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The Lonely Voice: 'The Betrothed' By Anton Chekhov

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David Magarshack
Anton Chekhov

It’s easy to feel daunted by the idea of talking about Anton Chekhov’s work because we admire him so much or because so much has already been said by scholars and writers.

Chekhov is often credited with having profoundly influenced the evolution of the modern short story.

Peter Orner Photo by Christopher Ho.jpg
Peter Orner

So what is it that Chekhov manages? It’s complicated. But in the story “The Betrothed,” it has to do with the very obvious, though no less mysterious, issue. The characters in a short story are motivated by all the things they just can’t articulate and that, therefore, those around them can’t begin to understand either.

“The Betrothed” is the author’s last completed story, published in 1903, a year before his death from tuberculosis. The protagonist is Nadya, a young woman, engaged to be in a loveless marriage that she narrowly avoids by doing what runs counter to our expectations for a story set in Russia at the turn of the century. She runs away, leaving her small provincial space to go to school.

Urging her on to commit this act which unmoors her mother and paternal grandmother is distant relative Sasha, a fascinating character who is highly educated but doesn’t do much in his life because he is disabled by tuberculosis.

Nadya sees a future she cannot accept in her mother, Nina — a woman growing older and relying on the good will of her mother-in-law because her husband has died, a woman who immerses herself in books about romantic love that leave her weeping inconsolably, even when she hasn’t read the entire story. While she does, Nadya also stammers through her own ennui, never fully articulating what ails her which is, as we know, the prospect of marrying Andrei, a man who seems able-bodied but still loath to do very much with his time or his life. She wants to avoid living her days in the unkempt rooms of a house where she will read about life but won’t live it, where she will look up one day and be as old as her mother, still crying through the sad parts and never quite committing to read the whole thing.

Anton Chekhov is the author of “The Betrothed.” We shared excerpts from the translations by Constance Garnett, S.S. Koteliansky, and Gilbert Cannan.

Peter Orner is the author of the story collection Maggie Brown & Others. The story “The Deer” is published in that collection. He is the author of five other books.

“The Lonely Voice with Peter Orner” is inspired by the memoir in essays Am I Alone Here?: Notes on Reading to Live and Living to Read by Peter Orner.

Peter Orner holds the professorship in English and creative writing at Dartmouth College.

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Yvette Benavides can be reached at bookpublic@tpr.org.