Old Age as a reflection to everyday’s life: A deliberation on two stories by Anton Chekhov
Old Age as a reflection to everyday’s life:
A deliberation on two stories by Anton Chekhov
Old Age as a concept should be approached with extreme caution.
Unlike other periods in life, old age is the only period into which people are reluctant to enter.
Old age is the unavoidable, final destination.
People do not like to be called old. Furthermore, people do not like to be old.
Indeed, if they are lucky, they will reach old age and appreciate their good fortune.
Old age is a state of mind that nobody wants to accept.
Скука жизни – The boredom of life1 by Anton Chekhov is a story about old age. This theme does not crystallize slowly. It declares itself at the very beginning, with the following quotation: “According to the observation of experienced men, elderly people are not easy to part the world and its life: it is then that they often exhibit avarice and greed peculiar to their age, as well as a morbid mistrust, stubbornness, discontent, cowardice and so on.”2
Reinforcement of this perception is found in the first sentence, with the mention of a life changing event – the death of Anna Mikhailovna Lebedeva’s only daughter: “the old woman, stunned by the finger of G-D, felt that her entire past had forever died and that from this day on she is compelled to live a different life, which would have very little in common with her previous existence.”3
Anna Mikhailovna Lebedeva has two titles – two labels which represent the two major aspects of her personality: a colonel’s wife (a hint to the future unification with her estranged husband) and an elderly woman. The designation “elderly woman” is more than a chronological expression of her age. It is a personality trait of a woman and of the way in which she deals with the heartbreaking tragedy that fell upon her.
Anna wishes to find sanctuary from death, which now seems so – so near. Her regret of her sinful past leads her to religious devotion and self – mortification. This process does not last long and Anna’s theological enthusiasm ends as quickly as it started. She then turns to find a new meaning to her life: “It happened that on the day of her arrival… Martin, the cook, had scalded both of his feet with boiling water. They send for the district doctor, but he was not at home. Then, Anna Mikhailovna, fastidious and sensitive woman that she was, washed Martin’s wounds, lubricated them with special blend of beeswax and oil and bandaged both his legs. When, thanks to her efforts Martin stopped moaning and falls asleep, she experiences an inner revelation, as she later tells. It seemed to her that life’s purpose had been revealed. Pale, with moist eyes, she reverently kissed the forehead of sleeping Martin and began to pray. After this, Lebedev began to treat patients.”4
Nursing Martin5 brings Anna to a religious epiphany and she declares herself a saint. The narrator allegedly supports these sentiments, when he stops referring to her as an “elderly woman” and begins referring to her by her name – Anna Mikhailovna, thus classifying Anna as an individual, whose life and deeds are still, very much necessary.
Anna embraces her new calling enthusiastically without noticing its falsehood. The physical agony of the patients elevates her into a sublime, spiritual state. She considers the sick as people who were created for her honor and for her benefit and she devotes herself to treat them, even if – and especially if – it involves their pain lingering. In her so called philanthropic acts Anna fails to realize that it is not the healing of the sick and relieving of their suffering that thrills her, but the challenge to her refined soul and more importantly – her perception of the postponement of her old age.
The only flaw in Anna’s happiness is the sense of deep remorse towards Arkady Petrovich, her husband, to whom “she was unfaithful seventeen years previously, a short time after their daughter was born, and (therefore) was compelled to leave him.”6 Anna thus invites Arkady to come to live with her in her country house, relieving herself of her guilty conscience.
Unlike Anna, whose new life had caused her to feel “refreshed, content and almost happy”7, Arkady Petrovich was “a small, old man, bent forwards, utterly feeble, unstable… with yellowish complexion… (His eyes) stood out like the eyes of a lizard and (he had) a thin beard, that had white hair mixed with red.”8 The death of his daughter was – to him – the breaking of the chain that had bound him to the world. From that moment on, Arkady is defeated and he surrenders himself to forthcoming death. He fights, bickers and neglects his appearance. It is his only wish to retire from his meaningless existence, which brought him nothing but despair and disappointment.
Arkady refers to his old age and his bad temper in the same way that he relates to his rheumatism: a terminal illness that cannot be cured. Therefore, all that is left is to suffer. Arkady becomes aggravated while reflecting on his condition. Even his aggravation angers him, but he can only fume and grumble. The illness and the years had eaten away at his body and at his peace of mind. His awareness to this only adds to his distress9.
