Posted by: zhiv | March 22, 2009

Chekhov8: Doctors and Literature

I have no doubt that my study of medicine had a serious influence on my literary activity; it extended the area of my observations considerably, enriched me with knowledge whose true value for me as a writer can be understood only by someone who is himself a doctor.

This quote from Chekhov appears in Boris Eichenbaum’s excellent 1944 essay, “Chekhov at Large,” which is included in the 1967 collection of “Twentieth Century Views” edited by Robert Louis Jackson. Eichenbaum writes:

Chekhov was a doctor and it was not without reason that precisely a doctor should have turned to literarture in the 1880s. Medicine was precious to him both as a true method for obtaining knowledge of man and society, and as a scientific support for artistic observation and analysis of material. A writer who thinks about life seriously needs such scientific support–just so as not to fall into subjectivism, not to yield to personal conceptions, not to lose a sense of the whole, not to leave the circle of life.

Eichenbaum lays out the development of Chekhov’s literary practice in a straightforward way that makes it seem so obvious and simple that we wonder why we didn’t get it. Writing short sketches to make money as a medical student, Chekhov brought a scientific and medical approach to writing, and his earliest work consisted of efforts to identify, classify, and diagnose characters from real life. The idea, following again from medicine and science, was to record the significant details of the case, and to exclude any extraneous elements and commentary. Chekhov began with a comic sense and purpose, noting characters involved in small ironic incidents, but his progress was relatively swift in approaching more serious subjects. As Eichenbaum puts it, he moved on to “treatment.”

Eichenbaum does a neat job placing Chekhov in the context and growth of Russian Literature, noting how Turgenev began the move towards realism and shorter subjects. Chekhov, it seems, was much more clinical and it’s quite enlightening to make the obvious connection to the practice of medicine, although I’ll argue below that it was anticipated and laid out by Turgenev himself. Eichenbaum moves on to another important, related observation. As Chekhov developed his literary practice and it became more sophisticated, he became obsessed with brevity and simplicity, and the mature stories are condensed and compacted novelistic themes and subjects, artfully reduced to the most basic and telling elements, moves, and turns. But then there is a critical shift. Like any writer, and especially one working in the shadows of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, as well as Turgenev, Chekhov expected to write novels and expand his efforts to larger canvases with more characters and events. But his scientific/medical method, so deeply committed to allowing characters to speak for themselves, caused him to turn in a different direction, and the culmination of his work turned out to be dramatic writing. Eichenbaum draws a straight, compelling line of argument of how the masterful playwright is a logical end product of the sketch-writing medical student. It seems almost ridiculously obvious, but it’s certainly worth noting, and I can’t say that I ever had the faintest inkling of making the connections myself.

This prompted me to think and reflect on doctors as they appear in literature, just to note the sequence of what I’ve read in recent years that’s still semi-familiar. The reason, I guess, is that given this approach in and to Chekhov, it just might mean something when a doctor shows up in 19th century literature. After reading Uncle Vanya, with its own narcissistic failed professor, I thought about Casaubon and Middlemarch (1871), and I was reminded of the central character Lydgate, the doctor whose ambition matches and complements the yearnings of Dorothea Brooke. Lydgate’s dreams of scientific glory are reduced to the “It’s a Wonderful Life” compromises at the heart of Middlemarch, and there’s obviously all sorts of meat on that bone with reference to Chekhov.

I started looking at the Russians again a couple of years ago, when my daughter took a high school class on 19th century Russian culture–I might have mentioned this in my first Chekhov post, since that’s what got me started. Gathering the pertinent books scattered around my library and putting them on a single shelf, I remembered how I had travelled what seems to be the standard path, from Crime and Punishment to Anna Karenina to Brothers Karamazov to War and Peace, with a few tangents along the way, starting to power through all of this around the age of 20 (when I went to the Soviet Union on a 1979 Eurotrip, btw), about the same time I had read Middlemarch. As my daughter began her own Russian reading journey, I started reading Chekhov for the first time, and that was when I read Lady with a Dog and The Seagull and a few other stories. But the other text that was lying around, that had been sitting there for years unread and barely noticed, was Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons. And perhaps it was because it was simultaneous with my first real exposure to Chekhov, but I was quite struck by the medical student/nihilist Bazarov, who is a proto-revolutionary and really quite extraordinary. There seems to be an almost direct line between Bazarov and Chekhov’s own education, life, and work.

