“Three Years” by Anton Chekhov … fourteen years on

Recently, Di Nguyen wrote a post in her blog on a work that is particularly close to my heart – Three Years, a novella (it’s way too long to be classed as a short story) by Anton Chekhov. And I was reminded that, many years ago (14 years ago, to be exact) I had myself written something about it on a book board I used to frequent. So I dug it up, and found myself cringing – as I so often do when I read my earlier writings. It is unstructured – jumping almost at random from one point to another, with little attempt at continuity, and sometimes returning to points that should have been dealt with earlier; it makes assertions without argument, and without illustrative excerpts; it uses expressions like “superbly depicted” which could mean anything, really (what’s superb about the depiction? Either explain or shut up!); is often repetitive; and uses vaguely defined terms like “sentimentalist” without bothering to explain what it means in the context. In short, it’s pretty amateurish stuff.

However, for all that, it does communicate what I still feel about this wonderful story, and so, if you have the patience to wade through this, here it is for what it’s worth.

***

The narrative seems to start at a more or less random point. We are introduced to a group of characters, and, as the narrative proceeds, we meet a few more. We follow these characters over three years. Nothing dramatic happens. There is a marriage, a death, a baby dies of diphtheria, and a relatively minor character has a mental breakdown. And after these three years, the narrative stops at an apparently random point, with nothing resolved. On the face of it, it doesn’t really seem very promising.

It is tempting to describe this as a “slice of life”, but that’s precisely what it isn’t. We get a powerful sense of these characters having lived before the start of this story, and we get a sense of them going on living and developing after the end. A “slice” implies something that is cut off from the main body, but that is not the sense we get here.

Chekhov, like Tolstoy, was fascinated by the constant flux that is life: we always change, and yet, somehow, we remain the same. How is this mystery accomplished? The central characters in this story are Alexei Laptev and Yulia Sergeyevna, and the development in their characters is depicted in great detail.

Laptev is intellectual by nature, but, like the “superfluous man” of Turgenev, is ineffectual. He is haunted by the brutality that he, his brother and his mother had faced during his childhood years. He is decent and kindly, and has in effect washed his hands of the family business – a concern ruled over by his tyrannical father – where he knows, terrible things happen. However, as his brother reminds him, he has not washed his hands to the extent of refusing to draw from this business a handsome allowance for himself. Laptev himself is intelligent enough to be aware of this, but too weak as a personality to do anything about it, but this awareness fills him with a self-loathing. He says that life has not prepared him to do anything, but this is not true: he had been to university. His friends include a lawyer and a research chemist. And even Polina earns her own living by giving music lessons. And his charity work is no more than throwing his money around: he certainly does not involve himself in any organising or with any administrative work. The truth is that, for all his innate decency and goodness, Laptev is a weak character, and he knows it.

(At one point, Laptev claims that he was born weak because by the time his mother had conceived him, she was living in terror of her husband; but this is, of course, nonsensical: Laptev, as an intelligent and educated man, would surely have known that acquired characteristics cannot be passed on.)

The start of the story is very lyrical. Here, Laptev, middle-aged and aware not only of the weakness of his character but also of his physical unattractiveness, finds himself in love with the young daughter of a provincial doctor. His infatuation is depicted with the utmost conviction: every single detail tells. When, at the end of the story, Yulia’s parasol pops up again, we remember precisely what it had signified to Laptev at the start of the story.

Yulia, at the start, is stuck in the middle of nowhere with her infuriatingly eccentric father (a character who could have come straight out of Gogol). As becomes quickly apparent, it is impossible even to hold a reasonable conversation with him. When the proposal comes out of the blue, Yulia is surprised: not only is she not attracted to Laptev, she feels a sort of repulsion. But the alternative would have been to rot away in the provinces. And after all, Laptev is a good man…. She could easily have a worse match….

