Start from what is highest
The stories in Anton Chekhov’s “Little Trilogy” make use of a classic framing device: two men exchanging stories. “The Man in a Case” lays this foundation in its opening scene:
They did not sleep. Ivan Ivanovitch, a tall, lean old fellow with long moustaches, was sitting outside the door, smoking a pipe in the moonlight. Burkin was lying within on the hay, and could not be seen in the darkness.
They were telling each other all sorts of stories.
All the elements are there: two people, solitude, a moonlit night. I particularly like the pipe, which stands in for a campfire, but also works as an objective correlative, a physical representation of Ivan’s thoughts—or, more precisely, Ivan’s thinking. The pipe signifies activity. It reappears at several key moments when Chekhov wants to show Ivan developing an idea.
Ivan Ivanovitch cleared his throat, meaning to say something, but first lighted his pipe, gazed at the moon…
Each of the three stories in the “Little Trilogy” uses a different narrator: Burkin, Ivan, and their friend Alehin, respectively. After Burkin’s story, Chekhov lets the pipe communicate to us that Ivan feels unsettled, that listening to his friend has stirred something in him:
And ten minutes later Burkin was asleep. But Ivan Ivanovitch kept sighing and turning over from side to side; then he got up, went outside again, and, sitting in the doorway, lighted his pipe.
It signals the start of his story-within-the-story in “Gooseberries”:
Ivan Ivanovitch heaved a deep sigh and lighted a pipe to begin to tell his story, but just at that moment the rain began.
The pipe’s most significant appearance arrives at the end of “Gooseberries,” after Ivan has delivered a passionate manifesto against the notion of pursuing personal happiness. Ivan’s speech occupies the epicenter of the three stories, a powerful statement of intent around which the rest of the ideas orbit. Nearly everything in the “Little Trilogy” can be considered in reference to Ivan’s theme.
There is always, for some reason, an element of sadness mingled with my thoughts of human happiness, and, on this occasion, at the sight of a happy man I was overcome by an oppressive feeling that was close upon despair. It was particularly oppressive at night. A bed was made up for me in the room next to my brother’s bedroom, and I could hear that he was awake, and that he kept getting up and going to the plate of gooseberries and taking one. I reflected how many satisfied, happy people there really are! What a suffocating force it is! You look at life: the insolence and idleness of the strong, the ignorance and brutishness of the weak, incredible poverty all about us, overcrowding, degeneration, drunkenness, hypocrisy, lying.... Yet all is calm and stillness in the houses and in the streets; of the fifty thousand living in a town, there is not one who would cry out, who would give vent to his indignation aloud. We see the people going to market for provisions, eating by day, sleeping by night, talking their silly nonsense, getting married, growing old, serenely escorting their dead to the cemetery; but we do not see and we do not hear those who suffer, and what is terrible in life goes on somewhere behind the scenes.... Everything is quiet and peaceful, and nothing protests but mute statistics: so many people gone out of their minds, so many gallons of vodka drunk, so many children dead from malnutrition.... And this order of things is evidently necessary; evidently the happy man only feels at ease because the unhappy bear their burdens in silence, and without that silence happiness would be impossible. It’s a case of general hypnotism. There ought to be behind the door of every happy, contented man some one standing with a hammer continually reminding him with a tap that there are unhappy people; that however happy he may be, life will show him her laws sooner or later, trouble will come for him—disease, poverty, losses, and no one will see or hear, just as now he neither sees nor hears others. But there is no man with a hammer; the happy man lives at his ease, and trivial daily cares faintly agitate him like the wind in the aspen-tree—and all goes well.
I love that Chekhov places this statement here, in the middle of the trilogy. One can easily imagine him making it the climax and giving it a triple underscore, but he doesn’t. Instead, Ivan’s idea is granted a generous berth in the narrative, plenty of room for the reader to step back, scrutinize, and question it.
This is where the framing device reveals its power. We might wonder, reading these stories, why so much time is spent with Burkin, Ivan Ivanovitch, and Alehin, who seem to have little purpose beyond lying around in empty barns, wandering the countryside in the rain, and splashing about in an outdoor bath while they swap stories. But by placing each of his three stories in the mouth of a different narrator, Chekhov creates a sense of perspective. The philosophies articulated in each story are, by virtue of the frame, tethered to the personality, bias, and body language of the teller. Ivan’s denunciation of happiness cannot be divorced from the man who paces the room in breathless excitement, whom we see as pleading, almost desperate:
And all this Ivan Ivanovitch said with a pitiful, imploring smile, as though he were asking him a personal favour.
There’s a wonderful friction here. Chekhov makes a strong case for a philosophy of “purpose over happiness” while simultaneously undermining it with his portrayal of Ivan. He takes this dissonance even further, noting that “Ivan Ivanovitch’s story had not satisfied either Burkin or Alehin.” And then, a few paragraphs later, we see Ivan’s pipe:
His pipe lying on the table smelt strongly of stale tobacco, and Burkin could not sleep for a long while, and kept wondering where the oppressive smell came from.
Burkin disregards his friend in the moment, turning the conversation to more frivolous topics. (“They felt inclined, for some reason, to talk about elegant people, about women.”) But Chekhov lets us see that he can’t shake Ivan’s thoughts from his mind.
In the final story, “About Love,” Alehin picks up the thematic thread and takes it in yet another direction, telling the story of an unconsummated love affair he had with the wife of a friend. The pair fail to come together in part because they fear their pursuit of happiness might turn out hollow, with no moral foundation to support it.
And she was tormented by the question whether her love would bring me happiness—would she not complicate my life...
Alehin ends his anecdote with his own philosophical statement, which takes Ivan’s ideas and places them in a fresh context. He describes his final moments with the woman he might have loved:
When our eyes met in the compartment our spiritual fortitude deserted us both; I took her in my arms, she pressed her face to my breast, and tears flowed from her eyes. Kissing her face, her shoulders, her hands wet with tears—oh, how unhappy we were!—I confessed my love for her, and with a burning pain in my heart I realized how unnecessary, how petty, and how deceptive all that had hindered us from loving was. I understood that when you love you must either, in your reasonings about that love, start from what is highest, from what is more important than happiness or unhappiness, sin or virtue in their accepted meaning, or you must not reason at all.
Again, we might think: here is Chekhov’s theme. But in the final moments of the story, he discards it with a superficial image that leaves us to judge for ourselves what is true.
While Alehin was telling his story, the rain left off and the sun came out. Burkin and Ivan Ivanovitch went out on the balcony, from which there was a beautiful view over the garden and the mill-pond, which was shining now in the sunshine like a mirror. They admired it, and at the same time they were sorry that this man with the kind, clever eyes, who had told them this story with such genuine feeling, should be rushing round and round this huge estate like a squirrel on a wheel instead of devoting himself to science or something else which would have made his life more pleasant; and they thought what a sorrowful face Anna Alexyevna must have had when he said good-bye to her in the railway-carriage and kissed her face and shoulders. Both of them had met her in the town, and Burkin knew her and thought her beautiful.
In the end, grappling with topics like love and purpose is too much for them—all they can do is remark on the woman’s beauty and imagine what her face must have looked like.
The characters’ aspirations—and, ultimately, failure—to tackle these themes feels incredibly honest. Alongside everything else Chekhov is doing with these stories, he’s showing us the distance between what we talk about and the actions we take, between our ideals for ourselves and how we actually behave. There are moments of energy and insight in each of these men’s narratives, but by returning to the frame and letting us observe the narrators in the moments between the lines, Chekhov captures something far more interesting and far more real.