Anton Chekhov: The Black Monk aka Чёрный монах (1894) and Peasants aka Мужики (1897) Stories

The Black Monk (Penguin 60s)

Unlike Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, Chekhov isn’t known for his novels but for his short stories and his theater plays. Some people believe that there has never been a finer short story writer than him. I agree, he is an accomplished writer and reading him is a real joy. I had this little Penguin book containing The Black Monk and Peasants for years now but never got around to reading it.

I have read many of Chekhov’s stories and I’m well aware that he was someone who was interested in the fate of the Russian peasant and the poor, nevertheless I don’t think I have ever read anything by him that was as bleak as these two stories.

They are very different but there is a common topic in those stories which is illness. Mental illness in the first and a neurological illness in the second.

The Black Monk tells the story of the Master of Arts Andrey Kovrin. Kovrin feels exhausted and tired and decides to go and spend the summer with his former mentor, the famous horticulturalist Pesotsky and his daughter. Being an orphan, Korvin grew up with Pesotsky and loves him dearly. The old man has a wonderful estate with beautiful gardens and orchards that produce a lot of fruit and vegetables.

The beginning of the story is very idyllic. Korvin enjoys the beauty of the gardens, the company of his friend and to work on his numerous projects. Nobody seems to be aware at first that he hardly sleeps. He is very nervous and overeager and works like a mad man. Strange thoughts haunt him and he constantly thinks of a tale that he once read about a black monk who is a real person in one place but a sort of mirage in others.

As idyllic as the story starts it soon gets darker when Korvin not only to sees the black monk but speaks to him as well and finally has a nervous breakdown. I found this a highly interesting story as we think at first that it is a ghost story and then realize that Korvin is psychotic. This reminded me a lot of Maupassant’s Le Horla and there could be an influence. The Black Monk is a story of a nervous breakdown that leads to hallucinations and visions that are so intense that Korvin takes them for real. He believes everything the monk tells him and what he tells him flatters him.

The black monk says to Korvin that he is one of the chosen ones, an artist and that artists never see the world like everybody else.

But how do you know that men of genius, in whom the whole world puts its faith, haven’t seen ghosts too? Nowadays scientists say genius is akin to madness. My friend, only the mediocre, the common herd are healthy and normal.

After the breakdown Korvin undergoes a treatment with bromides, gets a lot of rest and becomes extremely depressed. His visions are gone and so is his feeling of grandeur. Being cured is insufferable to him. Chekhov’s psychological insight is really amazing. I’m not sure whether Korvin suffers of schizophrenia but it could be. He could also be bipolar. Both explanations are possible and both illnesses have the trait that during the moments of (megalo)mania the patient is quite happy. Often however they don’t sleep, don’t eat, are highly agitated and a break down mostly puts an end to the high.

Peasants is a completely different story. Nikolay Chikildeyev is a waiter in Moscow when he starts to develop a strange illness. His legs get numb and he cannot work anymore as he falls constantly. It isn’t said what it is but it could have been a neurological affliction or MS. In any case he decides to go back to the country and take his wife and his daughter with him.

What follows is unbelievable and I think it must be one of the bleakest stories I have ever read. Chikildeyev’s family are peasants and so incredibly poor, it would be heartbreaking. I did say “would” on purpose because these people are not only poor, they are dirty and brutal, constantly drunk, they hate each other and life, they are mean and abusive.

During the summer and winter months there were hours and days when these people appeared to live worse than cattle, and life with them was really terrible. They were coarse, dishonest, filthy, drunk, always quarreling and arguing amongst themselves, with no respect for one another and living in mutual fear and suspicion.

On the other hand they are extremely religious but in a very irrational way. No one can read and would really know what is in the Bible but they mix up elements the priests said, with Bible quotes and childish beliefs and wishes and pure superstitions. They believe in heaven and hell and the Virgin Mary but without a clear idea what each of them really means. The holidays are followed religiously as each of them is an opportunity to get drunk.

If they could choose they would rather be dead than alive but on the other hand they are extremely scared of being ill and hate Chikildeyev because he is a mirror of their own frailty.

Far from having any fear of death, Marya was only sorry it was such a long time coming, and she was glad when any of her children died.

What is also amazing is the fact that some of the older peasants wish themselves back to serfdom as they were at least fed regularly.

I have never read anything like it and it felt almost like reading nonfiction as it is written in a very realistic and detailed way. It seems as if  Chikildeyev’s illness was just a pretext to have these outsiders come to that place of desolation and depravity. The story also underlines that when you have lived under such circumstances for a long time you hardly see them any more and certainly do not see that you are part of the problem.

Both stories are amazing and show how talented Chekhov was. I cannot say I “liked” them but I would recommend them because they are very enlightening. They show you the talent of an author and the reality of a society of which we don’t know that much anymore but that has certain traits and elements that can still be found nowadays.

25 thoughts on “Anton Chekhov: The Black Monk aka Чёрный монах (1894) and Peasants aka Мужики (1897) Stories

  1. I haven’t read either of these, but I love Checkhov, and Russian lit in general. He’s a neat author because in his plays, rather than telling a story he seems to perfectly capture a mood and atmosphere. You understand that the aristocracy no longer has a function and so are becoming stagnant, and that Russia’s future is branching into different directions.

    • He is a masterful story teller and I also like his plays. I haven’t seen one, only read them. I think it would be great to see them too. I’m not a 100% happy with my review I have left out a lot of aspects, he manages in a few sentences to draw a society and shows what has gone wrong. They are very bleak stories. None of the stories I read so far by him were like this. the psychological insight is always great though.

