Sunday, May 15, 2016

Thoughts on Chekhov's "Three Years"

His imagination had been busy picturing his Moscow rooms

The plot: Alexey Laptev, son of a millionaire merchant, is visiting his sister Nina in a provincial town. Nina is dying of cancer despite the treatments of her doctor, Sergey Byelavin. Alexey meanwhile is smitten with Yulia, the doctor's daughter. Yulia is 21; Alexey is 45. They barely know each other and when Alexey impulsively proposes marriage, Yulia rejects him. Yulia knows she doesn't love Alexey, but the next day she accepts his proposal, as she dreams of Moscow and getting out of her father's house. After they marry, Alexey takes Yulia to Moscow where she meets the rest of the Laptev family: Fyodor, the father and founder of the successful business, and Alexey's brother, who is also called Fyodor. Fyodor Sr has a strong religious inclination, which Yulia shares, and she is taken wholeheartedly into the family. Still, she does not love Alexey and this makes him miserable. At the same time, Alexey's mournful passion for Yulia oppresses her. Yulia is embraced by Alexey's circle and she spends much of her time with Alexey's male friends. Alexey, in turn, spends too much time with his previous lover, Polina Razsudin, a poor music teacher. Alexey turned away from Polina despite how much they have in common because she is unattractive and earnest, while Yulia is pretty and vivacious. Back in the provincial town, Nina dies of cancer while her husband, Grigory Panaurov, continues to live with another woman and the children he has fathered on her. The children of Panaurov and Nina go to Moscow to live with Yulia and Alexey. A year or so goes by and Yulia gives birth to a daughter, Olga. Though Yulia still doesn't love Alexey, she seems content with motherhood and spends a great deal of time at the family dacha, avoiding her husband. It is there that Olga contracts diphtheria and dies. Alexey and Yulia spend even less time together now. Alexey's brother Fyodor is showing signs of the madness that will eventually put him into an asylum, and Alexey's father, who is quite old and going blind, is of almost no use to the business. Alexey spends his time traveling and involving himself in charitable schemes, but against his will he eventually finds himself running the family business. One night Yulia and Alexey speak openly of their feelings, their misery. He blames his unhappiness on her lack of love for him, she accuses him of having shaken her from her religious faith. Yulia visits the nearly-blind Fyodor Sr and tries to get him to forgive his enemies and repent. He ignores her lecture, yet she is moved by his condition and takes on the role of his nursemaid, transferring her and Alexey's household into the home of Fyodor. She investigates the conditions of the workers at the mercantile and begins to demand changes to better the workers' lives. Alexey dreams of escape, of youth, of a different life while Yulia resigns herself to caring for Fyodor Sr and Nina's children; she also sets herself up as a sort of mother figure for the workers at the business. She declares to Alexey, after not having seen him for a week, that she loves him. He is unmoved, which disappoints Yulia. One of Alexey's friends, Yartsev, arrives for a visit. Alexey sees the happiness in the eyes of Yulia and Yartsev as they greet one another as old friends, and he wonders what the rest of his life will be like.

Every man ought to remember what he is

"Three Years" is a theme and variations: the theme is self-delusion and falsehood, the variations take the form of fantasies and lies. Almost every character lives in an imaginary reality, blinding himself to the truth. Almost every page has an example of someone either lying to himself or to someone else. The story opens with Alexey waiting outside a church, idling until the service ends when he hopes to see Yulia. While he waits, Alexey thinks not of where he is and what he's doing, but of his rooms in Moscow, his Moscow friends, and his valet Pyotr. He remembers discussing with his friends that love was an obsession and nothing more, that passion was only physical attraction. One of the ironies of "Three Years" is that Alexey's love for Yulia is mere physical attraction, for he doesn't know her at all and during the course of the story he never gets to know her. But in that provincial town where Nina is dying, Alexey sees Yulia--so much prettier than Polina, Alexey's lover in Moscow--and he is convinced that he is in real, passionate, deeply meaningful love.

The fantasies of every character are introduced: Yulia's father "was a very huffy man, prone to take offence, and always ready to suspect that people did not believe in him." Nina, suffering from her husband's betrayal, declares untruthfully that she is at peace with the ill done her, that "I've grown calmer--it doesn't weigh on my heart." Nina's husband, an unsuccessful and insignificant civil servant, complains about the doctor's abilities and feigns concern for Nina, but only as a way to talk about himself ("he had a theory of his own about the circulation of the blood, about chemistry, about astronomy").

Alexey has no reason to be in love with Yulia, but works hard to convince himself that he does. "She never carries on a conversation with me--I don't know her; but when I'm beside her I feel she's a striking, exceptional creature, full of intelligence and lofty aspirations." Alexey, of course, imagines himself married to such a woman, and projects those qualities upon Yulia. Mostly, though, he likes her look: "She dresses in the Moscow style, and I love her for that--love, love, love her."