And Turgenev’s creation of Bazarov seems not just to have made an important impression on Chekhov, but to have marked an entire epoch, the rise of the “60’s generation.” Of course “the holy 60’s” (as Eichenbaum notes Chekhov calling the decade) and “the 60’s generation” is an intriguing echo for us today–how is it that the same thing seems to have happened in the 20th century? We don’t make the connection so readily here in America, that the 1860s were a lot like the 1960s, because the Civil War seems at first to be such a different kind of conflict from the Civil Rights Movement, the Viet Nam War, and the Cold War, but once you start to look at it there’s a lot to think about.

I read Fathers and Sons about a year before I started “doing this blogging thing,” and I kind of miss having a record of my impressions and their context. A quick glance at the background of Turgenev shows the close connection to the next, or rather the first, literary doctor of note in the sequence: Flaubert’s Charles Bovary. Madame Bovary (1856) is well-known as a revolutionary book for all sorts of reasons, and on this blog the Flaubert-Fitzgerald-Yates line of influence is in the midst of being updated to include Chekhov. I don’t readily think of the medical aspect of Flaubert’s novel, but it’s there nonetheless and isn’t especially suprising. And in Flaubert’s characteristic manner, Charles Bovary isn’t much of a doctor.

What I didn’t know is that Turgenev, after writing his Sportsman’s Sketches (1852), which contributed to the emancipation of the serfs and must have been an important model for Chekhov (I was never much interested in reading it, but now I guess I have a good reason), moved to Paris in 1854 and eventually became friends and closely connected to Flaubert. In this context, the appearance of the medical student Bazarov in 1862 makes a lot of sense. And I’ll add in the fact that cursory research shows me both Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy broke with Turgenev, over the latter’s belief that the best path for Russia was to embrace Western European values and habits. It will be interesting to find out what Chekhov’s estimation of Turgenev was, twenty years later, and his influence on him. And I’ll mention that in the Russian Lit class my daughter took last semester, they read Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Gorky, and no Turgenev. So what do I know.

The last doctor in literature I want to note is Sarah Orne Jewett’s 1884 “A Country Doctor,” which I read and wrote about last April (my linking skills are truly primitive–it’s got to be incredibly simple too, which is maddening. This blog needs a little sprucing up, I know.) SOJ, like just about everybody else apparently, started out writing sketches and was originally established as and long thought to be simply a “local color” and regional writer. Her first novel Deephaven, which was shepherded by WD Howells (see the last Chekhov post), is a loose connection of sketches in which a pair of young women immerse themselves in the life of a fading Maine seaport town. Jewett was much more ambitious in her second, more traditionally structured novel, ACD. Her father was a doctor (as was the father of her partner Annie Adams Fields), and her book was an homage to him and was based on her medical studies and interests. In creating a heroine who rejects marriage to become a doctor, SOJ was also writing metaphorically about feminism and literary practice. Her book and background shows that she was amongst the happy few “with knowledge whose true value to me (Chekhov) can be understood only by some one who is himself a doctor.” Or herself, in this case.

Any other 19th century literary doctors we might be thinking about? Trollope’s Dr. Thorne somehow glides into the background mist–not remember much of interest, or much of anything at all there. But I suppose the most obvious next step here would be to look carefully at the doctors in Chekhov as they turn up–I can think of three that I’ve found so far.



  1. Here’s a handy collection of Chekhov’s stories with doctors.,M1

  2. Balzac often uses a doctor (Bianchon) as a stand-in for the narrator, or for himself. But Bianchon is never, that I can remember at the center of a story – he’s an observer.

    Curious, though, that the diffuse, disorganized Balzac identified himself with a doctor who, over the course of the Comedie Humaine, becomes the greatest docotr in Paris.

    “The Atheist’s Mass” is actually about a doctor. Bianchon discovers that an older colleague, an avowed atheist, goes to Mass once a year, and tries to discover why.

  3. AR — Good stuff, as always. I’ll try to find “The Atheist’s Mass” at some point. I don’t remember Bianchon from any of the Balzac I read, but it was a while ago, as I’ve mentioned before. I thought of you when your man T. Storm (“the master of the novella,” it said) came up in something I was reading, it might have been about Turgenev.

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