Anna, who had placed her healing profession at the center of her life, objects strongly to her husband’s perpetual criticism, especially when it drives away her beloved patients. However, Arkady is smart enough to identify the flaw in Anna’s righteous manner: “Oh, stop! … Offended! … You know, Annie, it is well that they stopped coming. I’m very pleased… After all, your treatment does not bring anything but harm! Instead of them going to a doctor, to the regional hospital where they will be treated according to the rules of science, they come to you and you give them soda and castor oil, a cure for all diseases. Great harm!’ Anna Mikhaylovna gazed attentively at the old general (her husband)… and suddenly turns pale.”10
Arkady’s defiance of Anna could have been explained as the bitterness of a former general, who is envious of his wife’s ability to contribute to society, while he himself cannot. However, Anna’s agitated response indicates that his observation was accurate. Understanding this, Anna immediately ceases her healing and starts exploring a different path to obstruct oncoming death. In the final stage of her search, Anna devotes herself – together with Arkady – to the mundane delights and vain pleasures of the materialistic world: gluttony and excessive eating.
The play Uncle Vanya – Scenes from Country Life in Four Acts also tells the story of coping with old age.
Officially, there are only three elderly characters in the play: Alexander Serebryakov, a retired art professor, his mother in law – Maria Voynitskaya and Marina, the old nanny. Actually, even the younger men feel the dreadfulness of old age breathing down their necks. These younger characters are Ivan (Vanya) Voynitsky and the doctor, Michael Astrov.
Uncle Vanya is the former brother in law of Serebryakov. He lives on his estate with his mother, Maria, and his niece, Sonya, Serebryakov’s daughter by former marriage.
Vanya is a lost man. He has devoted his best years to Serebryakov: at nights he and his mother translated books for him. During the day he pondered on his writing and quoted all the professor’s essays. The estate, in which he still lives, was bought at the price of 70,000 rubles instead of 95,000, due to the fact that Vanya had committed himself to pay the rest of the debt with ten years labor and had renounced his share in the family’s inheritance. The profits from the estate were transferred directly to Serebryakov. Vanya did not take anything for himself. Not even one cent more than his miniscule portion.
Twenty-five years of his life Vanya had dedicated to Serebryakov: his thoughts, his words, his deeds – all were made and devoted to the great professor and his work. The accomplishments, the virtues, the personality of the academic intellectual were to Vanya, as to his mother, a source of admiration, love and pride.
But now Serebryakov is an old and sick man. When he returns to live in the estate with his young wife, Helen, Vanya understands that his almighty hero is – fundamentally – a weak man. The perceived sublime identity to which he had given his life, his vigor, his talent and intellect did not stand the test of time. Serebryakov’s collapse represents for Vanya his own disintegration and makes him realize that he his life was spent in vain.
In order to cope with his turbulent feelings, shocked at the extent of his failure, Vanya transmits his anger to Serebryakov: at the beginning of the play, he curses the twenty five years deception of the scholar who had never given new insight into his research. The grand professor occupied his time reviewing ideas, which were not his. He never fully comprehended them nor made anyone else interested in their meaning. Serebryakov was a man who achieved greatness thanks to nothing but good luck, the same luck that had caused him to be so admired and loved by women, during his entire life.
Serebryakov is condemned and accused by Vanya of preventing him from becoming someone in this world. To Vanya, Serebryakov had devastated his life, with his useless foolishness11.
Vanya also projects his frustrations onto Helen, the professor’s wife. He feels sorry for her – the young, beautiful and intelligent woman who had “married (Serebryakov) in his old age and has surrendered all the glory of her beauty and freedom and youth to him.”12
Vanya thinks he is in love with her, but in fact his feelings are nothing more that deep and profound sorrow for his own lost youth: “I’m forty-seven years old… I lie awake at night, heartsick and angry, to think how stupidly I’ve wasted my time when I might have been winning from life everything — but now I’m too old.”13
Helen is Serebryakov’s second wife. His first wife was Vanya’s sister. Vanya speaks of her admiringly at every opportunity. To him his sister was an angel, a delicate and noble creature, pure, beautiful and kind. She loved Serebryakov and Vanya loved her. He had devoted his life to her happiness as he committed himself to handle the estate – her dowry and the academic success of her husband. Now, after she had died, Serebryakov married a new woman, Helen, and Vanya, unknowingly, transfers his feelings from his sister to her replacement.
