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Posts Tagged ‘Anton Chekhov’

Fiction writer David Jauss analyzes Chekhov’s endings and explains why they were revolutionary at the time — and what we can learn from them today:

Early in his writing life, Anton Chekhov became convinced that new kinds of endings were necessary in literature.  While writing Ivanov, his first major play, he complained to his publisher about conventional endings—“Either the hero gets married or shoots himself”—and concluded, “Whoever discovers new endings for plays will open up a new era.”  And that is exactly what Chekhov did, both for plays and for short stories.  Even now, more than a hundred years after his death, we are still very much in the era Chekhov opened up.  Chekhovian endings have been adopted, and adapted, not only by the usual suspects — Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf, Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, John Cheever, Eudora Welty, Raymond Carver, Andre Dubus, Tobias Wolff — but also by such otherwise un-Chekhovian writers as Donald Barthelme and John Barth.

Whereas most fiction, past and present, focuses on a character’s climactic change, Chekhov’s stories are frequently less about change than they are about the failure to change.  And even when his characters do change, their changes fail to last, merely complicate the existing conflict, or create a new and often greater conflict.  His endings tend to emphasize the continuation of conflict, not its conclusion.  Chekhov commented on this fact in one of his letters, saying, “When I am finished with my characters, I like to return them to life.” A great number of Chekhov’s stories end by saying implicitly what one story says explicitly: “And after that life went on as before.”

But for all of their apparent inconclusiveness, his stories do have endings; they’re just not the kind of endings favored by previous writers.  They are subversive endings, endings designed to undercut our expectations and, thereby, force us to examine our conceptions about life and human nature.

In an article forthcoming in 2010 in The Writer’s Chronicle, I discuss a dozen ways Chekhov subverted traditional short story endings.  Here are three of them:

1) Anti-epilogues

Like Henry James, who complained that epilogues were characterized by “a distribution at the last of prizes, pensions, husbands, wives, babies, millions, appended paragraphs, and cheerful remarks,” Chekhov despised such endings.  Many of his stories end by simply denying the very premise of an epilogue: the possibility of knowing what the future might hold.  Instead of giving us a pat account of how everything will turn out, he typically returns the character, and us, to the uncertainty of life, leaving us wondering what will happen next.

The fact that these endings leave his characters’ future fates open suggest that, although Chekhov was generally pessimistic about the possibility of change, he was also aware that sometimes lives change in dramatic and unpredictable ways.  Chekhov makes this point explicitly in “A Story Without an End.”  The narrator of this story—who is not-so-coincidentally a writer of short stories—presents two portraits of his neighbor, the first showing him as he was a year before, after his wife died and he attempted suicide, and the second showing him now, playing the piano and singing and laughing with a group of ladies in the narrator’s drawing-room.  Witnessing this change, which he compares to “the transmutation of substances,” leads the narrator to realize the impossibility of predicting what his neighbor’s future life will be like.  Thus, this story without an end ends with the unanswered question, “How will it end?”

2.  Reverse Epilogues

Instead of ending with a reference to an unknown future, a “reverse epilogue” ends with a reference to the known past. “The Chorus Girl” exemplifies this mode of closure.  In this story, a chorus girl named Pasha is confronted by the wife of a man with whom she’s been sleeping.  While the husband listens in the next room, the wife badgers Pasha into giving her jewelry that she wrongly believes her husband has given Pasha.  After the wife leaves, the husband returns and says, “My God, a decent, proud, pure being like that was even prepared to kneel down before this . . . this whore!  And I brought her to it!  I let it happen!”  He pushes Pasha roughly aside, saying, “Get away from me, you—you trash!”  Pasha starts to sob.

Since the story begins years after this scene, which is presented as an extended flashback, we expect what follows to “resolve” the flashback and inform us how the man’s cruelty affected Pasha’s future.   But instead Chekhov abruptly segues into her past.  The final sentence reads, “She remembered how three years ago, for no rhyme or reason, a merchant had giving her a beating, and sobbed even louder.”  By moving backward in time, Chekhov implies that she has been mistreated by men repeatedly throughout her life and that this pattern has continued after this event and will continue on into the future.

3.  External Climaxes

Chekhov sometimes omits climaxes in order to make the reader have an epiphany his protagonist fails to have.  A character may reach a “dead end,” in short, but the reader continues the journey in the character’s stead.  I suspect that behind this kind of ending, which we find most frequently in Chekhov’s later work, is the belief that an epiphany is more powerful if the reader experiences it rather than merely witnesses it.

