The Master of the Short Story: Anton Chekhov

Every fiction student is taught that Anton Chekhov was the master of the short story.  I had friends who made it a point to read every short story he wrote, over two hundred.  Raymond Carver, another master of the short story, wrote the short story, “The Errand,” as a tribute to Chekhov.  Francine Prose, in her book, Reading Like a Writer,  devoted a whole chapter to Chekhov.

Chekhov was born in 1860 in Russia.  He wrote short stories and plays and was a doctor.   He died when he was 44.

Here’s one thing he said about writing:

In my opin­ion a true descrip­tion of nature should be very brief and have the char­ac­ter of rel­e­vance. Com­mon­places such as “the set­ting sun bathed the waves of the dark­en­ing sea, poured its pur­ple gold, etc.”—“the swal­lows fly­ing over the sur­face of the water tit­tered merrily”—such com­mon­places one ought to aban­don. In descrip­tions of nature one ought to seize upon the lit­tle par­tic­u­lars, group­ing them in such a way that, in read­ing, when you shut your eyes you get the picture.

For instance you will get the full effect of a moon­lit night if you write that on the mill­dam, a lit­tle glow­ing star­point flashed from the neck of a bro­ken bot­tle, and the round black shadow of a dog or a wolf emerged and ran, etc….

You can find all of his short stories at 201 Stories by Anton Chekhov.  Here’s a taste of his writing, the masterful end to “Gustev”:

After that another dark body appeared. It was a shark. It swam under Gusev with dignity and no show of interest, as though it did not notice him, and sank down upon its back, then it turned belly upwards, basking in the warm, transparent water and languidly opened its jaws with two rows of teeth. The harbour pilots are delighted, they stop to see what will come next. After playing a little with the body the shark nonchalantly puts its jaws under it, cautiously touches it with its teeth, and the sailcloth is rent its full length from head to foot; one of the weights falls out and frightens the harbour pilots, and striking the shark on the ribs goes rapidly to the bottom.

Overhead at this time the clouds are massed together on the side where the sun is setting; one cloud like a triumphal arch, another like a lion, a third like a pair of scissors. . . . From behind the clouds a broad, green shaft of light pierces through and stretches to the middle of the sky; a little later another, violet-coloured, lies beside it; next that, one of gold, then one rose-coloured. . . . The sky turns a soft lilac. Looking at this gorgeous, enchanted sky, at first the ocean scowls, but soon it, too, takes tender, joyous, passionate colours for which it is hard to find a name in human speech.


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