Chekhov’s “A Boring Story”: Character Motivation, Behavior and Descriptive Detail

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To render the internal processes of thought, states of emotional complexity and character growth effectively and realistically, the fiction writer’s descriptive detail must coincide with, and therefore amplify, the narrative moment. This moment may occur as one character observes, describes, and then reacts to another character in scene, or may follow a larger external circumstance: a confrontation with the elements of nature, weather, illness, or death. In Chekhov’s “A Boring Story,” changes in the protagonist, Nikolai, are marked by the description used to capture his altered emotional state after he encounters an external event or character, or a sequence in which he collides with multiple externals.

In section “V” of “A Boring Story,” anxiety causes Nikolai to jump out of bed. A descriptive passage of the countryside outside his window follows which contrasts with his inner state. All is peaceful, “There’s a smell of hay and of something else very good”—this heightens his anxiety. Chekhov alternates between Nikolai’s abstract thoughts and the concrete descriptive details of his behavior, “I feel as if everything is looking at me and listening in on how I’m going to die….Eerie.” Then Chekov follows the descriptive specifics to build a picture of Nikolai’s state: “I close the window and run to my bed. I feel my pulse and, not finding it in my wrist, search for it in my temples, then under my chin, then again in my wrist, and it’s all cold, clammy with sweat.” As the scene progresses, Chekhov continues to maximize the effect of the outdoor elements on Nikolai’s distressed psyche; a bird sounds, “Kee-wee, kee-wee!” Chekhov renders Nikolai’s reaction in abstract language, “My God! How frightening!” then moves into concrete illustration with the second line: “I’d drink more water, but I’m scared to open my eyes and afraid to raise my head.”

Next, Nikolai is forced to deal immediately with a larger external circumstance, complicating his emotional state even more as the stakes involve another character, his ill daughter. Chekhov lingers upon a certain moment, allowing a glimpse into a different emotion for Nikolai, brought on by the turn which occurs when his wife summons him at his door: “All right…with pleasure…’ I mutter, very pleased that I’m not alone.” The feeling is fleeting, however, as his internal state of fear has not been altered and so again assumes command. “Bright spots from her candle leap over the steps of the stairway, our long shadows quiver, my legs get tangled in the skirts of my dressing gown, I’m out of breath, and it seems to me as if something is pursuing me and wants to seize me by the back. ‘I’m going to die right now, here on the stairs,’ I think.” Chekhov’s details lure us more deeply into the scene and heighten the suspense with the language used to describe the outward action and inward thoughts: shadows “quiver,” his legs are “tangled,” and he feels pursued.

However, the following action in which Nikolai tends to Liza causes a significant change in his inner state. Chekhov accomplishes this complex process in a precise way. After Nikolai’s dialogue with Liza when he tries to comfort her with his wife assisting, a memory surfaces: “…in that moment the recollection comes to me of how we used to bathe our children together.” While Chekhov does not immediately elaborate on this memory by dwelling in Nikolai’s thoughts, the continuation of the action and playing out of external circumstances shows us how Nikolai’s state is in flux. In comforting the daughter and admitting his own inability to help, his own psyche is reassured as well as Liza’s. When a dog howls outside, Nikolai has a long reaction in thought and feeling. He attempts to dismiss this outward event as an insignificant, yet his “heart is painfully wrung.” In tending to others, he is able to forget his fear of approaching death; Chekhov shows us this by describing the emotional state of Nikolai as a “heaviness, a tedium,” in the man’s soul. Now, the former anxiety is no longer apparent in Chekhov’s description of Nikolai. The external details match his frozen internal state, and Nikolai’s behavior corresponds: “I stand motionless for along time in the middle of the room, trying to think up something to prescribe for Liza, but the moaning through the ceiling quiets down, and I decide not to prescribe anything, and still I stand there…”

The external manifestation of one character’s effect on others is exemplified in the introduction of Mikhail Fyodorovich. The scene is set up in medias res with Nikolai and Katya. Chekhov begins with a paragraph describing Mikhail’s background, physical characteristics, and mannerisms. He illustrates Mikhail further through Nikolai’s observations of Mikhail as the scene progresses, describing his tone, gestures and his facial expressions as he speaks, and thus we’re able to grasp Nikolai’s attitude toward his old colleague through the language of the description: “When he takes a glass from Katya, or listens to some remark of hers, or follows her with his eyes when she momentarily leaves the room for some reason, I notice in his glance something meek, prayerful, pure…”

Each character in the scene, his or her emotions and behavior, affects the emotional state and actions of the others. Should Chekhov have failed to pay adequate attention to Mikhail, he would fail to capture important insights brought about by the reactions of Nikolai and Katya—and ultimately fail to completely portray the changing states of character necessary to render a resonating, unified story arc and moment of epiphany. In “A Boring Story,” Chekhov demonstrates aptly that the “how” is just as vital as the “what” and the “who.”

