Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Chekhov's subversive endings for stories

Chekhov is often cited as one of the greatest of short story writers.  Still, he seems to be an acquired taste, and perhaps not one to whom a reader might go for shoring up a battered psyche, or to seek some uplifting or inspirational energy.  First readings of Chekhov can be heavy affairs.  Characters sometimes seem hugely stoic, and their complications never seem to resolve; indeed, they seem to arrive at the end of the story no closer to a resolution of their conflicts than at the beginning.  The story seems to have no discernible end.  The vast Russian settings, enormous divergence of living conditions between nobility and peasantry, and the absolute power of one over the other, these elements can inject some tensions into the stories, but basically the stories are more about recurrent ordinary human weaknesses and failings than ennobling examples of struggle and triumph.

Whence, then, the acquired taste for Chekhov's stories?  David Jauss, writing in The Writer's Chronicle, Mar./Apr. 2010, offers some insight.  His article, "Returning Characters to Life: Chekhov's Subversive Endings," examines how Chekhov tends to end his stories by returning his characters to life and the problems created either by their change or their failure to change."  In his stories, even when the character changes, "their changes either fail to last, merely complicate the existing conflict, or create a new and often greater conflict."

Today's writers who have had some exposure to degree programs, seminars, or workshops, usually work within the classic model of beginning with a character who faces some sort of major conflict, the conflict intensifies, often interrupted by other sub-conflicts, until there is some climax at which the problem(s) is resolved, or not, leaving the character changed in some conclusive manner thereafter.  Not so with Chekhov:  "But for all of their apparent inconclusiveness, his stories do have endings; they're just not the kinds of endings favored by...the average viewer of The Sopranos."  Nice touch, that, hey?  "They are subversive endings, endings designed to undercut our expectations and, thereby, force us to examine our conceptions about life and human nature."

Jauss cites and examines a wide array of Chekhov stories to demonstrate the various categories of subversive endings used by Chekhov to such powerful effect.  Jauss says "Many of today's writers write as if unaware of some of the possibilities Chekhov opened up, and thus they end their stories in highly predictable and conventional ways."  Jauss's article is suggested as a worthwhile reference for writers to broaden horizons for structuring their stories.  A list of Chekhov's subversive endings as categorized by Jauss will give some idea of the range and depth of analysis provided:

1)  Anti-Epilogues
2)  Reverse Epilogues
3)  Echo Endings
4)  Chiastic Endings
5)  False Climaxes
6)  Omitted Climaxes
7)  External Climaxes
8)  Temporary Climaxes
9)  Complication-creating Climaxes
10) Conflict-creating Climaxes
11) Extended Anti-Climaxes
12) Shifts in Address, Tense, and/or POV

The chance to revisit and appreciate Chekhov's stories will be an added benefit.
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