Anton Chekhov – A Brief Biography (1860-1904)
Anton Chekhov. Brücke-Osteuropa, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Anton Chekhov was a Russian short-story writer and playwright, who is regarded as one of the greatest writers of short fiction ever.
Chekhov, along with Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg, is considered one of three important figures in the foundation of modernism in theatre.
In this biography, we will take a brief look at the life of the great Russian writer.
Anton Chekhov was born on 29th January 1860 in the port city of Taganrog, in Southern Russia. He was the third of six surviving children.
Chekhov’s father, Pavel Chekhov, was a devout Orthodox Christian and the director of the parish choir, who ran a grocery store. Pavel was a physically abusive father whose lying and despotism, according to Chekhov, had ruined his wife’s youth.
Chekhov’s mother, Yevgeniya, was said to be a good storyteller who entertained and amused her children with the stories of her travels across Russia, along with her cloth-merchant father.
Anton Chekhov first attended the Greek School in Taganrog and also sang at the Greek Orthodox Church in his father’s choir.
Later on, Chekhov attended the Boys Gymnasium in Taganrog, where he spent eleven years in school. The Gymnasium was the oldest one in the south of Russia and was renamed Chekhov Gymnasium in honor of Chekhov.
Since it was renamed, the Gymnasium was transformed into a literary museum.
In 1876, when Chekhov was sixteen, his father went bankrupt after having been cheated by a contractor hired for building a new house. In order to avoid the debtor’s prison, his father fled to Moscow with the family, leaving behind Chekhov to sell off the family’s possessions and complete his education.
Chekhov remained in Taganrog until 1879, paying for his own education by selling short sketches to newspapers, giving private tuitions, catching and selling Goldfinches, and by doing other odd jobs.
During these years, Chekhov read the works of Goncharov, Cervantes, Schopenhauer, Turgenev, and other writers.
After completing his education in 1879, Chekhov joined his family in Moscow after enrolling at the I.M. Sechenov First Moscow State Medical University.
Life in Moscow and Early Writings
Upon his arrival in Moscow, Anton Chekhov assumed responsibility for the family.
He supported them by writing short sketches and vignettes of contemporary Russian society. These sketches were mostly satirical pieces of Russian street life, characterized by a much harsher tone than his later works, and they earned him a reputation as a chronicler of Russian life.
In 1882, Chekhov began writing for Oskolki, owned by the Russian writer, journalist, and publisher Nikolai Leykin.
In 1884, Chekhov, aged 24, qualified as a physician. Even though he considered his medical profession as his primary one, he earned little money from it.
During this time, Chekhov found out that he had tuberculosis after he found himself coughing blood. But he chose to keep it a secret from his family and friends. He even humorously remarked to Leykin that he was afraid of submitting himself to his colleagues for examination.
Chekhov’s Growing Literary Career
In 1886, Alexey Suvorin, a millionaire publisher, invited Anton Chekhov to write for his newspaper Novoye Vremya (New Times).
Suvorin’s newspaper was one of the most popular papers in Russia. Suvorin was willing to pay Chekhov double of what he was getting paid by Leykin and was ready to give him enough time and freedom to write and complete his stories.
Chekhov gladly accepted Suvorin’s offer and the two began a lifelong friendship.
While writing for the Novoye Vremya, Chekhov’s output remained consistent and prolific. His stories attracted the attention of literary critics as well as the general public, garnering positive reviews from both sections.
On the suggestion of famous Russian writer Dmitry Grigorovich, Chekhov decided to write less in order to concentrate more on the quality of his work. Grigorovich’s advice instilled in Chekhov a more serious and artistic ambition than he ever had before.
Trip to Ukraine
In 1887, Anton Chekhov undertook a trip to Ukraine after being exhausted from overwork and ill health.
In Ukraine, Chekhov once again experienced the beauty of the Steppe (the Steppeland stretching from the northern shores of the Black Sea to the northern area around the Caspian Sea). Inspired by the steppe’s beauty, he began writing the novella-length short story The Steppe on his return.