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Summary vs. Scene in Isaac Babel’s “The Story of My Dovecot”

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Isaac Babel’s “The Story of My Dovecot” begins almost entirely in summary, allowing the necessary background information to be revealed prior to the latter half of the story that is depicted in a long scene involving the protagonist’s life-changing experience of the death of Shoyl. As stated in his title and first line, “In my childhood I very much wanted to have a dovecot,” the summarized details and the scenic action centers on this singular desire from which relevant characters, social complications, details of setting emerge like spokes on a wheel. This beginning line determines Babel’s subsequent organizational method of “revealing and concealing” information in order to follow that line of character desire through to the end, when the “want” has played out and the protagonist has reaped the consequences. Since the catalyst for the epiphany comes from the scenically drawn-out events beginning at the hunter’s market and following, the summarized build-up prior to those moments of live action carries a heavy responsibility in order to render a significant emotional weight at the conclusion.

The first paragraphs set the stakes by giving the relevant information about the protagonist’s family situation in relation to the ethnic community and the era, the statistics for entrance into the school and his fondness for learning. As the details build in importance, surrounding the first significant event, that of his taking the entrance exam, Babel moves from exposition into the moment when the protagonist must prove what he has learned: “I knew by heart the section about Peter the Great from Putsykovich’s book and the poem by Pushkin. I recited that poem in a violent sob; florid human faces suddenly rolled into my eyes and shifted about there like the cards from a new pack. They were shuffled at the bottom of my eyes, and in these moments, trembling, straightening up, in haste, I shouted Pushkin’s stanzas with all my might.” The transition from summary to scene occurs subtly; Babel moves from relaying the study habits and relationship with an influential teacher to grounding the story on the day of the exam. From there he moves inward, to the state of the protagonist as he faces his task, and then uses clear language to signal the shift to precise action taking place, “in these moments, trembling, straightening up…”

The short schoolyard scene which shows the protagonist learning of his admittance follows as a necessary pause in the story, an earned dramatic moment after all the summarized detail given about the difficulty of making it into the school. Babel’s scene pays off the suspense of taking the test before launching again into summary and had he skipped over this moment and summarized, an opportunity to further build the story by scenic, emotional layering would have been lost, the story gone flat.

Next, the numerous reactions of family members and the community is given in summary, largely due to the happy, unproblematic conditions for the characters in this part of the story. Babel returns to the focus broached in the beginning: the dovecot. Once again he transitions carefully into the scene, using his final opportunity to give critical relevant historic information at this last point before jumping off into action, where such information would bog down and interrupt the playing out portion of the story. We learn that Tsar Nicholas I was giving the Russian people a constitution. What follows are external images coinciding with the political situation: “At night there was the sound of shooting, and Mother did not want me to go to the hunters’ market.” The scene starts when the protagonist runs to the market and describes the people there.

The rest of the story unfolds rapidly, and Babel uses the scene to slow down and focus on the events as the protagonist encounters and reacts to them. While buying the doves he hears of his grandfather’s supposed death, and the cripple Makarenko crushes the dove against the boy’s face. The moment, drawn out with precise details, shows the process by which his childish hopes end as he must now face the reality of the world around him. Babel writes,

“Soft dove guts crept over my forehead, and I closed a last unstuck eye so as not to see the world that was spreading about before me. That world was small and horrible….I closed my eyes so as not to see it, and I pressed myself against the earth that lay beneath me in calming numbness.”

By slowing down the action nearly to a stop in the passing seconds as the boy lies there, Babel can then transition from the external happenings inward to give us the psychological effect. To stay with the protagonist as he continues his inward transformation of seeing the world differently, the scene continues in the same vein. The following details of sensory perception are rendered precisely, in order to show the psychological effect of each: “My earth smelt of moist entrails, of the grave and of flowers. I smelt its odour and began to weep without any fear.” Babel uses the external to render the internal. In contrast, the absence of providing such scenic detail by summarizing over the event, or by giving too much exposition on the protagonist’s abstract, inner state, would cause the story to lose its impact almost entirely with the reader. The connection of how the event caused the catharsis within the character would not be clear, e.g., shown and felt emotionally.

