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Guest Post by T.K. Mills: Review of My Life by Anton Chekhov

Back at it again with a post by T.K. Mills. I hope you enjoy, these posts are really uppping this blog’s literary sophistication!

“They had no understanding of life, and believed that bribes were given out of respect for moral qualities, and after they were married grew old quickly, let themselves go completely, and sank hopelessly in the mire of vulgar, petty bourgeois existence.”

And in those words, the author articulates my greatest fear: to sink hopelessly into the mire of vulgar petty bourgeois existence. As I approach my quarter-life crisis, I find this fear creeping closer. This is why Anton Chekhov’s novella, My Life, resonated with me.

Chekhov is only the second of the Russian masters I’ve attempted. My edition came from “The Art of the Novella” series published by Melville House, [who have been producing astounding works, some in English for the first time.] Considered the authority on the short story, Doctor Chekhov’s deviance into the hybrid literary form fits well in the Slavic canon. My Life stands as an accomplishment, both to its form and to its motherland.

The story is in essence existential. Centered around Misail, My Life tells of a dissatisfied young man seeking purpose. But what purpose could one find in the small provincial Russian town, where it is set?

The son of a well-known engineer, Misail rejects the prospects presented to him, instead taking refuge in the theater. This enrages his father, who considers his son a disgrace for failing to fulfill his societal role. Despite pleas from his sister Kleopatra, Misail forgoes a good job opportunity on a railroad, choosing instead to pursue work as a painter. This low-class position is hard work and badly paid, Misail finds a comfort in its honesty. Small towns talk, and the painter’s humble rebellion earns him a mix of scorn and respect from the town. While the townsfolk call him “better than nothing,” Misail’s deviation attracts Masha, daughter of the wealthy railroad magnate. His principled lifestyle also garners the admiration of Doctor Blagovo, who although he likes to intellectualize on the poor, holds them in contempt. These characters push and pull Misail on his search for meaning, forcing him into confrontation with his ideals, as well as their consequences.

My Life mirrors many elements of Chekhov’s own life, particularly that of the provincial lifestyle. Though a Doctor by trade, Chekhov made little money with his professional, due in part because he treated the poor for free; like his protagonist, the author had deep sympathies for the underclass. This exposure to the poor impacted the author and themes of social expectations and status permeate the story. Written in 1896, My Life gives conscious look at the classism of the era, with the intellects of Dr. Blagovo and Misail debating philosophies on the peasantry.

Summary concluded, I’ll say I enjoyed the novel quite a bit. I am of the belief that the ultimate societal conflict is between the haves and the have-nots, something Chekhov addresses with depth and wit. The novella’s strengths come in its subtle characterization and complex developments. While at times the plot slows to a drip, the prose cascades across every page, giving vivid imagery to every scene.

What the book captures best, though, is the sentiment that sticks with most twenty-somethings. Like Misail, I find myself wondering on My Life’s moral, fearing that petty bourgeois existence; “To live without knowing definitely what you are living for.”

Check out T.K.’s website here!

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3 thoughts on “Guest Post by T.K. Mills: Review of My Life by Anton Chekhov

  1. “To live without knowing definitely what you are living for.” I have a feeling that everyone really struggles with this concept. As I near retirement I think “what if I can’t find something to help me define my sunset years; to give my life a sense of value or completeness.”? I supposed we must all strive to be of use to mankind in some way. That way we leave a legacy of goodness in our wake.

    Cheers! Happy weekend.

    1. @Anne – The problem with the quote you’re using (which T.K. Mills also used in his review) is that it’s taken out of context. The sentence is said by Misail in a heated discussion with Dr. Blagovo. It also has an exclamation point at the end and comes as a retort to Dr. Blagovo’s belief in some nebulous progress for humanity. On the other hand, Misail has definite notions about what constitutes human progress.

      One can discuss isolated sentences in a work, but it’s misleading when you pull them out of context. It’s important not only to include what is being said, but who says it. Here, it’s a clue into Misail’s and Dr. Blagovo’s characters.

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