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Returning Characters to Life

On Writing Fiction author David Jauss discusses Chekhov's subversive endings in this insightful essay.
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by David Jauss

In one of his letters, Chekhov wrote, “When I am finished with my characters, I like to return them to life.” By returning his characters to life, he meant, I believe, something like what David Chase did in the controversial ending of the HBO series The Sopranos: instead of conclusively ending the series by “whacking” Tony, or shipping him off to prison for life, or having him see the error of his ways and turn state’s evidence against his fellow mobsters, Chase simply returned him to his daily routine, essentially as unchanged as the world in which he lives. A great number of Chekhov’s stories end similarly, saying implicitly what the ending of one story says explicitly: “And after that life went on as before.” Whereas previous (and most subsequent) fiction focuses on a climactic change, Chekhov’s stories are frequently less about change than they are about the failure to change. Indeed, as the poet, translator, and scholar Anne Frydman has said, his stories “provide an exhaustive investigation into the reasons for changelessness in human life.” And even when his characters do change, Chekhov’s endings often reveal that their changes either fail to last, merely complicate the existing conflict, or create a new and often greater conflict. In short, Chekhov tends to end his stories by returning his characters to life and the problems created either by their change or their failure to change.

Before Chekhov, stories did not typically end in these ways. The traditional Aristotelian plot was—and remains—little more than a machine engineered to create change: the protagonist finds himself faced with a conflict that gets complicated and intensified until it reaches a climactic moment in which it is resolved and his life is forever altered. But Chekhov was deeply skeptical about the possibility of change, especially if that change were permanent and positive, as it so often is in pre-Chekhovian fiction. Readers who expected his stories to end with such conclusive resolutions were disappointed and criticized his stories as “incomplete.” (In this they resemble many of our own contemporaries, alas.) In response to such criticism, perhaps, he titled one of his stories “A Story without an End.” But for all of their apparent inconclusiveness, his stories do have endings; they’re just not the kinds of endings favored by previous writers—or by the average viewer of The Sopranos. They are subversive endings, endings designed to undercut our expectations and, thereby, force us to examine our conceptions about life and human nature. They are, I would argue, the kinds of endings that much of contemporary fiction lacks, and needs.

Clearly, Chekhov was aware relatively early in his writing life that new kinds of endings were necessary in literature. While writing Ivanov, his first full-length play, he wrote to his publisher about the conventional endings of plays—“Either the hero gets married or shoots himself,” he complained—and he concluded, “Whoever discovers new endings for plays will open up a new era.” And that is exactly what Chekhov did, both for plays and for short stories. Even now, 105 years after his death, we are still very much in the era Chekhov opened up. Chekhovian endings have been adopted, and adapted, not only by the usual suspects—Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf, Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, John Cheever, Eudora Welty, Raymond Carver, Andre Dubus, and Tobias Wolff—but also by such otherwise un-Chekhovian writers as Donald Barthelme and John Barth. But while some of Chekhov’s innovative strategies for closure (or anti-closure, as the case may be) are now relatively commonplace, others have been largely overlooked or ignored. Many of today’s writers write as if unaware of some of the possibilities Chekhov opened up and thus they end their stories in highly predictable and conventional ways. For these reasons, I believe it is time for us to take a close look at Chekhov’s strategies for closure. I hope that an examination of his innovations will lead to further innovations in our own endings, and perhaps even to another new era.

In this essay I will discuss the principal ways Chekhov subverted traditional short story endings to “return his characters to life” and its inconclusive conclusions. For convenience’s sake, I will discuss these strategies for the most part as if they occur in isolation, but I would urge the reader to keep in mind that they often appear in combination.


1. Anti-epilogues

One way Chekhov returned his characters to life is by subverting the convention of epilogues, which tie up all of a work’s loose ends and so are the epitome of conclusiveness. Chekhov’s attitude toward epilogues was much like that of Henry James, who complained about their vapid “distribution . . . of prizes, pensions, husbands, wives, babies, millions, appended paragraphs, and cheerful remarks.” Chekhov wrote nearly 600 stories in his short life, and not one of them ends with anything approximating a conventional epilogue. Several, however, end with what we can call anti-epilogues, for they deny the very premise of an epilogue: the possibility of knowing what the future might hold. Instead of giving us a pat account of how everything will turn out, he typically returns the character, and us, to the uncertainty of life, leaving us wondering what will happen next.

“The Steppe,” for example, ends with Egorushka, who has just completed an arduous journey across the steppe, slumping wearily onto a bench and greeting “the new, unknown life that was now beginning for him . . .” Rather than tell us what will happen in this unknown life, Chekhov merely echoes the question Egorushka is asking himself: “What sort of life would it be?” Similarly, “Three Years” ends with its protagonist, Laptev, asking the kind of questions that are usually answered in epilogues—and with Chekhov refusing to answer them:

, , , maybe he was to live another thirteen or thirty years . . . And what were they to live through in that time? What does the future hold for us?
And he thought:
“Time will tell.”

The fact that these endings leave his characters’ future fates open suggest that, although Chekhov was generally pessimistic about the possibility of change, he was also aware that sometimes lives change in dramatic and unpredictable ways. Chekhov makes this point explicitly in “A Story without an End.” The narrator of this story—who is not-so-coincidentally a writer of short stories—presents two portraits of his neighbor, the first showing him as he was a year before, after his wife died and he attempted suicide, and the second showing him now, playing the piano and singing and laughing with a group of ladies in the narrator’s drawing-room. Witnessing this change, which he compares to “the transmutation of substances,” leads the narrator to realize the impossibility of predicting what his neighbor’s future life will be like. Thus, this story without an end ends with the unanswered question, “How will it end?”

2. Reverse Epilogues

Whereas Chekhov’s anti-epilogues return the characters to what Grace Paley has called “the open destiny of life,” most of his endings close off, rather than open up, the protagonist’s possibilities for future change. This tendency is apparent in another way he subverts the conventional epilogue: by shifting into the past at the very moment we expect the story to move into the future. Instead of telling us what will happen, a reverse epilogue tells us what has happened—and thereby implies, as Frydman notes, that nothing will change in the character’s future.

