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By Anton Chekhov
New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 1990
ISBN #0-486-26463-7 pbk
94 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
December 2012

pp. 1-29

Painter Andre Kovrin narrates this tale which begins with a visit to his old friend. Egor Semenych. Andre is a well-known scholar, but his failing nerves have led him back to his rural home. Egor oversees an important orchard and lives which his devoted daughter, Tania.

As the visit lengthens it is clear that Tania is utterly infatuated with Andre, but he is struggling with his inner life and is visited by a spirit of some sort, the black monk of the title. At some level he knows or strongly suspects that the black monk is not real, but only in his head. However, the monk himself reassures Andre:

“I exist in your imagination, and your imagination is part of nature, consequently I exist in nature too.”

Andre does think well of himself, imagining that he is indeed a leading scholar and destined for even greater things. Yet, his health, especially his mental grip is loosening and he is worried. Again the monk reassures him:

“Overstrain, excitement, ecstasy, all that distinguishes the prophets, the poets, the martyrs for ideas, from ordinary people, is opposed to the animal side of man’s nature, that is, to physical health.

Eventually he decides to marry Tania, but after some time the black monk dominates his mind and Tania convinces him he’s mad and needs a cure. Things don’t go well, and the professor shifts the blame onto Tania:

“Why, why do you make me have this cure? . . . All this will make an idiot of me. I went mad, I had the mania of greatness, but for all that I was gay, healthy and even happy. . . I saw hallucinations in what way did that interfere with anybody?”

After a few years, no longer with Tania, he suffers from the same disease that killed his mother and he dies, believing in his greatness.

This story seems a pattern to me of other things I’ve read of Chekhov. He tells stories, but not in the normal sense of a beginning, a complication and a resolution. This story definitely has its beginning and complication, but the ending is not so much a resolution as simply an endpoint. Gripping, fascinating, but very different from most story tellers.

(A Painter’s Story) pp. 30-44

There are similarities with the first story in that this time a well-known painter visits his boyhood home in the countryside. He meets the two young women living in a near-by manor house. The older is a political activist who wishes to save society, something the painter thinks is foolish activity. But, he very much likes her younger (and more adoring) sister.

We follow the growing love affair, and tensions with the older sister, but just at the moment when we expect some real “resolution,” the mother disappears with the young woman and won’t be back. We sort of expect, of course, that it was the mother’s way of protecting her young daughter from the painter, and that, most likely at the instigation of the older sister, but we are never sure. The story just sort of abruptly ends.

Pp. 45-71

This is a touching and sad story of a family, having lived modestly, but decently, in Moscow, returned to the man’s home village since he was sick and dying, no longer able to work.

The village life was desperately poor, virtually sub-human. When the husband finally died the mother and young daughter reluctantly returned to Moscow, but with no real idea of how to find secure work.

Not much happens, but it is a terribly sad story.

Pp. 72-80

Ivan Ivanich and his friend have been walking in the countryside. Ivan has agenda; he wants to tell Bourkin his story. However, rain overtakes them and they take refuge in an acquaintances home. After a bath, dry clothes and some food, Ivan finally gets to tell his story. A principle he puts forward is:

“… apparently a happy man only feels so because the unhappy bear their burden in silence, but for which happiness would be impossible.”

His story he longed to tell is a sad one which did not ring true to his listeners. It was a moral tale with a hard and demanding message.

However, the irony, of course, is that this is a story about telling a story. The main story, Chekhov’s is beautifully structure, challenging and gripping. The story inside the story is pompous and in the main utopian and unconvincing.

The Lady With The Toy Dog
Pp. 81-94

The story begins in Yalta. Gomov of Moscow, a banker who was also a trained philologist is visit there as he often does. He meets a young woman and they begin an affair. When he returns home to Moscow, he begins to seek her out in Petersburg where she lives and they fall hopelessly in love. Eventually she begins to come to visit him in Moscow, being easier for her than for him to come to her. But, it is a this point in their world that the story sort of “really” begins, and it is the ending of Chekhov’s tale. It is sort of a story on the aesthetics of how to write or tell a story.

This ending is typical of all five of these stories. One might thing them weak because there is no satisfactory rounded out ending or resolution. However, for one who gets used to Chekhov’s manner, it is the telling of whatever is told that is the power of his stories

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett