Chekhov's stories don't make a lot of noise - except of course when someone fires a gun. They reach down into the quiet, sad places of the human heart and show you what's lurking there. They look at longing, loss, anticipation and failed ambition. The real stuff of everyday life.
Although he would eventually abandon writing for the theater, Chekhov's collaboration with Stanislavsky yielded a five-point checklist every storyteller should know.
For every character in the story, you must show the following:
- Who is he?
- What does he want?
- Why does he want it?
- What is he willing to do to get it?
- What is his relationship to the other characters in the story? (Or, as I sometimes add when teaching creative writing, "Who's with him or against him?)
It's been quite a while since I've wondered why Chekhov's stories are great. If you read them, you find out why. If you are Raymond Carver, you read them, love them, imitate them. And when you die, newspapers around the world will refer to you as the American Chekhov.
I love Chekhov's "Lady with the Pet Dog." Also his plays, Three Sisters, Uncle Vanya, and The Seagull.
I also love the fact that Chekhov represents a kind of ideal: the poet-scientist. He was a young medical student who started writing stories to support himself through school. Although he became world famous, he continued to practice medicine. He had a dual calling, and he answered both exceedingly well, treating wounded soldiers right up to his death in 1904. As another of my professors once said, "One would like to be like Chekhov."
Here's a Storify slide-show presentation that shows why. There are some good bits here, which include Anthony Hopkins, Julianne Moore, Cate Blanchett, and Laurence Olivier. If you don't know Chekhov's "Misery," Kenneth Branagh's reading (also here) is a fine way to get acquainted.