“He had gone to the theatre, you see, the drunken blockhead, not for the sake of art, the play, but for elevation! He wanted noble sentiments.”
As a book recommendation for the book club “Virtual Book Lair,” I chose Chekov’s “A Boring Story” to start with simply because the title of the story aroused in me the
curiosity to explore the term “Boring” which should, in ordinary circumstances, thwart a reader yet fascinated and impelled me to discover the very reason I was intrigued by it. Spoilers ahead.
“I am myself as dingy and unsightly as my name is brilliant and splendid”
And thus begins Anton Chekov’s “A Boring Story”. Part autobiographical, Chekov masterfully creates a narrator too isolated and self-absorbed yet remarkable enough to wind up the reader in his unnecessary meticulous details of less than ordinary characters around him, his bouts of insomnia and rants on science versus arts where sometimes the conversations might run deep but on the narrator’s part, lack the required conviction and interest to fully make the reader believe in his stance.
Our narrator, Nikolay Stepanovitch, is an aging professor, “a chevalier and privy councilor” who has “many Russian and foreign decorations”. He might seem insular at first glance, indeed he is remote or rather has induced seclusion upon himself from his family and friends. His egotistic praises of himself are almost always followed by a declaration of self-loathing which might indicate an identity crisis.
“My fervour, the literary skill of my exposition, and my humour, almost efface the defects of my voice, though it is harsh, dry, and monotonous as a praying beggar’s.”
Add to this his hypocritical statements, amusing estimations of certain characters: “He has prominent eyes like a crab’s, his cravat is like a crab’s neck, and I even fancy there is a smell of crab-soup about the young man’s whole person”; his denial of senility, preoccupations with death, and persistent complaining either of the pleasures of theatre or stringy financial situation – nowhere does our narrator come off as a hero. But neither is he an anti-hero.
RELATIONSHIP WITH WIFE AND DAUGHTER
He is a fibrous man, who takes a lowly opinion of everyone around him, except perhaps his adopted daughter Katya with whom he shares a warm, sympathetic paternal relationship. Many times Katya calls him her only friend, but this sentiment is never extended on his part. He devoutly gives her money time and time again, despite complaining of the extravagances of his own daughter Liza and rebuking her for refusing to subdue pleasures to ease the burden of poverty on him. Of course, this is all meant for the reader as Nikolay does not utter a single word of this to his family, despite being in possession of lavish amenities such as his fur coat.
The narrator’s relationship with Katya as opposed to his own family, especially his wife takes a strained view.
“Daily experience might have taught my wife that constantly talking of our expenses does not reduce them, but my wife refuses to learn by experience, and regularly every morning discusses our officer son, and tells me that bread, thank God, is cheaper, while sugar is a halfpenny dearer—with a tone and an air as though she were communicating interesting news.”
As a man of science, he deems his wife to possess a low mental calibre than himself – someone who is only engrossed in humble, menial duties of household, worrying about inconsequential situations such as daily provisions and their daughter’s future. At one point in the story he even confesses to having lost the woman whom he married in the first place, lamenting what she has become now.
RELATIONSHIP WITH KATYA
Weighing up Nikolay’s relationship with Katya whose company he enjoys immensely and is enamoured by her innocent curiosity as a child, he refers to his wife in a somewhat callous tone in the following lines.
“She would sit somewhere out of the way, with her face tied up, invariably watching something with attention; whether she watched me writing or turning over the pages of a book, or watched my wife bustling about, or the cook scrubbing a potato in the kitchen”
In his arrogance, Nikolay refers to himself in reference to scholarly pursuits such as writing or turning over the pages of a book but harshly refers to his wife bustling about, perhaps indicating her pointless endeavours around the house. Even the cook doesn’t escape his measly judgement, as the act of scrubbing a potato in the kitchen seems extremely commonplace and witty. He acknowledges the hatred his wife and daughter feel for Katya “Varya and Liza both hate Katya. This hatred is beyond my comprehension, and probably one would have to be a woman in order to understand it.”
Despite having polar opposite inclinations, Nikolay as a man of science and Katya as a woman of arts, they are both wound together by the same thread of self-imposed confinement from the rest of the world. Although Nikolay has some bitter personal opinions about the theatre and stage, not once does he censures Katya for opting such a vocation. Even till the very end he insists her to reconcile with acting despite her being involved in a tragic relationship with a fellow actor that leaves her with a dead baby out of wedlock.
