Chronotopes of Modernity in Chekhov

by Tintti Klapuri (Author)
©2019 Thesis 188 Pages
Series: SLOVO, Volume 2


The book shows Chekhov in a new light, as a writer with a synthetic ethical worldview on which his poetics are based. The book’s key finding is that the temporal experience of modernity lies at the centre of Chekhov’s work. This conclusion is reached by comparing the ways in which modern temporality is represented in the different genres in which Chekhov wrote, from the non-fictional Sakhalin Island to his short fiction and drama. In terms of methodology, the book combines the historiographical and sociological views of modernity as based on a certain understanding of time with Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the chronotope.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • Dedication Page
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • Abbreviations and a note on transliteration
  • Introduction
  • 1 Failed modernity: Sakhalin Island
  • Chekhov’s empirical approach
  • The chronotope of exile
  • Without a future perspective
  • Non-productive work and meaningless time
  • The progressive vision
  • Social adaptation
  • Chekhov the explorer
  • 2 Unfinality in short fiction
  • Situatedness as a narrative phenomenon: “The Student”
  • Life without a synthesis: “A Boring Story”
  • Dying in the present tense
  • “Spoiling the finale”
  • Immediate versus reflective presentness: Garshin’s “Four Days” and “A Boring Story”
  • Transience in “The Bishop”
  • Institutional and individual temporality
  • Resurrection or oblivion: Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich and “The Bishop”
  • 3 The provincial chronotope in short fiction
  • The narrative of provincial awakening: “The Betrothed”
  • The prison house of poshlost
  • The garden as a liminal space
  • Repetition in the provincial chronotope and in the idyll
  • The chronotope of the seaside resort in “The Lady with a Dog” and “The Fires”
  • 4 The ethics of action: Three Sisters
  • The meaningless provincial exile
  • Forms of repetition in characterisation
  • Nostalgia and alienation
  • The Biblical subtext
  • Non-action and compassion
  • Suffering without meaning
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index


In his memoirs The Noise of Time (Shum vremeni, 1925), the Acmeist poet Osip Mandelstam portrays Russia in the 1890s. What Mandelstam sees when he looks into the past is historical time seen in space: the crawling of a dying form of life towards its final end, seen as if in slow motion. In this modernistic vision, the separate memories of early childhood are connected in the perceiver’s mind by the overarching mentality of the epoch, its “pathological, doomed provinciality”:

I remember well the desolate years of Russia – the nineties, their slowly crawling, their pathological tranquillity, their deep provinciality – a quiet backwater: the last refuge of a dying age. At morning tea, discussions about Dreyfus, the names of colonels Esterhazy and Picquart, vague disputes about some “Kreutzer Sonata” and the change of conductors behind the high podium of the vitreous Pavlovsk railroad station that seemed to me a change of dynasties. Immobile newsboys on the corners, without cries, without movements, clumsily rooted to the sidewalks, narrow carts with a little folding seat for a third passenger and, all in all, – in my vision, the nineties are composed of scenes scattered apart but inwardly bound together by the quiet misery and the pathological, doomed provinciality of life that is dying.1

The view of Russia in the 1890s as an epoch of pathological tranquillity or “timelessness” (bezvremene) exemplifies the way in which the transition period of Russian literature from realism to modernism was perceived by subsequent literary generations. This view, in turn, reflects the historical fact that the 1880s and 1890s were dominated by a conservative political agenda that permeated Russian society after the assassination of Alexander II in 1881. This political reality was coupled with a dissipation of faith in social progress among the intellectual classes after the unsuccessful “going to the people” movement launched by the Populists in the 1870s. Furthermore, the deaths of Fedor Dostoevsky and Ivan Turgenev in 1881 and 1883, respectively, together with Lev Tolstoy’s religious turn at the beginning of this decade, left the literary scene hollow and ideologically exhausted after the golden age of the classical Russian novel. The new situation faced by the intelligentsia led to sentiments of hopelessness and inertia that are often seen to define the cultural mentality of the era.

