Sunday, August 30, 2020

"Ionitch" (1898)

It's possible that my favorite part of this wry story of love and courtship by Anton Chekhov is that the girl's father is an early but recognizable version of a Dad jokester. "Bongjour," he appears prone to say in greeting. "Not badsome," he assesses things. Chekhov writes, "He knew a number of anecdotes, charades, proverbs, and was fond of being humorous and witty, and he always wore an expression from which it was impossible to tell whether he was joking or in earnest." He's the father of Ekaterina Ivanovna, called Kitten, the girl / woman love interest out there in the isolated hinterlands, where Ionitch has arrived as the village doctor. The story cuts pretty close to the bone on vagaries of love. At first, for no discernible reason other than her family is charming and Kitten is attractive and of age, Ionitch (not to be confused with "bee-yotch," as the father might say in the 21st century) is nutty for her. He's in hot pursuit, steals kisses when he can, and presses her to marry him. As a doctor he is a good prospect. But Kitten is only 18 and desperate to leave the village and study music. She turns him down. Ionitch never saw it coming. Four years later, things are different. Ionitch has discovered he likes his bachelorhood and Kitten has learned she is not an exceptional talent. Now Ionitch looks good to her, but alas her chances with him are not what they were. In fact, he treats her as a bullet dodged, and avoids her after she declares herself. There is an interesting and familiar complexity to this. In many ways it's classic Chekhov because in many ways it's classic human psychology. I have the impression Ionitch is not spiteful about his rejection, though he is unfeeling toward her, which could well be spite. On balance it seems more like he has just realized he doesn't want to be in a relationship. Kitten's declaration is full of humility and pathos. Ionitch's fear of intimacy is palpable. Isn't it thus, perhaps, the better idea for him to live out his days as a single man? Maybe. That's part of what makes this a good story. At the end Ionitch seems to be denying that he ever even knew Kitten's family, which is pathetic, if not pathological. So maybe he is only a weak man after all. Kitten also lives out her life single, with her parents. Sad day when they die! A lot packed into this one.

Delphi Complete Works of Anton Chekhov

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