“She has ceased to ask me questions now, as though she had experienced everything in life and looked for nothing new from it.”
Similarly Katya is able to understand Nikolay on a level his own family is unable to. They mutually understand each other’s shortcomings. Following is a true estimation of Nikolay’s character made by Katya which also reinforces the idea of his indifference which is explained later on:
“I cannot tell you how bitter it is to me that the art I love has fallen into the hands of people I detest; how bitter it is that the best men look on at evil from afar, not caring to come closer, and, instead of intervening, write ponderous commonplaces and utterly useless sermons …”
It is she who attributes his illness and bad temper to aging. Towards the end, she relentlessly encourages him time and time again to leave his work and go abroad to ease his sickly mien.
“And I vow to myself that I will never go to Katya’s again, though I know I shall go next evening.”
A poignant scene in the story that incorporates Nikolay and Katya where the latter runs to the formers house at dead of night to share their mutual loneliness shows that they are entwined spiritually. Whenever Nikolay feels ill at ease, somehow Katya is always close-by. This is especially evident when Nikolay is in Harkov and Katya knocks at his door unexpectedly. What follows is perhaps a finality of their unaffected support of each other as Katya seeks his assistance in reference to a suitor. This is where Nikolay fails to address her predicament as he too is involved in introspection and has at last decided to leave the country.
RELATIONSHIP WITH COLLEAGUES AND ACQUAINTANCES
Coming towards Nikolay’s relationship with fellow professors, students, colleagues and other acquaintances, he has a rather hard-lined approach to his estimation of their characters which in turn effects his conduct towards them. He mostly sees them as sources of discomfort and irritation. He berates Liza’s suitor Mr. Gnekker and doubts his character gravely:
“Above all, I cannot understand why a creature utterly alien to my habits, my studies, my whole manner of life, completely different from the people I like, should come and see me every day, and every day should dine with me.”
His intuitive suspicions regarding Mr. Gnekker are proven right towards the end of the story when he visits Harkov solely for the purpose of finding more about this suitor, but it is too late to confirm his doubts to his wife as Mr. Gnekker and Liza marry off secretly during his absence.
Nikolay is at first comfortable with Mihail Fyodorovitch’s company alongside Katya but later admonishes his toxic conversations “He had gone to the theatre, you see, the drunken blockhead, not for the sake of art, the play, but for elevation! He wanted noble sentiments.”
“Mihail Fyodorovitch speaks evil of everything. Katya listens, and neither of them notices into what depths the apparently innocent diversion of finding fault with their neighbours is gradually drawing them. They are not conscious how by degrees simple talk passes into malicious mockery and jeering, and how they are both beginning to drop into the habits and methods of slander.”
Similarly, Nikolay’s conduct towards the student whom he repeatedly fails and the professor who beckons his assistance hint at his ever increasing cynicism. He arrives at conclusions too early especially in regards to the professor:
“I say a great deal, but he still remains silent. By degrees I calm down, and of course give in. The doctor gets a subject from me for his theme not worth a halfpenny, writes under my supervision a dissertation of no use to any one, with dignity defends it in a dreary discussion, and receives a degree of no use to him.”
But at the same time, the reader may question if this is foresight or just passive negativity of which our narrator has become a victim of in his old age. After all he is a man with years of boundless experience, having encountered countless men as he himself mentions in the course of the story. We can only assume that his judgements of people are a hit at times, and a miss at others.
OUTLOOK ON WOMANKIND
Another aspect of his relation with people is his outlook on the womankind whom he deems as “tearful and as coarse in her feelings now as she was in the Middle Ages, and to my thinking those who advise that she should be educated like a man are quite right.” He is offended by the hatred harboured by his family towards Katya and vice versa and addresses the situation in a moralistic tone:
“The mournful feeling of compassion and the pang of conscience experienced by a modern man at the sight of suffering is, to my mind, far greater proof of culture and moral elevation than hatred and aversion.”