“The Chorus Girl” exemplifies this mode of closure. In this story, a chorus girl named Pasha is confronted by the wife of a man with whom she’s been sleeping. While the husband listens in the next room, the wife badgers Pasha into giving her some pieces of jewelry that she wrongly believes her husband gave to Pasha. After the wife leaves, the husband returns and says, “My God, a decent, proud, pure being like that was even prepared to kneel down before this . . . this whore! And I brought her to it! I let it happen!” He then shoves Pasha roughly aside, calls her “trash,” and leaves. At this point, Pasha starts to sob. Conditioned as we are by conventional fiction, we might naturally expect Pasha’s humiliation to lead her to change her life. But instead of showing, or even implying, a future change, Chekhov abruptly segues into her past. The final sentence reads, “She remembered how three years ago, for no rhyme or reason, a merchant had giving her a beating, and sobbed even louder.” By revealing that Pasha has undergone even worse mistreatment in the past without learning any life-changing lessons, the ending implies that her life will continue unchanged in the future. Thus, the reverse epilogue serves to return Pasha to life and its continuing humiliations and sorrows.

3. Echo Endings

Another way Chekhov returns his characters to life—and conveys the essential changelessness of those lives—is by echoing in the ending the events, imagery, and/or language of the story’s opening. These echoes create the sense that either nothing has changed or whatever change has occurred has been undone. As Frydman notes, such endings paradoxically evoke “endlessness.”

The conclusion of “In a Strange Land” is an excellent example of an echo ending that evokes endlessness. The story opens and closes with Nikolai, a bigoted landowner, holding forth on the folly of the French to Champoun, his children’s tutor. Champoun would like to escape his master’s bigotry and return to France, but he has lost his passport. As a result, he is forced to endure Nikolai’s endless series of diatribes. The story ends with the sentence, “The same performance begins over again, and Champoun’s sufferings have no end.”

“Anyuta” also ends as it begins. It opens with a medical student named Stepan using his girlfriend Anyuta’s naked chest as a “study guide” for an upcoming exam. Oblivious to the fact that she has “turned blue with cold,” he marks her ribs with charcoal, then reads these words from his textbook: “The right lung consists of three sections . . . The upper section reaches the fourth or fifth rib on the front wall of the chest, the fourth rib at the side . . . the spina scapulae in the back . . .” Then an art student arrives and asks Stepan if he can use Anyuta as a model—ironically, he’s painting a portrait of Psyche, who had significantly more success at winning the love of Eros than Anyuta has at winning the love of the utterly unerotic Stepan—and, although Anyuta protests mildly, Stepan orders her to go “for the sake of art.” While she’s gone, serving art as she has shortly before been serving science, Stepan begins to imagine his future, when he’s a successful doctor and has a “respectable” wife, not someone like “homely, slovenly, pitiful” Anyuta, and he makes the seemingly climactic decision “to separate from her, at once, whatever the cost.” But later, when he tells her to leave, her tears cause him to decide to let her stay—though only, he tells himself, for one more week. Relieved, Anyuta returns to the sewing work she’s been doing to support her ungrateful boyfriend, and Stepan picks up his textbook and reads again the words, “The right lung consists of three sections . . . The upper section reaches the fourth or fifth rib on the front wall of the chest . . .” In short, everything returns to the way it was. Stepan’s conflict is resolved, but the resolution is retracted almost immediately, leaving him once again facing the same conflict. By echoing the beginning, Chekhov’s ending suggests that the cyclical pattern we’ve just witnessed will continue to repeat itself in the future.

Chekhov’s echo endings are rarely as overt as that of “Anyuta,” however. The ending of “Gusev” is typical of the subtlety that usually marks his handling of this form of closure. The story opens with Gusev telling Pavel, another soldier in the ship’s infirmary, a story about a ship that “bumped into a big fish and smashed a hole in its bottom,” and it ends with a big fish—a shark—tearing a hole in the bottom of the sailcloth that covers Gusev’s body after his burial at sea. There is an even subtler echo here, too. After the shark rips the bottom of the sailcloth, one of the gridirons that were sewn inside to weight Gusev’s body down drops out and falls to the bottom of the sea, a detail that echoes the fact that, after Gusev tells the story about the big fish, a jug falls to the infirmary floor. The ending of “Gusev” also returns—as I will discuss later, in a different context—to the opening’s personification of nature, an echo that bears significantly on the story’s meaning.

4. Chiastic Endings

Sometimes an echo ending repeats the words and/or actions of the opening in reverse order, creating a kind of inverted symmetry. Cathy Popkin compares such endings to the rhetorical device chiasmus, in which the order of words in two otherwise parallel phrases are reversed. As Popkin notes, “The House with the Mezzanine,” a story about an idle, deluded artist’s thwarted love for a young woman named Zhenya, ends “chiastically,” with the protagonist-narrator, Monsieur X, “retreating along the same path by which he had originally approached [Zhenya’s home], describing the fir trees, lime trees, orchard, gate, courtyard, and willows in reverse order from the original description.” But this inversion is not just variation for variation’s sake; rather, it points us toward another inversion, one that leads us to the story’s meaning—the inversion of the opening’s principal image. Whereas the story opens with the “frightening” image of the “ten big windows” of Monsieur X’s room “suddenly lit up by lightning,” it ends with his “sudden” memory of the one window of Zhenya’s room lit by a dim green light. The contrast between the frightening light of the opening and the melancholy light of the ending is poignant, but the poignancy is laced with our sense that Monsieur X did not truly deserve Zhenya. It is also laced with our realization that he needs the kind of enlightenment described in the opening, but is too afraid to see himself clearly and so has remained essentially blind, seeing only by the dimmest of lights.

