What makes Chekhov so great?

Chekhov's Characters
I would argue that Chekhov is the closest to Shakespeare in capturing the human condition — in all of its triumphs, failures, and foibles. Anton Chekhov writes about people of all classes, and gives them all dignity and courage. Yet he is not afraid to show them at their most frail, and quite frankly, foolish. There are many scenes in his short stories and plays where a character will trip and fall, or do some other silly thing, and the character is forced to accept the embarrassment. Like Shakespeare, this same character might have been delivering a moving or philosophical speech just moments before. Like the Bard, Chekov is a study in contrasts. No one character is either good nor bad, but possesses each quality inside. No one is solely a victim or a victimizer, but are all subject to the whims of time. No character is allowed to be the hero or fool, but they all possess elements of both. Chekhov is above all else, about CHARACTER. His characters are the most three-dimensional, frail, and human creations, perhaps ever written. They are breathtakingly relatable and lifelike.

Chekhov's Style & Tone
One of the most confusing things about reading or seeing Chekhov, is understanding exactly what his tone was. What genre should we consider Chekhov? The great acting teacher and director of the Moscow Art Theatre, Constantin Stanislavsky, considered Chekhov plays to be great works of drama. Chekhov disagreed, and considered them to be comedies. The truth — as it often is — is somewhere in the middle. The brilliance of Chekov is that they mirror real life, so expertly. Like real life, Chekhov's work is tragicomic. It has all of the elements of tragedy and drama, while also the maudlin and deadpan silliness of black comedy. He will literally contrast a serious and moving speech with a silly bit of stage comedy in the form of trip or a fall. Perhaps more than any writer besides Shakespeare, Chekhov perfectly captures the comedy and the tragedy of real life.

Themes & Motifs
Chekhov plays and stories tend to revolve around epic and life-changing themes. Even though his stories seem domestic and dated, they are much larger than they appear. To understand the writer, you must first understand that his characters are all longing for a time gone by, and are remorseful about something they've failed to do or that they did, and they are at a crossroads in their lives. Here are some common themes:
Memory/ Nostalgia — Almost all the characters have cloudy memories of some halcyon days gone past ('the good ole' days) which they long to return toTime — Time seems to be escaping them, and they can only think of a time gone by when things were either better, or when they should have made another decisionSeclusion — If you imagine incredibly cold winters with feet upon feet of snow, you will at least partially understand the crippling winters of turn of the 19th/20th century Russia. These people were isolated, and without sun for months at a time. This 'cabin fever' must have contributed to the anxious, dreary, and restless feeling of Chekhov's characters. In every story, there is a feeling of being pent up and held captive. These are the stories of people longing to be free. Class — Most of the stories and plays were written at a time when the upper class (land-owning aristocracy) was losing their status and their property, as the lower classes were organizing beneath them. This was right before the Bolshevik Revolution, where the rich would be overthrown, and many of them killed by the proletariats. Chekhov's work anticipates this, and shows the landed gentry in the last throes of power, trying to desperately hold on to what's always been theirs. Regret — All the characters have some degree of regret or something from their past which haunts them.Foibles — Most characters have some kind of silly quirk, clumsiness, or some other characteristic which makes them more human and frail.

Answer by Jon Ferreira:

Chekhov's Characters
I would argue that Chekhov is the closest to Shakespeare in capturing the human condition — in all of its triumphs, failures, and foibles. Anton Chekhov writes about people of all classes, and gives them all dignity and courage. Yet he is not afraid to show them at their most frail, and quite frankly, foolish. There are many scenes in his short stories and plays where a character will trip and fall, or do some other silly thing, and the character is forced to accept the embarrassment. Like Shakespeare, this same character might have been delivering a moving or philosophical speech just moments before. Like the Bard, Chekov is a study in contrasts. No one character is either good nor bad, but possesses each quality inside. No one is solely a victim or a victimizer, but are all subject to the whims of time. No character is allowed to be the hero or fool, but they all possess elements of both. Chekhov is above all else, about CHARACTER. His characters are the most three-dimensional, frail, and human creations, perhaps ever written. They are breathtakingly relatable and lifelike.

Chekhov's Style & Tone
One of the most confusing things about reading or seeing Chekhov, is understanding exactly what his tone was. What genre should we consider Chekhov? The great acting teacher and director of the Moscow Art Theatre, Constantin Stanislavsky, considered Chekhov plays to be great works of drama. Chekhov disagreed, and considered them to be comedies. The truth — as it often is — is somewhere in the middle. The brilliance of Chekov is that they mirror real life, so expertly. Like real life, Chekhov's work is tragicomic. It has all of the elements of tragedy and drama, while also the maudlin and deadpan silliness of black comedy. He will literally contrast a serious and moving speech with a silly bit of stage comedy in the form of trip or a fall. Perhaps more than any writer besides Shakespeare, Chekhov perfectly captures the comedy and the tragedy of real life.

Themes & Motifs
Chekhov plays and stories tend to revolve around epic and life-changing themes. Even though his stories seem domestic and dated, they are much larger than they appear. To understand the writer, you must first understand that his characters are all longing for a time gone by, and are remorseful about something they've failed to do or that they did, and they are at a crossroads in their lives. Here are some common themes:

  • Memory/ Nostalgia — Almost all the characters have cloudy memories of some halcyon days gone past ('the good ole' days) which they long to return to
  • Time — Time seems to be escaping them, and they can only think of a time gone by when things were either better, or when they should have made another decision
  • Seclusion — If you imagine incredibly cold winters with feet upon feet of snow, you will at least partially understand the crippling winters of turn of the 19th/20th century Russia. These people were isolated, and without sun for months at a time. This 'cabin fever' must have contributed to the anxious, dreary, and restless feeling of Chekhov's characters. In every story, there is a feeling of being pent up and held captive. These are the stories of people longing to be free.
  • Class — Most of the stories and plays were written at a time when the upper class (land-owning aristocracy) was losing their status and their property, as the lower classes were organizing beneath them. This was right before the Bolshevik Revolution, where the rich would be overthrown, and many of them killed by the proletariats. Chekhov's work anticipates this, and shows the landed gentry in the last throes of power, trying to desperately hold on to what's always been theirs.
  • Regret — All the characters have some degree of regret or something from their past which haunts them.
  • Foibles — Most characters have some kind of silly quirk, clumsiness, or some other characteristic which makes them more human and frail.

In Conclusion
These are just some of the things that make Chekhov so wonderful. The trick is not to read him as if it were a laborious task, and as if he was supposed to be some genius classical author. His work is very human and very accessible. Just read it as you would anything today. Always be on the lookout for the silly and absurd, as much as the dreary and sad. His characters are SO achingly US!

What makes Chekhov so great?

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