Thus, Helen becomes an ideal. A woman who could, surely, raise Vanya’s life from the depths of oblivion and despair, into which he had fallen. A woman who could give new meaning to the twenty-five years that had been wasted. Therefore, even though he is twenty years older than her14, Vanya hurts the pain of Helen’s marriage to Serebryakov and woos her in increasing madness.
Astrov is also in love with Helen. The doctor’s feelings indicate just how unrealistic Vanya’s love for Helen truly is15. Indeed, Vanya beseeches Helen to forget her loyalty to her husband. In the middle of the night, when he is left alone, he is sorry for the missed opportunity, ten years previously, to fall in love and marry her. But the truth of the matter is that ten years ago such a wonderful and blissful thought did not cross Vanya’s mind. The fact that he is regretting it now is because now Helen belongs to the man who torments his soul: “Oh, how I’ve been deceived! For years I’ve worshipped that miserable gout-ridden professor — worked like an ox for him. Sonya and I have squeezed this estate dry for his sake. We’ve bartered our butter and curds and peas like misers, and have never kept a morsel for ourselves, so that we could scrape enough money together to send to him. I was proud of him and of his learning; I received all his words and writings as inspired, and, dear God, now? Now he’s retired, and what’s the total of his life? Not a page of his work will survive! He’s absolutely unknown, and his fame has burst like a soap bubble. I’ve been deceived; I see that now, foolishly deceived.”16
Serebryakov suffers the agony of old age even more than Vanya. He endures unbearable pain of an untreatable illness. He finds it difficult to breath and he hardly succeeds to sleep: he has horrible dreams of disappearing organs.
The opening of the second act is almost entirely devoted to his complaining with regard to (in his eyes) revolting old age, which had robbed him not only of his health but also of his personality and good temper.
Being old changes Serebryakov. It turns him into a bothersome, annoying person, sickening him to everyone and especially himself. The most difficult thing for him is dealing with his young wife, Helen: “I am more hateful to you than to any one… You are quite right, of course. I am not an idiot; I can understand you. You are young and healthy and beautiful, and longing for life, and I am an old man, almost a corpse already. Don’t I know it? Of course I see that it is foolish for me to live so long, but wait! I shall soon set you all free. My life cannot drag on much longer.”17
Serebryakov’s grievance exhausts Helen and she implores him to be quiet. Her outburst is a tempestuous one. According to Motti Lerner, “at the late hour, when her defenses were lowered, Helen discovers the magnitude of the price she had to pay for her marriage to Serebryakov. She is not angry with him for becoming old, but at herself for not anticipating it in time.”18 According to Lerner, Serebryakov “does not take into consideration that his old age is a wound in Helen’s heart… he is unconscious of the fact that every time he mentions his old age, he is forcing Helen to admit the terrible mistake she had made in marrying him, a mistake she had successfully repressed until now.”19 However, the way in which the old nanny treats Serebryakov illustrates that Helen’s behavior has not resulted from hate or regret, but was from fatigue and exhaustion.
Marina is the only woman who can understand what Serebryakov is going through because she herself is experiencing the same difficult changes of age. She treats him as if he were a baby, thus demonstrating yet again her expertise in silencing the noisy toddler and putting him to sleep. Next to her, Helen is exhibited as a new mother whose infant had worn her out with his refusal to rest.
Marina the nanny embodies the connection between infancy and old age: the endless obsession with the “I”, the inability to handle pain or frustration and the helplessness against the never-ending crying. These are the common motifs that combine the two ages. The reasons which provoke the baby to scream, to be annoying and irritated are the same reasons which provoke Serebryakov and Arkady Petrovich to be the nagging, bad tempered old people they are. Only, unlike babies, the sense of destruction caused by the betrayal of the body, brings the professor and the former general to unbearable self – hatred: “(Arkady Petrovich) berated, rebuked, made the servants run back and forth, but after every condemning word he would grab his head and say in a weeping voice: “Dear G-D! What character I have. Intolerable!” And during lunch he used to eat a lot and talk incessantly.”20 While with Serebryakov – “Oh, damn this horrible, accursed old age! Ever since I have been old I have been hateful to myself, and I am sure, hateful to you all as well.”21
The connection between the early and later years signifies just how depressing is Serebryakov’s and Arkady Petrovich’s condition. Their bitter cynicism does not help to better “understand” their condition or to reconcile with their harsh verdict. It is merely a poor attempt to diminish their distress.