5. False Climaxes

Some of Chekhov’s stories conclude with what appears to be a climax but in fact is not one, for the conflict remains unresolved, the character ultimately unchanged. “Misery” is an excellent example of this way to achieve a sense of closure while still acknowledging the inconclusiveness of life. In this story, a St. Petersburg cabman named Iona attempts to tell a series of passengers, a passerby, and a fellow cabman about the recent death of his son, but everyone responds with indifference. Looking at the crowds of people on the street, he laments that he cannot “find among those thousands someone who will listen to him.” At the end, he is reduced to telling his sorrow to his horse. Chekhov writes: “The little mare munches, listens, and breathes on her master’s hands. Iona is carried away and tells her all about it.” At first, this seems like a climactic resolution—finally, he has found an audience for his grief—but the problem the story poses—the indifference of his fellow human beings to his suffering—remains unresolved. As Frydman concludes, “the relief at the end is a false relief. . . . the horse [is] a poor substitute for a sympathetic human listener.”

6. Omitted Climaxes

Given Chekhov’s skepticism about the possibility of change, it should be no surprise that many of his stories lack the very thing that fiction usually seems to exist for—a climax. Whereas some stories employ a false climax to imply the absence of a true one, these stories omit any kind of climax whatsoever. They consist solely of the “rising action” of a plot—the exposition and complication of a conflict—and therefore come to what may seem to be a premature conclusion. As Conrad Aiken observed, these stories “do not . . . conclude at all—they merely stop.” But the conclusions are not actually premature, for the point of these stories is that no conclusion is possible: the conflict will continue and nothing will ever be resolved. To adapt a term Frydman uses for a variety of Chekhov’s endings, we can call these “dead end” stories, for they come to an abrupt stop just when we expect to reach a destination that, we now discover, does not exist.

“The Witch” is an excellent example of a “dead end” story. In it, Chekhov describes an escalating argument between a sub-deacon and his wife that takes place during a blizzard. The sub-deacon irrationally believes that his wife is a witch who creates storms in order to lure men to seek shelter in their home. At first the wife laughs off this charge, but as the story progresses, she grows increasingly angry, especially at his threat to tell the local priest that she is a witch, and at the end she hits him in the nose. This act makes the reader expect him, at the very least, to report her to the priest and possibly even kill her. Instead, Chekhov ends the story by stating, simply, “The pain in his nose soon passed but his torment continued.” Just when we are expecting a dramatic and conclusive climax, Chekhov stops short. As a result, the ending hits the reader like a punch in the nose.

Chekhov often uses the “dead end” conclusion in stories whose expected climax is an epiphany. In “Lights,” an engineer named Ananyev attempts to convince a young student named Von Schtenberg that “thoughts of the transitoriness, the insignificance and the aimlessness of life, of the inevitability of death, of the shadows of the grave, and so on . . . are good and natural in old age when they come as the product of years of inner travail,” but “for a youthful brain on the threshold of real life they are simply a calamity!” Ananyev tells the student and the story’s narrator that he himself had similar beliefs when he was the student’s age, and he relates the events that led to his realization of his error. His attempts to persuade Von Schtenberg fail; the student does not duplicate his would-be teacher’s epiphany. Nor is the philosophical debate resolved in the narrator’s mind either. At the end of the story, he says, “I carried away with me no answer to any question,” and he concludes, “There’s no understanding anything in this world!” In short, the intellectual conflict between Ananyev and Von Schtenberg gets complicated and intensified, but just when we expect it to be resolved one way or the other, Chekhov gives us the metaphysical equivalent of “The Witch”’s literal punch in the nose: he suggests that the only possible “resolution” is the realization that no resolution is possible.

Ironically, Chekhov’s “dead end” conclusions frequently occur in death scenes, where readers of the time were accustomed to encounter dramatic soul-saving epiphanies. Two of Chekhov’s greatest contemporaries—Turgenev and Tolstoy—were noted for such deathbed epiphanies. But, as Frydman observes, “Chekhov rejected the ‘deathbed revelation’ as a dramatic device.” Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych” is a typical example of this convention. Just before Ivan dies, Tolstoy tells us that he “caught sight of the light, and it was revealed to him that though his life had not been what it should have been, this could still be rectified.” And by asking forgiveness of all those he has sinned against, he does indeed rectify his life, and so when he dies, “undefinedn place of death there was light.”

Witness, by contrast, the account of the protagonist’s death in Chekhov’s “Ward No. 6”:

Andrei Yefimych understood that his end had come and remembered that . . . millions of people believed in immortality. And what if it was so? But he did not want immortality, and he thought of it for only a moment. A herd of deer, extraordinarily beautiful and graceful, which he read about the day before, ran past him; then a peasant woman reached out to him with a certified letter . . . Mikhail Averyanych said something. Then everything vanished and Andrei Yefimych lost consciousness forever.

In a sense, Andrei’s life “flashes” before him via these images. The first is the image of the beautiful deer, an image that suggests the importance of nature, reading, and beauty in his life. The second image—the certified letter—suggests how much value he placed on true communication (communication important enough to be sent via certified mail), as opposed to empty small talk, and this refers to the great stock he put in his conversations with his friend Gromov. These images are certainly positive, but hardly indicative of any epiphanic transformation. The last image before Andrei sinks into oblivion is, however, a decidedly negative one—“Mikhail Averyanych said something.” As we know all too excruciatingly well by this point in the story, there is nothing Andrei hated more than listening to the pompous, dull, nonstop yakking of Mikhail. This final image suggests that everything that was important and beautiful in Andrei’s life has been, both during his life and now at its end, undercut by the banal and trivial. Just when we expect a conventional deathbed epiphany, Chekhov pulls the rug out from under those expectations. There is no Tolstoyan revelation at the moment of Andrei’s death to “rectify” his life. Rather, his life ends, as his friend Gromov said all lives end, “not with a reward for suffering, not with an apotheosis, as in the opera,” but with the cold, hard, physical facts of death: “peasants will come and drag your dead body by the arms and the legs to the basement.”

In “Gusev,” Chekhov omits not only the conventional deathbed epiphany but also the protagonist’s death. What would normally be the climax of such a story—the death of its protagonist—is not even summarized, much less presented. Chekhov writes: “He sleeps for two days and on the third at noon two sailors come down and carry him out of the infirmary.” At the beginning of this sentence Gusev is asleep, and at the end, three days later, he is dead and being brought topside in preparation for burial at sea. Instead of showing Gusev confront his mortality in some climactic way, Chekhov merely describes his burial and its aftermath. By doing so, he returns us, if not his character, to life, which continues as if Gusev had never existed at all, leaving us to realize the ultimate insignificance of human life in the vastness of nature and time.

