New Year’s resolutions tend toward self-improvement. This is the year you will start going to the gym, or finally kick caffeine, or nip in the bud your nascent addiction to cronuts. Maybe you have promised to watch less television, or you have fiendishly reasoned that self-improvement relies on watching more television: you still don’t know what happened at the Red Wedding or who Walter White is, and this is making it hard for you to connect with your fellow human beings.
But what if you’re interested in connecting with your fellow human beings in a way that doesn’t require access to premium cable? According to a study published in October in the journal Science, reading literary fiction — including the works of Anton Chekhov — increases scores on tests of empathy and emotional intelligence. Who wouldn’t want to be more empathetic in 2014?
But before embarking on a self-help tour of late-Czarist Russia, be advised that Chekhov doesn’t provide easy answers to becoming a kinder, more caring person. There’s no five-step solution, no short prayer that will increase your fortunes and lay waste to the fields of your enemies.
Instead, he brings us into a world where bad things often happen — and for that world, there’s no better Baedeker than Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s Stories of Anton Chekhov. “Sleepy” tells of a young orphan tending a baby whose crying prevents her from ever sleeping; the girl solves this problem by smothering the baby. In “Anyuta,” a callous medical student draws charcoal lines on the emaciated body of his “roommate” — the poor seamstress Anyuta — to help him study for an anatomy exam; they both know that as soon as he graduates, their relationship will end and he will marry a more respectable spouse. And “In the Ravine” features Aksinya, a woman who pours boiling water on her sister-in-law’s infant son (the baby dies, Aksinya keeps control of the family-owned brickworks, and the bereaved sister-in-law descends into poverty).
Chekhov doesn’t make us better people by restoring our faith in the fundamental goodness of humanity or by charming us with the bright hope of a happy ending. In fact, he makes it hard for us to make snap judgments about heroes and villains. Varka, the girl in “Sleepy,” has witnessed the deaths of both parents, she works for a family that abuses her, she is exhausted to the point of hallucination, and her awful crime arises from a primal desire for one moment of peaceful slumber. Aksinya, also guilty of infanticide, acts when her father-in-law declares that her nephew will one day inherit his business — a business which the child’s father has almost ruined, and which Aksinya has devoted her life to saving. None of this excuses their actions, but Chekhov forces us to understand these characters before we can quickly write them off as monsters, as evil-doers.
Chekhov isn’t interested in something as flat and simple as evil. Time and again in his work, he draws a link between indifference — the failure of empathy — and cruelty. When terrible things happen in a Chekhov story, it isn’t because one of the characters is a bad seed. It is often because of the characters’ inability to extend to each other the kind of compassion that would force them outside of their own concerns.
It’s worth noting that Chekhov’s grandfather was a serf, his father was a hyper-religious tyrant, and he knew from the time he was in his twenties that tuberculosis would cut his life short (he died at 44). He didn’t believe in God or the reward of a joyous afterlife, and yet his stories affirm in ways large and small that the only hope we have lies in our relationships with other people. If the world is hell, it’s because we make it that way; if we are to be happy, it’s only by connecting with the people around us.
In Chekhov’s last play, “The Cherry Orchard,” — bracingly translated by Michael Henry Heim in Chekhov: The Essential Plays — the young idealist Trofimov lectures his one-time patroness Lyubov Andreevna about her failings in love and money: she is a spendthrift whose estate is about to be auctioned; she has driven herself into debt for the love of a ne’er-do-well. Her response, a scorching indictment of Trofimov’s easy dismissal of all that she has suffered in life, climaxes with this demand: “Show a little generosity!”
Lyubov Andreevna is speaking to Trofimov; Chekhov is speaking to us. This writer who sought objectivity in all of his work and who was blasted by his contemporaries for being apolitical and amoral, condenses into this line a plea to us all. That before we judge, we understand. That we extend to each other the same compassion that we all seek.
Resolutions are notoriously hard to keep. Gyms are full of people in better shape than you. Cronuts are tasty. Television is hard to kick. And the benefits of caffeine — among them wakefulness and the will to live — are obvious. But with a little help from Chekhov, perhaps 2014 can be the year that we all show a little generosity.
Image via Wikimedia Commons