How to live? Is enlightenment found in hard labour and austerity, or through acquiring knowledge? What is it to live a meaningful existence? These perpetual concerns are Chekhov’s theme in My Life.
Rejecting a professional career, Misail Poloznev, a young nobleman, turns to a life of manual labour and poverty. Censured by his father and derided by small-minded townsfolk, only ‘plump, fair beauty,’ Masha Dolzhikov encourages Misail’s alternative lifestyle. Masha and Misail fall in love, marry, and move to her family’s derelict country home. Though Misail finds a degree of contentment, Masha grows to despise the unruly peasantry and abandons the life that was for her a temporary adventure. Embittered, Misail remains committed to his austere life as a manual labourer.
Chekhov’s response to the questions that underpin this story seem to be that disillusion is at the end of either path. What matters is the choice. Is it possible that Chekhov had access to Kierkegaard?
One must work for a living in order to live – that’s just the way life is – it’s the shabby side of existence. We sleep seven hours out of twenty-four; its wasted time, but it has to be that way. We work five hours our of the twenty-four; it is wasted time, but it has to be that way. By working five hours, a person has his livelihood, and when he has that he begins to live. Now, a person’s work should preferably be as boring and meaningless as possible, just so he has his livelihood from it.
Longer than many of his stories, in My Life Chekhov also demonstrates his tendency to write strong women characters. Both Masha and Misail’s sister, Kleopatra, are every bit as developed as the main protagonist.
This story was new to me, though I have read very many of Chekhov’s shorter stories, and immediately establishes itself as one of my favourites.