Today’s 100th installment comes in at 5604 words and can be found here: http://www.chekhovshorts.com/stories/100.html
Today’s 100th story is a dark and brutal tale that has a noir core. It is a tale of two men suffering losses and the tunnel vision it produces in each of them. In the case of the bereaving doctor, Kirilov, I am okay with him focusing on his loss. Just minutes before Abogin knocked on his door, his six-year-old son died of diphtheria. I understood Abogin’s selfish desire to try to save his wife in spite of the doctor’s tragic loss. I felt for both men in this conflict, although I wondered how Abogin would react if Kirilov could not save his wife once they reached his house. Chekhov had planted something sinister about him early on, though I’m not sure what it is. Perhaps it is this line. “Abogin was sincere, but it was remarkable that whatever he said his words sounded stilted, soulless, and inappropriately flowery…” My suspicions were justified almost immediately by the way Abogin judges the doctor upon seeing him in full light for the first time. “The doctor was… untidily dressed and not good-looking. There was an unpleasantly harsh, morose, and unfriendly look about his lips, thick as a negro’s, his aquiline nose, and listless, apathetic eyes. His unkempt head and sunken temples, the premature greyness of his long, narrow beard through which his chin was visible, the pale grey hue of his skin and his careless, uncouth manners — the harshness of all this was suggestive of years of poverty, of ill fortune, of weariness with life and with men.” Then when Abogin discovers he’s been duped, I understood his outrage, but his selfishness and total lack of empathy made me want to Kirilov to thrash the smaller, wealthy man without mercy. But that is not Chekhov’s way. He does however impart great insight into human behavior: “The unhappy are egoistic, spiteful, unjust, cruel, and less capable of understanding each other than fools.” It reminds me of the Anna Karenina Principle that Tolstoy wrote nine years earlier: Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Regardless, I felt Kirilov’s wrath and felt sorry for him, that he could not focus his thoughts on his wife’s grieving or his deceased child. Like Misery, where the cab driver suffers the loss of a child, this story was very powerful and upsetting.
Today we have the tragic story of a doctor, Kirilov, who just lost his only child to diphtheria and is confronted with the ethical dilemma of immediately rushing to the aide of another dying patient. The story reminded me of being on call, or moving from one clinic appointment to another, in which you must force yourself to shed all vestiges of the prior encounter in order to focus on the calamity waiting in the next room. Of course, for Kirilov it is much more personal as the death he just witnessed was that of his son. Nevertheless, the story opens with a knock at his door and a call to action by Abogin, who has just witnessed his wife collapse from apparent aneurysm. Initially, Kirilov was in shock and couldn’t quite comprehend what Abogin was asking of him. Kirilov “had no intention, no desire, was thinking of nothing and most likely did not remember that there was a stranger in the entry.” He initially returns to the bedside where his wife was laying over the dead body of their son. Only upon pacing the house did he come upon Abogin again, who had assumed Kirilov had left to get ready to depart. Abogin appealed to Kirilov’s humanity and implored him to come and fulfill the noble calling of a doctor but the “quiver and his tone were far more persuasive than his words” such that he eventually decides to leave. Here, Chekhov inserts a rather deep observation about the impact of words when confronted with emotion:
“As a rule, however fine and deep a phrase may be, it only affects the indifferent, and cannot fully satisfy those who are happy or unhappy; that is why dumbness is most often the highest expression of happiness or unhappiness; lovers understand each other better when they are silent, and a fervent, passionate speech delivered by the grave only touches outsiders, while to the widow and children of the dead man it seems cold and trivial.”
As they go out into the night, we are given a glimpse of the events that are to unfold as all around them seems dark and empty. Chekhov spends considerable time detailing their surroundings as they approach Abogin’s home. “In all nature there seemed to be a feeling of hopelessness and pain…Wherever one looked, on all sides, nature seemed like a dark, infinitely deep, cold pit from which neither Kirilov nor Abogin nor the red half-moon could escape.” Upon arriving, we are finally given a clear description of both men who had been previously shrouded in shadows but were now illuminated by the lush surroundings of Abogin’s home. The doctor was “tall and stooped, was untidily dressed and not good-looking” whereas Abogin was dignified with an “air of sleekness, health, and aplomb” consistent with his estate and apparent nobility. Shortly after their arrival we learn that Abogin’s wife is nowhere to be found. Her supposed illness was part of an elaborate ruse to buy time so that she could run away with her lover while her husband sought help. All that is left are two men, alone in their sorrow but united in their resentment of one another. Kirilov is horrified that he has left his grieving wife and dead son to become “a part in some vulgar farce, to play the part of a stage property!” Abogin is resentful that Kirilov doesn’t recognize his own personal suffering having just witnessed the tragedy of an affair. They make immediate enemies of one another as Chekhov notes, “the egoism of the unhappy was conspicuous in both.” Chekhov goes on to declare that “unhappiness does not bring people together but draws them apart, and even where one would fancy people should be united by the similarity of their sorrow, far more injustice and cruelty is generated than in comparatively placid surroundings.” The obvious conclusion of the meaning behind the title “enemies” is the one Chekhov implores us to adopt…that these two men (especially Kirilov) will forever be enemies. “Time will pass and Kirilov’s sorrow will pass, but that conviction, unjust and unworthy of the human heart, will not pass, but will remain in the doctor’s mind to the grave.” Alas, I am forced to pay special attention to the phrase, “unjust and unworthy of the human heart” and seek an alternate explanation of human behavior hidden in the title. Who is the real enemy of this story? Is it death, sorrow, or jealousy perhaps? The greatest enemy is the one we cannot recognize, the one who deflects or is otherwise immune to our attack. Unable to grieve or stave off the death of his son, the doctor is forced to find an alternate outlet for his emotion. The same is true for Abogin who in the midst of a jealous rant has no available target but Kirilov. The sad reality of the human condition is that we are rarely in control of our emotions particularly when experiencing extremes of the human condition. For certain emotions, it is healthy to let them run their course but in the case of negative emotions — fear, hate, jealously — we can be held captive by their tendency to fuel themselves. In these situations, the enemy may very well be ourselves and so long as we fail to recognize this we are unable to initiate a truce or find a peaceful resolution. I’m not convinced this is what Chekhov intended but I couldn’t help but notice his tendency to qualify the insults they hurled as “undeserved” and the thoughts they had as “unjust and inhumanly cruel”.
“In the numbness of everything, in the mother’s attitude, in the indifference on the doctor’s face there was something that attracted and touched the heart, that subtle, almost elusive beauty of human sorrow which men will not for a long time learn to understand and describe, and which it seems only music can convey.”