In the evening, while we were having tea, the cook laid a plateful of gooseberries on the table. They had not been bought, but were his own gooseberries, plucked for the first time since the bushes were planted. Nicholai Ivanich laughed with joy and for a minute or two he looked in silence at the gooseberries with tears in his eyes. He could not speak for excitement, then put one into his mouth, glanced at me in triumph, like a child at last being given its favourite toy, and said, ‘How good they are!’– Anton Chekhov’s Gooseberries
He went on eating greedily, and saying all the while: ‘How good they are! Do try one!’ It was hard and sour, but, as Poushkin said, the illusion which exalts us is dearer to us than ten thousand truths.
This is one of my favorite passages from one of my favorite stories I’ve ever read.
Ivan Ivanich and Bourkin are on a hunting trip. They’re tired of walking and the fields seem endless. Ivan is about to tell a story, but is interrupted by a sudden storm, so they take shelter at a nearby mill owned by Aliokhin. The story is delayed further as they bathe (first time for Aliokhin since spring), and then Ivan swims in the river in the rain, and then they dress in silk dressing gowns and warm slippers and settle by a fire.
Ivan tells the story of his brother Nicholai Ivanich, a clerk for the Exchequer Court from the age of nineteen, who spent his youth working and pining away for the fields and woods where they passed their days, seemingly happy, though poor as peasant’s children. “And you know once a man has fished, or watched the thrushes hovering in flocks over the village in the bright, cool, autumn days, he can never really be a townsman, and to the day of his death he will be drawn to the country.” Nicholai is obsessed with the idea of buying a farm and enjoying all of its pleasures, but mostly of raising gooseberries. “Not a house, not a romantic spot could he imagine without its gooseberrybush. ‘Country life has its advantages,’ he used to say. ‘You sit on the veranda drinking tea and your ducklings swim on the pond, and everything smells good. . . and there are gooseberries.’ He used to draw out a plan of his estate and always the same things were shown on it: (a) Farmhouse, (b) cottage, (c) vegetable garden, (d) gooseberry bush.” (How I love the beautiful absurdity of this!) Nicholai marries a widow, lives as a miser, basically starves his wife to death, but, eventually buys his farm and orders twenty gooseberry-bushes and settles down to a country life.
Years later Ivan visits him. It’s a hot day, and he describes his brother, his brother’s dog, and his brother’s cook as fat and pig-like. “We embraced and shed a tear of joy and also of sadness to think that we had once been young, but were now both going grey and nearing death.”
His brother disappoints him with his elitism and greed, his condescension to the peasants, his self-satisfaction, his hypocritical forgetfulness that their grandfather was a peasant and their father a common soldier. Then his brother eats his gooseberries, and as Ivan watches him, he suffers an existential crisis as he realizes that happiness is unobtainable if you’re aware of the suffering of others. “In my idea of human life there is always some alloy of sadness, but now at the sight of a happy man I was filled with something like despair. And at night it grew on me. A bed was made up for me in the room near my brother’s and I could hear him, unable to sleep, going again and again to the plate of gooseberries. I thought: ‘After all, what a lot of contented, happy people there must be! What an overwhelming power that means! I look at this life and see the arrogance and the idleness of the strong, the ignorance and bestiality of the weak, the horrible poverty everywhere, overcrowding, drunkenness, hypocrisy, falsehood. . . . “
He finishes his story, and the men he’s telling it to, as well as the portraits of lords and ladies on the walls seem to have found it tedious and unsatisfying. Ivan and his companion go to bed in comfortable rooms, with clean linen, and the unpleasant smell of Ivan’s pipe, left on the table, keeps his friend awake. And the rain beat against the windows all night long.
Well! There’s so much here! There’s so much here to think about and talk about, in such a simple story. Chekhov very famously said, “The role of the artist is to ask questions, not answer them.” And I love these questions, though I believe there are no answers to them.