Yulia does not appreciate Alexey's proposal of marriage. "He did not attract her; he looked like a shopman; he was not interesting; she could not have answered him except with a refusal, and yet she felt uncomfortable, as though she had done wrong." The wrong is the turning aside of an opportunity to get out of the provinces, to get away from her difficult father, and live in Moscow. "It was true he was a man she did not love, and to marry him would bean renouncing forever her dreams, her conceptions of happiness in married life..." but "there were no eligible young men in town." Yulia builds a shaky argument that Alexey, living in Moscow, would provide Yulia entry into a sophisticated world, and besides, "perhaps what was meant in the Bible was love for one's husband as one's neighbor, respect for him, charity." There is no reason to believe Yulia believes this latter claim. Alexey is her one chance to get out of the country and into Moscow society, and she takes it. She "told herself that to refuse an honorable, good man who loved her [...] especially when marrying him would make it possible for her to change her mode of life, her cheerless, monotonous, idle life in which youth was passing with no prospect of anything better in the future [...] was madness." And so she accepts his offer of marriage. Each of them is attempting to fulfill a fantasy about love and marriage, and each of them is immediately saddened by the knowledge that the fantasy isn't coming true.
The very name "Yulia" had a vulgar sound. He imagined how he and his Yulia would stand at their wedding, in reality complete strangers to one another, without a trace of feeling on her side, just as though their marriage had been made by a professional matchmaker.

He felt himself in a false position right up to the wedding. His love grew more intense every day, and Yulia seemed to him a poetic and exalted creature, but all the same [...] the truth was that he was buying her and she was selling herself.
The wedding takes place in September. Alexey finally enters the church, to buy his bride.

She had no coppers in her pocket now--nothing but rubles

I was going to list all of the examples of self-delusion, falseness and fantasies in "Three Years," but it would be essentially just typing out the bulk of the story. Here are a few:
In spite of acute pain she still imagined that she was getting better.

He believed that he had a subtle, aesthetic temperament, and he always had leanings toward art. He neither sang nor played on any musical instrument, and was absolutely without an ear for music, but he attended all the concerts [...] Kostya delivered a regular monologue: he fancied that he was very successful in imitating Ermolova.

It seemed to him that he would be glad if his wife were to deceive him that night with his best friend [...] and now he had a passionate longing for her really to be unfaithful to him. He longed to find her in another man's arms, and to be rid of this nightmare forever.

"I'm a decent, honest man [...] I have not been always quite straightforward with women, but in my relations with the Russian government I've always been a gentleman."

If a woman protested he always interpreted it as a sign that he had made an impression on her and attracted her.

He fancied that he had a good deal of taste, and that if he had studied he might have made a good painter.

He spoke very circumstantially and convincingly, displaying an unusual talent for speaking at length and in a serious tone about what had been known to everyone long before.

In the evening she dressed a little more smartly and went to the evening service. But there were only poor people in the church, and her splendid fur coat and hat made no impression. And it seemed to her that there was some change in the church as well as in herself [...] now she only waited for the service to be over.
"waiting for the service to be over" is a good description of what the lives of Alexey and Yulia become. They are unhappy and see no way to become happy. Each blames the other for the misery, for the marriage. Over time they grow accustomed, not to life together, but to defeat.
Yulia Segeyevna had grown used to her sorrow, and had left off going to the lodge to cry.

"I feel as though our life is already over, and that a grey half-life is beginning for us. [...] However that may be, one has to give up all thoughts of happiness. There is none. I never have had any, and I suppose it doesn't exist at all. I was happy once in my life, though, when I sat at night under your parasol. Do you remember how you left your parasol at Nina's?" he asked, turning to his wife. "I was in love with you then, and I remember I spent all night sitting under your parasol, and was perfectly blissful." Near the book-case in the study stood a mahogany chest with bronze fittings where Laptev kept various useless things, including the parasol. He took it out and handed it to his wife.
There is no movement away from this sense of defeat during the final few pages of the story. There is movement around it as Alexey and Yulia finally begin to accept that the life they have is the life they have. "My father is blind, my brother is in the asylum, my nieces are only children. I hate the business; I should be glad to go away, but there's no one to take my place, as you know."
He moved into the middle of the yard and, unbuttoning his shirt over his chest, looked at the moon, and it seemed to him that he would order the gate to be unlocked, and would go out and never come back again. His heart ached sweetly with the foretaste of freedom; he laughed joyously, and pictured how exquisite, poetical, and even holy, life might be...But still he did not go away, and kept asking himself: "What keeps me here?" [...] It was clear that he was prevented from leaving by the habit of bondage, of servitude...

