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The Idea of a “men in the case” in the Chekhov Art - Veronika Poplavskaya

The idea of a “men in the shell” requires answering one question: does the case triumph over the real life or the real life triumph over the case?

The main subject to research a Chekhov art is a difficult world of a human nature. In the short stories Chekhov observe a life ways of people, changes in their points of view, which definitely affect their being.  Using the modern to him material Chekhov looks at the human problems from the different angles, trying to find the best way to solve them.

In the 90s of XIX century many different changes happened in Russia. The “death reaction” has been change by a “new born moving” in the political and social ideas. During these years the author is trying to solve the problem of carelessness, in a different words “cases” or frames where human try to put themselves to make the life easier. His stories are kind of an art researches in the human spiritual world. Chekhov was looking for a possibility to show that even in a hopeless situation there is always a way to survive, however his stories never ends and confuses us about the logical continuing.

The “case” way of life is really common in the society; we do not even recognize it. This life way is much easier and doesn’t require many dilemmas. You just have to follow some rules, and as long as you follow it you will be fine. The problem is that if somehow life is not following your plan, then you are stock, there is no way to move and even breathe. That is the main problem of a “life in the shell.” All characters build their being based on the sample, however they don’t even know where is the idea of that sample. This sample we can observe looking at Chervyakov from the story “The Death of the Official Clerk,” policeman Ochumelov from “Chameleon,” Startcev from “Ionych,” Ivan Ivanovich from “Goosberries,” Olen`ka from “Darling” and the brightest character from all of them is Belikov from “Man in the Case.” There are more stories based on the idea of “case people” and all of them have no end, Chekhov doesn’t give us an advice how to solve this life problem, he only confuses us, however where is the fight there is a true. I`ll try to look at some stories and answer the question I asked in the first paragraph.

Sometimes I try to imagine the look of the “man in the case” and I see a small men in the small dark box but most interesting is that this men do not even try to get out of there, he feels so safe and quiet there, he is away from life difficulties and problem solving, he is in the protected by himself case, the fake world which is much better than the real one.

The stories based on this idea somehow doesn’t have no action and only shows how the character make some steps on the same spot, those steps don’t bring him nowhere, only make vision of an unreasonable moving. These characters can’t make any changes around them, neither in their own beings, however they want everything goes the way they think, the rules they follow, the ways they go. Their life is so bored and does not make any sense to anybody.

“Ionych” is a story I want to look at first. Chekhov gives us a role of witnesses in the situation where young, fresh, naïve trusting person with a romantic personality became a fat and apathy men. “He slowly begins to lose his color; he turns grey and sinks into the mire of a dull Philistine life.” (Critical essays on Anton Chekhov / [edited by] Thomas A. Eekman) Chekhov draws the typical life way of an intelligent person of his time. At the beginning we observe a young doctor Dmitry Ionych Startsev. He is working hard in the hospital but shortly understands that his job doesn’t have any meaning because there are always people who need help and he decides to run his own hospital to get an income from it. This decision shows us the first step of doctor`s degradation. Startsev gets a very unsuccessful experience in his private life. After he gets rejected by Ekaterina Ivanovna he doesn’t try to keep his love and defend his feeling, oppositely he changes his point of view on his love and explains it as a silly feeling. I find interesting a fact that when going to ask Ekaterina to marry him Startsev was so worry how much money her family will be able to give him. After Ekaterina`s reject Startsev is depressed for only three days and then he begins to build a “wall” to protect him from other feelings and worries.

Startsev sees that the best protection from the all life difficulties is money. He begins to save it. As a reader I didn’t catch the point where Startsev reborn into Ionych, who bothers by people in the hospital, doesn’t have any interest except money, gets fat and disgusting. “The spirit of greedy and senseless money-grabbing seizes him; he finally loses the image and likeness of a human being and even is given specifically Philistine nickname: “Ionych.” This entire show lifelong dying of a man`s humanity had to be shown on the background of a colorless, dull, pitiful, Philistine environment which drags everyone imperiously into its own morass.” (Critical essays on Anton Chekhov / [edited by] Thomas A. Eekman) His “case” closed himself without any chance to get out, lets Ionych to be a prisoner of his own money. The only question I came up with is: Why Startsev is saving his money, buying property and working for two hospitals at the same time? Thru the story we observe Startsev`s transformation:”Startsev has grown even stouter, he breathes heavily and now walks with his head thrown back. When he rides in the troika with bells, fat and red in the face, and Panteleimon, also fat and red in the face with his thick beefy neck, sits on the box, extending his arms stiffly in front of himself as they were made of wood, and shouts to those he meets “Keep to the r-r-right” it is an impressive picture, and it seems that it is not a moral being driven, but a pagan god.” (IX, 302)