7. External Climaxes

As the ending of “Gusev” may suggest, Chekhov sometimes omits climaxes in order to make the reader have an epiphany his protagonist fails to have. A character may reach a “dead end,” in short, but the reader sometimes continues the journey in the character’s stead. In such stories, the climax is an external one—it occurs outside the story, within the reader, not inside the story, within a character. I suspect that behind this kind of ending, which we find most frequently in Chekhov’s later work, is the belief that an epiphany is more powerful if the reader experiences it personally rather than merely witnesses a character experience it, and that therefore the best epiphanies takes place in the blank space that follows a story.

One way Chekhov creates an external climax is through the use of an unreliable narrator, one who fails to see what his story reveals about him. In “The Little Joke,” for example, the narrator recounts a “joke” he played on a woman who loved him, a joke he cannot understand—but we can, and do. He tells of tobogganing with this woman and how, as they roared down the hill with the wind in their faces, he whispered, “I love you” into her ear, then pretended he had said nothing, so she could not be sure if what she heard was real or imagined. She was terrified of tobogganing, yet kept on doing it—and even once went by herself—to see if she would hear those words. The story ends: “And now that I am older, I cannot understand why I said those words, why I played that joke on her . . .” Although he achieves no climactic understanding, the reader does. The reader realizes that he actually did love the woman and that, despite his refusal to face the facts of his own emotions, he regrets playing the joke and losing his one chance at love. And the reader also realizes that the joke was ultimately a big one, not a little one, and that it was on him, not her.

The principal way Chekhov triggers an epiphany in the reader, however, is through the use of implied analogies. Such analogies appear at the ends of many of his stories, but their use is most dramatic and powerful, I believe, in those relatively or completely plot-less stories in which, as Frydman says, “Inertia emerges . . . as the law that determines lives.” Stories of this sort are often sketch-like in their stasis, but though the characters may not change, our perception of them, and perhaps of ourselves, does, and the result is a conclusion as satisfying as that of any plotted story.

The regrettably little-known “Fortune,” one of Chekhov’s personal favorites, is such a study of stasis that it is virtually a verbal still life. In it, two shepherds, one old and one young, do little more than watch their flocks and talk briefly about buried treasure to each other and a ranger who stops to light his pipe. The sheep, too, are static—they stand “as if rooted to the spot” —and so is the world around them: “nothing stirred in the bluish distance,” Chekhov says, then describes the Scythian burial mounds which tower “here and there above the horizon and the endless steppe,” watching over the three men with the same sort of “mute immobility” and “complete indifference” with which the men watch over the sheep.

As morning approaches, movement briefly enters this still, suspended world. Some solitary rooks fly overhead, and Chekhov comments that “There was no obvious point to the lazy flight of these long-lived birds, nor to the morning which repeated itself punctually every day.” Then, shortly after sunrise, the sheep “suddenly become jittery” and charge off “in some inexplicable terror.” The young shepherd momentarily feels the same “animal terror,” but he returns to calm “somnolence” as quickly as the sheep. The story ends with the two shepherds standing, “without moving,” at opposite ends of the motionless flock. “Wrapped up in their own lives,” Chekhov says, “they were already oblivious of each other.” And here is where he slips in, almost as if it were an afterthought, his subtle yet devastating analogy: “The sheep were also lost in thought.”

By comparing the shepherds—and the ranger, who has three times earlier been described as “lost in thought” —to the sheep, Chekhov creates a quiet detonation: we feel an epiphany of sorts, one denied the shepherds themselves, the epiphany that they—and perhaps all of us—are “sheep” who do everything we can to avoid facing our animal terror at the fact that there is no more point to our long-lived lives than there is to the rooks’. And, further, the ending implies that we avoid facing this terror by being as immobile and indifferent to others, and therefore as “lifeless,” as those burial mounds, and that our fortune will not be to unearth buried treasure but to be buried ourselves, both literally after death and metaphorically during our lives.

“Gooseberries” is another story that concludes with a subtle analogy that allows the reader to understand what the character has not recognized, at least not fully. It ends with its protagonist, Burkin, lying in bed listening to the rain tapping on the windowpanes, unable to sleep after hearing his friend Ivan’s impassioned story about his brother’s gooseberries and the illusions on which happiness is based. The continual tapping of the rain echoes the constant tapping of the hammer that Ivan spoke of earlier that night:

“There ought to be a man with a hammer behind the door of every happy man, to remind him by his constant knocks that there are unhappy people, and that happy as he himself may be, life will sooner or later show him its claws, catastrophe will overtake him—sickness, poverty, loss—and nobody will see it, just as he now neither sees nor hears the misfortunes of others. But there is no man with a hammer, the happy man goes on living and the petty vicissitudes of life touch him only lightly, like the wind in an aspen tree, and all is well.”

Burkin blames his inability to sleep on the strong smell of stale tobacco from Ivan’s pipe, but we suspect that what is truly keeping him awake is the gradually growing awareness that his own happiness is based on his refusal to face the misery of his fellow human beings, and we further suspect that, before long, he will be overcome with the same kind of “sadness bordering on desperation” that Ivan says keeps him awake at night. For Burkin, then, there is somebody with a hammer, and that somebody is Ivan, and his hammer is his story, which hammers away at Burkin’s complacence just as Chekhov’s story hammers away at ours. Through the implied analogy between the tapping rain and the tapping hammer, we experience the climactic insight that Burkin will experience, if ever, only after the story’s ending.

8. Temporary Climaxes

So far we have been focusing mostly on stories about changelessness, but in many of Chekhov’s stories, a character does undergo a climactic change. However, as in “Anyuta,” the change doesn’t last: the character quickly relapses into old beliefs and behavior. Like the echo ending, a relapse ending shows the protagonist back where he or she began, facing—or, more accurately, failing to face—the same conflict. Because the relapse plot is perhaps Chekhov’s most common solution to the conflict between the desire for narrative closure and his belief in the relative changelessness of human beings, and because so many of his best stories employ it—and employ it in combination with other closing strategies to achieve different effects—I would like to comment briefly on four stories that are particularly powerful examples of it: “A Gentleman Friend,” “Terror,” “The Murder,” and “The Darling.”

