Thursday, October 6, 2011

Chekhov and Engines of Imbalance

Here is an excerpt from Chekhov's story "The Party." (Translated by Constance Garnett and edited down by me.)

Olga made up her mind to find her husband at once and tell him all about it: it was disgusting, absolutely disgusting, that he was attractive to other women and sought their admiration as though it were some heavenly manna; it was unjust and dishonourable that he should give to others what belonged by right to his wife, that he should hide his soul and his conscience from his wife to reveal them to the first pretty face he came across. What harm had his wife done him? How was she to blame? Long ago she had been sickened by his lying: he was for ever posing, flirting, saying what he did not think, and trying to seem different from what he was and what he ought to be. Why this falsity? Was it seemly in a decent man? If he lied he was demeaning himself and those to whom he lied, and slighting what he lied about. Could he not understand that if he swaggered and posed at the judicial table, or held forth at dinner on the prerogatives of Government, that he, simply to provoke her uncle, was showing thereby that he had not a ha'p'orth of respect for the Court, or himself, or any of the people who were listening and looking at him?

She found her husband in his study. He was sitting at the table, thinking of something. His face looked stern, thoughtful, and guilty. This was not the same Pyotr Dmitritch who had been arguing at dinner and whom his guests knew, but a different man -- wearied, feeling guilty and dissatisfied with himself, whom nobody knew but his wife. He must have come to the study to get cigarettes. Before him lay an open cigarette-case full of cigarettes, and one of his hands was in the table drawer; he had paused and sunk into thought as he was taking the cigarettes.

Olga Mihalovna felt sorry for him. It was as clear as day that this man was harassed, could find no rest, and was perhaps struggling with himself. Olga Mihalovna went up to the table in silence: wanting to show that she had forgotten the argument at dinner and was not cross, she shut the cigarette-case and put it in her husband's coat pocket.

"What should I say to him;" she wondered; "I shall say that lying is like a forest -- the further one goes into it the more difficult it is to get out of it. I will say to him, 'You have been carried away by the false part you are playing; you have insulted people who were attached to you and have done you no harm. Go and apologize to them, laugh at yourself, and you will feel better. And if you want peace and solitude, let us go away together."'

Meeting his wife's gaze, Pyotr Dmitritch's face immediately assumed the expression it had worn at dinner and in the garden -- indifferent and slightly ironical. He yawned and got up.

"It's past five," he said, looking at his watch. "If our visitors are merciful and leave us at eleven, even then we have another six hours of it. It's a cheerful prospect, there's no denying!"

And whistling something, he walked slowly out of the study with his usual dignified gait.

What happens here? Olga and Pyotr are giving a party, their house is full of guests. Pyotr is worried about an upcoming civil trial where he's the defendant. This trial might have terrible consequences for his career as a magistrate. Pyotr has a public persona he uses that is pompous, loud and totally unlike the person he is with his wife in private. His behavior at the party has been obnoxious and Olga is angry with him. Olga has just watched Pyotr flirt with a pretty seventeen year-old girl. In the excerpt above, Olga follows Pyotr to his study, where she finds him alone and troubled. She stops being angry and moves to reconcile with him. Pyotr, however, is not going to admit that he is in any way troubled, because then he'd have to talk about the upcoming trial and he can't quite face that so he puts on his public persona again and walks out of his study.

The whole story works this way, with unspoken emotion driving people at each other in frustration and away from each other in shame. Neither Pyotr nor Olga ever speak openly about the main crises in their lives (his upcoming trial and his unsure place in the government, her difficult first pregnancy) and they treat each other poorly despite deeply loving each other. The excerpt above briefly displays the way Chekhov accomplishes this, and how he sets up a rhythm of the characters moving towards each other and then pushing away, a rhythm he continues for the entire story. As the tension mounts the movements become more extreme and violent until both Olga and Pyotr lose complete control of their emotions. Because Chekhov understands the power of contrast, this emotional loss of control affects Olga differently than it affects Pyotr. She becomes verbally abusive and he is now the one attempting to reconcile.

So Chekhov, in this story, has created a sort of engine which runs on imbalance, where one character is angry at the other's behavior but who that is keeps changing, and characters revolve from their public to their private faces and not a lot happens in terms of physical action but the emotions are always moving, in larger and larger swings of the pendulum. "The Party" is a very active story in terms of character, and you don't notice that there isn't a great deal of action in the way of plot.

Read the whole thing here if you want.


  1. Scott, the idea of creating an engine very well captures what I want to do in my stories. In my mind, the set up in the beginning of the story should work in such a way that it can be let go and allowed to self-propel. I don't think I've ever managed to do that yet, but it's my long term goal.

  2. I always imagine my novels as machines, with moving parts that all lift the reader and carry him from one place to another. My job is to make sure all the parts connect and that the machine actually works.

    One thing I like about Chekhov's stories is that after a couple hundred words you are being carried away in a self-propelled machine.

  3. I've never been able to articulate this well, but I often fantasize about writing this story that works like a self-regulating pathway, so that even after the book is over the story can continue to play out infinitely because the reader has such a good understanding of the rules that guide the machine. It's like being able to see multiple lines of dominoes and seeing how they will intersect even before you push the first one over. I've tried to write some of these things and they end up being very strange. Nothing has been successful so far.


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