A Calamity by Anton Chekhov
Updated: Nov 28, 2021
Image credit: Mujahid Islam Manji
I first read this story 10, maybe 12 years ago. It stayed with me. In my mid twenties, I knew there was something special about it, but could not quite pinpoint it. Lately I have found myself thinking more and more about it. Chekhov does many great things in it, but what really stands out to me is how clearly he understands the protagonist's self delusion. This story is the case study on how to do good character interiority.
I ascribe to Francine Prose's method of breaking down stories, word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, then the elements of fiction. You will notice that I am not very much interested in the meanings of things/images but rather their effect.
Note that I am working off a copy translated by Avrahm Yarmolinsky in The Portable Chekhov. Here is a free copy translated by Constant Garnett.
In summary, A Calamity is the story of how a young woman named Sofya resists and fails at resisting adultery. It covers the hours between four pm and midnight of a single day, a relatively short period for a short story, and is set in a holiday town in Russia during the summer. The story has seven scenes or sequences:
Sofya talking to her admirer, Ilyin
Sofya at home before her husband arrives
Sofya with her husband when he gets home
The evening's party
Sofya seeing Ilyin off at her door
Sofya accepts the truth
Sofya leaves to go see Ilyin.
One of the first things I learnt about writing short stories was that stories are not just a single block. They have these mini-blocks called scenes, each usually with its own setting and mood. In well written stories, I find that each scene is carefully ochestrated to further or complicate the core or heart of the story. To me the core of A Calamity, the thing that most interests Chekhov is this: can we human beings resist ourselves?
Scene 1: Sofya talks to Ilyin
Here Chekhov sets up and complicates the conflict of the story. Ilyin is in-love with Sofya, but she is married to Lubyantzev. The complication, as Ilyin reveals, is that Sofya enjoys Ilyin's attention even as she tries to pretend that the attraction is only on Ilyin's side. Once this scene ends, we the readers are left wondering how this will play out: will Sofya admit her hypocrisy, repent and stay with her husband or will she allow herself her desire?
Let's more closely examine the work Chekhov does here.
He uses a technique I like to call "image-based suggestion". That is, he puts images together that evoke something in the reader's mind at a subconscious level. For example, the first line of the story reads: "Sofya Petrovna, the wife of Lubyantenz, the notary public, a beautiful woman of twenty-five, was walking slowly along a lane that had been cleared through the woods, with Ilyin, a lawyer who occupied a summer cottage near hers." A long sentence indeed, and one that is deliberately constructed to deliver the conflict in one shot. The reader feels that something has been revealed but perhaps not what. By putting images next to each other, Chekhov first evokes an image of Sofya standing between the two men, the key struggle of the story; he contrasts the two men using their professions, the mere mentions of which makes us wonder if there is something different in nature about them; he contrasts Sofya with her husband (why mention her beauty and her age); he makes us think there is something odd about Sofya being with Ilyin by mentioing that she is someone's wife; and finally, he evokes an idea of new territory or a venture into a space that was previously inaccessible by mentioning the new lane.
This is a bombshell of a sentence and more so because it appears so simple and straightforward!!! It is even more heightened in effect by Chekhov's refusal to answer the question we want answered: what is happening here? Instead, he tells us the time. Then he talks about the weather. And then he pens a whole paragraph about the landscape. A pacing trick. He is winding us up just a bit while doing some ground work now that he knows he has our attention.
But let's go back to the lines about weather. "Fluffy white clouds were massed just above; here and there patches of blue sky peeped out from under them". This is the technique of pathetic fallacy, weather/landscape mimicking the emotional state of the characters. Can you see the thing revealed? If not, do ask me in the comments. Then one of my favourite Chekhovian sentences: "The clouds hung motionless, as though caught in the tops of the tall old pine-trees". This metaphor emerges organically from the story. The characters are themselves trapped. Notice that the sentences are of mixed lengths. The final one of the paragraph is 5 words long. A punchline. "It was still and sultry." That "sultry" mhhhh.
Paragraph two is of the aforementioned landscape. It mentions a lane cut off by a railway line, a sentry with a gun keeping guard and an old church. Again, images put together in such a way that they evoke certain associations in our minds. But they also do not add up in a simple symbolic manner.
Then, Chekhov lands in media res with Sofya speaking. He has held out on us long enough, so he now accelerates things and tells us what is going on in one sweep. Notice Sofia stirring the leaves with the tip of her parasol. This excellent gesture attached to the dialogue tells us she is a fidgety person, but also evokes the idea that she is stirring up things these two have discussed before.
