Chekhov Writes A Dostoyevsky Story: "An Attack of Nerves"

How many of Chekhov's stories have I read? I have no idea. Hundreds of them. All 201 in the Ecco 13-volume set of Constance Garnett's translated tales. A bunch translated by Ann Dunnigan. Peter Constantine's collection of 38 stories from the young Chekhov. Lots more, though most translators mine the same vein of tales that Garnett worked. But let's say I've read some 300 stories by Anton Chekhov, and I can only think of one of those stories that seems to have been directly influenced by the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky. I am going to claim that the 1889 story "An Attack of Nerves" (also known as "A Nervous Breakdown") is inspired by the fourth section of Dostoyevsky's Notes From Underground, the encounter between the Underground Man and the prostitute Liza.

I steal the following summary from the NYU School of Medicine "stories about doctors" website:
A night on the town with two friends turns into "an attack of nerves" for Vasilyev, a law student. The three students spend the night drinking and visiting houses of prostitution; Vasilyev is horrified and repulsed by the women, who he thinks are "more like animals than human beings." The social problem of prostitution becomes an obsession; he is so fixated on finding a solution that he is in moral agony. His friends, among whom is a medical student, are concerned only with his health; they take him to a psychiatrist who "cures" Vasilyev with bromide and morphine.
I will ignore the NYU School of Medicine's shallow comments on the story and give you my own.

While both the Dostoyevsky and Chekhov stories are part of a long and dense tradition of Russian "fallen women" fiction, I claim that they are more closely linked than by just that tradition. Notes and "Nerves" share important symbolism; Chekhov's formal structure pushes against Dostoyevsky's in an asymmetrical manner to form a kind of balance; Chekhov's protagonist is strikingly similar to the Underground Man; both tales end with frustration at the protagonist's inability to solve the problem of subjugation. I hope I remember to mention that Chekhov seemingly implies a sympathy with Chernyshevsky's idea that woman can only be freed when men become civilized enough to free them. We'll see how well I do. This entire essay might be beyond my abilities. You've been warned.

Let's start with the snow, which is an important symbol in both stories. Dostoyevsky's snow is the element which opens Part II of Notes, the element to which he returns in the tale of Liza:
Snow is falling today, yellow and dingy. It fell yesterday, too, and a few days ago. I fancy it is the wet snow that has reminded me of that incident which I cannot shake off now.
Chekhov's story is also set on a snowy night, but his snow is beautiful and mysterious:
The first snow had not long fallen, and all nature was under the spell of the fresh snow. There was the smell of snow in the air, the snow crunched softly under the feet; the earth, the roofs, the trees, the seats on the boulevard, everything was soft, white, young, and this made the houses look quite different from the day before; the street lamps burned more brightly, the air was more transparent, the carriages rumbled with a deeper note, and with the fresh, light, frosty air a feeling stirred in the soul akin to the white, youthful, feathery snow.
Dostoyevsky's snow is always "wet" and sometimes even "warm," and is never anything but part of the world's antagonism, another marker of the Underground Man's misery, pointing in the same direction as everything else in the Liza story:
The wet snow was falling in big flakes; I unbuttoned myself, regardless of it. I forgot everything else, for I had finally decided on the slap, and felt with horror that it was going to happen NOW, AT ONCE, and that NO FORCE COULD STOP IT. The deserted street lamps gleamed sullenly in the snowy darkness like torches at a funeral. The snow drifted under my great-coat, under my coat, under my cravat, and melted there. I did not wrap myself up--all was lost, anyway.
Chekhov's protagonist, on the other hand,
liked the snow, the pale street lamps, the sharp black tracks left in the first snow by the feet of the passers-by. He liked the air, and especially that limpid, tender, naïve, as it were virginal tone, which can be seen in nature only twice in the year -- when everything is covered with snow, and in spring on bright days and moonlight evenings when the ice breaks on the river.
Dostoyevsky, then, uses the snow to show that the world itself--including the weather--is a force set against man, whereas in Chekhov it is man who is the force of evil set against nature:
If one looked upwards into the darkness, the black background was all spangled with white, moving spots: it was snow falling. As the snowflakes came into the light they floated round lazily in the air like down, and still more lazily fell to the ground. The snowflakes whirled thickly round Vassilyev and hung upon his beard, his eyelashes, his eyebrows. . . . The cabmen, the horses, and the passers-by were white.

