Chekhov’s “The Cook’s Wedding”

Ironical monument to Anton Chekhov who visited...
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To-day’s short story was … short.  Written near the beginning of his career, it is the first story in the collection I have which is arranged chronologically, it looks like and feels like and might even smell like a Chekhov story, but it certainly does not hit like one.  The story is much like the tea I am drinking at the moment and the cofee shop I am in.  There is a great established place called Spyhouse here in Minneapolis and they recently opened a new one closer to where I live.  But it is too sterile, not funky (god how I hate that word) enough.  I feel as though I ought to be in a place called The Tea Garden.  The tea to-day is passion prairie, which almost made laugh out loud when I read it.  It is too sweet and lacking all the good punch of tea.

In any case the cook in the story is a young woman who is forced into a wedding.  We see her protest the wedding in the beginning of the story, then time passes and we see her wedding.  Then the next morning her husband takes advances on her wages, and we, of course, feel sorry for her.  And that’s the story.  All of it.

It is very odd and I am not too sure what to think other than seeing Chekhov working through the mechanics of how to write a short story.  There is talk about Chekhov as an objective writer and this story is pointed to as proof of that.  I think that notion is crap, for there are two portions of this story where Chekhov does pass judgement on the situation: at the end when the 7 year old hands the cook an apple to try and supplement her now garnished wages and second when the same 7 year old imagines the cook’s unhappiness on her wedding night.  That imagining makes the reader turn to darker places than a 7 year old does because the 7 year old does not know about wedding nights and what goes on, even though his imaginings can exist in both worlds:

“The poor thing is crying somewhere in the dark!” he thought.  “While the cabman is saying to her ‘shut up!'”

What a brilliant mechanism!  The innocent horror of the 7 year old is held to and yet Chekhov successfully takes us to a palce where the child imagines correctly, just not in the full context.  There is nothing objective about Chekhov, which is good, writing should challenge us and should level normative judgements.

Why then is there so much confusion about Chekhov as objective, because objectivity is easily mistaken for restraint and discipline.  This is the same conflation that is made about realism.  Ted Gioia has a good piece about the problem with realism as a genre.  Good literature should be an intervention and hence already disqualified from a realistic assesment, but beyond the impossibility of the genre there is also the danger of such a genre.  The dangers are well known and Gioia does a fairly good job of it, but Chabon’s Maps & Legends is a better read and more developed argument.

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