Notice that "Lord, what can come out of it?" Chekhov reveals Sofya's true thoughts which even she does not realize. This question will reappear in different forms.
How clever of Chekhov to not have Ilyin respond to this monologue. That tells us about his state of mind but also does the work of making us tense. We want to know what he says, so Chekhov holds that back. Like Sofya, we keep giving the man sidelong glances. His only interruptions are a disgusted grunt and a sigh and some muttered words. Which leaves us guessing what he is thinking.
Notice too the use of ellipsis here which tell us Sofya is trying hard to convince Ilyin, stringing together arguments as she goes.
Then something is revealed to us. Unlike the reader, Sofya does not understand why anything she is saying should anger Ilyin. This is Chekhov making use of dramatic irony and opening a path for us into Sofya's subconscious that he will make great use of shortly. There is something quite delicious about Sofya declaring everything is settled then Ilyin taking her hand and kissing it, which signals that nothing is settled for him. She brushes off his declaration and puts on a comanding tone (notice the stage directions. The bench appears in the story the moment she mentions it). I find her annoying at this point because of that tone. And Chekhov, through his third person close narrator, grabs the moment to do the first of his dives into character interiority. Again, what I like here is that the narrator is not simply relating Sofya's thoughts. He goes deeper to tell us what Sofya does not know she is thinking. This is a well constructed narrator with lots of range in terms of Psychic/narrative distance. The unbalance Chekhov creates by giving us access to Sofya's subconscious is deliberate, I think. We are now waiting to see when she realizes what she is really thinking.
Then Ilyin speaks, finally. The choice of verb in the speech tag is quite apt: "began Ilyin". This will be a long speech.
Watch for Ilyin's gestures and how they are ochestrated to make us feel his frustration. Watch for moments when Sofya seems to be getting close to epiphany: when she feels undressed, when she examines her behavior and becomes unsure, when she realizes that she is admiring Ilyin and takes fright. Finally she finds she cannot break away from Ilyin's embrace of her knees. Her subconscious is revealed to her. The arc comes to completion with this realization and to keep the story going Chekhov has her ask "What will this lead to? What will happens next?" She and Ilyin have a moment's conversation about what could be, but the train arrives and reminds Sofya that she has a husband. It is not her husband who arrives though, but life itself with its endless mundanity. The train does something to Sofya that we can only feel. Some truth is revealed to her. Triggering her to leave and in an agitated state that makes us ask, what will she do now?
I think that if I had written this story, I would not have sat as long as Chekhov with this scene. He really peels away layer after layer and patiently.
Scene 2: Sofya at home before her husband arrives
I pick up on the paragraph that begins "Back at home, Sofya Petrovna stood..." This is a great piece of telling. We need no explanation of her state of mind. And so I wonder why Chekhov gives her worlds here: "You vile creature!" she scolded herself. "You vile creature." Perhaps to prepare the way for her even more absurd speech thereafter when she really delves into scolding but also pitying herself. Chekhov so carefully constructs her dialogue that we somehow know she is enjoying flagellating herself. I love the juxtapose of her drama with her daughter's non-responsiveness. Through all this, and especially because of Sofya's insistence that her husband is great, we are wondering as readers what kind of person he is. Is he really "nice, kind, and honorable"? If he is, we will feel one way about Sofya. If he is not, we will feel another way. The story works at an emotional level like a decision tree. In fact, that is its plot diagram.
Scene 3: Sofya with her husband when he gets home
Enter Sofya's husband and he is just another flawed man. I do love how Chekhov narrows in on his eating, something that could disgust anyone. I do also like that the duality of emotional exploration interiority continues here. We, readers, have access to both Sofya's conscious and unconscious thoughts again. When Chekhov writes of the rush of sham feeling subsiding, that is his narrator, seeing beyond Sofya who only feels vexed, exasperated, unhappy and cross and cannot explain why. She starts making conclusions about what she is feeling i.e. that she has begun hating her husband.
Notice that Chekhov employs thoughts as internal monologue in quotation marks where a modern writer might forego the quotation marks and use italics or just incorporate the thoughts into narration. A variety of ways of incorporating thought. What is interesting here is that Chekhov allows us to see Sofya managing her thoughts, carefully. She knows she is beginning to hate her husband, but must couch that in "My God... I love and respect him but..." How wonderfully human. We do not arrive at new thoughts or ways of being in an instant. Most of us chew curd, fight our minds. And so does Sofya. As soon as she realizes what she is really thinking, she tries to run. She asks Andrey to take her away. Notice how she decides to tell him everything in thought but does not in word. We are left with the question. "When does she confess? What will happen when she does?"
