Short Story #32. Gooseberries (Anton Chekhov)

Deal Me In Reading Challenge: I drew the six of hearts.

Story: Gooseberries, by Anton Chekhov (available online here)

Comments: According to a dream dictionary, “To see or eat gooseberries in your dream suggests that you are enjoying your time of leisure.”  Is that a universal meaning which Chekhov drew on, or is the dream dictionary basing itself on this story?  In either case, that’s exactly what Nicholai Ivanich does in the tale-within-the-tale here.  He has dreamed all his life of owning a country house with land and all that goes with it, including a gooseberry bush.  And though he starts out as a city-dwelling civil servant, he saves and scrimps and eventually marries a rich widow and makes her too live so frugally that she dies, and then in middle age he is able to buy his longed-for estate, and plant his gooseberry bushes, and act the part of the squire.  Ivan, his brother and the teller of the tale-within-the-tale, visits him when the gooseberries are served at dinner.  Nicholai relishes them, though to Ivan they are bitter.

Ivan tells this tale when he and his travelling companion Bourkin are sheltering from winter rain as unexpected guests at the house of Aliokhin.  He then launches into a tirade about how life should be lived, doing good while one is young and able; about the injustice of poverty and ignorance; about dreams unfulfilled… his idealism does not really inspire or engage his hearers.

So – what are we to think?  Nicholai attains his life’s dream, and is happy, but according to his brother his happiness must be feigned or illusory because the gooseberries are, in fact, sour.  But perhaps to Nicholai they really are sweet?  Whose perception is right?  How can one say that someone else’s perception is illusory (or even that he is lying) simply because it is different to one’s own experience?  And the impassioned speech of Ivan – is it all a refusal of responsibility, this cry “If I were young…” Why does one have to be young to start living the good life?

The most remarkable thing for me in this story is the absence of any explicit reference to a source of morality.  By what standard is Ivan judging what is good?  What is at the basis of his belief system?  Is there some allegedly objective set of norms for guiding human behaviour, or can each one make it up as s/he goes along?

Most of all, perhaps, after reading this story, I really want to go and swim outdoors in the rain!  The description sounded wonderful!