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