The story was published in Severny Vestnik, an influential Russian literary magazine. It is about a chaise journey across the steppe, with the narrative shifting between the thought processes of a young boy sent to live away from home, a merchant, and a priest.
It exhibits the style, qualities, and techniques of Chekhov’s mature fiction for which he would come to be known.
The story garnered much praise in literary circles and among readers and is regarded as one of Chekhov’s best ones.
The Beginning of Chekhov’s Theatre Career
In 1887, a theatre manager named Korsh asked Anton Chekhov to write a play. Chekhov accepted the offer and wrote Ivanov, a four-act play, in a period of two weeks.
The play was produced in November of that year. Chekhov would later state that the experience of producing the play was sickening and chaotic.
Nevertheless, the play was a hit and was praised for its originality.
Trip to Sakhalin
In 1890, Anton Chekhov undertook an arduous journey by train, horse carriage, and river steamer to Sakhalin Island, the northernmost island of the Japanese archipelago and the largest island of the Russian Federation.
Chekhov visited the penal colony on the island, where he spent three months interviewing thousands of convicts and settlers for a census.
The scenes Chekhov witnessed in the colony shocked and angered him. He saw floggings taking place, forced prostitution of women, and blatant embezzlement of supplies. He was also saddened by the plight of children living in the penal colony with their parents.
Chekhov stated that in the colony he witnessed the extreme limits of man’s degradation.
During this trip, Chekhov constantly wrote letters about his journey and the things he had witnessed, which are now considered among his best works.
In 1893 and 1894, Chekhov’s findings (travel notes) were published as Sakhalin Island, as a work of social science, not literature. From his findings, he concluded that charity was not the answer, believing that it was the Government’s duty to finance the humane treatment of the convicts.
Moving to Melikhovo
On his return from Sakhalin in 1891, Anton Chekhov wanted to move to the countryside to improve his health. And so, in 1892, he decided to move to Melikhovo.
Once he had settled down in Melikhovo, Chekhov set up his study and library, which also served as his medical office. Here he began actively practicing medicine, seeing patients who would gather outside his house from early in the morning. He was responsible for the medical care of twenty-six villages, seven factories, and a monastery.
Chekhov also traveled long distances to visit the sick, which left him with less time for writing. But he believed that his work as a doctor influenced and enriched his writing by bringing him into contact with all sections of Russian society.
On his visits, Chekhov observed the poor peasants and their cramped, unhealthy living conditions. And he also observed the upper classes and their indulging lifestyle. He would later fictionalize these observations in his short stories.
During his years in his country estate at Melikhovo, Chekhov renovated the house and took up horticulture and agriculture as a pastime. He planted many trees and maintained the pond and the orchard.
It was while living in Melikhovo that Chekhov wrote two of his most well-known plays, The Seagull (1895) and Uncle Vanya (1897).
Production of The Seagull
Anton Chekhov wrote The Seagull in 1895 and the play was first produced in 1896. It is regarded as the first of his major plays.
The play portrays the artistic and romantic conflicts between the famous middlebrow story writer Boris Trigorin, the innocent and unsophisticated Nina, and the fading actress Irina Arkadina and her playwright son Konstantin Treplev.
In the play, the characters do not address issues directly or expressly, but rather skirt around them. The lines of the play are full of subtext.
The opening night of The Seagull was a complete disaster. It was booed by the audience. Due to this, Chekhov had to leave the audience and spend the last two acts behind the scenes.
This initial negative reception of the play turned Chekhov off from the theatre. But when Konstantin Stanislavski directed a new production of the play for his Moscow Art Theatre in 1898, the play became a massive success.
Stanislavski’s production of the play became one of the greatest events in the history of Russian theatre and one of the most important new developments in the history of world drama.
The success of the play encouraged Chekhov to write more plays for Stanislavski’s Moscow Art Theatre.
Moving to Yalta
After the death of his father in 1898, Anton Chekhov bought a plot of land on the outskirts of Yalta and built a house there, in order to recover from his worsening case of tuberculosis.
The following year, Chekhov, along with his mother and sister, moved into the house. Here too he planted trees and flowers and looked after them. He also received other writers such as Leo Tolstoy and Maxim Gorky.
