When Chekhov’s gun fails to fire

The principle of Chekhov’s Gun is a well-known one. If a gun is shown in Act One, it must go off some time before the end of the play. In other words, there must be no such thing as an irrelevant detail. Everything must serve a specific purpose within the work.

And yet, I can’t help wondering how good this advice necessarily is. If the purpose of one’s writing is to depict some aspect of reality as truthfully as one can, then a fictional world in which there is no place for the arbitrary, the random, the irrelevant, is very far from the real world as we know it.

Although Chekhov repeated this advice several times, one wonders how seriously he took it himself. At the start of the second act of The Cherry Orchard – for many, Chekhov’s dramatic masterpiece – Yepikhodov produces a gun on stage. It never goes off. Indeed, it is never referred to again in the rest of the play, either directly or indirectly. It is almost as if Chekhov is drawing attention to his having flouted his own rule.

I guess it merely goes to show that “rules” are for lesser writers. The Chekhovs of this world made up their own, as and when required. And when a rule previously formulated is no longer required, it is discarded.

The problem still remains for writers – whether they are Chekhov or some teenager convinced he has a novel in him: how does one steer a course between, on the one hand, that air of contrivance that can all too easily appear when the arbitrariness of life is removed, and, on the other hand, the shapelessness that can occur when it isn’t?

Well, I have no idea how to solve this. This is one of the many reasons why I don’t try my hand at writing fiction myself, and why I admire so much those who do pull it off.

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4 responses to this post.

  1. Chekhov may mean that if “Yepikhodov produces a gun on stage” that production must be consistent and complementary with all that follows. I see the same principle at work in Ibsen where everything matters, properly understood.

    Similarly, in the better novels and novellas of Henry James one feels that nothing is superfluous. For instance, the descriptions of facial features, attire and scenery is typically Spartan.

    Reply

    • I’ve seen quite a few productions now of The Cherry Orchard, including some very good ones, and Yepikhodov’s gun plays absolutely no part, not even an indirect one, in any of them. I think that in using the very thing Chekhov had used as an illustrative example, and then subverting it, Chekhov is specifically drawing attention to the essential randomness of things. Chekhov, after all, us full of anti-climaxes, but fir an anti-climax to be effective, it has to be built up to, just as much as a climax needs to be built up to. Chekhov deliberately leads us to expect that the gun will go off: that it is never even referred to again is the very point, and is, I think, a rather subtle gag!

      Reply

  2. Posted by ombhurbhuva9 on May 2, 2017 at 12:59 pm

    Hedda commenced firing directly. Her guns belonged to Daddy. What can that mean? There should be nothing adventitious. Someone might have said: ‘I see you picked up a brace of antique pistols in Vienna, that chasing is exquisate’
    – They still work, I exercise them daily
    – Should I be afraid?
    – Be very afraid.

    But no the painting of the General broods over all the action so they are his ‘pistols’.
    Good rule and Chekov induced some ‘free’ tension by breaking it.

    Reply

    • Comparing the plays of Ibsen and Chekhov would be a fascinating exercise. But I don’t know if I’d be up to it! It would certainly require more effort and energy than I feel up to right now!
      I think, though that Mashable in Chekhov’s Three Sisters is very closely related to Hedda Gambler. They are both general’s daughter; they both feel superior to the people around them; they have both, for the sake of propriety, made an unsuitable marriage to a nincompoop. Comparing the two in detail could make for a fascinating post!

      Reply

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