March 25, 2024

Chekhov Goes Solar

Chekhov Goes Solar

By Bob Blaisdell

In the midst of the most productive period of his short, astounding life, Dr. Anton Chekhov, a professional writer with an eye on the calendar as well as a scientist, encouraged the readers of his comical short stories to prepare for Nature’s biggest event of 1887, a solar eclipse. He first delivered this public-service information, a month before the eclipse, in an unlikely farcical story, “From the Diary of a Violent-tempered Man.”

The diary-keeper Nikolay notes: “It is the 7th of August, 1887, the date of the solar eclipse [that is, by Russia’s Julian calendar then in use; in North America, the same day was August 19]. I may here remark that at the time of an eclipse every one of us may, without special astronomical knowledge, be of the greatest service. Thus, for example, anyone of us can (1) take the measurement of the diameters of the sun and the moon; (2) sketch the corona of the sun; (3) take the temperature; (4) take observations of plants and animals during the eclipse; (5) note down his own impressions, and so on.” These were actual instructions recommended by an astronomer that Chekhov was passing along.

This summer’s eclipse was an educational event for the middle-class Russian community that Chekhov was writing for, and newspapers and magazines were promoting it as such. To appreciate Chekhov’s effort to work in this information about the eclipse, we need to know that “From the Diary of a Violent-tempered Man” is about the mild-mannered narrator being railroaded (far beyond cajoled) into marriage by a young woman in a dacha community.

His eventual wife, Varenka (variously also named Nadenka or Mashenka by the indifferent Nikolay), is one of a pod of summer-residents the “violent-tempered” doctoral candidate attempts to educate:

“What is the cause of the eclipse?” asks Mashenka.

I reply: “A solar eclipse occurs when the moon, moving in the plane of the ecliptic, crosses the line joining the centres of the sun and the earth.”

“And what does the ecliptic mean?”

I explain. Mashenka listens attentively.

“Can one see through the smoked glass the line joining the centres of the sun and the earth?” she enquires.

I reply that this is only an imaginary line, drawn theoretically.

“If it is only an imaginary line, how can the moon cross it?” Varenka says, wondering.

I make no reply. I feel my spleen rising at this naïve question.
(Translated by Constance Garnett)

The dacha community, despite the narrator’s attempt to prepare it, panics and botches the research opportunities:

… a black patch begins to move over the sun. General confusion follows. The sheep and horses and cows run bellowing about the fields with their tails in the air. The dogs howl. The bugs, thinking night has come on, creep out of the cracks in the walls and bite the people who are still in bed.

The deacon, who was engaged in bringing some cucumbers from the market garden, jumped out of his cart and hid under the bridge; while his horse walked off into somebody else’s yard, where the pigs ate up all the cucumbers. The excise officer, who had not slept at home that night, but at a lady friend’s, dashed out with nothing on but his nightshirt, and running into the crowd shouted frantically:

“Save yourself, if you can!”

Numbers of the lady visitors, even young and pretty ones, run out of their villas without even putting their slippers on. Scenes occur which I hesitate to describe.

“Oh, how dreadful!” shriek the variegated young ladies. “It’s really too awful!”

“Mesdames, watch!” I cry. “Time is precious!”

[…]  I am just about to measure the diameter when Mashenka seizes my hand, and says:
“Do not forget to-day, eleven o’clock.”

I withdraw my hand, feeling every second precious, try to continue my observations, but Varenka clutches my arm and clings to me. Pencil, pieces of glass, drawings -- all are scattered on the grass.


Nikolay, with gritted teeth, notes: “So nothing came of the eclipse after all.”

As far as Varenka can tell, Nikolay is as mild as Chekhov himself characteristically was. In Chekhov’s revised version of the story, the diary concludes on the day of his undesired wedding: “To lead a violent, desperate man to the altar is as unwise as to thrust one’s hand into the cage of a ferocious tiger.” I remind myself that Chekhov was the unusual one in his family who kept his temper. (By the way, Chekhov didn’t go to the altar for another fourteen years.)

In the original publication (he revised it a dozen years later for his collected edition published by Marx), the wedding comes before the chaotic viewing of the eclipse. The morning after the wedding night, he warns her: “You risk sleeping through one of the greatest moments of your life.” (Collected Stories (Moscow 1976), Vol. 6, p. 560.) Varenka is remarkably indifferent to what he anticipates as one of the greatest moments of his life. She dawdles so much that Nikolay goes into a tizzy, rushes about, deals with her hurt feelings, and then (just as in the original), as he desperately starts his observations, she accidentally bumps him and scatters his materials. He has lost all chance at taking the eclipse’s measurements.

After the publication of “From the Diary of a Violent-tempered Man” on July 12 in the Moscow humor magazine Alarm Clock (Chekhov using the penname of “The Brother of My Brother”), Chekhov had two more solar eclipse stories up his sleeve. He played one (as the author Antosha Chekhonte), “The Intruders: An Eyewitness Account” (“Zloumyshlenniki: Rasskaz Ochevidtsev,” August 8), in the St. Petersburg humor periodical Fragments, and “Before the Eclipse: Snippets from the Spectacle” (“Pered Zatmeium: Otryvok iz Feerii,” August 9) in Alarm Clock, one and two days after the actual eclipse.

“The Intruders” are scientists who have appeared in a provincial town out of nowhere; the eyewitness-account of their activities is provided by a poorly educated townsman who scrutinizes the visitors as they sit to a meal in a grubby tavern and make plans, sometimes in French, which language the eyewitness doesn’t understand. They talk about the next morning (that is, August 7), when they would like the waiter to have tea ready for them that doesn’t have flies or cockroaches in it.

“Are you aware of what’s happening tomorrow morning?” one “intruder” asks the waiter.

“Not at all,” he replies.

“Well! Tomorrow morning you will be struck and amazed.”

The next morning the townspeople watch as the scientist-observers set up their table outside the tavern and lay out their charts and papers and telescopes. Suddenly the sun disappears and the night begins “and where the day went, no one knows.” The citizens and the animals, present at the town square for market day, panic.

When daylight returns, the intruders (perhaps they’re Austrians, the eyewitness now wonders) pack up and leave, who knows where.

“Before the Eclipse” is a skit in the format of a dialogue between the Sun and the Moon, which are “sitting on the horizon and drinking a beer.” They part after several exchanges, agreeing that if they’re too drunk to perform the eclipse they’ll cover themselves with clouds.

Chekhov took a trip out of Moscow to view the eclipse for himself, but he missed out on doing scientific observations as a dense cloud-cover intervened. “The darkness, very formidable, continued a minute,” he wrote his Petersburg editor Nikolay Leykin. Finally, at the end of August, Chekhov, still wondering over the eclipse, brought it up a last time in “The Pipe,” in which a cranky shepherd concludes that the eclipse “shows there is disorder even in the heavens!”

As for the solar eclipse unrolling across North America the afternoon of April 8, 2024, I will travel with my wife to her hometown of Hamilton, Ontario, on the path where it can be seen at its full glory—unless indeed the sun and moon are too drunk to perform and cover themselves with clouds.


Bob Blaisdell is the author of Chekhov Becomes Chekhov: The Emergence of a Literary Genius, 1886-1887.


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