The Student by Anton Chekhov: A Perfect Short Story

Anton Chekhov’s “The Student” is the perfect story.

Decide for yourself by reading it at Project Gutenberg (1,500 words) or listening to it at LibriVox (10 minutes). Note that I read a new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

Here are some elements that make it perfect for me.

It is short

I mentioned that according to Harold Bloom, Edgar Allan Poe’s definition of short story is “read in one sitting.” But that’s not what I mean when I say “short” makes “The Student” a perfect short story. What I mean by “short” is that “The Student” captures an instant, not a lifetime. It doesn’t give too much back story; it doesn’t give too many details. It is concise and yet complete. And to me, it’s amazing to be able to create something so cohesive and powerful in so few words. (As I said when I reviewed On Writing, I don’t believe that length or quantity is a necessary measure of “good writing.”)

It captures one main character in one moment/subject

Sometimes a short story has two characters that act as one (a couple in a relationship, for example) but I think short stories that try to capture too many characters (as do some of Chekhov’s in the volume I’m reading) lack the pleasing organization or the “short and sweet” element that I like in a story. By nature, I think a short story needs to focus on one character/subject in either one moment or in one series of moments that relate (like a couple developing a relationship or a woman learning to respect her husband or a group of peasant women discussing how they will never love their husbands). “The Student” focuses on a young man, Ivan, on one wintery evening.

The character’s emotions are foremost

“The Student” follows the young man’s emotions as he walks in the wintery night, sits by the fire at the widows’ home, and then walks home. While Chekhov describes what happens and what people say, the young man’s emotions are the driving factor of the story.

Something happens, emotionally

While something physically happened in Turgenev’s stories, I didn’t feel any emotional draw to the characters. I am realizing that I approach literature through my emotions. For me, I loved the emotional draw in “The Student.” Ivan feels one way at the beginning of the story, has a very simple experience, and walks home at the end of the story feeling differently about his role in the world: past, present, and future. I think it is beautiful. Note that I don’t believe all stories necessarily need to have a positive emotional change for a story to be beautiful. But for every story that I like in the Chekhov volume I’m reading, there is some emotional realization at the end, whether that is happy or sad: I finish a story and sigh, wanting to let myself dwell on the emotion for a few moments before beginning the next story.

HTR&W

I wrote this post before reading Harold Bloom’s opinions in How to Read and Why. I may not even need to read what he says for some of these HTR&W works: I am loving Chekhov. If you don’t like Turgenev, don’t give up on the HTR&W list! These stories are better in my opinion. I’m really enjoying Chekhov’s stories, and I’ll write about Bloom’s comments and about the rest of the volume of Chekhov’s stories when I finish it.

Questions for you

Harold Bloom especially emphasized in his prologue that reading is an individual experience; what I like and am inspired by may not touch you in a similar manner. So I want to hear from you.

  • What makes a short story “good” for you? Was “The Student” a “good” story for you?
  • The back cover of my book calls “The Student” a “moving piece about the importance of religious tradition.” However, to me, I thought the religious story Ivan shares with the widows is not as important as the emotions explored. The introduction to my volume of Chekhov’s stories even admits that Chekhov, although familiar with the Christian traditions, was not a religious man. I believe “The Student” was about a young man understanding that his life can have an impact on others; his life has meaning. But what do you think? Is “The Student” a story about religious tradition?

Other thoughts:

Comments

  1. says

    Thanks for pointing out this wonderful story. I’ve always loved Chekhov but didn’t know this one. Thanks to Terry Finlay too, who sent me to your post, and, of course, to Project Gutenberg for making it available online.

    I read a fairly depressing blog post today called ‘How not to start a story’ (http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2008/07/how-not-to-start-story.html) ‘The Student’ would have failed the test completely and so would many other stories I love (and quite a few I’ve written!)

  2. says

    @Terry Finley: What a goal! I wish you luck. I’m finding reading great literature is a great inspiration. @Graham Storrs: I think there is merit to some of those “how not to start a story” but you’re right, Chekhov would have failed! I think the key is you need to know what the “rules” are before you try to break them. I think Chekhov does a great job!

  3. says

    @Graham Storrs:

    I should add that I don’t really think there are any rules. But I don’t think many of the classic, great stories probably wouldn’t get much support in today’s best-seller world, including Chekhov!

  4. says

    I must admit that I savor your thoughtful HTR&W posts. I love short stories and your announcement that you’d found a perfect one caught my attention. (I also liked your post about varying translations.) I have a Chekhov compilation and have flagged “The Student” for an upcoming afternoon read. Thanks!

  5. says

    @Jessica:

    Wow, that is the nicest compliment you could have given me. Thank you so much. That’s my goal: to be thoughtful about what I read rather than just turning the pages, as I have been. As for the “perfect” short story, I’m realizing these things are all subjective. Even all of HTR&W, of course, is subjective. But I do hope you enjoy the story.

  6. says

    Thanks for pointing out this great short story. The Gutenberg Project is so wonderful. Jessica is right about your posts. They are always so thoughtful and interesting.

  7. Amy Ryu says

    I felt almost the same things as you but you express yourself in words much better!
    After reading the student I felt that I really want to write something about myself that captures the moment, my emotions as well as Chekhov does!
    I never liked short stories, but truly the student is great!