In particular, Nikolay feels distanced from his wife and daughter. He resonates the weakness of womankind in their ability to be overwhelmed too quickly. Again, with a hint of arrogance in his tone, he deliberates over the change that has taken place within his family and explains at as such:
“Why did that change take place? I don’t know. Perhaps the whole trouble is that God has not given my wife and daughter the same strength of character as me. From childhood I have been accustomed to resisting external influences, and have steeled myself pretty thoroughly. Such catastrophes in life as fame, the rank of a general, the transition from comfort to living beyond our means, acquaintance with celebrities, etc., have scarcely affected me, and I have remained intact and unashamed; but on my wife and Liza, who have not been through the same hardening process and are weak, all this has fallen like an avalanche of snow, overwhelming them.”
THE NARRATOR AS A PROFESSOR
We now come to an assessment of our narrator as a Professor and as a man of science. From the very beginning of the story, Nikolay establishes himself first and foremost as a Professor, and then a family man. His profession sculpts his personality, which in turn shapes his attitude towards everything in life, be it the theatrical arts or death. With such passion does he tell us of his vocation, which is amiss in almost all the other details of his life:
“Every moment I must have the skill to snatch out of that vast mass of material what is most important and necessary, and, as rapidly as my words flow, clothe my thought in a form in which it can be grasped by the monster’s intelligence, and may arouse its attention, and at the same time one must keep a sharp lookout that one’s thoughts are conveyed, not just as they come, but in a certain order, essential for the correct composition of the picture I wish to sketch.”
He professes his ability to be a “savant and teacher and orator” all at the same time. Furthermore, he discusses his enthusiastic approach to lecturing, which fills him with great pleasure.
“No kind of sport, no kind of game or diversion, has ever given me such enjoyment as lecturing. Only at lectures have I been able to abandon myself entirely to passion, and have understood that inspiration is not an invention of the poets, but exists in real life, and I imagine Hercules after the most piquant of his exploits felt just such voluptuous exhaustion as I experience after every lecture.”
Here we come across a few instances of witty comparisons the narrator makes as he equates himself to Hercules, as if delivering a lecture is nothing short of a Herculean task. It seems Nikolay amuses himself greatly by playing with a tad bit of egotism every now and then to throw off the reader. Many times during the course of the story he refers to himself as “Excellency” and “celebrated man of science” – despite having a sarcastic tone one can easily see through his motives of enjoying the status of an emeritus and being a well-known, titled and honored fellow. A particularly comical display of his arrogance comes to surface when he refers to himself as the King whilst discussing his ordeal with Katya:
“You see how it is, my dear; the best and holiest right of kings is the right of mercy. And I have always felt myself a king, since I have made unlimited use of that right. I have never judged…”
THE NARRATOR AS A MAN OF SCIENCE
Nikolay certainly has a wrong estimate of his own character. He has judged people around him time and time again as shown previously. This supplements his uncompromising stance on the importance of arts in one’s life, which now brings us to Nikolay – a man of Science.
“As I yield up my last breath I shall still believe that science is the most important, the most splendid, the most essential thing in the life of man; that it always has been and will be the highest manifestation of love, and that only by means of it will man conquer himself and nature.”
For our narrator, arts seems not even a secondary resource for mankind. He completely and utterly negates its value in everyday life. This is most evident when he bombasts the theatre for its trivialities in the following lines:
“The sentimental and confiding public may be persuaded that the stage, even in its present form, is a school; but anyone who is familiar with a school in its true sense will not be caught with that bait. I cannot say what will happen in fifty or a hundred years, but in its actual condition the theatre can serve only as an entertainment. But this entertainment is too costly to be frequently enjoyed. It robs the state of thousands of healthy and talented young men and women, who, if they had not devoted themselves to the theatre, might have been good doctors, farmers, schoolmistresses, officers; it robs the public of the evening hours — the best time for intellectual work and social intercourse. I say nothing of the waste of money and the moral damage to the spectator when he sees murder, fornication, or false witness unsuitably treated on the stage.”
He sees arts not as complimenting mankind, but as an antithesis to Science, that which robs men of precious time and thought that might advance and improve their present condition. In this regard, Nikolay is a fanatic in his inclination towards science. He fails to acknowledge a branch of human knowledge that has perhaps existed since the dawn of mankind.
“So, as you see, the cause of the evil must be sought, not in the actors, but, more deeply, in the art itself and in the attitude of the whole of society to it.”