“A Gentleman Friend” employs a false climax in order to convey its protagonist’s relapse from a true climax. In this story, a prostitute who goes by the name of Vanda (her actual name is Nastasya) has just been released from the hospital, and after paying her medical bills she is too poor to afford the fancy clothes she needs to go to nightclubs and ply her trade. To solve this problem, she decides to ask one of her “gentlemen friends,” a dentist named Finkel, for some money. But when she goes to his office, Finkel fails to recognize her and she is so embarrassed that she pretends she has a toothache, and he pulls out a perfectly good tooth—and then charges her for it. When she leaves his office, she is in pain and poorer than when she arrived. As a result of this humiliating experience, she sees herself clearly for the first time and realizes that she has misspent her life, that she has been too concerned with material things, and that she has lost her true self as a result.

If this were a conventional story, Vanda’s epiphany would lead her to become Nastasya again and she would remain her true self for the rest of her life. In Chekhov’s stories, however, epiphanies typically have the staying power of New Year’s resolutions, and he swiftly subverts our expectation of Vanda’s “rebirth” by showing her relapse into her former behavior at a club ironically named the “Renaissance”:

But the next day she was at the Renaissance and she danced there. She wore a new, immense red hat, a new jacket à la mode and a pair of brown shoes. She was treated to supper by a young merchant from Kazan.

As this ending suggests, the actual climax of this story occurs offstage, when Vanda convinces the young merchant to buy her the clothes she desires, and it is a false climax, for the problem it resolves is a trivial, materialistic one, not the essential, spiritual one that she resolved only temporarily when she realized the error of her ways. Her essential problem, then, remains unresolved, just as Iona’s essential problem remains unresolved at the end of “Misery.” But whereas Chekhov did not go on to show Iona back at work the next day, facing his fellow human beings’ indifference to his suffering, in this story he shows Vanda back where she started, doing her best not to face her true conflict.

In the neglected masterpiece “Terror,” Chekhov combines the relapse plot with a more traditional plot. The story opens with a man named Dmitri confessing to his best friend, the story’s narrator, that he has a disease, “the fear of life.” “I don’t understand life and I am afraid of it,” he says, and compares himself to a beetle “which was born yesterday and understands nothing” yet continues about his life. He is terrorized by “the common routine of life from which none of us can escape,” but his “chief terror” is that his beloved wife does not care for him, much less love him. Later that night, when he goes to his friend’s bedroom to fetch his cap, Dmitri discovers that his wife and friend have betrayed him. But this discovery does not enlighten him; he says to his friend, “I suppose it must be my fate that I should understand nothing. . . . If you understand anything, I congratulate you. It’s all darkness before my eyes.” Nor does this discovery lead Dmitri to escape “the common routine of life” he abhors; as the story’s final sentence reveals, he continues to live, presumably with even more terror than before, with his wife.The story’s narrator does change, however, and does so in the manner of a traditional plot. As a result of the events of the story, he is infected with the same kind of terror at the incomprehensibility of human behavior that his friend Dmitri feels. As the story ends, he asks himself, “in bewilderment and despair,” “Why have I done this? . . . Why has it turned out like this and not differently? To whom and for what was it necessary that she should love me in earnest, and that he should come into my room to fetch his cap? What had a cap to do with it?” The darkness that was before Dmitri’s eyes is now before his.The similarly under-appreciated story “The Murder” is a particularly interesting example of a relapse plot because it uses several of Chekhov’s innovative modes of closure—a false climax, an echo ending, and an implied analogy—to reveal the protagonist’s relapse. The story ends with Yakov, a religious fanatic, imprisoned for killing his cousin Matvey over a violation of Lenten rules. Now, after years of thinking himself more religious than priests—he even conducted his own religious services at his home—he has found what he believes to be “the true faith.” Chekhov writes: “He knew it all now and understood where God was, and how He was to be served” and he “longed to go back home and tell them there of his new faith to save from ruin if only one man.” To the best of my knowledge, critics have universally taken Yakov’s climactic “epiphany” at face value and so have focused on the irony that he cannot act upon his new faith since he is condemned to a lifetime in prison. But I believe Chekhov wants us to doubt the authenticity of Yakov’s alleged epiphany. He tips us off that this is a false climax by prefacing the “annunciation” of it with the tell-tale words “it seemed to him” and by adding, after the selfless-seeming words “to save from ruin if only one man,” the clearly selfish words “and to live without suffering if only for one day.”Furthermore, by echoing the story’s opening, Chekhov’s final sentences imply that Yakov’s change, whether it is genuine or not, will be temporary at best. The story opens and closes with references to storms, and as we have seen, an echo of this sort is usually a sign that a character has either failed to change or relapsed back to his old ways. Also, as in so many of Chekhov’s stories, an implicit analogy—in this case, between the storm and irreligious beliefs and behavior—communicates the ending’s true significance. The story opens with “the howling of the snow-storm that was aimlessly disporting itself outside, regardless of the fact that it was the Eve of the Annunciation.” As this sentence suggests, the storm is associated with indifference or opposition to religion. In addition, as the story progresses, Chekhov tells us that stormy weather “disposed one to depression, and to quarreling and to hatred” and he compares abusive behavior to a “storm.”Because of these associations, Chekhov’s ending has ominous overtones. The story concludes: “A strong piercing wind was blowing by now; somewhere on the steep cliff overhead the trees were creaking. Most likely a storm was coming.” The echo ending suggests that Yakov’s climactic belief that he has found the true faith is as false as his earlier belief that he alone had the true faith, and it also suggests that acting upon this false belief would lead him not to serve God but to commit further acts of violence. For although he believes he has changed, he remains a religious fanatic of the most dangerous sort: one who does not know the darkness of his own soul.“The Darling” provides yet another example of an innovative relapse plot; indeed, it could be called a relapse plot on steroids, for it consists of repeated relapses, each preceded by a false climax. In novella-like fashion, Chekhov repeats one central dramatic action—one movement from conflict to (false) climax—and thereby suggests the essential changelessness of his protagonist. The story recounts Olenka’s parasitic love for two husbands, a lover, and, eventually, a surrogate son. Its title is a translation of a Russian term of endearment that means, literally, “Little Soul,” and clearly, Olenka’s soul is so little as to be virtually nonexistent. Only when she is in love, and adopting the opinions of her loved one, does she come to life—and that life is a borrowed life, one that, Chekhov hints, comes at the expense of the person she loves. (Her husbands grow thin and die while she grows fat and healthy.) When she is married to a theatre owner, all she can talk about is the theatre; when she is married to the manager of a lumberyard, she talks endlessly of lumber and disparages the theatre just as he does. And it is clear that she is not consciously adopting their opinions merely to please them, for even her dreams echo the concerns of her current loved one. Because she has no self, Olenka is doomed to repeat not only her loved one’s words but also the parasitic pattern Chekhov traces throughout the story. Repetition, then, is at the heart of her character, as well as at the heart of Chekhov’s form and theme.The story ends with the fourth false climax it has recounted—after a long, despairing period of solitude, Olenka finds another object for her love: Sasha, the son of a former lover. In the final moments of the story, she lies in bed listening to him cry out in his dreams, “I’ll give it you! Get away! Shut up!” —words that, in the context of the story, compare Olenka to something like a schoolyard bully, demanding love of her victim. Her essential conflict—her utter lack of a self—remains unresolved, and the story’s repetitive structure suggests that the cycle of conflict, false climax, and relapse will continue until her death. What’s more, Olenka’s final false climax has created a conflict in Sasha, a fact that further undermines the reader’s desire for a conclusive resolution.