Startsev is inertly acted “case in the case” which doesn’t have any thoughts about idea of his life. Startsev doesn’t enjoy his job and only smile when comes home after the work day and take out the money from his pockets. He is so happy that he didn’t get marry with Ekaterina. He has so much money and property now, what can be compared to this? I don’t think that Dmitry Startcev was a silly man. He understands what`s going on with him – but this only make him go deeply into his “case.” He can blame only himself for his life, he hasn’t done anything to change his life and from the beginning he was a lazy man, interested in material more than spiritual.

There is another interesting story which represents the idea of “case people.” It is a tragically ended story “Gooseberries.” This story shows how small and meaningless can be the human dream, the dream that lies down as a general life idea of Nicolai, the main character of the story. Nicolai has a dream to live in his own house, enjoying the quietness and goodness of country life. During many years this dream was almost impossible to become a true, but he was doing his best to get it. Here is an interesting fact: the main attribute of his happy dream was Gooseberries, the plain garden berry. To get his dream Nicolai doesn’t eat enough, doesn’t buy cloth, he looks as a homeless person, just saving all the money he makes in the bank. He was very greed. To get closer to his dream Nicolai marries an old and ugly woman. She dies of hunger. Nicolai never thinks that it was his guilt. He was guilty in her unhappy life but also in her death.

Finally his dream smiles to him. He buys an estate and changes totally from a poor and small government official to a very important property holder. He looks so happy with his life, so proud of himself. His dream is true now, what can make him happier? Right, we should be also happy for our character, but wait… How did he get it? Was it the best way to build his dream? I don’t think so. He puts his life to get a small estate, he killed his wife for it and he lived such a disgusting life to buy this piece of land. His spiritual life doesn’t have any saint points. He is not able to respect, be sorry or love. The only love he has is a dream to buy a house. Thoughts of material success closed his eyes for many years. However he gets punished for it by his spiritual degradation. He is losing a normal human look and becomes a man without any ideals, which doesn’t have kindness and has no idea of human feelings.

The name of the story has a very deep meaning. The whole life of the government official Nicolai has gone for the only reason to enjoy of sour Gooseberries. Isn’t it a terrible tragedy of a man which makes us seriously thinks of meaningless the same life being? Anyway, looking at human vices, Chekhov tells us about an opportunity to survive. On the opposite site of Nicolai Chekhov puts his brother Ivan Ivanych. How different can brothers be! Ivan is totally opposite. He has different points of view and priorities in his life. Thru his words Chekhov says “Do not get tired of doing well to people..,” however he is so weak to change something.

The brightest story which represents the idea of “case human being” is “Man in the Case” written in 1898. This story represents a social satire, material, related with an historical period and philosophical view on the unanswered questions.

Belikov, the main character of the story doesn’t want to change anything in his life for a long time already. In the life changes Belikov only sees indecisive being which scares him a lot.

It is why he always wants to cover himself by some case, trying to protect his life from all changes. He keeps everything packed, either his life. He fully hates present and always says many good things about the past or even about something what never took a place. Even his profession is a teacher of a very old language Greek, what very brightly represents his points of view. Belikov`s mind is closed to others. He puts all of his thoughts in the case. If in fact Belikov tyrannically imposed his will on others, his poor reputation among the townspeople would be justified. The story reveals that Belikov was hardly a willful character. In fact, he was a meek, frightened recluse who almost never ventured out of his own private world. He is interesting only in the books or newspapers that prohibit something. He likes it because in the prohibition everything is so straightforward, “cased.”