Even Helen suffers her husband’s old age: despite the fact that both Vanya and Astrov pursue her, and although she is tempted to imagine herself infatuated with the young, handsome and talented doctor, she remains loyal to her husband and to their marriage. When Astrov tries to move beyond the bounds of acceptable behavior, Helen is genuinely alarmed and pulls herself away from him. Astrov, to her, is a fantasy that will cause her to forget her present anguish. She confess to Sonya, Serebryakov’s daughter, that she indeed loved the professor when she married him, and even though she knows now “that it was not real love”22 She still remains loyal and devoted to him by watching over him when he is awake and when he sleeps23, closing the window (twice) so that he won’t catch cold, wrapping his legs with the fallen wool blanket, not playing the piano even though she so desperately wishes to do so24, silencing the guard outside so he won’t disturb her husband’s rest and begging Vanya again and again to reconcile with him, after their fierce bickering. Even in his old age she does not leave him to himself: when Serebryakov exaggerates in his bitterness, she calms him down by saying that in a few years she will join him with aging of her own.
Helen indeed says – “You all abuse my husband and look on me with compassion; you think, “Poor woman, she’s married to an old man.” How well I understand your compassion!”25. But right away she clarifies the true meaning of this attitude: “see how you thoughtlessly destroy the forests, so that there will soon be none left. So you also destroy mankind, and soon loyalty and purity and self-sacrifice will have vanished with the woods. Why cannot you look calmly at a woman unless she is yours? Because… you are all possessed by a devil of destruction.”26
Helen understands that Vanya and Astrov who are so determined to exhibit the age difference between herself and her husband, mention incessantly how beautiful and young and healthy she is, a woman in her prime, and how she should chose a another man, a younger man, much younger than her old husband – these men do not act out of pure concern for her welfare. There is another agenda in their intentions: a whimsical, fearless and unreasonable desire to conquer27.
Helen, as far as she is concerned, will not leave her elderly husband. Not for any other man.
Getting old is a gloomy and bleak phase in Chekhov’s world. Chekhov, who had believed in progress even as a young child, considered idleness as immorality. Old age meant inaction and illness. Therefore, for Chekhov, old age is incapacity. However, he does not accuse age itself, but man and his reaction to it28.
The sense of bitterness for the years that have passed in vain, and the aching body are well expressed in Serebryakov’s and Arkady Petrovich’s characters, but not in Anna Mikhailovna Lebedeva and Marina the nanny. Anna and Marina always have things to do, people to look after, tasks to perform. The idleness of Serebryakov and Arkady Petrovich, as well of Vanya and Astrov, is the cause of their despair. They feel old because they do nothing29
Vanya is searching for something to do, after Serebryakov’s and Helen’s departure. He
senses that only work can salvage his life from the pain of desolation. Sonya, Serebryakov’s young daughter, knows this very well. Many times throughout the play she begs him to resume his household management duties, as he used to, when he felt young and vibrant.
Anna Mikhailovna’s devotion to religious works and afterwards to her medical care and to gluttonous eating are her way to thrust aside old age and to attempt to alienate herself from forthcoming death. Anna is wrong, but her spirit is uplifted and her mood is far more cheerful than her husband.
When comparing her story to the play “Uncle Vanya”, her hopeful attitude transcends that of Vanya and Serebryakov. Vanya, whose idleness had worsened his mental state and Serebryakov, whose melancholic state was due to the fact he could not continue with his previous work30
Marina, Serebryakov and Vanya –all search in vain for the lives they used to live. Now there is only an absence, a void of nothingness.
Idleness is a cause of ill temper.
Inaction inspires helplessness.
To Chekhov the above are the worst of human behavior.
It is not a question of age31