attempt to make peace with his father and to work that out, but it just doesn’t happen. He takes the full plunge within his own acceptance of himself and earns his true independence

This is a powerful and touching story. It is beautifully written and quite compelling.


Pavel Ilyitch Rashevitch is a blow-hard aristocrat. He is speaking with a young visitor, Meier, the deputy examining magistrate. Rashevitch has eyes on the young Meier for one of his two daughters. Rashevitch is an aristocrat and begins a very long monologue on how much of a Darwinian he is and that linage is everything. The aristocracy must rule the world and the lower classes can never rise up to be the sort of people that the ruling class are.

He goes on and on, boring Meier as well as his daughters at dinner. What he only discovers later in the evening is that Meier himself is of plebian blood and quite proud of it. Rashevitch is very embarrassed and even more so when Meier makes a quick excuse after dinner and gets out of there. The daughters are distraught with their father, and despise his views on their own.

Meier comes to realize what a phony Rashevitch is, a low-level rural, unlearned and unread aristocrat with little money and a great debt on his property.

This is a very sad story of a very sad person who simply can’t deal with the reality of his own person and the world he is living in.


Like the story before it, this is about a total loser of a father. However, this man, Old Musatov, is from the working class, but is himself a drunk who lives his life lying to himself and any he can get to listen and trying to find a way to get some money for his next drink.

He goes to visit one of his three sons to beg some money, though, at first he tries to cover up his mission. However, his son knows exactly what he wants and what he will do with money. Yet the son treats him with respect and kindness and gives him money, an improved pair of boots and even drives him home to his miserable room where he lives in with a woman not his wife.

It becomes clear that all three of the man’s sons and his sole daughter actually love him and do wish to care for him, but he is the one who has cut the ties and tends to believe they want nothing to do with him, which is just the opposite of the truth.


The scene is the “traveler’s room” tavern at a railway station during a huge snow storm. A 40 year old woman, Mademoiselle Iloviasky, comes. Another, a passenger awaiting a train, Grigory Liharev is also there with a lame boy.

Liharev rants on, talking nonstop. He was raised an atheist, a nihilist and ran away to America. Now he’s back and is a slave to science. But, nothing lasts for him. “. . . every science has a beginning and not an end.” This fact led him to his nihilism. He’s now 42 worn out by his own “reckless activity.”

He rattles on and on and on. He’s huge on the theme that woman is a slave to man and yet his cure.

Mlle. Ilovaisky was fascinated by him (as he says nearly all women are), and despite the fact that she does go off home eventually, she leaves fairly convinced that she would even have gone with him despite the fact that he was going to become the overseer of a disastrous coal mine run by one of her reprobate uncles!

This seems a very human story of how people, especially travelers, can seem to open their mouths and hearts to total strangers and then just move own with their own lives, having only stories of these strange people left in their lives.


Yakov Ivanov is a very poor man, a coffin-maker in a tiny village where few people die. He also has a fiddle and is a wonderful player. He makes some extra money playing in a local orchestra that is made up mainly of Jewish players. Yakov dislikes Jews very much, and always, next to him in the orchestra is the flute player, Rothschild. Him Yakov dislikes more than the others.

Eventually Yakov’s wife of some 40 years gets ill and dies, and Yakov comes to realize how poorly he has treated her his whole life and how poorly he treats everyone, including himself. He soon becomes ill and is dying when Rothschild shows up to tell him he is needed for an upcoming concert. Yakov is very rude to him and effectively runs him off, but tells him that he is sick and dying and not to bother him.

He does die. However, on his death bed he has been thinking of his life and how he himself ruined it. Shocking everyone in the village he leaves his precious violin to Rothschild who gives up the flute and becomes famous with Yakov’s violin. IVAN MATVEYITCH

The man of learning is fretting. His secretary, Ivan Matveyitch is late again. Each day he seems to be late and the man of learning is frustrated to the maximum. Eventually Matveyitch comes and they begin the dictation he’s hired to do. However, they only get a few lines into it when the man of learning, frustrated with Ivan’s lateness, like every other day, he begins to berate him and yet they chat, things from the secretary’s life come up and the man of learning asks probing questions. When he bawl’s out Ivan, again, for his lax ways, we come to know that Ivan is convinced this is all a game and the man of learning loves to hear Ivan’s stories and life’s doings.


While telling stories with a group of his hunting buddies one day, the narrator tells the story of being truly hated by a person, Zinotchka. He was just a young boy and she was his tutor, living and working at his parents’ rural home. One day she took a break in the teaching, and he was curious about this and followed her.

She had gone to a secret meeting with his older brother, and the two were soon kissing and holding each other. The boy ran away but later told Zinotchka and that he would tell his parents. She tried to convince him not to do this, but he would not be deterred. She came to hate him. Soon he even told his mother, and eventually, but carefully not to raise and scandal Zinotchka was dismissed.

However, later on she married his brother and thus ended up being the man’s stepsister, yet she still hated him. He reflected that he, himself, was quite unusual since he truly had a person in his life who simply detested and hated him. He even bragged that none of the others could boast such a thing.


The wife and mother-in-law are at home during several days of rain. The woman’s husband has gone to town to work, but he’s normally home within a few days. They are worried, so the wife goes to town the next day to surprise him. However, he’s not at his apartment and the porter tells her he’s not been at all.

She goes home, tells “mama” and they are ready to pounce on him. However, he happens by his apartment and the porter tells him about her visit. He hurries home, telling them how thrilled he is to be home, and that he got so busy with matter than he didn’t even get a chance once to visit or stay in his apartment, but finally just had to hurry home to see them. They are relieved and delighted! Ah the wicked fellow. ?


Vanya comes out of a hospital with a single ruble after she pawns a ring. She’s lost as to what to do. She remembers a dentist who recently took her out and spent lavishly on her, so she decides to visit him and ask for some money.

However when she is shown into his office the nurse stays in the room and Vanya is embarrassed to ask, and further, the dentist doesn’t even recognize her in her current dress and condition. He examines her mouth and actually pulls a tooth that couldn’t be saved, thinking she’s just a normal patient. He charges her a ruble, that sole ruble she had.

However, by the very next day, she’s found a different man and is being taken out to a lovely restaurant for an evening of dancing and good food and drink.


The narrator is going to go shooting birds with an acquaintance of his. The man is not a close friend but a fellow who is quite solitary, having few or no friends. He lives alone and is virtually broke thought he does have a title and is technically a prince. Just a prince without money.

When they arrive at the place where they want to shoot birds it is the estate of a woman who is quite rich and who was once close to and even thinking she would be marrying the prince. But, without any explanation he went off and left her. However, he knew that she was, at that time, really in love with another man who did not end up marrying her.

The woman does not allow shooting, so the prince, who is so hoping to do so, begs his friend to go ask for permission for them to hunt. He does not tell his friend of his past relationship with the woman, though the man already knows.

He goes and asks very politely for special permission to shoot and she denies him several times. Just as he is leaving however, she sees the prince out the window, and lets them go anyway. However, before they leave the estate, one of her minions comes up with a special note allowing them a “once only” special permit to hunt birds on her land.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett