Often regarded as one of the greatest short story authors in history, Anton Chekhov reinforces this title in his work, “The Darling.” He does this not only through a spectacular narrative but also through an implicit commentary on social norms of nineteenth-century Russia. The protagonist of this story, Olga Semyonovna, suffers from the need to conform to her partner and she embodies the aspects of an obedient wife that was desired when “The Darling” was written in the late 1800s. Unfortunately, Olga cannot seem to find happiness as she loses two partners to death and a third to another woman; moreover, she alters herself slightly to become a maternal figure by the end, but she is once again rejected by the young boy she essentially calls her own. Chekhov condemns the idea of female conformity through these tragic losses and Olga’s refusal to adapt throughout the story. Although these tragedies seem to be the result of an unfortunate fate, the cycle of loss can be attributed to Olga’s flaws that Chekhov makes evident through suggestive characterization and repetition of self-destructive themes.
Suggestive characterization is another way of describing Chekhov’s implicit style that he often employs in his writing. One flaw that he attempts to highlight in this way is Olga’s overwhelming reliance on having a partner to “serve.” She quite literally cannot function on her own; after she loses her last partner, “she could not form any opinion… and she did not know what to talk about” (Chekhov 16). While in modern times this appears to be an unnatural way to live one’s life, Olga actually embodies the perfect wife of the time period. Wives were expected to be obedient and to abandon their personal beliefs, which in retrospect was just another way of remaining subordinate to men. The fact that Olga cannot talk about one thing on her own illustrates the effects that this societal expectation has had on her life. It seems as if Olga had a predisposition to act in this manner and it was through continual male reinforcement that the effects were magnified. Chekhov once again highlights Olga’s flawed character on the following page, writing that “She wanted a love that would absorb her whole being, her whole soul and reason” (Chekhov 17). Chekhov is pointing to the fact that she has nothing to live for by herself in this subordinate position, almost suggesting a level of futility in her lone existence. She does not lose all these important figures in her life through pure fate, but rather as an attempt for Chekhov to condemn this antiquated desire in Russian culture. Even at the end of the story, when Olga develops into a maternal role for her third partner’s child, she remains rejected by this boy. She refuses to become self-reliant through all the loss that she experiences, and Chekhov implies that this societally pressured behavior will leave her alone and unable to achieve contentment.
The best evidence to support the idea that Olga is condemned to live unfulfilled for the rest of her life is the presence of cycles within the story. The narrative of Olga’s life leading up to and living with a new suitor is often very similar, and this is an intentional choice by Chekhov. The cycle begins with her mourning the loss of her previous partner, but she quickly develops an infatuation with a new man until she tragically loses him to extraneous circumstances. Within this cycle, Chekhov attempts to identify themes of self-destruction that could serve as agents of the repetitive tragedies in Olga’s life; for example, Olga’s inability to critically reflect on her behavior is one reason that her relationships all have the same result. While doing this, he also hints at the idea of fate to satisfy the readers who fail to look beneath the surface; fate is the cop-out reason for Olga’s struggles because it does not require any accountability. Under deeper analysis, however, it is clear that Chekhov actually overemphasizes the detrimental effects of her conformity to deliver his message. He makes note of her need for a male presence, while also recognizing that her tendency to quickly pick a new suitor is even discouraged in a society that desires women with her qualities. He writes, “It was evident that she could not live a year without some attachment, and had found new happiness in the lodge. In anyone else this would have been censured, but no one could think ill of Olenka” (Chekhov 14). Her harmless attitude and apparent innocence give her some slack in this society; however, it is still expected that she remains loyal to the strong bond she had with each man following their death. While she appears to be completely devastated each time, her lack of hesitation in moving on makes the bond seem artificial. This is another way that Chekhov emphasizes her own self-destruction; had she mourned the loss of her first husband and learned a valuable lesson to avoid repeating that behavior, then she would not experience the remaining tragedies that occur in the story.
While these tragedies are supposed to serve as a condemnation of Olga’s blind conformity, the implicit style makes it open for debate. One of Chekhov’s contemporaries, Leo Tolstoy, wrote a criticism on “The Darling,” where he analyzes the story with respect to Olga’s role as a woman. Tolstoy recognizes that “in writing ‘The Darling’ he [Chekhov] wanted to show what woman ought not to be” (Tolstoy 25). However, he concedes that throughout the story this message does not always remain obvious. He claims that the continuous concentration on Olga builds a relationship between her and the reader, making them feel bad for her wounded condition. Tolstoy explains it as if it is a paradox, indicating that Chekhov “wanted to knock the Darling down, and concentrating upon her the close attention of the poet, he raised her up” (Tolstoy 28). While Chekhov did not agree with this outcome, it is likely that the original readers recognized Olga’s behavior and associated it with the long-held opinion that she was acting in the correct manner. Thus, from this perspective it appears that Olga is unlucky to receive such a terrible fate when fulfilling her gender role of the time period. Something else interesting is Chekhov’s criticism of an individual in order to extrapolate it to the whole group. It seems as if he wants Olga to change her behavior, but since she is a product of her environment, it is more of a call to change Russian society overall. Due to these varying conclusions, one is left to wonder whether or not Chekhov wanted to make his message hidden in order to spark debate that could lead to a social recognition of this flawed expectation. Whatever the case, it is important to keep Chekhov’s original intentions in mind in order to identify the real reason as to why Olga experienced all this devastation.
With the ideals of his time period in mind, it is rather impressive that Chekhov is able to deliver a social commentary on female conformity in “The Darling.” The unnatural cycles of tragedy serve as the main argument for Olga’s attitude being flawed, and her apparent inability to change results in her eternal damaged condition. While Chekhov’s judgment is clear with research and a close analysis of his work, his implicit style allows for an opposite interpretation to occur. It is perhaps this duality of “The Darling” that has intrigued so many readers and encouraged them to engage in debate. Looking back on this work through a modern lens, it is clear that the societal expectation of an obedient wife is flawed just like Olga in this story, which makes his intended message a bit clearer. Regardless of how one interprets the text, Chekhov’s dedication to condemn unfair expectations of women in the nineteenth century could prove to be a model for modern writers, as struggles for women’s rights continue to occur. As for readers, they may take initiative to put into action the changes indicated in these writings and ultimately develop a new level of consciousness regarding harmful traditions.
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