The Story of a Nobody
"When a man does not understand a thing," Chekhov says in The Selected Letters, "he feels discord within himself: he seeks causes for this dissonance not in himself, as he should, but outside himself, and the result is war with something he does not understand." In his introduction to the Hesperus edition of The Story of a Nobody, Louis De Bernieres reckons of the three main characters in Chekhov's novella, it is the ironic and cynical womaniser Orlov whom he thinks is the closest to a hero. "For my money Orlov is the most interesting character, because his self-knowledge is absolute. He has no illusions about himself at all, and is perplexed and embarrassed by Zinaida's idolatory. He does have ideals, but he knows that he wouldn't be able to sustain the inconvenience of pursuing them." De Bernieres reckons the other leading characters, Zinaida and the anonymous narrator, are less integrated. Zinaida has left her husband for Orlov, and loses her centre through her obsession with this man who cannot take her seriously. "...she's upset the apple-cart of my life; what until now I had considered a trifle, nonsense, she is forcing me to elevate to the level of a serious question; I'm serving an idol that I never considered a god." De Bernieres might see that the narrator, meanwhile, is in denial. This house servant claims not to love Zinaida himself, but halfway through the story says "she did not know that I, a servant, suffered on her behalf and wondered twenty times or more daily what lay ahead of her and how this would end."
Before the end of the book, after Zinaida is pregnant with Orlov's child, and after the narrator and Zinaida spend time in Venice, Zinaida turns on the narrator, and wonders what his motives are. When the narrator says that Orlov is a coward and a liar, Zinaida says "Oh come on! He's a coward, a liar and he deceived me, but what about you? Excuse my being frank: who are you? He deceived me and abandoned me to my fate in St Petersburg, and you've deceived me and abandoned me here". Is the narrator much better? Orlov at least knows himself, but isn't the narrator in moral denial - desiring Zinaida as much as Orlov ever did, but unwilling to accept that his motives are as low as the womanizing, wealthy Orlov?
From the point of view of Chekhov's comment, though, that "a reasoned life without definite outlook is not a life, but a burden and a horror", none of the characters come out of it too well. None of the characters have a definite outlook, and while Orlov is cynically self-aware, to know that one is going nowhere isn't the same as going somewhere. In the long letter the narrator writes to Orlov before leaving the house where he has been employed, he says "I am sick, weak, morally depressed...", "and I cannot write to you as I would wish. To begin with I had a strong desire to insult and humiliate you, but now I feel that I do not have the right to do so." He asks himself why he is writing at all, and says, later, in the letter that "incidentally, your attitude to women...shamelessness we inherited with our flesh and blood and in shamelessness are we raised, but the reason we are men is that we can try to overcome the beast in us." He also notes of Orlov that "you laugh nastily and vulgarly at ideas of goodness and truth, because you no longer have the power to return to them." Can Orlov be much of a hero, or should we always accept that the novella, like the letter, is from the perspective of someone who is not like Orlov, who does not have the charm and the money of the man he despises?
This is perhaps where Chekhovian irony is at its most pronounced. This isn't the cynical irony of an Orlov, but what we might call the irony of realization. Now if we don't find Orlov a hero it is because while he possesses self-knowledge it is one based on limited feeling. When he asks the narrator why "if you're ill, why is it you work?", and the narrator replies "so as not to die of hunger", Orlov ends by saying, softly, "how essentially foul it all is!" That evening was the first time Orlov had addressed him in a polite tone. He knows himself, perhaps, but doesn't much care for others. Zinaida is obsessed with Orlov but barely knows herself; indeed loses her identity in Orlov, saying "what humiliation...to live together...to smile at me when I'm a burden to him, ridiculous...oh what humiliation!" She is as lucidly aware of her evaporating identity as Orlov is aware of the boundaries of his. But where does that leave the narrator, who admits on the same page that he says he was not in love with Zinaida, that "I knew if I came to love her I could not dare to expect such a miracle as reciprocal feelings"? If Orlov is self-centred, Zinaida's identity de-centred by her love for Orlov, and the narrator's compassionately centred as he doesn't expect his love to be reciprocated, are any of them close to Chekhov's irony of realization?
