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Book review

by John McNair

Biblical subtexts and religious themes in works of Anton Chekhov
Mark Stanley Swift

Published by P. Lang, 2003
ISBN 9780820438757

In its scope and intent, Mark Swift’s useful study is more modest than its title might suggest. Wisely sidestepping the question of Chekhov’s personal religious beliefs, it focuses on faith (or the lack of it) as a factor in the life of his fictional characters. Its elucidation of biblical subtexts relates for the most part to the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes (‘the most unorthodox book in the Bible’, 78–9), and its exposition of religious themes concerns itself with those adduced as evidence of Chekhov’s affinities with this and the other books of the Solomonic tradition: the quest for meaning in the face of the ‘vanity’ of life and existential despair, the nature of evil, suffering and love. It confines itself (almost by definition) to works (as opposed to ‘the works’) of Chekhov’s ‘mature’ or ‘serious’ period, devoting closest attention to a relatively small number of stories of the late ’eighties and ’nineties (‘In the Ravine’, ‘In Exile’, ‘The Bishop’, ‘A Dreary Story’, ‘The Steppe’, ‘Happiness’, ‘An Attack [of Nerves]’, ‘Ward No. 6’), with passing reference to other prose works and to some of the plays.

Within these parameters, Swift constructs, defends and illustrates a strong case: that both Chekhov and Ecclesiastes ‘presented a radical challenge to literary and ideological convention of their respective times’: With the same skeptical outlook and the same method of objective observation, Chekhov and the biblical sage made similar observations: changing circumstances make rigid truth difficult; much depends on chance; the world can be described, but not explained…[;] human beings often fall short of their capabilities (179).

There are perceptive analyses of a number of stories – those of ‘The Steppe’ and ‘In the Ravine’ should be singled out – and the contrastive study of ‘A Dreary Story’ and ‘The Bishop’ is especially valuable as an illustration of Chekhov’s view of the common humanity of the unbeliever and the believer. On the other hand, the lack of any but the most cursory mention of ‘The Student’ seems a curious and regrettable omission in any discussion of Chekhov’s understanding of the religious experience.

Swift is not always well served by his editor, as witness a number of unfortunate typographical errors (most egregiously ‘Крижовник’ for ‘Крыжовник’, 177). There are too a few solecisms that should not have survived the transition from doctoral dissertation to published monograph: ‘the dominate (sc. dominant) mood’ (77), ‘forced (sc. enforced) idleness’ (12), and ‘shamen’ as the plural of shaman (116). Such blemishes notwithstanding, Swift writes with commendable succinctness and lucidity.

The serious study of the biblical subtext in Chekhov’s work (to quote Swift quoting Robert Louis Jackson) ‘certainly is one of the major tasks of Chekhov criticism’ (2). In its modest way, Mark Swift’s book shows us how illuminating and suggestive such a study can be.