Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Book Review: An Upheaval, by Anton Chekhov (1886)

This was a great story.  Unfortunately it's been lost to history and only the opening few chapters remain.

No, that's not true.  But that's how I felt after reading it.  An Upheavel was wonderfully written, but ended rather abruptly.  I suppose Chekhov just had an idea he wanted to put on paper, even if it never developed into a full novel.  Chekhov is known for his extensive writing.  In a little over 20 years he wrote hundreds of short stories.  So if any of them feel unfinished we shouldn't blame him.  Just be happy we get a taste of his wonderful writing.

An Upheaval is a perfect example of that.  You are quickly drawn into the story of a young governess who has to choose between harsh treatment by her mistress or returning to a simpler, if poorer, way of life.  She is an instant heroine, and instantly likable.  That shows great talent for Anton Chekhov to have a character grab readers in such a short amount of time.

The other characters are good as plot devices, or simple character studies.  They are both her foil and her motivation.  We have a situation where a domineering mistress accuses her staff of stealing.  She has them all searched, including the governess.  A glimpse of class hierarchy is shown in that a governess is above the regular staff and therefore would normally not be included in any such searches.  She feels violated.  What will she do?  And what will the master of the house do?

In the end, the story went nowhere.  Some things happened, and we wanted to know more.  Honestly, it felt like the opening sequence for a much longer drama.  It had a Bronte feel to it (Emily, Charlotte or the other one).  But it was not the opening sequence of anything.  It was a stand-alone story.  It just came to a sudden and unsatisfying halt.  Some people will say it's left to the reader's imagination what happened next.  I can imagine quite a few things.  In fact, I can imagine a whole storyline, characters, plot, etc, so that if we're just using our imagination we don't need the author at all.

I said it came to an unsatisfying halt, but let me rethink that.  The ending was good because our heroine did what we wanted her to do.  Perhaps that's really all Chekhov wanted for the story.  We were glad she stood up for her principles.  In that way, the ending actually was satisfying.  Some readers might be used to stories that give more information on how things turned out for everyone.

Great writing, great characters, quick story that leaves you hungering for more.  You can listen to it for free here.


  1. I think that sudden halt carries the significance of the story. Here, it is the matter of subplot and how it makes the reader wonder rather than satisfying or I better say entertaining the reader. Mashenka stands by an ethical decision by which Chekhov does not alloy any hesitation.

  2. Excellent comment. I believe that conflict was what Chekhov focused on, and its resolution left the tale finished in his mind. Nice to see another reader of classic Russian fiction.