A good example of this irony comes in the Letters when Chekhov says "Nobody wants to like what is ordinary in us. The consequence is that were we tomorrow to appear like ordinary mortals in the eyes of our good acquaintances, people would stop liking us and only pity us. This is very bad. And it's bad because what people like in us is often what we ourselves do not like or respect in ourselves." This would be an example of ironic realization, as would be a passage from a Chekhov story like 'Misfortune'. "Her thoughts were no less in disorder than her feelings. Mrs Lubynatsev, like everybody else who had experience of the struggle with unpleasant thoughts, tried her utmost not to think of her trouble, but the more zealously she tried the more vividly did she conjure up Ilyan in her imagination..." Chekhov offers no cynicism here; merely the awareness that life contains the paradoxical realization where any perspective is merely one amongst many. Orlov's irony is detached partly because he is not especially emotionally attached to anything in his life. When Zinaida says to Orlov, "Georges, my darling, I'm lost!" "I'm exhausted, worn out and I can't go on, I can't...a depraved, hateful stepmother in my childhood, then, my husband and now you...you...You respond to my mad love with irony and coldness..." we notice the immensity of emotion on Zinaida's part and its all but absence on Orlov's. Neither achieves the irony of realization that would place the perspective between Orlov's relative indifference and Zinaida's obsessiveness.
But the narrator cannot claim a perspective much more balanced than the other two. He might offer brutal truths to Orlov in the letter he writes, but near the end of the novella Zinaida offers a few to him also. Admitting that Orlov was a liar, a coward and a cheat, when Zinaida talks of the narrator deceiving and abandoning her too, she adds, "but at least he didn't drag ideas into his deceit, whereas you..." The narrator replies, "...and now I understand fully with my brain and with my tormented soul that a man either has no purpose, or else it lies in just one thing - selfless love for his neighbour." The narrator then narrates that he wanted to "say more about mercy and exoneration but my voice suddenly sounded insincere and I became embarrassed", well aware that Zinaida's tone suggests she suspects him of "dishonourable intentions."
A few pages later and Zinaida gives birth to a baby and poisons herself to death. The narrator returns from Venice to St Petersburg with the child, trying to persuade Orlov to take responsibility, but though it is Orlov's child Orlov thinks it is Zidaina's ex-husband's duty. "Tis needs to be given thought", he said in a muffled voice, standing with his back to me. "I shall see Pekarsky today and ask him to pay a visit to Krasnovsky. I don't expect Krasnovsky will be difficult for long and I'm sure he'll agree to take the little girl."" After all, moments before, Orlov insists when the narrator says he has important matters to discuss with him, "I'm not a lover of important matters, but I'm glad to be of assistance."
In the introduction to the Letters, Lillian Hellman quotes Chekhov saying, "You hold that I'm intelligent. Yes, I am intelligent in that I...don't lie to myself and don't cover my own emptiness with other people's intellectual rags." Hellman reckons much of Chekhov's intelligence resides in calling a spade a spade: "too much drink was drunkenness; whoring had nothing to do with love; health was when you felt good and brocaded words could not cover emptiness or pretensions or waste. He was determined to see life as it was." Can any of the characters claim the sort of heroism Chekhov would admire - the capacity to see life straight? Is The Story of a Nobody a story of three nobodies? The narrator might be the anonymous figure of no consequence passing through the house of the wealthy, but he is also originally there as a terrorist spying on Orlov's father. However, he says, "I do not know whether it was under the influence or of a change that was already under way, as yet unnoticed, in my outlook, but I was increasingly possessed from day to day by a passionate, nagging desire for the ordinary life of an ordinary person." He does not carry out the actions he arrived to do. But the others are surely nobodies also, with Zinaida a void filled by her love of Orlov, and Orlov a vacuum who cannot countenance anything serious.