He equates the advancement made by science as having no parallel in human history. He alleges himself to be a conservative and denounces arts not just in the form of theatre but to some extend even in the form of literature.
“And every time I come out of the theatre more conservative than I go in.”
Nikolay condemns Russian literature in the harshest of terms which is quite unbecoming of a learned man:
“Of course, it would be more patriotic to read Russian authors, but I must confess I cherish no particular liking for them. With the exception of two or three of the older writers, all our literature of today strikes me as not being literature, but a special sort of home industry, which exists simply in order to be encouraged, though people do not readily make use of its products. The very best of these home products cannot be called remarkable and cannot be sincerely praised without qualification. I must say the same of all the literary novelties I have read during the last ten or fifteen years; not one of them is remarkable, and not one of them can be praised without a “but.” Cleverness, a good tone, but no talent; talent, a good tone, but no cleverness; or talent, cleverness, but not a good tone.
I don’t say the French books have talent, cleverness, and a good tone. They don’t satisfy me, either. But they are not so tedious as the Russian, and it is not unusual to find in them the chief element of artistic creation — the feeling of personal freedom which is lacking in the Russian authors. I don’t remember one new book in which the author does not try from the first page to entangle himself in all sorts of conditions and contracts with his conscience. One is afraid to speak of the naked body; another ties himself up hand and foot in psychological analysis; a third must have a “warm attitude to man”; a fourth purposely scrawls whole descriptions of nature that he may not be suspected of writing with a purpose … One is bent upon being middle-class in his work, another must be a nobleman, and so on. There is intentionalness, circumspection, and self-will, but they have neither the independence nor the manliness to write as they like, and therefore there is no creativeness.”
PREOCCUPATION WITH DEATH
We now come to our narrator’s unceasing preoccupation with death in which Science plays a great role in manifesting and shaping his discourse and attitude towards it. It is quite odd that Nikolay is haunted by thoughts of death yet fails to acknowledge aging as being the root cause of many of his problems as he does not fully retire. He questions as to why his ideals and thoughts are rapidly undergoing a change which he fails to comprehend fully:
“My reasoning, too, has undergone a change: in old days I despised money; now I harbour an evil feeling, not towards money, but towards the rich as though they were to blame: in old days I hated violence and tyranny, but now I hate the men who make use of violence, as though they were alone to blame, and not all of us who do not know how to educate each other. What is the meaning of it? If these new ideas and new feelings have come from a change of convictions, what is that change due to? Can the world have grown worse and I better, or was I blind before and indifferent? If this change is the result of a general decline of physical and intellectual powers — I am ill, you know, and every day I am losing weight — my position is pitiable; it means that my new ideas are morbid and abnormal; I ought to be ashamed of them and think them of no consequence …”
One can easily see that he attributes this change not to old age in crude terms but to his illness which has taken hold of him now. But this doesn’t necessarily make him too senile as Nikolay is still capable of strewing intellectual gems which are a consequence of intense introspection towards the end of the story. Here is one of my most favourite passage from the story where the narrator sets aside his prejudice and presumptions and meditates on what his fame had acquired for him so far. It is also the first time perhaps that the narrator is able to induce empathy from me:
“I am famous, my name is pronounced with reverence, my portrait has been both in the Niva and in the Illustrated News of the World ; I have read my biography even in a German magazine. And what of all that? Here I am sitting utterly alone in a strange town, on a strange bed, rubbing my aching cheek with my hand … Domestic worries, the hard-heartedness of creditors, the rudeness of the railway servants, the inconveniences of the passport system, the expensive and unwholesome food in the refreshment-rooms, the general rudeness and coarseness in social intercourse — all this, and a great deal more which would take too long to reckon up, affects me as much as any working man who is famous only in his alley. In what way, does my exceptional position find expression? Admitting that I am celebrated a thousand times over, that I am a hero of whom my country is proud. They publish bulletins of my illness in every paper, letters of sympathy come to me by post from my colleagues, my pupils, the general public; but all that does not prevent me from dying in a strange bed, in misery, in utter loneliness. Of course, no one is to blame for that; but I in my foolishness dislike my popularity. I feel as though it had cheated me.”