The impact of this event, its dramatic payoff, is largely the result of the story stayed focused on the tension/desire presented in the first line. The character’s desire builds up the expectation of the eventual childhood dream of the dovecot coming to fruition, the achievement of his place in the world, his identity thus far, is rendered largely through the summary and short scene concerning the school exams. The initial desire driving the story line places importance on the attaining of the dovecot so when the moment comes, Babel lets it play out in scene, using external details, so that the extreme loss is felt.

Looking backwards over the story from the resolution, the necessity of the exposition of his life prior to going to the hunters’ market becomes more clear; without an intimate knowledge of his childhood world, the gravity of its fall in the moment the dove is crushed so gruesomely, and all it represents, would have little effect. Furthermore, the summary anchors the story in the overarching facts of time and place that makeBabel’s world a more believable one socially, economically and politically. This scope gives the boy’s experience added significance by placing his life in larger communal context. While the scenes enable it to probe the innermost human depths, the summary within “The Story of My Dovecot” gives it breadth and allow the story to achieve dramatic unity.

 

 

Some thoughts upon reading Lewis Hyde’s “The Gift”

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“I would ask you to remember only this one thing,” said Badger. “The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each other’s memory. This is how people care for themselves. One day you will be good story-tellers. Never forget these obligations.” -From Crow and Weasel by Barry Lopez

I recently encountered this quote by writer Barry Lopez, and the words lingered with me long after I flitted away from the computer, perhaps because the passage echoed another reading experience. The night before I had finished a novel by Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake, and at the end I marveled at Atwood’s ability to tell a great tale—one that is not only well-crafted, but matters in these days and times. In Atwood’s post-apocalyptic world and in the midst of the protagonist Jimmy’s unending search for food and survival, he resorts to inventing a myth to explain the circumstances of what’s happened to the survivors who lack the ability to understand. And the reader senses, in such a hopeless, ravaged situation, how Jimmy needs the story almost as much as his listeners. “Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive,” Lopez writes. Quite often that person is the listener in the auditorium, the reader on his couch. But sometimes that person is the writer herself.

What does the obligation to be a good story-teller mean, if the obligation to care for ourselves is two-fold—for the writer and for the audience, both? I write because I have to explore and understand the world around me; it is a way of being and as essential as food or drink. Thus the obligation to which Lopez refers is to serve myself in addition to my readers—even before them. This has led me to seek opportunities that feed the habit of writing alongside the refinement of craft. I spent much of 2008 traveling and writing in Latin America and from this experience mined rich material for exploration: an expatriate American woman’s search to find her dogs stolen by bandidos; the unlikely reappearance of Jesus on a remote surfing beach.

I need look no further to answer the question of how to care for stories: my best writing has emerged from the windows of time when I could plunge into a fictional world without the distraction of the job-juggle, one eye on the page and the other on the stack of portfolios to grade. Increasingly, my best writing arises when I can enter that imaginative world completely, for hours and days at a time if necessary, with the studious leisure at hand to pull an anthology from the shelf and hunt for a tale that might serve as a magical realist model, or to converse with one of my close reader/editor friends for an hour as we both scrutinize scenes from each other’s work. There are two obligations of a good story-teller—to serve the craft of writing and to also serve the question of what matters to herself and to her fellow human beings. If the care required is time and space in which to sharpen craft skills among a like-minded group of practicing artists, write, revise, and write, and read literary works with a pencil, then the writer must seek out that opportunity; if the care is taking a long walk in an effort to face what really needs to be written, what the writer needs to discover for herself, then the writer must seek out that, too. Both are essential to the creation of ever-lasting work which arises from and explores the meaning and mysteriousness of life.

My goals in the decades ahead are to write as much as possible and continue to improve my skills, in short fiction and also the novel form, and bring my work to the highest literary quality possible. I am interested in how the use of imagery and rhetorical devices bring resonance and unity to fiction, how authors have employed this successfully in their works and to what effect. I enjoy flexing my writerly muscles by trying different styles and types of stories—historical, magical realist, speculative, etc. In both forms, character development and pacing pose the greatest challenge; I am endlessly fascinated with unlocking the protagonist’s yearning and the why of the story.

But I also hope to sink deeper into my habit of being a writer, to grow in generosity of spirit among my fellow writers as much as in the sense of employing skill-set and producing an award-winning manuscript. I hope to care for the stories of my fellow writers as much as my own, and in doing so, nurture the eternal literary conversation of which we are all a part. I look forward to spending years immersed in the community of practicing writers who are striving to make great art and learning from each other as well as from the masters who’ve come before us. Discussing and exchanging manuscripts will comprise a great part of my future. And I hope to create a body of stories that will one day mirror the depth and breadth of Margaret Atwood’s, but also with the wisdom of how to, as Barry Lopez states, “give them away where they are needed.”