#100 Enemies

Today’s 100th installment comes in at 5604 words and can be found here:  http://www.eldritchpress.org/ac/jr/100.htm

Travis Review:

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.

Rating: 8

Steve Review:

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”.

Rating:  7

Pearls:

mauvais ton

pertinacity

Notable Quotes:

“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.”

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6 Comments

  • Anton Cross says:

    Did anybody notice Chekhov’s shift to first person near the end of the story? “I believe that never in their lives, even in delirium, had they uttered so much that was unjust, cruel, and absurd.”
    Is this just a mistake, or did Chekhov have some reason to do this? I can’t see any actual effect of its use…

    • Travis Richardson says:

      Good call Anton. Chekhov has done that a couple of other times. Sort of the omniscient narrator inserting himself into the story. The closest I could find off hand was “Who is to blame” where a first person narrator goes into the mind of a cat: http://www.chekhovshorts.com/094-who-was-to-blame/ Also I pretty certain Dostoevsky wrote with a first person openings in Brothers Karamazov and The Possessed and then wrote mostly omniscient voice with a few first person interruptions. (I believe in both, if not then one of them.) But it is a technique to avoid if possible as it can throw the reader off and mess with the flow of the story.

  • Nick Slusher says:

    Enemies is one of the most interesting tails of one mans desperation and anothers moral dilemma. The doctor, who I assume has taken the Hippocratic oath and who’s son has just passed, must decide whether to leave his grieving wife and help this nobleman or to stay with his wife and grieve for his lost son. The nobleman sees the dilemma, but he cannot leave and risk his wife dying, so he begs the doctor to come with him. In the end, I respect the doctor for fulfilling his duties, despite the wife not actually being sick. Chekhov shows us once again the dilemmas that we as humans cannot solve so easily.

    • Travis Richardson says:

      So true, Nick. The doctor must honor the request, but that it was all for nothing was hard to swallow for me as a reader.

  • Fatima says:

    I like this story because it shows the cruelty of the human nature. The part of this story that i was most astonished by was when Kirilov turned from thinking about his dead son to being concerned by Abogin’s problems and the ‘vulgarities’. It was crazy how the two characters went from suffering to fighting with each other over who is more right in this situation. Kirilov seemed to be concerned more with social inequality and the way that the higher class treats the lower. Maybe because it is really that big of an issue that Kirilov gets so mad, or maybe its the persistency of the men that Chekov was trying to point out.

    • Travis Richardson says:

      Those are good insights Fatima. I think sometimes people’s emotions get so wrapped up in anger that they launch into other people, forgetting about their original sorrow. It’s sort of a destructive coping mechanism.

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