...he thought that he had perhaps another thirteen, another thirty years of life before him...And what would he have to live through in that time? What is in store for us in the future? And he thought: "Let us live, and we shall see."
Each of them, Alexey and Yulia, somehow returns to the circumstances they wished to escape: Alexey works in the mercantile where he spent his youth, and Yulia is taking care of a selfish and difficult father. Aside from that bookending of plot, the ending of "Three Years" is very similar to other Chekhov stories ("The Steppe", "The Duel", and "The Lady with the Little Dog") where people are disappointed and confused by life, and are faced at the end with the prospect of having to continue to figure out life in the unknown future, but perhaps now disabused of some of their delusions.

We are talking of the hundreds of talented mediocre writers

Chekhov wrote "Three Years" in 1895, during an important period of his artistic development. The year earlier he had consciously thrown off the influence of Tolstoy and ended a brief time of attempting to write didactic and morally-edifying stories. On March 27, 1894, Chekhov wrote to his publisher Alexei Suvorin, that
Tolstoyan morality has ceased to influence me; in the depths of my soul I feel rather hostile to it. [...] There was a time when I was strongly affected by Tolstoy's philosophy; it possessed me for six or seven years and I was affected not so much by his fundamental ideas--with which I was already familiar--than by the way in which he expressed them, his very reasonableness, and no doubt a species of hypnotism peculiar to him. But now something inside me protests against it: reason and justice tell me that there is more love for mankind in electricity and steam than there is in chastity and abstaining from meat. [...] What it amounts to is that whichever way I look at it Tolstoy has simply passed on, he is no longer in my heart [...] It is as though we have all been infatuated, but now we have recovered from our infatuation and are seeking new objects for our passions.
Erik McDonald at XIX век pointed in a recent post to a passage in "Three Years" where literature is being discussed:
"A work of art is only significant and valuable when there are some serious social problems contained in its central idea," said Kostya, looking wrathfully at Yartsev. "If there is in the work a protest against serfdom, or the author takes up arms against the vulgarity of aristocratic society, the work is significant and valuable. The novels that are taken up with 'Ach!' and 'Och!' and 'she loved him, while he ceased to love her,' I tell you, are worthless, and damn them all, I say!"

"I agree with you, Konstantin Ivanovitch," said Yulia Sergeyevna. "One describes a love scene; another, a betrayal; and the third, meeting again after separation. Are there no other subjects? Why, there are many people sick, unhappy, harassed by poverty, to whom reading all that must be distasteful."

It was disagreeable to Laptev to hear his wife, not yet twenty-two, speaking so seriously and coldly about love. He understood why this was so.
Why this was so is, apparently, because Yulia has been reading Tolstoy, for these are Tolstoyan arguments about the moral responsibilities of Art (see Tolstoy's critique of Shakespeare for details). Chekhov, through the character Yartsev, responds to Tolstoy's demand that art be limited to that which is instructive:
"If poetry does not solve questions that seem so important," said Yartsev, "you should turn to works on technical subjects, criminal law, or finance, read scientific pamphlets. What need is there to discuss in Romeo and Juliet liberty of speech, or the disinfecting of prisons, instead of love, when you can find all that in special articles and textbooks?"
Chekhov, then, takes a few pages of this long story to argue from the distance against his former idol. When Chekhov began to publish his stories with Suvorin, he was freed from the length constraints of the popular newspapers and comic magazines, and he could stretch out, digress, push the narrative sideways into themes not directly related to the central action of the story. Chekhov's long stories are closer to what we think of as novellas now, and given time (and better health) there is good reason to believe Chekhov would've eventually written a proper novel, as he possessed, by the mid-1890s, the technical skills to write pieces of that length.

I explain all that by my being a slave, the grandson of a serf

The other great digression in "Three Years" has to do with the family business, the successful mercantile founded by Fyodor Laptev. This business, and the way in which Alexey was raised in the warehouse as a child, is described in detail.
The entrance to the warehouse was in the yard, where it was always dark, and smelt of matting and where the dray horses where always stamping their hooves on the asphalt. A very humble-looking door, studded with iron, led from the yard into a room with walls discolored by damp and scrawled over with charcoal, lighted up by a narrow window covered by an iron grating...
The details are signposts of misery: "a prison window", "a narrow stone staircase," "perpetual darkness," "piles of boxes and bales," and "no one would have believed that a million was being made out of such trash." Alexey, as I've said, was a stockboy in the business when he was a child.
Every trifling detail reminded him of the past, when he used to be flogged and put on Lenten fare; he knew that even now boys were thrashed and punched in the face till their noses bled, and that when those boys grew up they would beat others. And before he had been five minutes in the warehouse, he always felt as though he were being scolded or punched in the face.

