Artists’ Wives by Anton Chekhov: Summary and Review

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You know what single girls and young widows? Don’t you go marry an artist. “May tarnation strike them,” As the Ukrainians say.

This is Chekhov’s closing advice from Artists’ Wives. This short story, first published in late 1880 in St. Petersburg daily paper, was written under the pseudonym “Don Antonio Chekhonte,” 

The story, sometimes assumed to be a parody of Alphonse Daudet’s Les Femmes d’artistes, focuses mainly on the lives of Russian artists that he got to witness in his life.

Artists’ Wives: Summary and Plot Analysis

The story opens with Alphonso Zinzaga, a novelist, returning to his home at a hotel, which houses various other artists. He comes home and finds his wife Amaranta fast asleep. 

When his efforts to wake her up don’t work as expected, he suspects that his wife may have committed suicide because of the horrible reception of his novel. His worries are replaced by angst when he realizes that she slept while reading his latest novel, published under the patronage of Count Alimonda.

Amaranta finally wakes up and is able to direct his attention from her unacceptable sleeping to his voracious hunger, Zinzaga makes up his mind to dine with Don Butronza, their Italian artist neighbor next door. 

Dining, however, was the last thing on Butronza’s mind, who was bellowing at his German wife, huddled in the corner hiding behind a statue with a huge gash in its stomach. It turns out that Don Butronza wants his wife to undress and stand by the window to be a model for his newest assignment provided by Count Alimonda to depict Susanna and Elders. 

Carolina is an absolute wreck and tormented so much by her husband’s request that she has even agreed to a divorce. Pleased that the horror story wasn’t his, aggrieved still that he still hasn’t eaten, Zinzaga leaves.

On his way home, he is intercepted by the wife of another fellow artist, an actor. It turns out that while rehearsing one of his scenes, he injured himself. His wife, who is in dire need of money to afford treatment, asks Zinzaga for help. Zinzaga, who has used up the last of his money for the realms of paper for his novel, respectfully bows out.

Before he can make it home, he is stopped yet another time. This time it is the wife of his singer-musician friend, and her request from Zinzaga is to make his friend stop singing. He sees his friend singing in a fury, stomping his foot, accompanied by yelps and squeaks of his little one, lying in his cradle nearby. Zinzaga politely asks his friend to get some rest, but his friend is adamant not to do so. 

After all, the rehearsal is pivotal for the glory of Portugal and maybe even that of the entire world.

When finally back to his apartment, he gets to know from his wife that a neighbor’s wife committed suicide after accidentally breaking the statue that her husband was building for Count Alimonda. 

Zinzaga immediately considers that a splendid idea for a novel, which he wants his wife to listen to, right away. Amaranta tries to avoid doing that but finally succumbs to her husband’s persistent demands. 

Later, mistaking a stupid novel authored by her husband as someone else’s, he ends up offending her husband. The husband, feeling utterly insulted, storms out.

Amaranta, having witnessed such an outburst on numerous occasions before, is convinced that her husband will return before long. After all, who else will do his free copying for him, if not her? In the meantime, she consoles herself after reading random news articles in a paper stashed away for such occasions. When finished reading the story, she considers herself fortunate that at least her husband does not starve her like the American Mr. Tanner.

Sure enough, Zinzaga comes back home as expected, in a joyful mood, asking Amaranta to get ready to go to her mother where they can ask her for money. An unhappy Amaranta faints, Zinzaga kisses her forehead.

The author closes with a piece of friendly advice for young women and widows to never marry artists.

Artists’ Wives: Review and My Thoughts

I will be honest; this didn’t feel like a Chekhov story to me initially, primarily because I was only exposed to his work in the latter part of his writing career in all my reading so far. Young Chekhov seems to have had quite a playful streak about him. The humor is refreshing. 

Consider the banters of his artists when in conversations with their respective wives.

Weep you miserable overcooked German sausage! Your husband is an artist, not a lousy shopkeeper! Weep, beer bottle!

You can not be my wife if you can not sacrifice yourself for art! Diablo!

For the sake of art Donna, you must forsake not only modesty, you must forsake all your feelings.

The protagonist Zinzaga seems so full of himself, thinking himself to be a man of ‘real talent’ and ‘great promise’. He doesn’t have the money to either put the food on the table or to support his wife, but that doesn’t deter him one bit as he doesn’t feel any shame asking his mother-in-law for money. His ideas about hunger are hilarious here:

He felt the strongest urge to convince himself that hunger was really nothing other than the lack of willpower, that man was created to battle nature, that to be an artist was to go hungry, etc.

And here Zinzaga said something that even a very clever person would be unable to catch or paraphrase. Something perfectly proper but completely unintelligible.

How she sleeps! What the hell? Could she have taken poison? The disappointing reception of my last novel may have affected her deeply.

Of course, the whole world revolves around him. Every time his wife is unhappy or tired, it’s because of the stress she feels on Zinzaga not doing well with his novels. That his writing talent that can put people to sleep never even crossed his mind. Especially since poor Amaranta was his only reader.

I find Amaranta’s pastime amusing. Convinced that her husband would return to her, as there was nowhere else for him to go, she was never rude to him. 

Instead, she tried to find solace in her circumstances, comparing her life to Poor Mrs. Tanner, whose husband starved her. Amaranta’s husband was so much better than Mr.Tanner, after all. Another thing that grabbed my attention was Mr.Tanner’s prescribed portions of food for his wife. Is it even possible that he could have been an early dietitian? The statements below make no sense to me otherwise, but make me laugh all the same!

“Namely during the course of 24 hours, she will ingest the following amounts of nourishing substances:

1 g of salts, 5 g of protein, 2 g of water, 7 of water distilled…”

That Chekhov’s wife was an artist makes me wonder: could Chekhov ever have been a Zinzaga? 😛


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