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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