This book is a good collection of Chekhov stories, but there is little information to help a reader unfamiliar with the author. Before reading this collection, I had only read "The Bet" in high school. I majored in Creative Writing in college, but we didn't read one single Chekhov story, though his name was thrown around here and there. As I saw his name referenced more and more, I became curious and read this. At first, it was hard to get into the stories--Chekhov's style is rich in detail but not exactly cohesive in plot or character. But I saw enough talent to prod me on, and as the stories progress (arranged chronologically), they get more refined and mature.
There's a good portion of reading here, 23 stories that span 358 pages, and a diverse selection that ranges from 1885 to one of his last stories, "The Bishop," from 1902. (Chekhov died in 1904.) However, I feel there could have been better representations of Chekhov's earlier stories. I haven't read them, but I've heard that "The Steppe" and "Gusev" are particularly good stories, probably better than "The Cook's Wedding" or "On the Road," which seem to lack the power of some of the other early pieces like "Easter Eve" and "The Witch."
Also, where are the humorous stories? I couldn't believe that Chekhov wrote humor after reading this book, because all the stories are pretty depressing, showing the toil of everyday life and the difficulty of finding happiness. That's not a bad thing per se, but I think a more representative picture of Chekhov's writings could have been given.
If you're new to Chekhov, you will probably be jolted, perhaps annoyed, perhaps amazed, by his writing. He is a master at honing in on the lives of people without providing much in the way of plot or authorial explanation of what's going on, yet in most stories, he maintains momentum through the sheer power of the details.
And don't expect uplifting moral messages or hope here--or formulaic sentimentality, for that matter. "The Pipe" is almost apocalyptic in its tone, conveying a sense that the world is dying. But is that the story itself saying it, or just the characters thinking it? It's hard to decide, but it really doesn't matter. In another story, an infant is killed when a woman throws boiling water on it, and no one seems to hold it against her.
The eponymous story, "Ward No. 6," is probably the most powerful--and one of the longest--pieces here. A doctor who considers himself an elitist philosopher becomes intrigued with a mental patient, only to have people start to doubt his only sanity. Considering Chekhov was a doctor himself, he didn't seem to have any more sympathy with doctors than he did anyone else--the doctor is portrayed as pretentious and naive. He has his positive qualities, too; though rebuffed by the mental patient he visits, he reacts only in confusion, not anger. He seems to genuinely want to understand the man and the larger questions in life, even if his ideas distort him to the reality of suffering.
And then there is "The Lady with the Dog," often considered the best of Chekhov's works. The core of the story is a pretty common idea--adulterous lovers whose lives become disrupted by their passion for each other. But Chekhov depicts the situation with such intriguing detail that it takes on a whole new meaning. And there is no clear resolution--as often happens in Chekhov's stories--just a tense collision of passion and suffering.
Chekhov shows the faults, passions, and more rarely, the redeeming qualities of a diverse range of people, from peasants, to widows, to aristocrats, to clergy. Without seeming to make moral judgments (except perhaps in "The Grasshopper" which seems to outrightly condemn the cruelty of the characters and satirize the arrogance of actors), Chekhov shows people as they really are--struggling, weak, philosophical, victims of circumstance, victims of their own self-delusion, compassionate, filled with beauty, sorrow, and cruelty. In essence, he captured the complex workings of human nature.
Chekhov's stories also capture the atmosphere of late 19th-century Russia: steeped in images of the Orthodox Church; the encroaching modern world on a hard, unmerciful landscape; ubiquitous vodka, often gone bad, which makes people roll on the ground and lose their senses; corrupt government officials and clergy; crude, stupid peasants; philosophical meanderings that intrude upon getting water from a well or treating a patient sick with typhus. Characters are plagued with poverty, disease, superstition, infidelity, even murder. Some towns are hundreds of miles from a railroad station, and you begin to see how hard life in 19th-century Russia must have been.
But while the names of characters may be long and hard to remember, while there are numerous references to towns, rivers, landmarks, and people a non-Russian is unfamiliar with, the struggles and details told in these stories are relevant to anyone, in any country. There is great power in Chekhov's ability to reveal the complexities in life without being sentimental or melodramatic, and his conciseness and richness of language is inspiring.
Besides a better selection in the early stories, I would have liked more background about Russia, about the many references in the stories that were hard to follow. The introduction isn't a bad portrait of Chekhov's life and work, quoting his letters and others who have commented on him, but it wasn't all that helpful in approaching the stories with a good idea of what I was getting into. I have since read more about him, which has helped me to better appreciate my reading. I'm also intrigued to read more of Chekhov's work.