One way Chekhov creates an external climax is through the use of an unreliable narrator, one who fails to see what his story reveals about him.  In “The Little Joke,” for example, the narrator recounts a “joke” he played on a woman who loved him, a joke he cannot understand—but we can, and do.  He tells of tobogganing with this woman and how, as they roared down the hill with the wind in their face, he whispered, “I love you” into her ear, then pretended he had said nothing, so she could not be sure if what she heard had been his voice or the wind.  She was terrified of tobogganing, yet kept on doing it—and even once went by herself—to see if she would hear those words.  The story ends: “And now that I am older, I cannot understand why I said those words, why I played that joke on her . . .”  The reader realizes that he actually did love the woman and that, despite his refusal to face the facts of his own emotions, he regrets playing the joke and losing his one chance at love.  And the reader also realizes that the joke was ultimately a big one, not a little one, and that it was on him, not her.

***

Virginia Woolf has described the effects of these inconclusive endings better, perhaps, than anyone.  When we finish a Chekhov story, she says, we feel “as if a tune had stopped short without the expected chords to close it.”  But, she goes on to say, the more we become accustomed to his work, the more we are able to hear the subtle music of Chekhov’s meaning and the more the traditional conclusions of fiction—“the general tidying up of the last chapter, the marriage, the death, the statement of values so sonorously trumpeted forth”—“fade into thin air” and “show like transparencies with a light behind them—gaudy, glaring, superficial.”  His endings, she concludes, “never manipulate the evidence so as to produce something fitting, decorous, agreeable to our vanity,” and therefore, “as we read these little stories about nothing at all, the horizon widens; the soul gains an astonishing sense of freedom.”

David Jauss’s fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous magazines and been reprinted in Best American Short Stories; Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards; Best Stories from the First 25 Years of the Pushcart Prize; The Poetry Anthology, 1912-2002; and elsewhere. The recipient of the AWP Award for Short Fiction, the Fleur-de-Lis Poetry Prize, a NEA Fellowship, and a James A. Michener Fellowship, among other awards, he served as fiction editor of Crazyhorse for ten years and now teaches at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and in the low-residency MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.


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When I’m working on a novel I become obsessed with its themes, and look for inspiration anywhere I can find it.  Paintings, photographs, films, poems, essays, novels – everything I take in is filtered through the lens of my current obsession. (I’ve written about some of the visual inspiration for my new novel, Bird in Hand, here and here.)

Recently I opened a file I kept while working on Bird in Hand. It’s filled with newspaper clippings, handwritten and typed pages, poems torn out of magazines, Post-it notes in soft yellow and acid green. One 2”x2” fragment – the bottom of a “To Do” list – has only this, in my handwriting: Don’t worry about starting. Just begin. No story is too large to tell. (Did I write these words, or was I quoting someone? Either way, I must have found them inspiring.)

Leafing through this file, I can trace the genesis of my ideas. The scrap of paper, for example, with phone numbers on one side and Four danger signs for a marriage: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, emotional withdrawal scrawled in black pen on the other. Below this I wrote, “Is [Bird in Hand] a love story or a tale of betrayal? Is it about finding your soul mate, or losing everything you hold sacred? How can the two stories be the same?”

Below are some passages I found in the file that shaped my novel-in-progress –- and why:

1) “I used to think if you fell from grace it was more likely than not the result of one stupendous error, or at least an unfortunate accident. I hadn’t learned that it can happen so gradually you don’t lose your stomach or hurt yourself in the landing. You don’t necessarily sense the motion. I’ve found it takes at least two and generally three things to alter the course of a life: You slip around the truth once, and then again, and one more time, and there you are, feeling, for a moment, that it was sudden, your arrival at the bottom of the heap.” Jane Hamilton, A Map of the World

This novel-– which, like Bird in Hand, is about the accidental death of a child that sets in motion a series of events that changes the lives of the main characters-– had a huge impact on me. My own opening paragraph, I later realized, echoes the beginning of Hamilton’s powerful book.

2) “Those of us who claim exclusivity in love do so with a liar’s courage: there are a hundred opportunities, thousands over the years, for a sense of falsehood to seep in, for all that we imagine as inevitable to become arbitrary, for our history together to reveal itself only as a matter of chance and happenstance, nothing irrepeatable, or irreplaceable, the circumstantial mingling of just one of the so many million with just one more.”Alice McDermott, Charming Billy

Bird in Hand is about four people, two of whom betray their spouses. I was interested in writing about moral ambiguity, which McDermott so brilliantly parses in this novel. If you truly believe that your spouse is not your soulmate, and that your own happiness is vitally important, what do you do?

3) “Close to the body of things, there can be heard a stir that makes us and destroys us.”D. H. Lawrence, Study of Thomas Hardy

That people’s deepest feelings cannot be constrained by social norms or boundaries is an idea I wanted to explore in this book (and an idea that preoccupied Lawrence). Though two of my characters disrupt – and arguably destroy – other lives in their quest to be together, they are oblivious to all but their own happiness.