The marriage, of course, is, to start with, a disaster. Yulia’s distaste for Laptev turns to something resembling hate. And Laptev himself is tortured by the thought that she had agreed to marry him only because he was wealthy. Both of them are deeply unhappy. And Chekhov, as ever, refuses to take sides, sympathising quietly with both.

Change is a rule of life: the very act of living involves change – usually infinitesimally small changes, but which, over time, accumulate into something significant. And this is what Chekhov depicts. But Chekhov was not a dogged pessimist: life may be tragic, but all change is not necessarily for the worse. With the most delicate of artistry, Chekhov depicts this apparently hopeless marriage slowly metamorphosing over time. Laptev soon becomes resigned, and Yulia convinces herself that one may live without love. And then, a sort of respect grows in her. And by the end, there is an awakening of something very much like love. It is a wonderful journey, all the more wonderful for being rooted at each step in the reality of everyday life. And when, towards the end, Yulia recognises her old parasol, we do not need to be told the significance of this symbol: it is a magical moment.

Yulia started the story as essentially an immature schoolgirl. Her initial reaction to Laptev’s proposal is an instinctive refusal. And it isn’t clear, even to herself, why she changed her mind. There is the fear of being stuck for ever in a backwater, of wasting her life away; there is also the fear of wronging Laptev, who is, of course, a decent man. But whatever the reason, she is not mercenary, and feels affronted when that charge is made. After the marriage, she finds herself getting on well with her husband’s friends, though not with her husband himself. The chapter where she returns to her village could almost be a short story in itself: she suddenly realises the extent to which she had outgrown her old surroundings. And once she receives that telegram from her husband’s friends, she realises where her true home is. And it is, to her surprise, a joyful realisation.

Towards the end, this once immature schoolgirl, having undergone loss and grief, is now sufficiently mature to lead her husband: it is she who encourages Laptev to face his demons, and accept his responsibilities; it is she who re-establishes relations with her difficult father-in-law.

Although Yulia and Laptev are at the centre of this novel, it is, nonetheless, an ensemble piece. Each of its many characters is individually characterised, whether they are Gogolian grotesques like Yulia’s father or the various people at the Laptevs’ warehouse, or whether they are real, three-dimensional figures such as Laptev’s sister and her irresponsible husband. One of the most striking of these figures is the embittered Polina, who makes a show of her struggles as a badge of defiance. And what a wonderful moment that is towards the end when Polina thinks Yulia is eavesdropping, and Laptev, who had once confessed to Polina how unhappy he is with his marriage, feels offended on his wife’s behalf.

Even characters we think are merely incidental take on unexpected prominence. As with Tolstoy, Chekhov found all his characters interesting. The scene where the mistress of Laptev’s brother-in-law comes to him in desperation I find particularly poignant.

Each milieu is depicted with such economy and such artistry, that one hardly notices the technique. There aren’t any extended descriptions of the village, for instance, and yet I can picture it perfectly. The family business and the various goings-on in the warehouse are depicted with a few bold strokes. The depiction of Laptev’s father is particularly striking: he is a tyrannical patriarch, a tremendously powerful personality who is now becoming increasingly frail with age. He only appears in a couple of scenes or so, and yet the strength of his personality is apparent throughout.

And there’s Laptev’s brother Fyodor, with his exaggerated pietistic ways. He is someone who has had the same upbringing as Laptev, with all the neglect and the beatings. But he clearly isn’t as intelligent as his brother. But unlike Alexei, he has become involved in the family business; and, given his lack of intelligence, he is, we may guess, not very good at it. He has found a refuge from all this in a sort of sentimental religiosity, devoid of any real thought: the pamphlet he reads to Laptev is a mere litany of sentimental clichés. It isn’t really surprising that a mind as weak as his, under all the pressures, begins to crack.

He annoys Laptev, who can see in his ugliness an image of his own. And I think the climactic point of the story comes in that almost unbearable scene where Laptev’s brother has a breakdown. Even on repeated readings, I find quite shocking that scene where he asks for water, and bites off a bit from his glass.

