Alice Munro and Anton Chekhov Essay

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Alice Munro and Anton Chekhov

The comparative analysis of the stories of two famous contemporary writers Alice Munro and Anton Chekhov gives an opportunity to follow the development of the genre of short stories in Canadian and in Russian literature. Both are stalwarts of their respective literature. Commenting on the greatness of A. Chekhov, E. B. Tager writes: As far as Chekhov is concerned, it is not enough to say that the nineties ushered in a new stage in his literary career, these were the years when Chekhov’s genius was formed and he came to occupy one of the leading places among the greatest exponents of realism in the world literature of that time. (15)

The proliferation of women writers is a remarkable feature of the Canadian literary scene of the second half of this century. It is interesting to note that most of the women writers have taken up the fiction as their favorite genre. Alice Munro opted for short story genre. In her early period of her literary career, her mastery as a short story writer is amply revealed. In an interview to Graeme Gibson, Munro said “— I grew up in a rural community, a very traditional community—. The concern of everyone else I know was dealing with life on a very practical level—” (246). Both the writers wrote stories under different circumstances of social life, customs, cultures, traditions, family surroundings, etc. in Ontario and Russia.

What is the significance of comparing both the writers? Chekhov comes to help in this regard when he writes in 1888: “It is possible to gather all the best of the creations of artists of all ages and using the scientific method find out the common factors which stipulate their value” (218). With this perspective at the back of mind, let us see Munro and Chekhov. The article writer has no intention of looking into literary links between the two countries. Nor does it necessary to analyse the historical surroundings. The main objective is to make a comparative study of the artistic merits of Munro and Chekhov as short story writers. Alice Munro’s work is often compared with the great short story writers. For example, the American writer Cynthia Ozick wrote, “She is our Chekhov, and is going to outlast most of her contemporaries.”

There are a number of similarities in both these writers. One remarkable similarity reveals from their interviews and writings. Chekhov strives to come closer to the life of ordinary people. He wants in a broader and deeper way to be got acquainted with reality. “If I am a doctor,” wrote Chekhov in 1891, “then I need patients and hospitals, if I am a literary man, then it is necessary for me to live among people” (255). On the other hand, Munro writes about the human condition and relationships seen through the lens of daily life. Munro grew up in Wingham, in Huron County, Ontario, on the banks of the Maitland River. She is able to deal with all sorts of people, and small towns. Another similar point between them is the delineation of women. Chekhov often ponders over the fate of Russian women.

Sophia (“Volodya Senior and Volodya Junior”, 1893) Vera (“In the Native Land”, 1897), Nadya (“The Bride”) are some of the representative of Russian society that Chekhov depicts. Munro was fond of reading southern women writers, like Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Ann Porter, Carson McCullers, as these women “could write about the freakish, the marginal” (Jeanne McCulloch, Mona Simpson, 2). Collections such as The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo & Rose (1977), The Love of a Good Woman (1998), Lives of Girls and Women (1971), and Too Much Happiness (2009), depict the plights of girls, young women and unmarried women.

When Munro was compared to Chekhov for certain similarities and differences, Munro expresses her feelings: “I have recently re-read much of Chekhov and it’s a humbling experience. I don’t even claim Chekhov as an influence because he influenced all of us. Like Shakespeare his writing shed the most perfect light – there is no striving in it, no personality. Well, of course, would not I love to do that!” (Internet: “A Conversation with Alice Munro”).

There are critics and reviewers who have or share different opinions. According to The New Review, “The comparison to Chekhov is absurd, both qualitatively and innovatively. She even pales besides someone like Doris Lessing, who also trumps her in quality and daring” (Internet,I). The New Review further observes: “She is more like Canada’s Eudora Welty, although her tales are less brocaded and ornate. Yet they are dull, as she seems to be obsessed with her own ideas of her past, like too many workshop writers of the present, but her biggest flaw is that she simply is predictable” (Internet, I).

However, there are critics and reviewers who compare Chekhov with Munro. Cynthia Ozick eulogizes her saying that Munro is “one of our greatest contemporary writers of fiction— our Chekhov” (Internet, I).