This discourse humbly borders on hopelessness and is poignant for it simply questions And what of all that? Here we see the first signs of the true revulsion he feels for his status and what it has done for him so far. This bleak outlook on life comes to surface in the very last chapter of the story when Nikolay is all alone in Harkov deliberating his life:
“The clock in the corridor strikes one, then two, then three…. These last months in which I am waiting for death seem much longer than the whole of my life. And I have never before been so ready to resign myself to the slowness of time as now. In the old days, when one sat in the station and waited for a train, or presided in an examination-room, a quarter of an hour would seem an eternity. Now I can sit all night on my bed without moving, and quite unconcernedly reflect that tomorrow will be followed by another night as long and colourless, and the day after tomorrow.”
The most sublime imagery of death is conveyed to the reader when Nikolay, at his own house, senses the close proximity of death at night:
“I rapidly struck a light, drank some water straight out of the decanter, then hurried to the open window. The weather outside was magnificent. There was a smell of hay and some other very sweet scent. I could see the spikes of the fence, the gaunt, drowsy trees by the window, the road, the dark streak of woodland, there was a serene, very bright moon in the sky and not a single cloud, perfect stillness, not one leaf stirring. I felt that everything was looking at me and waiting for me to die…”
In this moment the reader is assured of the narrator’s conviction to die, to embark upon a journey of which he is not hesitant of, but perhaps a little afraid of, as he welcomes it repeatedly during the course of the story. It is also at this moment the reader may realise that nothing in this world can alter the narrator’s viewpoint regarding death. Simply put, he has done all that he had to do and there is no singular motivation to continue living an already “unlived life”.
The tone of horror suggested in this line: “I had a sensation on my face and on my bald head as though they were covered with spiders’ webs,” is a metaphor for a rotten corpse in a grave and compliments brilliantly the aforementioned imagery of death.
It is only towards the very end of the story that the narrator’s profound thoughts on the existence of nothingness manifest, thereby revealing and concluding the narrator’s most intimate of thoughts.
“And now I examine myself: what do I want?
I want our wives, our children, our friends, our pupils, to love in us, not our fame, not the brand and not the label, but to love us as ordinary men. Anything else? I should like to have had helpers and successors. Anything else? I should like to wake up in a hundred years’ time and to have just a peep out of one eye at what is happening in science. I should have liked to have lived another ten years… What further? Why, nothing further. I think and think, and can think of nothing more. And however much I might think, and however far my thoughts might travel, it is clear to me that there is nothing vital, nothing of great importance in my desires. In my passion for science, in my desire to live, in this sitting on a strange bed, and in this striving to know myself—in all the thoughts, feelings, and ideas I form about everything, there is no common bond to connect it all into one whole. Every feeling and every thought exists apart in me; and in all my criticisms of science, the theatre, literature, my pupils, and in all the pictures my imagination draws, even the most skilful analyst could not find what is called a general idea, or the god of a living man.
And if there is not that, then there is nothing.”
Even these thoughts are not devoid of the value of Science which Nikolay deems to be the cornerstone of human existence. Here, he sums up his beliefs coupled with his attitude towards family, morality, fame, the nature of existence and the meaning of “being” and “death”. He also denounces god and gives more weight to the argument of nothingness in everything, the futility of human endeavours. These thoughts can be set in contrast to the earlier Nikolay, the one who describes the tritest of details to the readers.
Verging on the boredom rooted from his own existence and that which Nikolay observes in his surroundings, it is not unexpected of the narrator to be completely preoccupied with the thought of death, not as a relief or escape, but as a means to an end. He is in a continual denial of having been amused by the large (his growing popularity) and small (“And when at last I go back into my study my face still goes on smiling, I suppose from inertia”) adventures of life.
He is indifferent about the present and the past “I am an old man, I have been lecturing for thirty years, but I notice neither degeneration nor lack of ideals, and I don’t find that the present is worse than the past”; yet disparages indifference as being “paralysis of the soul” and “premature death.” This is nothing short of irony as he himself feels acute apathy towards grave matters such as those concerning his daughter’s marriage or when Katya seeks his urgent assistance during a meltdown of sorts. It is perhaps this very indifference which brings about his own “premature death”. He is, to some extent, incapable of true contemplation of his own self.
“Know thyself” is excellent and useful advice; it is only a pity that the ancients never thought to indicate the means of following this precept.