Chekhov’s writing is unconventional in many ways. It seems extraordinary that such detailed development of so many characters could be squeezed into a mere hundred pages, but no character seems under-written, and the pace never appears too fast. There are times when Chekhov spends time on what may appear trivial – e.g. a long description of a nocturnal walk back to Moscow. There are other times when a dramatic event is merely summarised in a few lines – such as the death of Laptevs’ child, and the grief that follows. One page that remains puzzling to me is that passage where Chekhov presents a vision of marauding barbarians laying the land to waste. Curiously, we get no indication of whether this is a vision of the past, or of the future. Suddenly, for a brief moment, the everyday lives of these characters are seen in a wider context, a historical context of rise and fall of civilisations. It is a haunting moment.

The ending is open-ended. We have seen these characters develop over three years: how they will continue developing, we do not know. Will Laptev get to grips with the family business, or will he return to type? How will their marriage progress now? We do not know. The future of these characters, as with our own future, is open-ended.

There is a sort of tenderness about Chekhov, and yet, it’s completely unsentimental. And it can be very funny as well. I loved that man at the warehouse who, to emphasise what he is saying, would bark out the word “Notwithstanding!” without understanding what the word means, but imagining that saying the word somehow makes his point. It’s all too silly for words, but it’s funny in a rather weird way.

I first read Three Years as a teenager, and at that age, big sentimental lump that I was, I was falling madly in love with virtually every young lady I met. I remember identifying very strongly then with Laptev. Now that I am much older (though not necessarily much wiser), I can still identify with his feelings. The way Laptev feels at the start of the story is exactly how people do feel when they fall in love, and the fact that Laptev is no longer young possibly doesn’t really make much difference to these feelings. The only difference made by age is that one now knows that one is making oneself ridiculous. And Laptev knows this. But nonetheless, he can’t help the way he feels for Yulia. I do find this very believable. Indeed, I think this is superbly depicted.

But of course, Chekhov was no sentimentalist. Laptev marries because he is in love – whatever that means – but even as he marries, he is intelligent enough to realise that he is doing the wrong thing. But humans aren’t completely rational creatures: sometimes, we make mistakes knowingly, or, perhaps, half-knowingly, because we cannot help the way we feel. It is no surprise therefore, either to the reader or to Laptev, that the marriage is so unhappy. But for Chekhov, this is merely the starting point. While most other authors would merely have depicted the marriage breaking up, Chekhov depicts something altogether more subtle and complex.

Laptev certainly disapproves of the way the family business is run. Indeed, it repels and horrifies him. The tyranny with which that business is run the same tyranny he had experienced as a child, and the very thought of it revolts him. And when he is compelled (by Yulia, of all people!) to face his responsibilities, he seeks to run the business in a very different way. But whether or not he’ll be successful at it is another matter: that’s yet another issue that is left open at the end.

My own guess is that he won’t be successful. It’s not merely that he hadn’t shown interest in the family business: he hadn’t shown interest in any type of business, or in any type of work. He had washed his hands of the business: he didn’t have the initiative or the energy to attempt to reform it. This is not the sort of thing he is cut out for. Yes, Yulia makes him go back to all this, and yes, no doubt he would try to reform it: but I remain dubious. I do not think Laptev has the ability to run a business. I suspect that after a while, he would employ some professional managers and hand the running of the business over to them. But, as with much else, Chekhov leaves all that open.

I find this story tremendously moving. In these apparently insignificant events in the lives of insignificant people, Chekhov seems to capture the very mystery and wonder of life itself. I read of these people of a background so very different from my own, and I nod and think: “Yes, this is indeed how life is.”

