Monday, July 21, 2008

The Student by Anton Chekhov

Anton Chekhov's "The Student" is the perfect story.

Decide for yourself by reading it at Project Gutenberg (1,500 words) or listening to it at LibriVox (10 minutes). Note that I read a new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

Here are some elements that make it perfect for me.

It is short

According Edgar Allan Poe, a short story is "read in one sitting." But that's not what I mean when I say "short" makes "The Student" a perfect short story. What I mean by "short" is that "The Student" captures an instant, not a lifetime. It doesn't give too much back story; it doesn't give too many details. It is concise and yet complete. And to me, it's amazing to be able to create something so cohesive and powerful in so few words.

It captures one main character in one moment/subject

Sometimes a short story has two characters that act as one (a couple in a relationship, for example) but I think short stories that try to capture too many characters (as do some of Chekhov's in the volume I'm reading) lack the pleasing organization or the "short and sweet" element that I like in a story. By nature, I think a short story needs to focus on one character/subject in either one moment or in one series of moments that relate (like a couple developing a relationship or a woman learning to respect her husband or a group of peasant women discussing how they will never love their husbands). "The Student" focuses on a young man, Ivan, on one wintery evening.

The character's emotions are foremost

"The Student" follows the young man's emotions as he walks in the wintery night, sits by the fire at the widows' home, and then walks home. While Chekhov describes what happens and what people say, the young man's emotions are the driving factor of the story.

Something happens, emotionally

I am realizing that I approach literature through my emotions. For me, I loved the emotional draw in "The Student." Ivan feels one way at the beginning of the story, has a very simple experience, and walks home at the end of the story feeling differently about his role in the world: past, present, and future. I think it is beautiful. Note that I don't believe all stories necessarily need to have a positive emotional change for a story to be beautiful. But for every story that I like in the Chekhov volume I'm reading, there is some emotional realization at the end, whether that is happy or sad: I finish a story and sigh, wanting to let myself dwell on the emotion for a few moments before beginning the next story.

Originally published in a slightly different form on Rebecca Reads.

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