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Gooseberries by Anton Chekhov: Theme & Analysis

Instructor: Erin Burke

Erin has taught college level english courses and has a master's degree in english.

'Gooseberries' may be a short story, but it's one rich in language, structure, and interesting themes. Let's analyze what helps make Chekhov's story so effective.

Analysis of 'Gooseberries'

'Gooseberries' begs to be read with a steaming cup of tea and a blanket next to a warm fire. It achieves this effect with the striking imagery of its opening scene. Two friends trudge across a field while clouds hang heavy overhead. In the distance, a train moves along 'like a crawling caterpillar.' One of the men, Ivan Ivanich, begins to tell a story, just as the clouds burst and a hard rain starts to fall. The men head to the house of a nearby friend to escape the rain. Around them stand 'wet horses, hanging their heads' and men with their heads 'covered in sacks.' Chekhov continues to paint a picture with his words: 'It was wet, muddy, and unpleasant and the river looked cold and sullen.' The language is so vivid, it practically makes you shiver.

After the imagery of the cold, wet landscape, Chekhov turns around and uses more rich language to provide contrast in the next scene. Once the men reach the home of their friend, Aliokhin, they have a bath and convene in his home. The men are cleaned up, happy with the 'warmth and cleanliness and dry clothes and slippers.' To top it all off, the maid who attends them is quite a looker. She brings them some tea and food as they settle in. The cozy scene is even more effective thanks to its juxtaposition with the opening scenes in the cold, wet outdoors.

Story Within A Story

'Gooseberries' is also notable for its structure. The narrative switches from the third-person to the first-person when Ivan begins to tell the story of his brother Nicholai. For many paragraphs, the story is taken over by this story within a story. Now we are subject to Ivan's personal ideas and theories as he uses the story to explain his social and philosophical views. Using Ivan's point-of-view allows Chekhov to explore some of the deeper themes of the story.

Themes of Gooseberries

And so we come to the meat of our analysis - a look at the themes at work in 'Gooseberries.' For such a brief work, it is jam-packed with interesting ideas and much food for thought. Let's now take a look at some of the themes Chekhov included in this short story.

Selfishness

Through the two Ivanich brothers and Aliokhin, Chekhov explores selfishness and selflessness. Nicholai and Aliokhin look out for number one, always. Aliokhin lives the good life with his cozy home and beautiful servant. Nicholai is even more selfish - he spends his life obsessing over achieving success and riches. He marries 'an elderly, ugly widow, not out of any feeling for her, but because she had money.' He hoards his money and thinks only of one day buying land with a gooseberry bush.

Ivan does not see owning land as an admirable goal. To Ivan, a man needs 'not a farm, but the whole earth, all Nature, where. . . he can display all the properties and qualities of the free spirit.' To Ivan, a life well-spent is not one in pursuit of things to own, but of ways to help others. He ends his story by asking Aliokhin to 'do good' instead of pursuing his own selfish and petty goals.

Happiness

What defines happiness? By nature, happiness is subjective. Through Ivan's story, Chekhov examines this theme in more detail. Ivan's brother, Nicholai, has all the superficial markers of happiness - he is rich, fat, and satisfied. When Ivan visits, the two sit down and Nicholai exclaims over the deliciousness of his home-grown gooseberries, which to him symbolize the pinnacle of achievement. 'How good they are,' he repeats, with tears of joy in his eyes as he gorges himself on the berries.

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