The first story up is “A Living Chattel.” You can read it here before we discuss:
The first short story we read is really a novelette coming in at over 14,000 words. This story is told in three sections.The first part has Groholsky, a wealthy fop, entreating his lover, Liza, to leave her husband. When Bugrov, the brutish husband, arrives and sees the two in each other’s arms, I was expecting a flash of violence with fists flying or at least a challenge to a duel. Instead, Chekhov surprised me by having the two men sit in silence, both boiling with rage, eventually talking inanely about a dance the previous night. That scene was brilliant and my favorite part of the story. Groholsky scurries away in frustration, only to return after Bugrov threatens and then forgives Liza (for the fifth time). When Grohosky offers 50k rubbles to Bugrov, I wanted him to take the money and run. Liza as far as I could tell was not worth it. I loved it when he asked for triple the amount and got it, along with their son. I felt like Bugrov was given a second chance at life, to be free of an unfaithful life with an immense amount of wealth.
The second and third parts deal with Gohosky’s inability to satisfy Liza and his obsession to keep her at his own financial peril when Bugrov inadvertently becomes a part of their lives again. It’s interesting how both men love Liza, and while she is beautiful with her “kittenish face”, she comes off vacant and uninteresting. (Chekhov makes a point that she can’t play an instrument.) By the end of the story, when roles have been reversed, Chekov slips into the first person as an acquaintance of the three. The story had many unexpected twists and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
The temptation after reading this story is to over-think its meaning or assign a familiarity to the characters that somehow exemplifies a stereotype about unrequited love. It is in the spirit of such temptation that I found myself wondering who the “living chattel” was meant to portray. The obvious answer is Liza. As would befit a character assigned the moniker of “chattel”, she is under-developed in personality but is nevertheless central to the theme. The initial transaction takes place and although Groholsky appears happy at his purchase he laments what he perceives must be the downcast state of the seller–Bugrov the husband. Thus a love-triangle is created that will see Liza bounce between the two men to appease her own concept of an ideal lover. This is tolerated all the while by men blinded by passion and surprisingly tolerant of each other’s company. The irony of course is that Liza’s ideal lover lives only in past remembrances of the main characters or in her dreams of what she imagines they could become. While Liza lives in the past and dreams of the future, the two men are stuck in the present–living for the moment when they can steal another kiss.
So who is the living chattel? My own sense is that the real “chattel” in this story is Groholsky. If chattel is defined as an object of possession, then clearly Liza (and to a lesser extent Bugrov) owns Groholsky. He is the most miserable character. Despite the exchange of huge sums of money the story ends affirming the cliche that you can’t buy love…but you can certainly sell misery. I enjoyed every miserable twist in this story and it is a credit to Chekhov that I believe it is possible.