Wednesday, April 20, 2011

On La Cigale by Chekov

Stories of Anton Chekhov
Some time ago, Michael and I got into a bidding war with an antiques dealer for a set of 1920s classics, published by Black's Readers Service. We got them for $30, which, in my opinion, is a fairly low price for nearly 60 beautifully preserved books.
I suspect they were part of a subscription series, much like the Literary Guild books my mother got at regular intervals when I was a child. They are published in a variety of different years within the 1920s. And each is a beautiful fabric-bound red with spines sun-bleached pink and covered in lovely goldtone caligraphic swirls, now slightly worn from use and age. I can tell that the previous owner liked the Shakespeare volume the best because the spine is well worn, as if it had been pulled off the shelf many times. I even found a partial grocery list in nearly incomprehensible script marking a spot in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Slowly, I've been working my way through each volume (sadly, there is no Proust), but I've read through Zola and Flaubert, stalled somewhere deep in Wilde, but consumed almost all of The World's Greatest Detective Stories (well, 'world's greatest' up to the mid-1920s, of course). Right now, I'm reading through Chekov, having finished "The Kiss," which is a wonderful character study of a antisocial military man, a virtual ascetic who has a high opinion of himself, but very little engagement with the real world. I then moved through "The Chorus Girl" and am just past "La Cigale," (spelled, "La Giglae" in this 1929 edition).

 Writer and Actress Ada Clare
(looking like my conception of Olga Ivanova)
photo credit
According to Babelfish, "La Cigale" means cicada, which is a perfect appelation for the main character, Olga Ivanova, who essentially descends on her husband's life like a plague and destroys it. The story begins with a defining statement: "To Olga Ivanova's wedding came all her friends and aquaintances. 'Look at him! Isn't it true that there is something in him?' She said to them, nodding to her husband, as if to justify her marriage to this simple, commonplace, in no way remarkable man."

She, who circulates within circles of small-time artistic, literary and musical celebrities, fancies herself to have great potential, a potential she never really builds on. She marginalizes her husband's work, feeling that he is somehow a flunky (echoing the way Anna thinks of her own husband in Chekov's Lady with a Pet Dog.) Olga goes about feeling she and her friends are far superior to her husband, who works at a hospital during the morning and moves to dissecting bodies in the afternoon. She has no genuine understanding of his work, and because the third-person narrator follows her line of thinking so closely, we also do not have a concrete understanding of the husband, only of Olga and her motivations. She does not seem to appreciate the fact that he keeps her very comfortable until later, when she's gone off 'on holiday' (again like Anna) without him and begins an affair with one of her artist friends.

All along, she racks up little debts, which her husband, Dymov, sends her money to settle, along with a monthly allowance she runs through very quickly. Each time he sends money, he begs her to come home, but she ignores his requests. Yet, it's interesting that, when the shine goes off her relationship with the artist, faced as they both are with the bohemian squalor of their domestic circumstances during this hot summer in the provinces (read: Olga gets tired of slumming it), she fantasizes about her life with her husband: how clean it is, how he dotes on her, how she will visit her dressmaker, and attend evening concerts. Her life with Dymov becomes the dream.

Yet, when she and her lover quarrel and she finally returns home, she falls into old patterns. Eventually, she takes up with her artist friend again. He belittles her, takes up with another woman, and causes Olga to become consumed with the fractured relationship. She threatens to drink poison more than once.  Finally, her husband, Dymov, begins to suspect that she is having an affair, and he can no longer look her in the eyes. He merely tolerates her escapades, demanding nothing of her. She boasts to others of his "magnanimity." Finally, when he himself makes a great achievement, a professorship, she does not appreciate its significance to him. Instead, she is more concerned about the delay his news has caused her in getting to the theatre. Her indifference crushes him.

When he becomes ill with diptheria, and finally dies, only then does she learn through his friends what a great loss he was to the scientific world, how her demands for money shackled him to jobs that hampered his ground-breaking research. In the end, she was the one with little talent, and he, modest, unassuming, and supportive of her whims as he was, had the superior ability. Perhaps even more crushing to learn is that he infected himself with diptheria by siphoning a sample of the pestulance out of a patient's throat by using his own mouth, something he would have known not to do. In effect, Dymov commits suicide in a horrible way.

I wonder why this story is so overshadowed by "Lady with a Pet Dog". Perhaps it is because "Lady with a Pet Dog" has a hopeful ending: there may be a chance that Dmitri and Anna have a future together (although I wager it is unlikely because what kind of person is Anna really? Her life always seems to be one giant ending, while Dmitri has generally regarded life as an adventure of beginnings, new chapters. His obsession with Anna is based on a short period of time spent with her amid ideal circumstances, rather than the daily challenges of everyday living) Of course, Dymov's death in "La Cigale," extinguishes any sense of hope.

Olga, too, seems made from a template used again and again, a symbol of the problematic woman, the human shackle impeding a man's progress. She is much like Zola's Nana and Flaubert's Madame Bovary, or like T.H. White's Guinevere, who is called a "ruiner of good knights." But the story is so much more than this: it is a parable and an effective character study. Here is a lesson on egoism, its dangers, the outcome of an inability to look beyond one's own ambition and thwarted desires. Olga, darling, it is not all about you.

And so, I wonder, why has this story--so didactic in  its reminders to humanity--been more or less buried among Chekov's oeuvre? Why has this not been a story elevated to the level of "Lady with the Pet Dog" or "The Bishop"? Many people could learn a great deal from this, particularly now, in the age of obsession with fame.


  1. Thanks for your interesting analysis on Chekhov's La Cigale. I read this story recently and it was one that stayed with me. I know more than one longsuffering Dymov who has yoked himself with a flimsy, flighty Olga who cannot appreciate him. Your last paragraph particularly rings true: in the age of selfies and tweets, we might pay more attention to the good, the simple, and the steadfast in life.

  2. Thank you, Emily! I *so* agree with you about paying more attention to the good, simple, and steadfast.