9. Complication-Creating Climaxes

In some of Chekhov’s stories, the characters do change without relapsing, but often their change only complicates the conflict further. “Neighbours” illustrates this brand of inconclusive conclusion superbly. Its protagonist, Pyotr, is enraged that his married neighbor, Vlassitch, has “seduced and abducted” Pyotr’s unmarried sister Zina, thereby shaming him and his family. Impulsively, he leaves for Vlassitch’s house, intending to horsewhip him and demand that Zina return home. But Pyotr is afflicted with one of the most severe cases of irresolution in Chekhov’s fiction, so the intensity of his resolve dwindles instead of builds as the story progresses, thereby making the story consist largely of “falling action” rather than “rising action.” By the time Pyotr reaches his neighbor’s house, his rage has passed and, although he makes a few feeble attempts to reignite it, he succumbs to his irresolution and does nothing. And as he parts from his sister, he makes matters worse by telling her, falsely, that he approves of what she has done. The climax, then, serves to prolong and intensify the conflict rather than to resolve it. As Pyotr realizes, “I went to solve the question and I have only made it more complicated . . .”

The most famous Chekhov story that ends not with the resolution of a conflict but with a further, more intense complication of it is, of course, “The Lady with the Little Dog.” As Vladimir Kataev has said, “No questions are resolved for Gurov and Anna once ‘this love of theirs had changed them both.’ On the contrary, only then does the full seriousness of the problems become truly apparent.” The story ends with the beginning of a new phase of Gurov and Anna’s conflict; indeed, its final word is “beginning.” The story concludes: “And it seemed that, just a little more—and the solution would be found, and then a new, beautiful life would begin; and it was clear to both of them that the end was still far, far off, and that the most complicated and difficult part was just beginning.” In Frydman’s words, the story “builds toward an ending that overturns the assumption that there will be an end.” And as Vladimir Nabokov notes, in words that are apropos to so many of Chekhov’s stories, “The story does not really end, for as long as people are alive, there is no possible and definite conclusion to their troubles or hopes or dreams.” Once again, Chekhov has created a conclusion that provides a sense of closure without resolution, a conclusion that returns his characters to life and its continuing conflicts and complications.

10. Conflict-Creating Climaxes

Sometimes Chekhov replaces the conventional climax of a plot not with a further complication of the conflict but with the creation of a new conflict. As we noted earlier, “The Darling” ends with a reference to the conflict Olenka’s parasitic love has created for Sasha. In most of the stories that follow this pattern, however, the new conflict belongs to the protagonist, not a secondary character.

“Sleepy” exemplifies this strategy for closure. In this story, a thirteen-year-old nanny named Varka is exhausted from overwork and unable to sleep because the baby she is tending has been crying for hours. In her semi-delirious state, she strangles the baby. This act resolves her immediate conflict, enabling her to fall asleep at long last, but it creates a new and far greater conflict, for when she wakes, we know, she will be arrested for murder. Chekhov’s concluding sentence both reveals her false sense of relief and resolution and hints at the fate that awaits her once she is convicted of murder: “After strangling him, she quickly lies down on the floor, laughing with joy that she can sleep, and a moment later is already fast asleep, like the dead . . . "

Although Chekhov was nothing if not skeptical about those climactic, life-altering revelations we call epiphanies, some of his stories do contain bona fide epiphanies, but they, too, tend to create new, often greater conflicts. “The Kiss” is an excellent example of this kind of Chekhovian ending. Like Vanda in “A Gentleman Friend,” Ryabovitch, the protagonist of this story, suddenly sees the error of his ways, but instead of ignoring his insight and relapsing into his old habits and beliefs, as Vanda does, he overreacts to it and thereby squelches any chance he might have of profiting from it. At the end of the story, Ryabovitch returns to the site of a party he attended several months before, fully expecting to meet the woman who, mistaking him for someone else, kissed him in a dark room that night. Since the party, he has given in to fantasies about the woman, about whom he knows nothing, and he has not only concocted a composite image of her but also envisioned a future marriage and family. But now, her absence causes him to recognize the difference between reality and fantasy, and he sees “the incident of the kiss, his impatience, his vague hopes and disappointment . . . in a clear light. It no longer seemed to him strange that . . . he would never see the girl who had accidentally kissed him instead of some one else; on the contrary, it would have been strange if he had seen her.” When we read this passage, we are relieved that Ryabovitch has finally recognized the truth. But Chekhov makes sure our relief is short-lived, for Ryabovitch immediately overreacts to his insight: “And the whole world, the whole of life, seemed to Ryabovitch an unintelligible, aimless jest,” Chekhov writes. A few sentences later, when Ryabovitch learns he and his fellow officers have been invited to a party at the home of a general who lives nearby, his disillusionment leads him to refuse the invitation, and therefore forgo his chance at a real romance: “For an instant there was a flash of joy in Ryabovitch’s heart, but he quenched it at once, got into bed, and in his wrath with his fate, as though to spite it, did not go to the General’s.”