11 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Di on July 27, 2021 at 11:36 am

    This story is going to stay with me a while, I think.
    Yesterday I was looking up something & reread the passage where Yulia was thinking about the proposal & decided to accept it despite not loving Laptev, & it just made perfect sense. The situation is not completely the same, but it’s probably like the thinking of Charlotte Lucas.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Scott Bailey on July 27, 2021 at 7:23 pm

    I also wrote about “Three Years” a few years ago: https://sgfbailey.blogspot.com/2019/04/man-will-become-better-when-you-show.html

    Every sensible person I know thinks well of this story. I keep reading about how “unsentimental” Chekhov is, and some readers think this makes him detached from humanity, when what he’s really doing is creating room for the reader and not cluttering up the story with a pretense of his own emotions. Chekhov was all about clarity and showing things as they are. I read, some years ago, a complaint by an American writer, a teacher in a famous MFA writing program, that Chekhov had ruined the short story by eliminating the protagonist’s moment of epiphany at the end. Chekhov did not believe in these epiphanies, and he thought that most writers told lies about life at the beginnings and ends of their stories, so those beginnings and endings should just be cut off. A Chekhov story ends when the reader has a moment of clarity, so there’s no need to give the made-up characters a fictional epiphany. Sorry, I digress.

    Every sensible person I know thinks well of this story. Chekhov knows that we are not heroes, we are clowns, and clowns endure tragedies, and that is what makes our lives painful and beautiful and why we must treat one another with kindness.

    Reply

    • Posted by Di on July 27, 2021 at 7:46 pm

      Scott,
      You would be surprised to hear that a few days ago, before I took a break, Himadri and I had a long argument with 2 people on twitter who said that “Three Years” was cynical (with farcical elements) and melodramatic. One of them didn’t enjoy it very much, and didn’t agree with my reading of the ending.

      Reply

    • Hello Scott,

      I read your post on “Three Years” this morning, and, needless to say, both in terms of content and of style, it is far better than my post above.

      When people speak of Chekhov being “unsentimental”, they really should explain what they specifically mean by the term, as it can have a variety of meanings. I make the same error too: “Chekhov was no sentimentalist,” I say, without explaining what I mean by it. You’re absolutely right, of course, that Chekhov aimed for clarity, and that he was not the writer to compromise that clarity either by communicating his own emotions, or by directing the reader’s emotional response, but, as you go on to say, this does not mean that his works are devoid of emotion: far from it. He knew that the more clearly we can see everything, the more clearly we can see the emotions too.

      I recently spent some time on this blog writing detailed posts about the major plays of Ibsen: I am now considering doing something similar with the plays of Chekhov – the four major ones, at least. I think it’s fairly uncontroversial to say that these two (along with Strindberg) transformed drama, but they were so very different in so many ways.

      Reply

      • Posted by Scott Bailey on July 27, 2021 at 11:35 pm

        I thoroughly enjoyed your series on Ibsen. Absolutely great stuff, a steady stream of searching questions. I’d love to read you on Chekhov’s plays. I could readily muddy the waters with strong opinions of my own! I of course agree about the transformative nature of these writers, giving unidealized images of ourselves struggling beneath the shadows of our ideals, if I can be allowed that clumsy metaphor.

        It’s strange how few people know the extent of Chekhov’s story output. Everyone knows he wrote a few plays that were immensely influential, and many people are familiar with “The Lady With the Dog,” but hardly anyone seems to know that he wrote about 400 stories, at least 100 of which are masterpieces.

        And almost nobody knows Chekhov wrote a detective novel that heavily influenced Agatha Christie. It’s like Trollope’s unknown dystopian science fiction novel from 1882, having sunk from view. Again, I digress.

      • Posted by Di on July 27, 2021 at 11:43 pm

        Wait, which detective novel?
        (I’m dragging down the level of discourse here so I’ll leave, haha).

      • I too find the relative neglect of his short stories inexplicable. The essays in the Cambridge Companion to Chekhov, for instance, all address the plays, not the stories. It’s very odd, especially as he developed into a great dramatist in only the last few years of his life, while he’d been a great short story writer for much longer than that.

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