Alice Munro is routinely spoken of in the same breath as Anton Chekhov. She resembles the Russian master in a number of ways. She is fascinated with the failings of love and work and has an obsession with time and our much – lamented inability to delay or prevent its relentless movement forward. A frequent theme of her work – particularly evident in her early stories – has been the dilemmas of a girl coming of age and coming to terms with her family and the small town she grew up in. In recent works such as Hatehip, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (2001) and Runaway (2004) she has shifted her focus to the travails of middle age, of women alone and of the elderly.

There is the same penetrating psychological insight. Like Chekhov, Munro focuses her attention not on the external events, but on the internal life of the heroes and heroines of her stories. In Munro’s fictional universe, as in Chekhov’s, plot is of secondary importance: all is based on the epiphanic moment, the sudden enlightenment, the concise, subtle, revelatory detail. Chekhov builds up the plots with great mastery. Very often these are rich in events. But even in these cases it is not the events which are of primary importance but the process of spiritual evolution of the heroes of his stories. Events interest the another to the extent they leave their mark on the spiritual life of the heroes. In the construction of plots, we find there is a lot in common between the stories of Munro and Chekhov.

Another signification feature of Munro’s is the (typically Canadian) is the connection to the land, to what Margaret Atwood has called a “harsh and vast geography” (2). Munro is attuned to the shifts and colours of the natural world, to life lived with the wilderness. Her skill at describing the constituency of the environment is equal to her ability to get below the surface of the lives of her characters.

Munro and Chekhov set their stories in the small towns. Most of the stories of Chekhov focus on Sakhalin, a place that gave much of the subject for his novels. Chekhov reflects upon the bourgeois society that is responsible for many victims. Munro has all praise for small towns as settings. As she says: When you live in small town, you hear more things, about all sorts of people. In a city you mainly hear stories about your own sort of people. If you are a woman there’s always a lot from your friends.— In a city, I would only have read about it in the paper; I wouldn’t have picked up all the threads. (Jeanne McCulloch and Mona Simpson, 1) Most of the stories are set in a fictionalized version of Huron County. Her stories insist on exploring economic and cultural specificity of this milieu, and she has sought to capture the rhythm and idiom of the region.

One of the main artistic methods used by Chekhov is his objectivity in depicting reality. Commenting on Chekhov’s method of narration, A.P. Chadakuv, the Soviet critic observes: “The final victory of an objective manner of narration was during 1889-1890— Just in the year 1890 Chekhov formulated his aesthetic credo, his main artistic principle – the principle of objectivity” (22). S. Ramaswamy, inhis article on “The Art of Alice Munro” (2009), comments that “It is a sort of self-reflexive narrative and the “I-narrator’s” involvement with two “husbands” and interesting characters” (80).

Ramaswamy, analyses the art of technique of Something I Have Been Meaning to Tell You (1974) and says “This technique of the writer commenting on the writing while writing it is what makes it the self-conscious, self-reflexive ‘metafiction’. This technique is best illustrated in Alice Munro’s putting a few lines in the italics and then objectively commenting on them herself in the next lines in ordinary print” (80-81). Reviewing the short story form one notices that both the writers, Chekhov and Munro have successfully used the form in an innovative manner to highlight the predicament and dilemma of men and women.

A close look at artistic features of the stories of Munro and Chekhov shows that they were not only great masters but also the innovators in this field.

WORKS CITED

Basu, Sankar. Chekhov And Tagore. New Delhi: Sterling, 1985.
Chekhov, A. P. Complete Collected Works. Vol. 14 (tr. S. B.) Moscow, 1949. Print
Chudakov, A. P. Poetics of Chekhov. Moscow, 1971. (tr. S. B.) Print
Gibson, Graeme. Eleven Canadian Novelists. Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 1973. Print
Mc Culloch, Jeanne. etal. Alice Munro The Art of Fiction No. 137 The Paris Review.
Munro, Alice. Something I Have Been Meaning to Tell You. London: Vintage, 1974. Print.
Ramaswamy, S. “The Art of Alice Munro”. The Literary Criterion. Vol. XLIV. No. 2, 2009
Tager, E. B. Russian Literature at the end of 19th century, and the Beginning of the 20th century, Vol. I Moscow, 1968. (tr. S. B.)
Electronic Material:
1. The New Review.
www.laurahird.com
2. Relatable short stories by Alice Munro
Susanmarlow. Dec 2011

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