Happiness by Anton Chekhov: Summary, Analysis and Review

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You may not be an Eckhart Tolle fan, but you do not need to be one to see the meaning in this. 

“Don’t seek happiness. If you seek it, you won’t find it, because seeking is the antithesis of happiness. Happiness is ever elusive, but freedom from unhappiness is attainable now, by facing what is rather than making up stories about it.”

He is not the only person that said that either. We have our publishers churning out treatises, the so-called experts giving us a step-by-step guide on how to achieve this ‘blissful’ state.

Some focus on continually evolving daily routines in constant pursuit of this elusive beast. And to quote from a scene from a lovely cinematic rendition of Chris Gardner’s life struggles Pursuit of Happyness, “why is happiness always a pursuit?”

This quest for happiness isn’t a new thing either. It is centuries-old, evoking interest from philosophers and authors alike.

Lucky for us, the beloved Russian Author Anton Chekhov was one of them as well. 

And in putting his pen to paper, out came this gem of a short story called Happiness. It was first published way back in 1887 in Novoye Vremya. This was translated into many languages in the author’s short lifetime.

Happiness by Anton Chekhov: Summary and Plot Analysis

The story revolves mainly around a conversation that two shepherds are having – one, a toothless eighty-year-old man and another, a poor young man guarding a flock of sheep. 

Both these individuals are spending the night by a broad steppe road when a rich and authoritative-looking stranger arrives on a horse to ask the shepherds a light for his pipe. 

The old man, assuming the stranger to be rich since he didn’t know him, proceeds with a conversation around a wicked old man called Zhmenya, who fashioned a conversation with women to be more suitable than attending church or larking in the street with lads.

He was cursed so much so that even melons whistled in his presence, and pikes laughed.

The old shepherd proceeds to recount a myriad of mysterious circumstances brought upon by this evil man’s presence, including the one whereupon being flogged, Zhmenya brought throat illness to the whole village.

Zhenya’s knowledge of where the treasure’s location made him invincible, which the old shepherd seemed to hate the most about him. 

Apparently, they are all surrounded by treasure, but under a spell to not be able to see it. It was only Zhmenya that was able to see them, but like a dog in the manger, he dies without digging the treasure or confiding in anyone about the treasure’s whereabouts.

The old man seems to be really passionate about treasures and has a bitter memory of a variety of failed attempts at locating them, including some of his own.

Some of his disappointment is also mirrored by the stranger, who, while listening to the treasure stories, feels a bit solemn himself.

While still distracted by the old man’s stories, he takes his leave.

The young shepherd, still looking to hear some fresh stories from the old shepherd asks the old man for some more, when he replies in a very distracted manner that he intends to dig up the place where the treasure is supposed to be.

When asked by the young man what he plans to do if he finds it this time, the old man is clueless.

The young man discovers that he was not interested in the fortune itself but the fantastic fairy tale character of human happiness.

Happiness by Chekov: Review and My thoughts

Full disclosure: This is not my favorite work from Anton Chekhov, but it comes close. What I love about this short story is that it packs the message about in the most splendid of ways in the fewest words possible. 

He doesn’t call happiness something it is not. He presents it the way it is in all of its majestic ambiguity. 

I loved many things about this story.. even his portrayal of sheep; at one point, it felt to me like Chekhov had become the sheep when he was talking about them.

Consider this for example:

Their (Sheep’s) thoughts, tedious and oppressive, called forth by nothing but the broad steppe and the sky, the days and the nights, probably weighed upon themselves, crushing them into apathy,and standing as though they are rooted to the earth, they noticed neither the presence of a stranger nor the uneasiness of the dogs.

When he talks about the old man- the way he thinks, and why he considers Zhemnya to be possessed by evil – looks serious but is comical if you peel off that layer of Russian Sombriety.

I have observed that if any man of the peasant class is apt to be silent, takes up with old women’s jobs, and tries to live in solitude, there is no good in it.

The way the old man’s passionate recounting of treasure hunt tales and his disappointment rubs off on the sophisticated stranger.

Your elbow is near, but you can’t bite it. There is fortune, but there is not the wit to find it.

The old man’s absolute certainty in knowing the precise location of the treasure. I must admit that this sexist remark pinched me, but then he was 80 years old from a world a century and a half ago. I will let that snide remark pass.

I didn’t tell Panteley – God be with him- but you know that in that writing, the place was marked out so that even a woman could find it. 

What I also found interesting was that it was the old man , tired and almost invalid, who had this inexplicable passion for looking for the treasure while the young man was wise and balanced.

Alexandar Chekhov’s, Anton’s elder brother, said in praise of this story:

“Well, my friend, you’ve made quite a stir with your last ‘steppe’ subbotnik. This piece is wonderful. Everybody talks about it.”

Now, I know that there is nothing new about this knowledge – either on Happiness or Chekhov’s writing prowess. Happiness is a unicorn on the human emotional spectrum for many. And at the very minimum, for the ones that are in the constant quest for it.

We are all a little bit like Chekhov’s old shepherd, aren’t we?


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