Note how Sofya's husband is characterized through his action of eating, his words/reaction to her request (he is unable to register that something is wrong here), his socks (a detail that comes just after Sofya imagines travelling with Ilyin. This is the first time she compares the two men. And it is absolutely subtle. As readers, we can easily miss this development in her mind.). Then comes the bee to intensify her feeling of being trapped and make her redo that daydream even more keenly. And how she enjoys it, especially imagining Ilyin as helpless under her power. She has done this superiority thing before, on the bench, but here, she attaches the sexual fantasy of him pressing her knees. In this story, at least, Chekhov repeats images or has his characters repeat actions or thoughts (something I avoid because I have thought of it as poor writing until now), but he also adds something new to these repetitions.
I do like it when writers manage to make characters say ironic things e.g. when Lubyantzev says, "One must be sensible and only wish for what is possible." Here is precisely the great quarrel the story has with itself. Should we be sensible or should we go for what is really insensible?
The scene ends with a decision. Sofya decides that her husband and she are going to go away as soon as he finds out what is wrong. And thus, Chekhov takes us on an exploration of yet another territory of her mind. Her distress evaporates quite suddenly. Now she feels she is good and virtuous and this sentiment makes her vain. It is such a sharp turn of events, I think we readers are supposed to ask ourselves, "Really? That's it?" and feel that no, nothing is resolved here.
This craft analysis will probably make you wonder why Chekhov dwells so much on the turns and twists of Sofya's mind. Well, because he is a literary writer who worships character and also because that is the whole point of him writing this story. He wants to break open one mind and lay bare its workings. Plot's purpose is to allow him to poke around Sofya's head.
Scene 4: The Evening Party
The first sentence of this scene "When it got dark, company arrived" is excellent transitioning. Chekhov just jumps ahead to wherever he wants to be next. That's something I took time to learn.
This scene is almost all told, and expertly (if you have been raised on the sad wisdom of "Show Not Tell" I urge you to seek out the essay "Why You Need to Show and Tell" by Alice LaPlante in her book "The Making of A Story" and set yourself free immediately. Poor creature!). A few things to note here: one, Sofya realizes that Ilyin is in a very bad state and feels bad about it, but uses this to justify her attention to him this evening and to feel even more superior to him. Chekhov repeats and intensifies as before. Amazingly, he finds even more territory to explore in Sofya's mind. This thought she has been having about how nice it is to be passionately loved by someone who cannot have you is here expounded upon and then transforms into actions that lead us to the climax of the story in the next scene.
I did feel at this point that Sofya needed to be taken down a notch. Perhaps I am a vengeful human being, but at this point, that's what I am sticking around for. I don't know if writers generally think about the emotional payments they are making to their readers are various points in the story, for sticking with the story, but it is one way of structuring stories.
Scene 5: Sofya sees Ilyin off at the door
I get my emotional payoff but not in the manner I expect. Chekhov cannot allow himself to be predictable.
Ilyin's silent simmering in scene 4 is a hole that Chekhov creates to dilate the story's tension to the maximum. We do not know what he is thinking. He has been presented, from Sofya's point of view, as close to hysteria. He has endured terrible behaviour from Sofya. She has mocked him and his feelings. In fact, I wholly expect anger on his part. Rage. So what a wonderful turn of things when he instead speaks tenderly, lovingly, and assuredly to Sofya. He punctures her bubble in a completely different way than I expect. And also manages to bring Sofya back into my sympathies. The end is coming... this time Sofya has nothing to say. She goes back inside and shut the piano automatically. All lies have ended.
Intermission: The title
Before jumping to the next scene of this story, let us consider the title of the story: A Calamity/A Mistake. Different writers use different methods to pick their story titles. I will normally avoid titles that summarize my story and instead go for something interesting and notable from the story itself e.g. a sentence or word. What's great about Chehov's choice is that it gives away the ending of the story. This is counterintuitive. Many beginner writers try to create suspense by keeping their endings until the end. More experienced writers know that if you tell readers what happens first, they will read to see HOW it happens.
Scene 6: Sofya accepts the truth
Scene 7: Sofya leaves to go see Ilyin