That is an ideally packed life in the Belikov vision of it. Another thing is also very strange. He lives into his “case,” and nothing is wrong with that as long as he doesn’t bother others, but story shows us that it doesn’t happen this way. Belikov puts his rules on everybody he communicates with.  He does it without any recognition that he pushes others and tries to close everybody around into the same case. Belikov is against of everything new, bright, always afraid of something happened and the management will find out it. His life is hopeless, even lifeless. The “case” closes his brain and stops any positive emotions at the beginning. This dark “case” can`t handle any light, that’s why Belikov never has any entertainment in his life. Working in the school he thinks that he suppose to be in a friendly relationship with other colleagues and visit them regularly at their homes.

He is coming to them and quietly sits into the corner and never says anything, thinking that this way he is doing a good action as a friend. Obviously, nobody likes him, but he is not looking for any love from others. However, we see how in this empty heart person opens up some feelings to Varvara. Anyway, he is afraid of something happened and he starts to think a lot about the reasons of this relationship. Their relationships are very interesting. It looks that Varvara somehow melted iced heart of Belikov. But it was not. When Belikov sees Varvara ride a bicycle in public with her brother he gets so angry. He is not able to forgive anything what is not following his rules, even the person he loves. It seems stupid to blame a woman riding bicycle. Everybody can do whatever, as long as it doesn’t touch others freedom. He likes Varvara, he actually thinks of marriage, but because everything happened so fast he decides to wait. He was not expecting love at this time. He is preparing so long for everything, and it makes all problems go away by itself, why to solve it? Reaction of Belikov on all the problems is very painful for him. He is so weak. He feels so bad when find out the caricature or when Varvara sees him felling down from the stairs. These worries break up his “case” and it equals to the death in the real meaning of this word.

Why does Belikov die? The reason of his death is a chock. He meets something he was not expecting to meet. He was humbled, trampled and ridiculed. His death brought some freedom to people. However in was not for that long. At the end of the story Chekhov offers us some ideas of that “case” is a more common object than we can imagine. The life in the city, work in the office, playing golf – isn’t it a case we put ourselves - points the author. We live our lives in the community of lazy, silly people, listen them, sometimes agree with them – isn’t it the “case?”

We have to accept that it is so difficult to see a border of this “case.” Life becomes unreal, uncolored and bored. “Man in the Case” shows us how “shell” can affect human minds and do not allow people to think the way they want. However, the death of Belikov proves that it is still possible to win over “cases.” Anyway, it requires a serious wish to change life and recognize the wrong actions. Belikov held the town hostage for fifteen years, during which time the town ladies were afraid to arrange theatrical gatherings and the clergy was afraid to eat meat during Lent or to play cards. Finally to get out of Belikov prohibitions people needed only ridicule on him and he became unable to manage their minds with his rules. Belikov finally gets his “hidden goal” after his death, he finally relaxed and his face gets soft smile, he lies in the coffin like in the case without any need to get out.

At the composition of every story we don’t see any culmination. The finals of each story are open. Leaving the end open Chekhov allows us to think of continuing. Author is so deeply concentrates us on the spiritual worries of our characters, transporting their feelings to us. In the almost every Chekhov story, which is telling about people, who live the “case,” the real life triumph over the “case,” where people try to put themselves. There will be definitely many people like Belikov or Ionych who will get a feeling that during the whole life they haven’t done anything except following the rules and frames built by them. The life in the case surely makes people be lonely until the end of their life. Nobody will be wishing to help them in their elder age. We observed how silly our “shell” characters die, and probably their death was the only way for them to get relaxed. I think the way how the characters die proves the triumph of the real life over the “cases.” Chekhov tests his characters by an action but no one of them can handle this test. However the author doesn’t love the belief in the character and tries to investigate his behavior and mind. Chekhov writes about a deep tragedy of people, tragedy which doesn’t have a boarder and imagines as a meaningless. The characters couldn’t find a way from the difficult live situations and as a result just broke their lives.


    © V. Poplavskaya

    Thanks to Veronika Poplavskaya for this material tax id

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The Cherry Orchard
Lady with Lapdog
Uncle Vanya
Ward Six
Death of a Government Clerk
The Steppe




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