A boy with a cropped head, wearing a gray blouse, handed Laptev a glass of tea without a saucer; not long afterwards another boy, passing by, stumbled over a box, and almost fell down, and Makeitchev's face looked suddenly spiteful and ferocious like a wild beast's and he shouted at him, "Keep on your feet!"

Nothing was directly forbidden, and so the clerks never knew what was allowed, and what was not. [...] Every morning the old man scanned them all suspiciously, and tried to detect any smell of vodka about them. "Now then, breathe," he would say. Every clerk was obliged to go to early service, and to stand in church in such a position that the old man could see them all. The fasts were strictly observed. [...] The old man adored himself; from what he said it always appeared that he had made his wife and all her relations happy, that he had been munificent to his children, and a benefactor to his clerks and employees, and that everyone in the street an all his acquaintances remembered him in their prayers. Whatever he did was always right, and if things went wrong with people it was because they did not take his advice; without his advice nothing could succeed. In church he stood in the foremost place, and even made observations to the priests, if in his opinion they were not conducting the service properly, and believed that this was pleasing to God because God loved him.
What is being described here is more than just Fyodor Laptev and the Laptev warehouse: this is a description of Pavel Egorovich Chekhov, the father of Anton Chekhov, who ran a small shop in the provincial town of Taganrog. This is a description of Anton Chekhov's life as a boy. Pavel beat his children, worked them as slaves in his store, put on great long shows of religious piety at home and in the local church, and eventually went bankrupt and fled to Moscow, where his son Anton supported him for the rest of his life. "Three Years" is, I see, Chekhov's opportunity to symbolically slay his real and spiritual fathers. The irony is that the brutal merchant father in "Three Years" is a success, a millionaire, where Chekhov's father was a tremendous failure who spent years hiding from his creditors as his teenage son sent him money while going to school and working several jobs. The fictional merchant father is lectured on forgiveness, and declares that "forgiveness is impossible in our business."

This all sounds bleak, and "Three Years" is an unhappy story. Chekhov said, in a letter to a young writer, that "all you need for a story is a man, a woman, and a reason for them to be unhappy." Certainly "Three Years" meets those criteria. Yet somehow Chekhov leaves the reader with a feeling of hope. Perhaps he manages that by having the supporting cast awash in optimism. In the words of Yartsev, a chemist friend of Alexey,
I don't in the least want to become anything special, to create something great. I simply want to live, to dream, to hope, to be in the midst of everything....Life is short, my dear fellow, and one must make the most of everything.

EDIT: Erik McDonald has written a response to this post, well worth reading.

All material quoted here is from Constance Garnett's translation, but I am also quite fond of the version by Ann Dunnigan.


  1. as usual, it's hard to know what to say about C. it's not so much that he defies analysis, it's more like every angle one approaches him from is just as good as any other. another way of saying that his work is of universal interest, i guess. you make a very clear explanation of the story, in a Chekhovian sort of way, which is to say that it's complexities are clearly revealed, but the summation including the chance of hope at the end is excellent. i'd be willing to bet that not every reader came to that conclusion, but i understand it and see what you mean. it turns the story into a meaningful description of the human condition, which otherwise would appear to be unremittingly bleak..., perhaps one of the putting-off features of C's writing for many readers... interesting post, tx...

    1. Possibly the hope at the end is a false hope; there is no textual evidence to the contrary. Like much great fiction, Chekhov does not sum up or draw conclusions for his readers; the story is open-ended, pointing in several possible directions.

      There is a lot of humor in Chekhov, even in this story. I just didn't write about any of it. Some of that humor is ironic and pretty cutting, but some of it's just the absurd behavior of a couple of clown side characters, the same sort of clowning you get in Shakespeare or Dickens.

      I don't really know why I wrote all of this. How many people have read "Two Years"? How many people read Chekhov these days?

    2. Ms. Mudpuddle(former english major with a masters)gave me a lecture on C. it's now clear that i don't know anything, or not much about literature; goody, a long, enjoyable journey ahead!

    3. There is a lot of great Chekhov to read. There is a lot of Chekhov, period, so much of the early work is not great, but anything after 1888 or so is top-drawer work, as they say. His long stories are all masterpieces. And he was constantly experimenting with form and point-of-view, so there is no such thing as a typical Chekhov story; the variety was truly eye-opening when I finally sat down and read all of it. And I keep going back to Chekhov, year after year, reading the stories over again. There's always something to discover.

      I begin to feel that Chekhov's fiction has become almost connoisseur work, like the music of Haydn. People have to be convinced that there's a lot there, much more than the general opinion would have us believe.

  2. I don't remember "Three Years" at all. Maybe I never read it. I might write about Chekhov later this week, but I'm still back in the 1880s.

    1. The long stories from the 1890s are all excellent. Chekhov was writing his mature plays at the time, and was working at a slower pace in general. "The House With the Mezzanine" came next after "Three Years."