In “A Gentleman Friend,” we are disappointed that Vanda’s epiphany isn’t conclusive—we would like her to stay true to her epiphany—but Chekhov wisely denies us the easy assurance that insight inevitably leads to positive change. In “The Kiss,” however, we are disappointed that Ryabovitch’s epiphany is conclusive—or rather, that he responds to it as if it were conclusive and thereby dooms himself to a miserable, lonely life. Chekhov’s ending makes us lament that Ryabovitch has learned what we have been wanting him to learn all along, for he has resolved his initial conflict in such a way that he now faces an even greater one.

11. Extended Anticlimaxes

Yet another way Chekhov subverts our expectations about endings is by giving us the climax relatively early in the story, so that much of the story is quite literally anticlimactic. As Popkin has said, stories that follow this pattern shift the reader’s attention away from the “headlines” of life to “the small print that follows, where the real story is told.” Because the anticlimactic “small print” dominates the story, the climactic “headline” loses much, if not all, of its impact. As this fact suggests, in stories that end like this, Chekhov returns his characters to the “real story” of life more extensively than anywhere else in his fiction.

“The Teacher of Literature” is an excellent example of this strategy. The story builds toward the conventional happy ending of a wedding, but then goes beyond it to the mundane disappointment that follows. In a diary entry that Nikitin, the titular teacher of literature, writes the day of his wedding, he acknowledges the “storybook” nature of his happiness: “the happiness which at one time . . . seemed to me possible only in novels and stories, I was now experiencing in reality.” But even as he asserts that his happiness is real and not the illusory result of looking at his life as if it were a novel, he uses a metaphor for happiness that ironically makes us think of a book (especially since he is, as he writes this entry, holding one in his hand): “I was now, as it were, holding [happiness] in my hands.” As this metaphor subtly implies, the happiness he feels on his wedding day is based on an illusion and cannot last. Indeed, in the fourteen pages that follow the story’s climax, we realize that the wedding was a false climax, for within a year, Nikitin begins to find himself bored by “their quiet domestic happiness” : it now yields him “only sensations so monotonous” that he feels the desire to “escape” and start “a new life.” It is clear, however, that no new life is possible for Nikitin—that, too, is an illusion—and we realize that the life to which Chekhov has returned him will be one extended anticlimax of sorrow and regret for the loss of a happiness that was never real in the first place.

The climax “The Story of an Unknown Man” builds toward—the narrator’s transformation into a new person—also occurs long before the end of the story, and the subsequent events likewise deflate that climax and extend the character’s anticlimactic return to the “small print” of life. This is one of Chekhov’s masterpieces, nearly as complex and successful as his other long masterpiece, “Ward No. 6.” In the story’s climactic scene, the anonymous narrator, who is serving as a footman to a man named Orlov merely to gain access to Orlov’s father, a political enemy he intends to murder, finally gets his chance to kill his enemy. He is alone in the house with Orlov’s father and could easily kill him and escape. But he doesn’t. Instead, he says,

I prodded myself and clenched my teeth, trying to squeeze from my soul at least a drop of my former hatred; I remembered what a passionate, stubborn, and indefatigable enemy I had been still recently . . . But it’s hard to strike a match on a crumbling wall. The sad old face and the cold gleam of the stars [on his uniform] called up only petty, cheap, and useless thoughts about the frailty of all earthly things, about the proximity of death . . .

And after the old man leaves, he ponders his sudden change: “It was no longer possible to doubt it: a change had taken place in me, I had become different. . .” And he responds to his transformation with euphoric anticipation of a brand-new life, one full of innumerable possibilities. He says,

How I wanted to live! I was ready to embrace and pack into my short life all that was accessible to man. I wanted to talk, and read, and pound with a hammer somewhere in a big factory, and stand watch, and till the soil. I was drawn to Nevsky Prospect, and to the fields, and to the sea—wherever my imagination could reach.

This is where most writers would have ended the story, but Chekhov immediately shifts his concerns from his protagonist’s change to the questions it raises about the rest of his life: “Who am I now? What am I to think about, and what am I to do? Where am I to go? What am I living for?” The story continues for thirty-five more pages, tracing the long, anticlimactic remainder of his life, which consists of the gradual shutting-down of the possibilities for a new life that he imagined during the story’s climactic moment. The story ends with the narrator, near the end of his life, disappointed and disillusioned. The questions his climactic change raised so many years ago remain unanswered, and he is still an unknown man, even to himself.

