Find today’s 3373 word story here: http://www.chekhovshorts.com/stories/052.html
Today’s story, like yesterday’s, starts off very Poesque with macabre atmosphere, dark rooms with flickering candle light, images of death and melancholy, and in this case, a suicide attempt. The story is also told in first person, which Chekhov doesn’t write in much (but Poe does.) After the narrator, a writer, aids a wounded actor the story shifts from being a horror story to cerebral argument (or monologues) about truth… or something like that. To be honest, I’m not sure. Vassilyev, the actor goes on tangents and the writer/doctor accuses him of being a poser. Although he’s lost his wife (even though he refuses to say why shot himself), I don’t feel much sympathy for Vassilyev. The time the narrator spends with the self-absorbed actor is wasted on him and the reader. A Story Without an End felt like one indeed. Of all the characters that have died so far in Chekhov stories, I would gladly exchange this “vain and fatuous man” for a much humbler peasant that didn’t survive. I also believe that Vassilyev’s unsuccessful attempt was not sincere since the self-inflected bullet merely grazed his ribs. While the narrator, a year later, regrets the how “I felt myself on that man’s account on that terrible night,” I don’t. The man has rebounded well and is in the company of women, but he is an “intellectual chatterer… [of] idle theories” who took up more time (3300 words worth) than I would have liked.
I had high expectations for this story based on the title and my belief that Chekhov leaves the best parts of his stories untold. The narrator recalls a time in the past when he was awoken late in the night with news that someone had shot themselves in the house next door. The story unfolds as if it were a scene in a low-budget horror film as the narrator eventually enters the house. Here the narrator, in first person, assures us he is not writing a fairy tale. I thought this was a odd departure for Chekhov but it gets stranger as the narrator rather calmly entertains the possibility that the corpse resting in a coffin might be the shooter he had come to investigate. His thoughts are interrupted by a call from an adjacent room where we eventually meet Vassilyev lying in a pool of his own blood. His halfhearted attempt to commit suicide is difficult to believe especially as he continually begs for the company of our narrator and seems to thrive on the attention he is getting. However, I found his discussion of the suicidal impulse interesting:
“But my suicide could not be stopped, he leaned his head on his fist, and went on in the tone of some great professor: Man will never understand the psychological subtleties of suicide! How can one speak of reasons? To-day the reason makes one snatch up a revolver, while to-morrow the same reason seems not worth a rotten egg. It all depends most likely on the particular condition of the individual at the given moment.”
This reminded me of an excellent TEDx talk by Mark Henick (“Why We Choose Suicide”). Capturing someone in the middle of crisis is hardly the time to intervene with reason. The narrator seems to realize this as he feels an awkwardness about how to respond. Vassilyev continues to bask in the attention and even “poses” for our narrator as a testament to his vain personality. But it is vanity in the midst of sorrow which is a difficult emotion to reconcile. The corpse lying in the coffin is Vassilyev’s wife, Zina. We are given a hint about how she died as Vassilyev recounts his life with her as highlights of an imaginary three chapter book. Chapter two includes reference to a pawnshop, pallor, and a chemist before chapter three starts with her funeral. Only then does his vanity seem to make sense. Vassilyev appears to be making a pitch for book rights with our narrator as author. Although the profession of our narrator is never revealed explicitly we can assume he is a writer. We revisit Vassilyev through the eyes of our narrator one year later after the biography has been written. Vassilyev is as vain as ever having shed all memory of that fateful night mourning his dead wife. The narrator is left asking how the story will end. This left me wondering about the title Chekhov chose. Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned about extreme vanity wherein the solipsistic self-absorbed never die because they alone exist alone. More likely, Chekhov got bored with the story and couldn’t bear the thought of finishing it.