Alongside the conservative turn, late nineteenth-century Russia nevertheless experienced considerable change in society and in intellectual thought. Even ←11 | 12→though the reforms of the 1860s had only been partially successful, they proved to have a lasting impact on society. They allowed for the diversification of estates and the rapid development of the sciences that took place in close connection with the latest trends in Europe. Despite the depressing cultural climate, the connections between Russian and European social and scientific circles remained close during the 1880s and 1890s. Continental discussions, such as the Dreyfus Affair, to which Mandelstam refers, were closely followed by the reading public. Moreover, contemporary European philosophy, sociology and psychology were quickly translated into Russian. Both the translations and the originals provoked lively discussion in the new thick journals on scientific and philosophical issues that begin to appear alongside traditional literary publications during the 1890s. Consequently, Russian scientific and literary circles were well informed about contemporary intellectual trends.

The life and work of Anton Chekhov (1860–1904) manifest the era of “timelessness” in several ways. As a raznochinets, Chekhov represents the new generation of writers who often had scientific training.2 This had become possible after reforms in the educational system that provided access to higher education for prospective students from more humble backgrounds. The represented world in Chekhov’s writing in different genres is distinguished by the same pathological provinciality with which Mandelstam labels the entire historical period. Provinciality is manifested in his short fiction, plays and the documentary report entitled Sakhalin Island by his choice to focus on depictions of life in the peripheries of Russia. Provinciality in Chekhov’s work, however, should not be limited to the concrete level of spatial location. It appears as a metaphor for the predominant mentality of the era; an embodiment of its specific spatiotemporality, or chronotopicity. Chekhov’s work across genres encompasses a view of Russian society as a stagnated backwater of Europe that is unable to rise to the challenges of modernisation. In a like manner, the Chekhovian individual appears unable to change, as he or she is bound to the authoritative traditions and hierarchies of Russian society.

Nevertheless, Chekhov’s timespaces diverge from Mandelstam’s recollection in one important respect, namely in their openness towards the future. ←12 | 13→Mandelstam’s retrospective vision does not include any prospect of breaking away from the deadly tranquillity, but the previous epoch is perceived as doomed to die and anticipated to be soon replaced by a more dynamic age. Chekhov’s contemporary vision of the era offers a more complex view in the sense that his oeuvre is characterised by the continuous demand for modernisation, despite the appalling circumstances. The possibility for change is severely questioned throughout Chekhov’s work, yet the obligation to contribute towards a more progressive society creates the potential for an important temporal and dynamic dimension in his writing, against which stagnated ways of life are reflected. The fundamental openness of time that characterises Chekhov’s writing across genres emerges from this dialogue, which, on the one hand, allows for agency and change, and, on the other, is marked by severe scepticism towards this possibility.

In this book, I treat what I identify as Chekhov’s temporal ethics of action and which I see as in accord with his view of the condition of modernity and subjectivity in the specific Russian fin-de-siècle context. I argue that the complex openness of time arising from the contradiction between stagnation and change, which reflects the social and intellectual situation at the turn of the century, situates the writer’s work at the heart of the problematic of modern temporality and human agency. It is characteristic of modern temporality that the individual, on the one hand, appears as an autonomous subject who is free to act towards an open future, as the individual is no longer bound to a prescribed cosmic order and is able to take control of his or her personal life.3 In this sense, time in modernity appears to an individual as a space of possibilities to be utilised within this world. As Reinhart Koselleck formulates, at the core of the temporal experience of modernity is the asymmetry between the space of experience (Erfahrungsraum) and the horizon of expectations (Erwartungshorizont) that emerges as a result of a belief in rationality and progress with the consequence that the future comes to be seen as more open, contrary to the predetermined future of premodernity. This also means that change is seen in positive terms in the modern conception of time, whereas cyclicity comes to denote negative unchangeability, that is, non-autonomy and repetition.4 On the other hand, the very potential of the modern individual to act autonomously is constantly being ←13 | 14→questioned by feelings of social alienation and the fragmentation of the human life-world. These sentiments appear to be a consequence of the disintegration of the authoritative, predetermined worldview that takes place in modernity, in other words, the process of rationalisation and demythologisation of the human life-world, its disenchantment.5 In Chekhov’s work, the individual constantly faces the task of making sense of the Godless world, as well as his or her life. Chekhov views this temporal process of sense-making and self-reflection, characteristic of modern subjectivity, with a sceptical yet compassionate eye: his characters, such as Masha in Three Sisters who reckons that “humankind must believe in something, or seek belief, otherwise life is empty, empty”, are obliged to search for meaningfulness in their lives in a world that appears to have lost all meaning.6