12. Shifts in Address, Tense, and/or Point of View
So far we have been talking chiefly about ways that Chekhov’s endings subvert the formal expectations of a traditional plot. Now I would like to point out three ways his endings subvert the technical expectations that his stories have previously established: by abruptly changing the audience addressed, the tense, and/or the point of view. In the final paragraph of “The House with the Mezzanine,” for example, the narrator suddenly stops speaking to us and addresses his lost love Zhenya by her nickname: “Missyus, where are you?” The startling shift conveys the intensity of the narrator’s sense of loss far more strongly that merely stating, “I wish I knew where Zhenya was” possibly could. “A Boring Story” likewise ends with its narrator suddenly addressing his lost love, but more significantly the ending also shifts to past tense, a shift which reveals the overwhelming sense of loss that he has tried to stave off throughout the story by using the present tense to describe past events. Conversely, “Expensive Lessons” shifts to the present tense for its final paragraph, a shift that suggests the protagonist, a scholar whose failed attempts to learn French have been chronicled in past tense, will continue to fail no matter how long he takes lessons, just as his attempts to win the love of his teacher will also continue to fail.As effective as Chekhov’s shifts in address and/or tense are, his shifts in point of view are far more dramatic and powerful. The early story “A Trifle from Real Life” is a particularly effective example. For the bulk of this story, the third-person narrator reports the thoughts and feelings of a man named Nikolai, who discovers during a conversation with his lover’s eight-year-old son Aliosha that the boy has been secretly seeing his father against his mother’s wishes. Although Nikolai promises not to reveal this secret to the boy’s mother, as soon as she returns home, he does. Then, in the story’s final sentence, Chekhov abruptly shifts into Aliosha’s point of view: “This was the first time in his life that he had come roughly face to face with deceit; he had never imagined till now that there were things in this world besides pastries and watches and sweet pears, things for which no name could be found in the vocabulary of childhood.” By shining the spotlight of point of view on Nikolai until the end, Chekhov forces us to make the same mistake Nikolai does: the mistake of assuming that it is the adult’s experience that is important, not the child’s. By shifting to Aliosha’s point of view, Chekhov reveals that the story is not really about Nikolai and his trifling grievance but about Aliosha and his devastating discovery of an adult’s capacity for duplicity and betrayal. This revelation allows Chekhov to complicate our response to Nikolai’s despicable act by making us “accomplices” of sorts—for we, too, have been guilty of underestimating the importance of this “trifle from real life” to Aliosha. Thanks to this artful point-of-view shift, a potentially “trifling” story becomes a serious and complex one.An even more powerful point-of-view shift occurs at the end of “Gusev.” After Gusev dies, Chekhov shifts his point of view away from him not to another character but to sea creatures and, ultimately, to the sea itself. In the story’s penultimate paragraph, Chekhov describes Gusev’s sailcloth-covered corpse sinking into the sea from the perspective of pilot fish and a shark:

Seeing the dark body, the little fish stop as though petrified and suddenly all turn round together and disappear. In less than a minute they rush back at Gusev, swift as arrows, and begin zigzagging round him in the water. Then another dark body appears. It is a shark. With dignity and reluctance, seeming not to notice Gusev, as it were, it swims under him; then while he, moving downward, sinks upon its back, the shark turns, belly upward, basks in the warm transparent water and languidly opens its jaws with two rows of teeth. The pilot fish are in ecstasy; they stop to see what will happen next.

When the shark rips the sailcloth in preparation for feasting on Gusev’s body, it releases one of the gridirons placed in the cloth to weight the corpse down. Chekhov follows the gridiron to the bottom of the sea, then abruptly leaps to the world above the sea. Here is the final paragraph:

Meanwhile, up above, in that part of the sky where the sun is about to set, clouds are massing, one resembling a triumphal arch, another a lion, a third a pair of scissors. A broad shaft of green light issues from the clouds and reaches to the middle of the sky; a while later, a violet beam appears alongside of it and then a golden one and a pink one. . . . The heavens turn a soft lilac tint. Looking at this magnificent enchanting sky, the ocean frowns at first, but soon it, too, takes on tender, joyous, passionate colors for which is it hard to find a name in the language of man.

As Richard Bausch has said, “There is no more audacious or shocking short story in the world,” thanks in large part to “the radical way it shifts in the last paragraphs, from the limited omniscience of Gusev’s consciousness, to a kind of omniscience that includes even the sea and the sky. The way it leaves the province of human thought and action, as Gusev is dropped into the ocean, and enters the animal kingdom.” The purpose of this shift, Bausch points out, is “to lead us into a perception we do not want: the enormity of the world and the universe, and our puny place in it.” Chekhov achieves this effect not only by shifting the point of view to nature but by personifying nature. In the story’s opening scene, Pavel, one of the other men in the ship’s infirmary, attacks Gusev for his ignorant personification of the wind, but in the story’s ending, Chekhov himself goes well beyond Gusev’s use of personification, conveying the pilot fish and shark’s points of view toward Gusev’s sinking corpse and depicting the ocean as capable of looking at the sky and even frowning. By personifying impersonal nature, Chekhov depersonalizes Gusev, and further emphasizes the meaninglessness of both his death and his life—and by extension, our deaths and our lives.It is interesting that both “Gusev” and “A Trifle in Real Life” end not only with dramatic point-of-view shifts but also with similar comments about language. “A Trifle in Real Life” ends with a reference to “the vocabulary of childhood” (as opposed to the vocabulary of adulthood) and “Gusev” ends with a reference to “the language of man” (as opposed to the language of nature). The implication, perhaps, is that adults stand in relation to nature as children stand in relation to adults—unable to comprehend its language. By shifting from one point of view, one “language,” to another at the ends of these stories, Chekhov conveys his meaning with astonishing power.


In an excellent essay on “the ideology of closure,” Douglas Glover asks, “What is the nature and form of . . . an ending that draws into question the idea of endings?” More than any other writer I can think of, Chekhov explored this question, and his stories reveal numerous answers, virtually all of which serve to “return his characters to life.” As Frydman has said, “He creates endings that overturn the idea of an ending, either by suggesting infinite repetition, or the beginning of something, or the lack of an end to difficulties.”Virginia Woolf has described the effects of these inconclusive endings better, perhaps, than anyone. When we finish a Chekhov story, she says, we feel “as if a tune had stopped short without the expected chords to close it.” But, she goes on to say, the more we become accustomed to his work, the more we are able to hear the subtle music of Chekhov’s meaning and the more the traditional conclusions of fiction—“the general tidying up of the last chapter, the marriage, the death, the statement of values so sonorously trumpeted forth”—all “fade into thin air” and “show like transparencies with a light behind them—gaudy, glaring, superficial.” His endings, she concludes, “never manipulate the evidence so as to produce something fitting, decorous, agreeable to our vanity,” and therefore, “as we read these little stories about nothing at all, the horizon widens; the soul gains an astonishing sense of freedom.” It is my hope that careful study of Chekhov’s endings will similarly free writers and readers of fiction from the constraints of conventional expectations about conclusions.

*(originally published in
The Writer’s Chronicle, Vol. 42, No. 5 (March/April 2010), 24-35)

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