  2. These sound fascinating, “The Black Monk” in particular. Must keep them in mind once I start reading some of the books I’ve bought in recent binges! To keep up with the bleak themes evoked in your post, I have to confess that I’m probably one of the few people who haven’t yet read “Le Horla.” I appreciate the reminder, though, thanks. 😀

    • They are really worth reading and I think they should be available online too. the Black Monk certainly is.
      “Le Horla” is truly great. If you only know the lighter side of Maupassant it may come as a surprise but after all he was very ill too and experienced parts of it himself.
      I think there are many books/stories on madness from that time or earlier ones like Gogol’s History of a Madman. They are related to the idea of the artist as a genius on the verge of insanity. A lot of this insanity was experienced by the artist and came from the abuse of substances and lack of sleep like in Maupassant’s case.

      • Or Dostoevsky… he’s my favorite of the 19th century Russian authors. His descriptions of madness are incredibly accurate. In his book “The Double” he describes schizophrenia in such accuracy that it seems as if he was close to someone who had the disorder. He also did a really good job with his epileptic characters, probably because he was epileptic himself.

        • Yes, you are right. I like him a lot but need to read some more of him. I haven’t read The Double. I have read that some epileptic episodes can have a psychotic element, Maybe he experienced that or really knew someone who had the illness.
          It is a recurring theme in 19th century literature. I need to read The Double, thanks for reminding me.

  3. This is a coincidence as I just finished Chekhov’s The Duel. The film version will be released on DVD in N. America next week, and I wanted to read it before I watched the film.

    • It is indeed. I always go back to Francine Prose’s reading list in “Reading like a Writer” (did you read that? It is so good). Chekhov is the short story writer she likes the most. I’m glad I have another, bigger collection of his stories at hand. I don’t know “The Duel” and hadn’t heard of the movie either. Thanks. I’m curious to read your review. It is probabaly set in an aristocratic milieu, I suppose? Not much duelling going on between peasants, I think.

  4. I have only read some of the plays. I’ve seen Oncle Vania with P. Torreton two years ago and it was fantastic.

    In school we studied madness in literature. Among the texts was Chekov but I can’t remember which one it was.

    PS : I’ve heard an audio version of Le Horla. I really recommend it. It was read by Michael Lonsdale. The voice increased the power of the hallucinations and you could feel madness taking possession of his mind.

    • I think you would like The Black Monk and Peasants too.
      Le Horla is great, I would be inetersted to hear it, I’ll have a look. The Black Monk is not as intense as Le Horla. Maupassant had another experience with madness that’s why it feels so authentic.
      I would like to watch Chekhov’s plays. Reading them was already very good but I can imagine how much better it would be to see them.

  5. I have seen Chekhovs name many times in my travels through the literary world but still I have never ventured often into Russian literature. I tried Tolstoy once, and just couldnt like it. I will someday, try some Chekhov eventualy.

    • Well Chekhov is much easier to read than Tolstoy with his super long novels. I’m still stuck in tne middle of Anna Karenina. Since far over a year. It is too long for my taste. I like the condensed form.You would be safe with Chekhov. You read a story and like it and go on or leave it.

  6. I’ve only read a smattering of his stories, and not either of these, but I did get a copy of his novella The Duel earlier this year. (The idea being of course that I would read the book and then see the movie…). I have a book of his short stories (well, a collection of short stories anyway), so I should see if either of these is included. Not sure I am in the mood for such a bleak story, but a well told one is always appreciated!

    • In the case of “Peasants” his talent was almost overshadowed by the bleakness of the story.
      I have read other stories and they were all so well written.
      I’m going to read another of his collections soon but hadn’t planned on reading The Duel. I’ll be interested what you think of it. In the meantime I’m waiting for Guy’s review which will certainly be posted shortly.
      I will maybe watch the movie instead.

  7. I love Chekhov’s plays, but have read none of the short stories. I should correct that. The Peasants sounds like a vastly improved version of Tobacco Road (which I didn’t take to, the writeups at mine).

    I’m not sure if I should start with this or The Duel, but I should start. Thanks for the review.

    • I think in general “The Lady with the little Dog” is considered his best short story. I have read it, liked it but was far less impressed than with Peasants. I have’t read The Duel yet and am interested to see what guy will think of it. I’m planning on re-reading the short story collection i have (including The Lady…). He is such a talented writer. One can just marvel…
      I haven’t read Tobacco Road, I will have to have a look at your review. I’m interested to see whether there are similarities despite the different countries. Thanks.

      • “The lady with a dog” evokes a longing feeling that stays with you. The story also ends without a conclusion. Author captures the passion and guilt without any pretext. The story has stayed with me. The black monk is a thought provoking story. It reminds me of the “beautiful mind” – where the professor understood that insanity is one of the thoughts just like sanity. He ignores insane thoughts voluntarily. IMO “black monk” represents the insane thoughts and our protagonist is not able to tame the black monk. Though I am still marvel at how Anton is able to create the black monk via a legend.

        • I need to read “The Lady with the little dog” again. I remember I liked it a lot but I forgot too much about it. I hadn’t thought of comparing “The Black Monk” to “A Beautiful Mind” but you are quite right. Where the protagonist of Checkov’s story failed, the professor succeeded. I only saw the movie, it did impress me a great deal. It is amazing that someone would have so much power over his own sick mind. Kovrin in Checkov’s story also harmed himself because he was too agitated, didn’t sleep or rest at all.

  8. I finally read “The Black Monk,” Caroline, and I enjoyed it (also agree for the most part with Vineet Jain about what the “black monk” symbolizes in the story). Thanks for bringing the story to my attention and for writing such an interesting post about it!

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