4) “It is a queer and fantastic world. Why can’t people have what they want? The things were all there to content everybody; yet everybody has the wrong thing.” Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier

My four characters are constantly at odds. Their preoccupations, passions, and dreams are often in conflict. In developing this story, I wanted to give equal weight to each perspective. I was fascinated by the complexity of The Good Soldier, and at how skillfully Ford got to the core of his characters’ motivations.

5) In truth, I did not read Chekhov’s short story “The Lady with the Dog” until after Bird in Hand was published. But this quote (from the Norton edition) is uncanny in its precise application to my story – down to the reference to birds:

“It seemed to them that fate had intended them for one another, and they could not understand why she should have a husband, and he a wife. They were like two migrating birds, the male and the female, who had been caught and put in separate cages. They forgave one another all that they were ashamed of in the past and in the present, and felt that this love of theirs had changed them both.”

At the end of the story, as at the end of Bird in Hand, the characters are on a precipice. Chekhov writes:

“And it seemed to them that they were within an inch of arriving at a decision, and that then a new, beautiful life would begin. And they both realized that the end was still far, far away, and that the hardest, the most complicated part was only just beginning.”

***

This piece, in a slightly different form, originally appeared in Madame Mayo.

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… and why we shouldn’t all be writing novels:

Ebenbach.coverWe are frequently told, by the market and also by the novelists that the market promotes, to revere certain forms of writing over others. The publishing industry by necessity emphasizes profits, and novels sell better than collections of short stories, which means there’s pressure on fiction writers; often we start out writing short stories, on our own or in creative writing workshops, but we soon feel pressured to “graduate” to the novel. The short story is generally regarded as inferior, nothing more than a stepping stone. Yet there is no objectively best form of writing – only the form that suits us best.

It’s an old saw in creative-writing classrooms that content dictates form. This means that certain forms of writing are best suited for certain kinds of material, and not as well suited for others. In poetry, for example, a haiku, with its quiet imagery and its sudden leap, is ideal for describing a moment of insight, and lousy for epic storytelling. A Shakespearean sonnet, with its three quatrains and final couplet, is good for developing an idea in three stages and then summing it up, and not as good at conveying obsessively circular thinking. For that kind of thinking, you might need a sestina, a lengthy poem which repeats certain words over and over.

The same content-form truism holds for fiction. A novel is not just a long short story – it’s a whole other animal. Because of its great size, it’s well-suited to handle complicated plot and structure, and in fact you probably need that elaborate plot to keep a reader interested for all those pages. If what you want to do is shed light on a moment in time, you should probably write a short story, too short for a wildly complicated structure but plenty big enough to illuminate something powerfully. And so the short story is no stepping stone – not any more than a haiku is a warm-up for writing a sonnet. A short story is a vehicle for a certain kind of content, content that won’t be able to find a home anywhere if the only things we write and read are novels. Some authors – including Raymond Carver, Anton Chekhov, Alice Munro and Grace Paley – write for a lifetime without ever needing to “graduate” from short fiction. (And some novelists never feel the need to write a short story.)

This is easy to say, but hard to remember. Several years ago I worked on a manuscript about a new single mother struggling to adjust to parenthood. To make it a novel I intensified this mother’s feelings and embedded them in an elaborate plot, to the point where this woman was behaving in crazy and unrealistic ways. I hadn’t set out to study someone flirting with madness – I had set out to study a person struggling the way many new parents do. But because I felt it had to be a novel, I badly distorted my material.

As soon as I realized my mistake I returned to a more appropriate form; I am now writing short stories about the many diverse experiences of parenthood. Each one is a window on a feeling, a situation, a moment. In writing them as short stories, I am saying what I need to say, how I need to say it.

If we listen to the voices telling us that certain kinds of writing are preferable because they’re more marketable, we may find it impossible to say what we need to say. If we’re going to listen to any voices, I say let’s listen to our own – voices that tell us to find our form and, without apology, make ourselves at home there.

David Harris Ebenbach’s first book of short stories, Between Camelots, won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize and the GLCA New Writer’s Award.  His short fiction has been published in the Antioch Review, the Greensboro Review, and Crazyhorse, his poetry in Artful Dodge, Mudfish, and the Journal of the American Medical Association, and he wrote a chapter, “Plot: A Question of Focus,” for Gotham Writers Workshops’ book Writing FictionRecently awarded a MacDowell Colony fellowship, Ebenbach teaches Creative Writing at Earlham College.  Find out more at www.davidebenbach.com.

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