‘After the Theatre’ by Anton Chekhov: Short Story Analysis
‘After the Theatre’ is a late nineteenth-century short story penned by one of the greatest Russian short story writers, Anton Chekhov. The story was published in 1892 and is about the effect that an opera has on a suggestible and highly excitable young lady of sixteen years of age. The opera’s name is ‘Yengeny Onyegin’ and was based on Pushkin’s novel, who happens to be another stalwart Russian writer. The 1879 opera ‘Eugene Onegin’ by Tchaikovsky, based on the Pushkin story, is perhaps the version most people are familiar with. It is one of the commonly performed operas in the world. One can suppose that Chekhov was paying homage to the work of Pushin through this short story, which narrates the orgasm of the senses that the young girl Nadya experiences because of the opera. The short story is tense, full of an unnerving sense of mania, and is centrally focused on one person, that is Nadya.
Young people are always profoundly impressed by movies, documentaries, videos, TV shows, a Netflix series, et al. that they watch. Such teenagers tend to mold themselves into the people or world created by their favorite media icons, and so does Nadya after seeing the Tchaikovsky opera. She was young, impressionable, and given to romanticizing things that should not be romanticized. She decides to imitate the opera heroine, Tatyana, and write a letter to two of her admirers. The first admirer is Gorny, who is genuinely infatuated with her. He was an officer in the army who loved music and had the talent to play the piano. The second man is a student named Gruzdev, most probably a Marxist theorist and supporter. He speaks a lot of exciting things and visits Nadya often. However, in no way do we get to know whether he loves Nadya or not. Most likely, he only liked her as a croquet and skittles partner. He did call her a barking rich fancy poodle to her face. Nadya decides to write her love letters to these two gentlemen because she wanted to be like Tatyana. The Tchaikovsky opera has so influenced her that she wants to drown herself in it and not forget it. She is infatuated and obsessed with the characters in the opera and the romanticized world they inhabit. It wouldn’t seem odd if the story titled ‘After the Theatre’ had to continue with Nadya going to see the opera at least more than ten times. That is what people do when they are fascinated by the idealized world, which appeals to them and strikes them to be the true epitome of their existence. Nadya believed that the Tchaikovsky opera defined who she was. I wouldn’t put it past her that she would later find out it was based on Puskin’s book and then go on to purchase a copy and read the book over and over again. All teenagers do that. I did that as an impressionable young girl living her life in her school and college libraries. If you are interested to know more about my life, you can check out my memoir titled Scenes of a Reclusive Writer & Reader of Mumbai on the products page of my blog or Amazon. You will not regret it; it is about my life in books and with books.
So, Nadya romanticizes love. She gets high in a rather sadistic way by wanting to see her passion being dashed to the ground, sometimes by Gorny and sometimes by Gruzdev. Nadya is a frivolous and shallow girl given to hysterics and is undergoing a prolonged orgasm of sadistic sensations because of the Tchaikovsky opera. Chekhov is known to use subtle signs of sexuality in his writings. I have reviewed a similar story, ‘A Daughter of Albion’ by Chekhov, which deals with brazen sexuality and sexism. Do check it out for your reference.
Nadya doesn’t find Gorny as attractive as she finds Gruzdev. She likes and fancies the adulation of Gorny but finds him quite old fashioned and too sentimental. She loves the brazenness and bluntness of Gruzdev. She loves his way with words. Even though he ridicules her to her face, she still insists that he is in love with her and gets sensual delight in knowing that she was a blessed human being to have two men courting her. Gorny is a musician who, according to Nadya, would have become a great pianist if he had not joined the army. Twice he has proposed to Nadya, but she has not yet accepted his marriage proposal because she wants Gruzdev to continue to court her. She is quite content to put a decent man like Gorny on the string and play with his feelings. However, she frames it differently in her letters, where she tries to say that she is a boring and unimportant person who was never deserving of any man’s love. In a heightened romanticized way, she proposes that she would live life as a spinster brooding over the men that she loved and who did not love her back, or join the convent. She gets a strange high in portraying herself in this manner. She is romanticizing something that should be taken very seriously, that is, love and marriage. The reason why she does so is that:
- She is immature and very impressionable by sensationalist media.
- She is so rich that she can afford to have useless fancies like these.
- She doesn’t respect other people and their feelings over a matter of great importance, which is related to their heart’s wishes.
- She is self-centered and wants the focus to be on herself, which is a life that is shallow and hollow.
- She is still a child who likes to ‘play act’ that she is a betrayed, overlooked, and wounded lover.
She indeed doesn’t know the first thing regarding love. However, she is a cunning woman who knows how to tie a man around her finger and take advantage of their feelings. Towards the end of the short story she is confident that whatever happens, her life is so settled that everything will happen according to plan:
- Spring and Summer will always come, which is the season of frolic and amour.
- Gorny at that time would come for his furlough or unpaid leave of absence. While furloughed employees still technically retain their jobs, the furlough itself means that they cease working for their employers and do not earn a salary.
- Gorny would walk with her about the garden and make love to her.
- Gruzdev would also come to see her play croquet and skittles.
- She and Gruzdev would spend a lot of time together telling each other many beautiful things, et al.
This certainty excites her making her thankful to be the person she is, and she thanks the cosmos as she looks at the divine image at the back of her bed. However, terrible times lurk around the corner for Nadya. We know this by the subtle mention of the phrase ‘scent of wormwood in the room’ and the wormwood ‘twig tapping at the window’. Now we know there are two meanings for the word wormwood. The first wormwood is a woody shrub with a bitter, aromatic taste, used as an ingredient of vermouth and absinthe, and medicine. That was probably what was tapping at Nadya’s window. However, the other meaning for wormwood is a state or source of bitterness or grief.
Therefore, grief was coming the way of girls like Nadya, who wanted to play around with life’s seriousness. She was either ‘a scamp’ as Gruzdev called her to her face or a well done up rogue or worthless person. The Communist regime that would be set up in Russia long after this story would be published would consider people like Nadya to be leeches or the bloodsuckers of society, especially in the lives of the middle class and the poor. All she can do is play with men’s feelings. However, while she was succeeding in placing Gorny against Gruzdev in her letters, she could not create a place in Gruzdev’s heart. Not to say she truly loved him; she just liked ‘the chase’ and was willing to get sensual pleasure from it. The thrill of the chase was racing through her young blood, and it was increasing her orgasm all over. She was having an unnerving terrifying orgasm that she started crying for joy and delight. This is what respectable society considers open amorous behavior to belittle a person’s, especially a woman’s reputation. Nadya’s behavior is the very definition of life under constraints. Therefore, she got excited by something as simple as an opera. Yet, this was Pushkin and Tchaikovsky at work here; their art must have driven Nadya raving mad after the world they had created, which pandered to her needs. The story ends with a hidden note of danger just around the corner in Nadya’s life, the sensualist.
I enjoyed analyzing this short story. It’s always a pleasure to analyze Anton Chekov’s works. I have his entire collection, which I hope to read to a greater extent this coming year 2020. He is truly the master classic writer of good short stories based in Russia. I always recommend my students to read his classic short stories. If you are an educator and want to encourage your students to read the Classics, then you may find my non-fiction how-to book to be a bit helpful. It is titled Classics: Why and how we can encourage children to read them. You can buy this book by going to the products page on my blog or Amazon. I hope to review more short stories by various Russian writers soon.
If you are interested in book reviews, book analysis, short story analysis, poems, essays, essay analysis, and other bookish content, you can check out my blog insaneowl.com. If you are interested in buying my books, you can check out my blog’s products page. There is a lot of good stuff to buy. Happy reading to you always!
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