De Bernieres however seems to give Orlov value through his very valuelessness. "He despises all classes of men, but would rather be in his own class than any other. He knows his job is a waste of his life, but he quite enjoys the manner of its wasting. He knows that he is intelligent and talented enough to achieve a great deal, but he happily spends all his spare time reading unsystematically and playing cards." De Bernieres adds, "He knows that he just wants a mistress with whom he can have fun when they are both on top form, and he knows that he couldn't be bothered with the proper relationship he is supposed to want." But doesn't this make him even more of a vacuum taking into account a comment Chekhov makes in his Letters? "In all my life, if I can rely upon the repose of my own conscience, neither by word, deed or intention, nor in my stories or plays have I coveted my neighbor's wife, or his manservant, or his ox or his ass, or anything that is my neighbor's; I have not stolen, dissembled, flattered the powerful or sought their favour..."
This value that Chekhov espouses could hardly allow a figure like Orlov to be much of a hero, or even, as De Bernieres says, an especially interesting character. Indeed the significance of the book lies in how to write a work of moral purpose without a moral centre carrying it. There is no character with whom one can identify, and rather than agreeing with De Bernieres that we can choose our hero; more important is surely to read not so much between the lines as between the characters: to try and find ethical import in the gaps. When the narrator writes to Orlov what he says is not untrue. Orlov is all that the narrator claims he is, but the narrator is hardly a person of authority judging another. Consequently we're best reading the story from the position not of moral identification, for there is nobody who justifies our fellow feeling, but from that place of rueful awareness: the Chekhovian ironic realization we talked about earlier.
If this is true we may assume that the narrator is what we might call morally unreliable because though he takes the moral high ground throughout the story, is he totally devoid of low-motives? He may denigrate Orlov, but then near the end of the story Zinaida of course questions the narrator's own high-mindedness. As we've noted, he admits after talking about love for one's neighbour being the most important goal in life that he notices the insincerity in his voice. From this point of view while it is evident Orlov has a better grasp of reality, as he refuses the sentimental that the narrator can offer but cannot perhaps quite believe this is really where his intentions lie, this is still far from Chekhovian well-being. When at the end of the novella Orlov talks about the letter the narrator sends, he says: "I'm not preaching indifference by any means, I just want an objective attitude to life. The more objective, the less risk of falling into error. You need to look into the root and seek in everything the cause of all causes." But this hardly makes him the hero; merely lucid in the presence of his own human bad faith. His advantage over the the narrator is merely this luke-warm lucidity. There is nothing here so grand as heroism.
Perhaps the best one can do in the circumstances of a story without a moral centre is try and find it in the circumference. For us to find it in the centre, in a character, one of them would probably have to fulfil the sort of requirements Chekhov lists, including "respecting the human personality and are therefore always forbearing", to be "sincere and fear untruth like the devil", to be someone who does "not make fools of themselves in order to arouse sympathy", who "are not vain", who "try as best as they can to subdue and ennoble the sexual instinct", and are "truly cultured people [who] don't cheapen themselves". This is the sort of circumference for which humans try and become the centre, but how many can possibly achieve this morality that is always on the edge of ourselves? Perhaps this all but impossible achievement is in-itself a part of ironic realization, and maybe for all Chekhov's decency as a human being, it may be found finally more on the edge of the work than at the centre of anybody's, even Chekhov's, life.
However, what makes Chekhov very different from numerous other, earlier, Russian writers, from Dostoevsky to Tolstoy, Gogol to Turgenev, is that he believed the rational pursuit of such values to be the purpose of man. This in some ways perhaps contrary to the famous Russian soul, but as Hellman says, "human life was of very great importance to these men [of Chekhov's generation]: they were, in the deepest sense, reformers, and they wished to reform not from busybody zeal, but from their anguish that the individual human beings cease to suffer hunger and disease." If Chekhov had put these reforming values at the centre of the work perhaps they would have been less interesting; instead he allows them to permeate between the characters, creating a sort of moral sub-text that is aspirational rather declarative. He might not have possessed Dostoevsky's utterly complex understanding of the human being, but he did hope to contribute to the creation of a better one: an ethical somebody instead of a moral nobody.
© Tony McKibbin