While living in Yalta, Chekhov wrote two more plays, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard, for the Moscow Art Theatre, which took a year each.
The Lady with the Dog
In Yalta, Anton Chekhov wrote his most famous short story The Lady with the Dog. It was first published in December 1899 in the magazine Russkaya Mysl (Russian Thought).
The story depicts an adulterous affair between a cynical and unhappy married man and a young unhappy married woman, who meet each other while holidaying in Yalta.
The affair, which first seems like a casual one, unexpectedly turns into something serious, as they gradually fall in love with each other, thereby risking a scandal and their family’s lives as well.
The story resembles Chekhov’s own life, as he had fallen in love with Olga Knipper, who would become his wife.
Since the story was first published, it has been translated and published in numerous other collections and languages, becoming one of Chekhov’s best-known works.
Vladimir Nabokov went as far as to say that it was one of the greatest short stories ever written.
On 25th May 1901, Anton Chekhov married Olga Knipper, a stage actress.
Up until then, Chekhov preferred passing affairs and visits to brothels over marriage or any other form of commitment. He was regarded as ‘Russia’s most elusive literary bachelor’.
Chekhov and Olga’s marital arrangements suited Chekhov perfectly. Olga mostly lived in Moscow, while he lived in Yalta, in the countryside.
In 1902, Olga suffered a miscarriage.
Chekhov’s Last Play
In 1904, Chekhov’s last play The Cherry Orchard was published. The play premiered in the same year at the Moscow Art Theatre, directed by Stanislavski.
Chekhov described the play as a comedy, with some elements of farce. But Stanislavski treated it as a tragedy.
The play was an immediate success among the audience and the critics. It is now widely regarded as a classic of 20th-century theatre and has been translated and produced in several languages around the world.
The play has had a great influence on many other playwrights such as George Bernard Shaw, Arthur Miller, and Eugene O’Neill.
Revolutionizing Theatre and the Art of Acting
Anton Chekhov wrote a succession of good, original, and ground-breaking plays such as The Seagull (1895), Uncle Vanya (1897), The Three Sisters (1900), and The Cherry Orchard (1903).
These plays, without Chekhov’s knowledge, revolutionized theatre and the art of acting forever.
Chekhov’s plays expressed the realism of how people truly act, behave, think, and speak to each other, without any exaggerated elements. His plays succeeded in translating this realism onto the stage in order to portray the human condition as accurately as possible.
Due to these qualities, his plays received much praise from audiences and critics for being relatable and true to real life.
Chekhov’s plays also laid down the foundations for acting in the 20th century, thereby revolutionizing the art of acting until the present times.
Chekhov also laid down an important dramatic principle known as Chekhov’s Gun. The principle requires every element in a narrative to be necessary and irreplaceable, while everything else must be removed that has no relevance to the story.
Chekhov gave an example of this principle by saying, “If you say in the first act that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third act it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”
By 1904, Anton Chekhov became terminally ill with tuberculosis. He began to look so sickly that his brother, Mikhail Chekhov, once recalled that everyone who saw him secretly thought that his death was not far off.
In June 1904, Chekhov and Olga set off for Badenweiler, a health resort and spa in the Black Forest in Germany, for him to recuperate.
From Badenweiler Chekhov wrote optimistic letters to his mother and sister, assuring them that he was getting better, which was false.
On the 15th of July 1904, Chekhov, aged 44, passed away in Badenweiler.
Chekhov’s body was transported to Moscow and buried next to his father’s at the Novodevichy Cemetery.
Anton Chekhov is now unanimously regarded as one of the greatest and most important short story writers and playwrights of all time.
Chekhov’s plays have revolutionized theatre and the art of acting by making it more realistic and relatable and by addressing the human condition.
Chekhov was admired by his contemporaries such as Tolstoy and Gorky, and his works influenced some of Russia’s most influential political thinkers such as Peter Kropotkin. It is also believed that Vladimir Lenin’s reading of Chekhov’s short story Ward No. 6 made him a revolutionary.
Since his death, Chekhov’s literary reputation has only grown in stature and he is more revered now as a writer than ever before.