In my view, manifestations of modern temporality in Chekhov’s work are closely associated with the writer’s scientific worldview, which was based on the scientific and medical education he received at the University of Moscow in the early 1880s. His journey to a penal colony on Sakhalin Island in 1890, in particular, can be seen as an emancipatory project characterised by the intertwinement of scientific aims and the progressive ideas of a Russian liberal. In Chekhov’s short fiction, the scientific base of his worldview is manifested in his narrative technique, which in its extreme objectivity forces realistic narration to its limits, thereby “killing realism”, as Maxim Gorky famously noted. In a similar vein, the Symbolists were quick to perceive Chekhov’s dramatic work as pushing the limits of realism. Andrei Belyi, for example, held the view that Chekhov was a realist who became the pedestal of Russian Symbolism.7 Behind the objective narration, “the perfect posing of the question”, which draws from the writer’s ←14 | 15→scientific-materialist worldview, there are no final answers as are often found in earlier Russian realist literature, particularly in the works of Tolstoy. Open-endedness, or unfinality, characterises Chekhov’s poetics: his stories typically begin in medias res and end in a similar fashion, which means that no final solution to the problems described in the narrative is offered. Unfinality also concerns characterisation, in the sense that Chekhov’s central characters are usually represented as unfinalised individuals, observed as if from inside the very process of living that will continue once the story is over, bringing new, unpredictable changes to their lives – even if the characters often envisage their own lives as controllable and predictable. While Chekhov’s scientific worldview can be seen to characterise his writing as a whole, it is important to see that he is adamant in accentuating its limitations in viewing human life. Stories such as “Aniuta” (1886), “An Attack of Nerves” (1889) and “A Boring Story” (1889) discuss diverse forms of knowledge and question the one-sided scientific stance of the protagonists that prevents them from seeing other dimensions in life, such as the ethical.

Furthermore, I see that questions of modern temporality in Chekhov are inherently linked to his conception of the individual as a concrete acting subject in material reality. Chekhov is infamous for his reluctance to be associated with any strand of thought. The only exception he made in this respect was when he declared himself a confessional materialist. In a letter to A. N. Pleshcheev, the fiction editor of Severnyi vestnik (“The Northern Herald”), dated 4 October 1888, he expressed his sense of frustration at endeavours to connect his writings with political views:

I am afraid of those who seek for tendencies between the lines and who want to see me either as a liberal or as a conservative. I am neither a liberal, nor a conservative, nor a gradualist, nor a monk, nor an indifferentist. I would like to be a free artist and nothing else, and I regret that god did not give me the strength to be one of these. I hate falsehood and violence in all forms […]. Pharisaism, dull-wittedness, and tyranny reign not only in merchants’ homes and prisons. I see them in science, in literature, among the younger generation. That is why I cultivate no particular predilection for policemen, butchers, scientists, writers or the younger generation. I look upon tags and labels as prejudices. My holiest of holies is the human body, health, the mind, talent, inspiration, love and absolute freedom, freedom from oppression and falsehoods, in whatever form the last two are manifested. If I were a great artist, this is the programme I would adhere to. (P3: 11)


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (April)
Anton Chekhov modern temporality short fiction drama non-fiction Mikhail Bakhtin
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2019. 187 pp.

Biographical notes

Tintti Klapuri (Author)

Tintti Klapuri is currently a Senior Lecturer in Russian Literature at the University of Helsinki and Adjunct Professor in Comparative Literature at the University of Turku, Finland.


Title: Chronotopes of Modernity in Chekhov
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189 pages