Friday, September 16, 2011

Chekhov's "Volodya" and Point-of-View

Toward the end of "Volodya," Chekhov's short story about adolescent suicide, the protagonist finds a revolver in his neighbor's room. Volodya can't name the parts of a gun, nor does he have much idea about how a pistol actually works. Here's how Chekhov describes Volodya exploring the pistol:

Volodya put the muzzle of the revolver to his mouth, felt something like a trigger or spring, and pressed it with his finger...Then felt something else projecting, and once more pressed it. Taking the muzzle out of his mouth, he wiped it with the lapel of his coat, looked at the lock. He had never in his life taken a weapon in his hand before...

Aside from the sad creepiness of the moment (an unhappy teenage boy who feels completely cut off from the world and is putting the barrel of a gun into his mouth), this is a wonderfully written passage. As omniscient narrator Chekhov could give us a precise description of what Volodya's doing, but instead we move a step closer to the character and share his ignorance of firearms. "something like a trigger or spring" he says. Volodya's heard the word "trigger" and the word "spring" but he can't directly apply those terms to the object in his hand. A minute later Volodya "pressed something with his fingers" but he doesn't know the name or function of it; he's just pushing and pulling at the revolver and trying to make it fire.

I'm generally a proponent of precise language, of using the proper names of objects (though not in an obsessive David Foster Wallace way), but I also believe in the power of vagueness, of obscurity. Sometimes characters don't know what they're doing. Sometimes real people have moments where they sort of float above or alongside reality and language fails to connect with the moment. That disconnect can be captured in prose (Chekhov captures it by leaving out detail, by inserting ignorance into the narrative). The lack of concrete language in Volodya's consideration of the pistol reflects his separation from the real, solid world around him. The voice of the narrative has shifted and taken on the characteristics of the protagonist's mood, which is excellent writing.


  1. Yeah, that's some first-rate vagueness. Great limited third person writing.

    I guess the kid knows the word "muzzle" - or is Chekhov cheating, or still slipping into his character's thoughts?

    "Volodya put the round bit that sticks out to his mouth" - no, that probably destroys the tone a little too much!

    I just finished - a number of people just finished - a Javier Marías novel that works on opposite principles. In the tensest scene, the narrator cannot stop himself from going on and on about the correct name for the kind of sword that may or may not be about to behead somebody. Aggravating and, in its way, hilarious; the effect could hardly be more different than what Chekhov is doing.

  2. I'll have to find the Russian version of "Volodya" to see what nouns Chekhov actually chose. How vague can the narrative be while still letting the reader know what's happening? I have no idea.

    Is that the "Your Face Tomorrow" trilogy you've blogged about? The focus on details during climactic scenes is very Modernist, isn't it? It's often used as a delaying tactic to build tension. Me, I often interrupt action scenes with flashbacks, which is also nakedly Modernist.

  3. Yes, that's it. Well-deployed Modernist tools of all sorts, although Marías is also a devotee and translator of Laurence Sterne, so some of his Modernist digressions have earlier forebears.

  4. Sterne was the original Modernist, or Postmodernist, or Prepostmodernist. I often find myself now, like Shandy, "beginning a little ways from my main subject."

  5. Wow, that is a powerful passage. The part that really got me was then he took the gun out of his mouth and wiped it. There's something so real and almost mundane about it that makes the whole thing feel real and haunting.

  6. Davin, I think Chekhov has Volodya wipe off the gun to make you think that maybe he's not actually going to shoot himself with it. You know, he was just looking at it, just being curious, and he didn't want to get make a mess in his neighbor's room. You think, oh he'll put the pistol back down on the table. But we all know about Chekhov's gun, don't we?

  7. It seems to work like a moment of calm. It gives him a chance to rethink everything. It's good stuff!