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Petkov: Put Anton Chekhov on your reading list

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Petkov: Put Anton Chekhov on your reading list

Antonio Petkov, Columnist

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When the name Anton Chekhov comes up in conversation, most people immediately think of one of his best-known plays, “The Cherry Orchard.” Yet, my favorite part of Chekhov’s work is the considerable amount of short stories he penned during his relatively short life.  The fact that he was a medical doctor by profession, and yet he was in many ways a more masterful writer of prose than some of his contemporaries who were dedicated writers, is profoundly impressive.  He is a person who demonstrates that the cliche “math/science person vs. humanities person” is fallacious.

There are many aspects of his writing that appeal to me, not the least of which are his subtlety, his economical style and his ability to show rather than tell. Although he claims not to advocate any sort of moral admonition, there is a subtle nuance and purpose to his writing which is developed through a unique, often omniscient narrative voice. The result are stories which do not propound an ideology in a didactic way but rather use human interaction to demonstrate the thousands of little miscommunications and vices, in an often banal and relatable context, which ultimately add up to create the major issues our society faces. Some of the issues he outlines are social, and others of them can be applied to a broader political context.

The relevance of his stories to our daily lives is obvious. Although they were penned over a century ago, they address many questions which are still important today such as medical ethics, the importance of communication, the ability to reserve judgment, the tribulations associated with romantic love, and so on.  In fact, it seems that for nearly every problem we face, particularly as college students, there is a Chekhov story that we would do well to read.  For those who are experiencing trials involving love,  there is “The Kiss.”For others who feel like they are alienated from their peers due to socioeconomic inequality, or experience a lack of communication with their friends, there is “Enemies.”

Although Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, as well as some of Chekhov’s other contemporaries, are more well known and their names spring immediately to mind, when their work is juxtaposed with Chekhov’s, it seems almost crude. So many writers hit the reader over the head with the emotional response; they leave little which is not obvious, and the reader is not rewarded for appreciating subtlety, or for questioning the motives of the author.

Literature in general has a tremendous application when it comes to understanding ourselves, overcoming challenges, gaining insight into humanity and healing our emotional wounds. Russian literature in particular does this very well, not in the least because of the narrative style, often a deeply introspective and highly observant omniscient narration. If we are to be even more specific, however, there is one man who does all of this with such a remarkable finesse and with such noble intent, that we would be doing ourselves an injustice if we did not at some point in our lives read his work. In his short stories in particular, he does not lavish us with useless or flat characters, or descriptive imagery which is there only for its own sake. Everything in his writing has a purpose, and for the more observant reader, a tremendous appeal.

Antonio Petkov is a McCormick freshman. He can be reached at antoniopetkov2017@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. 

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