Sunday, October 25, 2020

"A Doctor's Visit" (1898)

In many ways this story by Anton Chekhov is another that speaks to the gathering social unrest in Russia at the turn of the 20th century. The doctor of the title, a young man still in the early part of his career, is called to the house of a factory owner to attend the family's only daughter, who is 20 and showing symptoms of heart problems. The family patriarch is dead, but the estate is vast, with the factory itself and accommodations for the workers as well as the family mansion, which now houses only the widow, the daughter, and a governess. The story has a good deal of social awareness, as the doctor observes the poor living conditions of the workers, the constant din of the factory, how much the governess enjoys the fine dining and living conditions and how it contrasts with the lives of everyone else there. But the story seems most alive when it involves the doctor's interactions with the young heiress, Liza. It appears the heart malady is more the result of anxiety, with some suggestion that she is suffering from the disparity of her wealthy life contrasted with all around her (the social focus again, with Communist revolution less than 20 years away, though Chekhov did not know it). There seems to be a connection, perhaps even love, between the doctor and Liza, though it is noted the doctor has a family waiting for him at home. The story could be the beginning of a novel about their romance, so likely does it feel. At first the doctor dismisses Liza (and her mother) as hysterical, but then a second impression of Liza overtakes that: "He saw a soft, suffering expression which was intelligent and touching: she seemed to him altogether graceful, feminine, and simple; and he longed to soothe her, not with drugs, not with advice, but with simple, kindly words." This happens early and immediately charges the story with a tension that is at odds with the subtle critique of income distribution. These two elements continually pull at one another even as Liza and the doctor make their tentative connections. The doctor is implored to stay overnight even though it is inconvenient for him. I have the impression it's his budding interest in Liza that ultimately convinces him to stay. As he broods and frets about her and the troubling factory scene, unable to sleep, the essential tension always remains central: "One is shy of asking men under sentence what they have been sentenced for," he thinks; "and in the same way it is awkward to ask very rich people what they want so much money for, why they make such a poor use of their wealth, why they don't give it up, even when they see in it their unhappiness." For a story that doesn't appear to have that much going on, there is a fair amount going on here.

Delphi Complete Works of Anton Chekhov

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