Chekhov's Gooseberries is one of three linked stories featuring the old vet Ivan Ivanich, high school teacher Burkin, and reluctant country farmer Alekhin. Ivan Ivanich and Burkin are on a walking holiday together, and the men tell stories to pass the time. Burkin’s tale features in The Man in a Case, Ivan Ivanich’s in Gooseberries and Alekhin’s in About Love.
Each tale within a tale illuminates a problem, an aspect of life: The Man in a Case is about a man who shields himself from life with external protections and coverings: galoshes, an umbrella but also inflexible and judgemental attitudes than eventually cause his undoing. Ivan Ivanich’s tale is about a brother who acts most unscrupulously in pursuit of his dream of country life and growing his own gooseberries; and Alekin’s tale is about the pointlessness of undeclared love.
Gooseberries has ambiguity in spadeloads, and nothing that resembles a traditional plot. It feels perplexing if you read it as a standalone story, but with its companions it makes more sense, though we are left with a tangle of ideas, no moral. FrancineProse writes: “I have often thought that Chekhov stories should not be read singly, but as separate parts of a whole. For like life, they present contradictory views, opposing visions.” I find this profoundly reassuring: it’s not just my leaning towards longer narrative: these stories make more sense when read together – and if Francine Prose says so it MUST be true.
Prose says Chekhov breaks all the rules she tried to teach her creative writing students. Instead they have “the impact of direct experience” as one blogger describes it.
As writers perhaps the greatest lesson we can learn from Chekhov is to learn to observe and absorb life, and reflect something of its mysteries back on the page.