Adventures in Reading

Anton Chekhov on the short story
“Your works lack the compactness that makes short things alive.” From a letter written by Anton Chekhov to E.M. Sh—, Nov. 17, 1895.

I have dipped once into an Anton Chekhov story “The Lady With the Little Dog” from My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead collection edited by Jeffrey Eugenides. I recall enjoying it at the time and I was pleased to stumble across Chekhov again in What is the short story?. A few excerpts from letters further expand on, well, short storiness.

“But you must give the reader no chance to recover: he must always be kept in surprise. … Long, detailed works have their own peculiar aims, which require a most careful execution regardless of the total impression. But in short stories it is better to say not enough than to say too much, because, –because– I don’t know why! …” (a letter from 1888) For anyone who writes, fiction or nonfiction, I am sure it is reassuring that even Chekhov occasionally cannot find the words to express himself. But it’s true. Some short stories due seem to be missing information and I shy away from using the word fragmented but there you are. However, it’s fragmented with purpose.

Seven years later it seems that Chekhov perhaps found a response for his “because” when he explains “When I write, I reckon entirely upon the reader to add for himself the subjective elements that are lacking in the story.” Chekhov is saying this specifically in regards to his lack of combining “art and sermon,” but I also interpret it as applying to the previous statement. Short stories, like poetry, demand that the reader fills in the gaps. It’s easy to say that a short story writer may limit information as a result of space but saying not enough engages the reader in a certain manner. It’s a tool, not a casual convention.

This tactic is explored in novels but the novel will at some point resolve and fill in these gaps. Short stories often beg the reader to take their own account of the situation and define the story for herself. I suppose the short story could be considered a fill-in-the-blank parable where the reader provides her own moral stimulus.

1 Comment

I have a book of his short stories, but I have not read it yet. I like your very tall and slender Chekhov.

Comment by MissDaisyAnne

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