What would a class on the short story be without some Chekhov? I usually teach three favourites, ‘The Lady with the Little Dog,’ ‘The Darling,’ and the one I finally settled on for this list, ‘The Kiss.’ Coming as it does after Balzac’s ‘Sarrasine’ and Kipling’s ‘Mrs. Bathurst’ (wonderful stories I cut from this list with regret), ‘The Kiss’ is a lesson in how nothing much needs to happen in a story. Balzac and Kipling’s melodramatic plottiness contrasts with Chekhov’s lassitude, boredom, and melancholy.
My students and I spend a lot of time on a single passage, in which the protagonist, the hapless Staff-Captain Ryabovich, whose “lynx-like side whiskers and spectacles seemed to be saying ‘I’m the shyest, most modest, and most insignificant officer in the whole brigade!’”, has what the narrator calls “a little adventure.” Along with some other officers, Ryabovich has been invited to a party at a country house near the town where six battalions have put up for the evening. Too shy to dance, too clumsy to play billiards, Ryabovich wanders the house until he gets lost. Opening a door at random, he finds himself in a dark room, where he is astonished to hear a voice whisper “At last!” before he is embraced: “a burning cheek pressed against his and at the same time there was the sound of a kiss.”
We parse this unusual, almost synaesthetic description (why the sound of a kiss rather than a feeling?), and reflect on what follows it: the woman utters a cry, shrinks back in what Ryabovich is convinced is disgust, and rushes from the room. The rest of the story is an extended depiction of how a non-event, or, at best, near-event, can expand in fantasy, to the point of consuming a life. The story is full of people who can’t imagine that others don’t think the way they do, don’t fancy the same types of women or men they do, don’t tell the same sort of lies they do.
The ending offers a classically Chekhovian irony: Ryabovich is disabused of his fantasies, realizes what a fool he’s made of himself, resigns himself to the stupidity of the human experience, as endless and aimless as the water in a river purling against the piles of a hut. Or, at least, it seems he does. At the very end, though, he’s still telling himself stories of “how fate had accidentally caressed him.” The moral of the story is that we can’t help but make our lives into stories.
First published in Russian in New Times in 1887. Published in English in The Steppe and Other Stories, 1887 – 1891, Penguin 2001. Read the Constance Garnett translation here