"And how can the snow fall in this street!" thought Vassilyev. "Damnation take these houses!"
these houses are bordellos, where Vassilyev has been dragged, from one to the next, by his friends. His friends are looking for a good time; Vassilyev is horrified by what he sees, by the objectification of the women, by the base nature of man--even of his good and beloved friends.

Which brings us to the next important similarity between the stories, the protagonist's disgust with man. Dostoyevsky shows us this by having the Underground Man insult Liza in as cruel a manner as he can, demonstrating to her that she is a slave to men, maybe less than a slave, and that he is no better; she cannot possibly look to him for salvation (this is a direct attack on Chernyshevsky's novel). The Underground Man sees no end to this slavery and baseness, but it's all one with the evil that is the world so it does not particularly matter more than anything else. Chekhov's Vassilyev, on the other hand, determines that he is going to save women, to end prostitution:
It seemed to him that he must settle the question at once at all costs, and that this question was not one that did not concern him, but was his own personal problem. He made an immense effort, repressed his despair, and, sitting on the bed, holding his head in his hands, began thinking how one could save all the women he had seen that day. The method for attacking problems of all kinds was, as he was an educated man, well known to him. And, however excited he was, he strictly adhered to that method. He recalled the history of the problem and its literature, and for a quarter of an hour he paced from one end of the room to the other trying to remember all the methods practiced at the present time for saving women. He had very many good friends and acquaintances who lived in lodgings in Petersburg. . . . Among them were a good many honest and self-sacrificing men. Some of them had attempted to save women. . . .
The problem, however, is too big for one student in Moscow to solve. Vassilyev, who has always been a sensitive soul, goes mad from the pressure of the world's evil. He becomes a version of the Underground Man:
Vassilyev lay down on the bed and, thrusting his head under the pillow, began crying with agony, and the more freely his tears flowed the more terrible his mental anguish became. As it began to get dark, he thought of the agonizing night awaiting him, and was overcome by a horrible despair. He dressed quickly, ran out of his room, and, leaving his door wide open, for no object or reason, went out into the street. Without asking himself where he should go, he walked quickly along Sadovoy Street.

Snow was falling as heavily as the day before; it was thawing. Thrusting his hands into his sleeves, shuddering and frightened at the noises, at the trambells, and at the passers-by, Vassilyev walked along Sadovoy Street as far as Suharev Tower; then to the Red Gate; from there he turned off to Basmannya Street. He went into a tavern and drank off a big glass of vodka, but that did not make him feel better. When he reached Razgulya he turned to the right, and strode along side streets in which he had never been before in his life. He reached the old bridge by which the Yauza runs gurgling, and from which one can see long rows of lights in the windows of the Red Barracks. To distract his spiritual anguish by some new sensation or some other pain, Vassilyev, not knowing what to do, crying and shuddering, undid his greatcoat and jacket and exposed his bare chest to the wet snow and the wind. But that did not lessen his suffering either.
That particular scene closely echoes a scene in Notes From Underground. The other strong sign that "An Attack of Nerves" is related to Notes From Underground is the ending, atypical of Chekhov. It is atypical in that it is an actual rounding off of the through-action of the piece, which Chekhov rarely does, and it strikes a negative, cynical note which Chekhov rarely uses. It is not subtle, and its comedy is a cheerless sort of joking: "He had two prescriptions in his hand: one was for bromide, one was for morphia. . . . He had taken all these remedies before." Chekhov implies that the problems of civilization cannot be solved; they can only be pushed away and ignored. His own profession, or at least psychiatry, cannot cure depression caused by the shape of society. It is society which is sick, but we can only treat the individual, not the society.

And so on, in the same general style, as Chekhov would say. There are other Chekhov stories that deal with prostitution, but none which so closely echoes the form and content of Notes From Underground. So that's my attempt to extend the literary influence of Nikolai Chernyshevsky's What is to be Done? through Dostoyevsky's Notes From Underground and into Chekhov's oeuvre. Even if I'm wrong, "An Attack of Nerves" is a great story, written in beautiful language. I don't know why I ever read anything but Chekhov, I say yet again.

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