In reading a collection of short stories by Anton Chekhov I have noticed a number of recurring themes. I have commented in a previous blog on one of them: the conviction on Chekhov’s part that in great measure a person’s good fortune is simply a matter of luck. Another theme that recurs is the conviction that one person’s good fortune is only possible as a result of the hard work, suffering, and even death of others less fortunate. This is a thought that may or may not be true, but it is almost certainly one that never crosses the minds of very wealthy folks, like the Koch brothers, for example, who have earned their millions by sending the less fortunate to work in their coal mines and oil fields to sweat and strain so the brothers can use their millions to live the high life and attempt to buy a government. Nor does it occur, I dare say, to John Schnatter the founder of Papa John’s pizza chain whose employees work for minimum wage and are cajoled into voting for the candidate of the owner’s choice at election time. And one must wonder how much time the descendants of Sam Walton have spent worrying about the thousands of exploited workers who sweat and toil so the Walton heirs can sleep on silk sheets and eat at the best restaurants. In any event, it does seem to me to be a thought worth considering and I have selected a couple of passages from two short stories by Chekhov to convey the rather persuasive way he presents his case.
In the first case, “Gooseberries,” the narrator has this reflection:
“obviously the happy man feels good only because the unhappy bear their burden silently, and without that silence happiness would not be possible. It’s a general hypnosis. At the door of every contented, happy man somebody should stand with a little hammer, constantly tapping, to remind him that unhappy people exist, that however happy he may be, sooner or later life will show him its claws, some calamity will befall him — illness, poverty, loss — and nobody will hear or see, just as he doesn’t hear or see others now. But there is nobody with a little hammer, the happy man lives on, and the petty cares of life stir him only slightly, as the wind stirs an aspen — and everything is fine.”
We hear the echoes of the notion that good fortune and happiness are a matter of luck, and as Chekhov says in another place, quoting Pushkin, “Dearer to us than a host of truths is an exalting illusion.” Indeed. But the notion that happiness for one person rides on the backs of misery for countless others is repeated in another of Chekhov’s stories, “On Official Business,” where the narrator, a coroner investigating the apparent suicide of an impoverished man, after a sleepless night in which he was haunted by dreams, reflects as follows:
“What [the men in his dream] sang had occurred to him before, but this thought had somehow sat behind other thoughts in his head and flashed timidly, like a distant lantern in misty weather. And he felt that this suicide and the peasant’s grievances lay in his conscience too; to be reconciled with the fact that these people, submissive to their lot, heaped on themselves what was heaviest and darkest in life — how terrible it was! To be reconciled with that, and to wish for oneself a bright, boisterous life among happy, contented people, and to dream constantly of such a life, meant to dream of new suicides by overworked, careworn people, or by weak neglected people, whom one sometimes talked about with vexation or mockery over dinner, but whom one did not go to help.”
At the end of the second of Chekhov’s stories above, the beadle, a poor man, dressed in tatters, who works hard to keep body and soul together, struggles on foot through the deep snows left by a blizzard that fell overnight and has kept the coroner and his doctor friend trapped at a friend’s house a mile out of town; he hopes to find them and assist them on their way back into town. He remarks with a mixture of relief and concern that “Folks are very worried, the kids are crying . . . .We thought you’d gone back to [Moscow], Your Honor. For God’s sake, take pity on us, dear benefactors. . . ” But, as Chekhov says with stinging irony, “The doctor and the coroner said nothing, got into the sleigh, and drove to Syrnya.” The beadle, of course, will walk back to town through the deep snow. No thanks, no tip. He doesn’t really expect any. After a night of soul-searching on the coroner’s part, it’s back to business as usual.
Indeed it is a truth that should challenge our cherished illusions that those who are careworn and suffer in this culture are dismissed “over dinner” by the contented fat-cats as lazy and shiftless. And yet it is precisely those people, struggling to keep their heads above the poverty level, who make the easy life possible for the fat-cats.