How Reading Chekhov Can Make You a Better Writer


“Joy” is the first anthologized story in Modern Library’s Early Short Stories of Anton Chekhov and is a good example of how the genius writer came to find his chops. Published in 1883 when he was young and writing satirical newspaper blurbs about daily life, “Joy” is short, blurblike, and funny but also has a seriousness to it that would characterize the rest of Chekhov’s later work, and would eventually make him world famous. It’s a simple story about a young man named Mitya Kuldarov who comes home late at night and wakes up his parents to give them some exciting news:

“Where have you come from?” cried his parents in amazement. “What is the matter with you?

“Oh, don’t ask! I never expected it. No, I never expected it! It’s . . . it’s positively incredible!”

Mitya laughed and sank into an armchair, so overcome by happiness that he could not stand on his legs.

Chekhov is doing what any good writer does at the beginning of a story. Something is happening that is unexplained; it’s interesting, and brings questions into the mind of the reader. A common mistake beginner writers make is explaining too much to the reader so there is nothing left for the reader to do. The more detail, we think, the better and more vivid our story will be. But good writing is more subtle than that. We, as writers who want to motivate our readers to keep reading, must omit spurious detail.

And no one knows better than Chekhov the power of an open-ended question.

Mitya jumped up, ran up and down all the rooms, and then sat down again.

“Why, what has happened? Tell us sensibly!”

“You live like wild beasts, you don’t read the newspapers and take no notice of what’s published, and there’s so much that is interesting in the papers. If anything happens it’s all known at once, nothing is hidden! How happy I am! Oh, Lord! You know it’s only celebrated people whose names are published in the papers, and now they have gone and published mine!”

We come to know that Mitya is not only the type of person that comes barging into his parents’ house in the middle of the night, but he will also gladly give a lecture while doing it. And this will get funnier as Chekhov plays with it:

Mother glanced at the holy image and crossed herself. The papa cleared his throat and began to read: “At eleven o’clock on the evening of the 29th of December, a registration clerk of the name of Dmitry Kuldarov . . .”

“You see, you see! Go on!”

“. . . a registration clerk of the name of Dmitry Kuldarov, coming from the beershop in Kozihin’s buildings in Little Bronnaia in an intoxicated condition. . .”

“That’s me and Semyon Petrovitch. . . . It’s all described exactly! Go on! Listen!”

“. . . intoxicated condition, slipped and fell under a horse belonging to a sledge-driver, a peasant of the village of Durikino in the Yuhnovsky district, called Ivan Drotov. The frightened horse, stepping over Kuldarov and drawing the sledge over him, together with a Moscow merchant of the second guild called Stepan Lukov, who was in it, dashed along the street and was caught by some house-porters. Kuldarov, at first in an unconscious condition, was taken to the police station and there examined by the doctor. The blow he had received on the back of his head turned out not to be serious. The incident was duly reported. Medical aid was given to the injured man. . . .”

This is the Chekhovian formula in its nascent stage. What’s in one character’s mind begins to expose itself overtime as in complete opposition to what’s in another character’s mind. Slowly we realize, at the same time as his family, that Mitya is an idiot. Not only is he written about in the newspaper stumbling around drunkenly in the street and made a fool of; and not only is he not aware that he is made a fool; but not even the injuries he sustained were serious. This is a masterstroke of a comic genius. If Mitya had died in the street this would be a tragedy of alcoholism and despair—one common in 19th century Russia—but he is not even capable of being a real failure.

Mitya seized the paper, folded it up and put it into his pocket.

“I’ll run round to the Makarovs and show it to them. . . . I must show it to the Ivanitskys too, Natasya Ivanovna, and Anisim Vassilyitch. . . . I’ll run! Good-bye!”

Mitya put on his cap with its cockade and, joyful and triumphant, ran into the street.

“Joy” is a very short story which totals just under 700 words—and Chekhov makes the most of all of them. The greatest lesson a writer can learn from Chekhov is how to cut out every ounce of dead weight, but this method does not mean simply editing down to size. The Chekhovian method is about trusting your reader’s intelligence so that they may draw their own conclusion from your story. There is a reason we never know of Mitya’s family’s reaction to his stupidity: we don’t need it for the story to work. Chekhov lets Mitya go un-judged so that we as readers have the pleasure of judging him ourselves. A lesser writer would be tempted to keep going, to keep explaining, but Chekhov knew even at this very early stage in his career that stories are not explanations or even resolutions. A story is the act of using words to paint the anatomy of a problem and capturing what happens overtime to that problem when it is in the hands of human character.



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