On one level, the story is an examination of happiness. What it means to be happy, if it’s selfish to be happy, if it’s even possible to be happy in the face of universal human suffering. But the story of Nicholai is a story within a story, it’s not even the bulk of the story, and Ivan is an unreliable narrator. When he tells the story of his brother eating gooseberries, he says that it’s really his mood at the time that he wants to relate, and I think he tells more about himself, throughout the story, than about his brother. Or Checkhov is more interested in talking about Ivan than about Nicholai, the narrator and author become beautifully tangled when reading about the story within the story. Everything Ivan says makes perfect sense when he says it, and the reader likes and sympathizes with Ivan, you feel that Checkhov likes and sympathizes with Ivan, but it’s not that simple when you think about it.
Ivan is more like his brother (and like all people, I think) than he would want to admit. He disparages his brother’s desire to live in the country, [“He was a good fellow and I loved him, but I never sympathised with the desire to shut oneself up on one’s own farm. It is a common saying that a man needs only six feet of land. But surely a corpse wants that, not a man. And I hear that our intellectuals have a longing for the land and want to acquire farms. But it all comes down to the six feet of land. To leave town, and the struggle and the swim of life, and go and hide yourself in a farmhouse is not life it is egoism, laziness; it is a kind of monasticism, but monasticism without action.”] but his description of their childhood and the thrushes is the most lyrical passage in his story. When Ivan swims in the river in the rain*, after being clean and dry in the baths, he must be cold and miserable again, but he seems happy, or pretends to be, “Ah! how delicious!” he shouted in his glee. “How delicious!” … he lay on his back to let the rain fall on his face.” It’s a lovely foreshadowing of his brother’s delight in eating hard sour gooseberries. And though he entreats his friends to be aware of the suffering of others, he thoughtlessly leaves his foul-smelling pipe burning through the night, keeping his friends awake, as he sleeps in clean sheets arranged by the pretty maid. He’s so eager for his companions to know about his epiphany in watching his brother eat gooseberries, but his response to the revelation of the endless suffering of others is to lamely entreat his rich friend to “do good.” And his judgmental, condescending description of the people he claims to care about so much that he can’t feel happiness is an uncomfortable read for anyone distressed by the “the ignorance and bestiality” of Trump supporters, that “basket of deplorables.” And I’m aware that I’m judging Ivan for being judgmental.
I do believe that Ivan is confusing comfort and happiness, though the two are intimately related. I do believe it’s possible to be elatedly happy though physically uncomfortable, although nobody should need to find that out. I do believe that rather than believing that nobody should ever be happy, we should work on creating a world where everyone could be happy, and I do understand that writing that here is as ineffectual as telling your rich friends to do good. And Ivan says, “Every happy man should have some one with a little hammer at his door to knock and remind him that there are unhappy people, and that, however happy he may be, life will sooner or later show its claws, and some misfortune will befall him illness, poverty, loss, and then no one will see or hear him, just as he now neither sees nor hears others.” So it’s not just the idea of others’ misfortunes that should block happiness, but the idea that everyone will bear misfortunes, will feel loss and sadness in their life. It’s a compelling argument, it feels correct, but surely this realization of inevitable suffering is exactly the realization that makes you appreciate the happiness you feel when you feel it. I think Ivan would find me trite and useless for writing that!
I love the idea of someone being happy with something they’ve grown or made themselves, which is more pertinent now than it would have been then. There’s something I love about gooseberries, and blackcurrants and quince. They’re not very popular in America these days–we want things to be sweet and ready to eat–these fruits take some work, they have a bitterness within them that’s almost confusing, and they must be cooked and sweetened to yield their odd but unforgettable flavor. This story is like that, and it’s not lost on me that I’ve felt more happy thinking and talking about this story than I have about many things other than my family in many months. I’m sure I got it wrong. I’m still thinking about it, I will have more to say.
And there will always be Gooseberries.
I love this so much right now: