Gooseberries by Anton Chekhov
In Gooseberries by Anton Chekhov we have the theme of paralysis, greed, selfishness, control, ego, aspirations, power and change. Taken from his The Complete Short Stories collection the story is a framed narrative written firstly in the third person and then in the first person. What is also striking about the story is the sense of paralysis that both Ivan and Nikolay feel though for different reasons. Ivan feels paralysed because he is fully conscious that there are people in the world who are unhappy and he knows that there is very little he can do to help them. Though he knows he must try. Nikolay on the other hand feels stuck in his job and longs to have enough money to be able to buy his own farm. Something that he eventually achieves though the process of buying the farm changes Nikolay. If anything he becomes greedy and ends up marrying not out of love but because his wife has money. Money that he can use to achieve his dream of owning a farm. There is also a sense that throughout the story Nikolay thinks only of himself. He is in essence self-centred and allows the purchase of the farm control him. It is also noticeable that when Nikolay purchases the farm he likes to control others too, the peasants in the village. He views them as being beneath him and it is obvious to the reader that Nikolay’s ego has grown too big. No longer is he the meek clerk working for the government. Now that he has realised his dreams he believes himself to be better than others.
It may also be a case that Chekhov is contrasting selfless with selfish. When Ivan is telling his story he ends it by telling Alehin to ‘Do good’ or in reality to act selflessly and help others. While Nikolay is living his life selfishly thinking only of his own happiness and disregarding the feelings of others. Symbolically the gooseberries may also be important as they symbolise success for Nikolay a success that he enjoys without thinking about how he could be helping others. At no stage in the story is Nikolay thinking about anybody but himself. Though some critics might suggest that Nikolay is driven the reality may be that he is simply selfish. Something that bothers Ivan who also feels as though he too has been selfish in life. However there is an opportunity for Ivan to change now that he is conscious of the fact that he may be selfish whereas there will be no change for Nikolay he is to remain paralysed. Living on his farm and mistreating the peasants.
How Nikolay went from a meek, mild mannered clerk to an egotistical tyrant is difficult to say but it is possible that Chekhov is suggesting that should a man focus on just one goal and devote all their energies to that goal then they will not see the bigger picture. They will become selfish and lose contact with what is important in life, helping another human being. Nikolay throughout the story is obsessive about getting a farm. It dictates his day and he becomes self-absorbed. With little or no time for anything or anybody else in his life. He also appears to be excessively proud of his achievements though the reader is aware that he has not reached his goal of owning a farm by fair means. Other people (his wife) have had to suffer in order for Nikolay to achieve happiness and the only real love that Nikolay had for his wife was the love of where her money could take him. It may also be a case that Nikolay is allowing the success he has to go to his head believing himself to be all powerful and better than others.
The end of the story is also interesting as through Alehin’s character Chekhov appears to be exploring human nature and how each individual longs to be happy and to live their life as happy as they can. Alehin does not like Ivan’s story and wishes for something more entertaining. He does not really wish to hear a story about people being unhappy and hopes that Ivan will tell another happier story. However there is no other story. Which suggests that the story that Ivan has told his friends is important to him. He cannot forget that there are people in the world who are unhappy and remain silent or are not heard by those who are living a happier life. For Ivan there are two types of people happy and unhappy. He knows that he has been guilty himself of forgetting about those who are unhappy and the purpose of his story is to try and tell others (like Alehin) not to forget about unhappy people and to help them if you are able to. It is also possible that Ivan equates being happy and not helping others to selfishness. By focusing on self rather than on others man is acting selfishly just like Nikolay is doing. How strong Ivan feels about helping others is also noticeable by the fact that just before he gets into bed he says a prayer seeking forgiveness for his actions. Out of all the characters in the story the only one that might change for the better is Ivan. He is conscious of what he needs to do.