Anton Chekhov was a master of drawing portraits of common people. The seven short novels included in this collection provide a glimpse of Russian society. Chekhov provides a snapshot after snapshot of the lifestyle of his characters, focusing on their ideas and actions with a detached, but conscious word play. The reader finds himself drawn to characters that are flawed and life-like, and every idiosyncrasy of human existence is revealed in somewhat commonplace circumstances and settings.
These stories include "Ward No. 6", "Peasants" and "My Life", which are highly representative of Chekhov's style and ability. These stories provide a very subtle, but important counterpoint to Tolstoy's thoughts and writings. Around this time, Leo Tolstoy was articulating his vision of society and Christianity in texts like "The Kingdom of Heaven is Within You", where he glorifies the peasants, manual labor and poor, suggesting that the rich are immoral and responsible for the suffering of masses. Tolstoy had lived a luxurious life compared to Chekhov, and so his impressions and ideas were formed by observations from a distance. Chekhov grew up in harsher circumstances, and had a first hand experience of living among the common people. In Chekhov's stories, the common people lie, cheat, bribe, drink, steal, help each other and make each other happy or miserable, without the need of divine or aristocratic influence. In Chekhov's stories, the philosophical is often pushed to background, as practical daily chores and needs take center-stage.
While Dostoevsky was master of psychological selves of his characters and Tolstoy was a titan in capturing life of (rich) Russians, Chekhov's sensibility drew him to the trivialities, to the humor and tragedy of the masses. He wrote about these with sympathy, but in his honest depiction of his characters, he leaves no aspect untouched. Thus his stories seem to criticize the ones that he chooses to write about: be it peasants or city dwellers, the workers or the government servants. The shameful, pitiful or repelling facets of his characters are representative of human beings that have ever constituted the majority among us. Even in his time, the stories were controversial for their socio-political criticisms. Yet Chekhov was not criticizing anyone, or offering any solutions to the predicaments and problems of existence in different social circles. Chekhov wrote about his subjects as it is, as they were. These stories are based on Russian people, and yet they represent the reality in every part of the world. (I am sure that all the characters described in these stories abound in India!)
The stories must be read by anyone who has constructed a rosy picture of rural life or manual labor in their minds. These stories are must read for communists, for them who believe that poverty makes men moral, for them who believe that ignorance is bliss, for them who wish to know how human beings of every class behave in real life. Be it individuals or social milieu, Chekhov fashions events, dialogues and descriptions that are vivid, terse and precise and hence these stories are examples of how a writer must write. Highly recommended.