Anton Chekhov and Suicide

A while back, I took out a Signet Classic edition of the major plays of Anton Chekhov.  Having read the first two in the collection, Ivanov and The Sea Gull, these plays surprised me *EPIC SPOILER WARNING FOR THOSE WHO CARE* by both ending with a suicide.  In each play we have someone suffering from melancholy, who decides to end his own life with the pull of a trigger.  The first, Ivanov, loses his love for his wife, love for living, finds himself gravely in debt, can’t stand being home, suffers the loss of his wife to consumption, and is about to be married to a young lady who has taken pity on him–who at the same time is unsure whether or not she loves him or can make him happy.

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In the second, Trepelev, the twenty-five year old son of a famous actress, writes unconventional plays with an Eastern feel, i.e. they rely upon imagery rather than intellectual motifs–as we might find in a Noh play.  (They also have a shockingly Manichean flavor, as his first play calls the devil the father of matter.)  Anyway, his sole happiness is in his love for Nina, an actress, which brightens his impoverished and useless existence: his mother, despite having 70,000 rubles in the bank, cries at the thought of lending him anything with the result that Trepelev hardly leaves the house and gads about in a threadbare coat.  Trepelev furthermore feels down on himself because society frowns upon his literary style.  This coupled with Nina leaving him for a more famous writer led to his first suicide attempt.  Then, Nina returns two years later to Trepelev after having an affair and a child with the other writer before he tires of her.  Unfortunately, Trepelev’s assertion that he still loves her and has been waiting for her falls on deaf ears.  This destroys Trepelev’s last hope and leads to a successful reattempt on his life.  (The moral of the story is not to place one’s hopes on an actress, a profession which at one time was esteemed only slightly higher than a prostitute’s.)  By the way, the former play is described as a drama and the latter as a comedy!

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But, these two characters had striking similarities in personality to myself.  Presently, I find myself quite broke, sometimes cannot stand staying in the house, and my existence tilts toward the useless side.  Also, despite my earnest striving, the world and the people in it have felt distant and unlovable–as if there were an unscalable wall between us–and an insufferable egotism afflicted me, as if my mind were some kind of prison impeding my soul’s freedom.  Thanks be to God that these latter two symptoms are mostly gone!

There's something rather curious about this picture of St. Jerome wearing glasses.

There’s something rather curious about this picture of St. Jerome wearing glasses.

Yet, why did I not pull a trigger?  Or even ever seriously consider it?  One could take a rather banal explanation that I believe suicide to be a mortal sin unless preceded by extreme mental stress or extreme fear of physical suffering.  It would not feel comfortable arriving before the judgment seat of Our Lord and Master saying, “Well, I calculated that my stress was such as to make this action a rather serious venial sin than something worthy of hell  So, please just give me some time in purgatory.”  But, I do suppose that my relationship to God is what would prevent any serious consideration of suicide.  After all, I have shown God far too much ingratitude and would like to do at least something in return for His great blessings.  Of course, I can never adequately pay God back for all His blessings, but I would at least like to do so super-abundantly–which sounds absurd and can only be possible through the grace of God.

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Three other thoughts would also come in the way: 1) I deserve what’s coming to me either because of my sins or personal faults and mistakes; 2) God both lowers us into the dust and raises us up; and 3) God foresaw all this suffering from the beginning.  Therefore, all I need to do is progress as best as I can in full or as full as possible knowledge of my sins and weaknesses, hoping in God’s mercy.  The only outcome for one who perseveres is to be brought out of one’s misery either by one’s appointed death or that joy in living will be found again.  In either case, “Blessed are those who weep, for they shall know joy.”

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Yet, I think that neither of the protagonists of the plays were able to continue living because they had removed God from the picture.  The Sea Gull says this very plainly in the case of an old man named Sorin who is looking toward the grave, whom a friend claims is not religious; therefore making fear of death merely animal fear.  In the case of the suicides, they also seem to remove other people from the picture and have an unhealthy concentration on themselves.  People were meant to be happy in community–not isolation!  Even the hermits of early Christianity knew this as they read Scripture, prayed to God and the saints, offered sacrifices and prayers for poor sinners, and rejoiced to serve the rare visitor or traveler.

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As a matter of fact, The Sea Gull‘s happiest character happens to be a poor school master named Medvedenko burdened with serving his younger siblings and aged mother.  After he married Masha, Trepelev’s sister, he in addition must care for their newborn child.  Though, it does seem that Masha now wishes not to have married Medvedenko or to be a mother.  The folly of people!  When one is surrounded by people who have made themselves unhappy through selfishness, why not imitate Medvedenko, whose only riches are the people in his life?

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Egotism kills, especially if exacerbated by preoccupation with one’s faults.  This was the case especially with the eponymous hero of Ivanov.  Indeed, he has many faults: he’s in debt, doesn’t love his wife, is irritable, can’t stay a night at home, has lost all his dreams, and is obsessed with his failures.  But, why torture oneself with all these things?  He’s a man, not an angel!  When grieving over one’s faults leads to self-torture rather than a change of life, it is time to stop grieving for a little!  Over how much does man have control?  Before her death, Ivanov should have tried to hang out with his wife, curbed his spending little by little, and tried a few new lucrative projects!  But, when one has done everything one can, there’s nothing else to do but look with hope at a crucifix.

Well, this has been a rather reflective and meandering article, but may it have been of benefit or amusement to my dear readers!

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2 comments on “Anton Chekhov and Suicide

  1. […] diary of the Revolutionary War, Anton Chekhov’s major plays (you know how those went from this article), E. D. Hirsch’s work on why America’s schools are failing, and An Honest President by […]

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