If Only We Could Know: An Interpretation of Chekhov

Kataev, Vladimir

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Criticism

Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack
  • Date of entry: Jan-22-2003
  • Last revised: Aug-29-2006


This work is an adaptation and abridgment of a classic work of Chekhov scholarship by Vladimir Kataev published in Russia in 1979 and presented here in English for the first time. Professor Kataev is concerned primarily with Chekhov’s perspective and methodology, the manner in which Chekhov looks at the world and, hence, the kinds of stories he tells and the methods by which he tells them.

The characteristic Chekhovian perspective first appears in recognizable form in stories that Chekhov wrote in his breakthrough years of the mid-1880s, yet it continued to develop and deepen throughout his writing career. Thus, If Only We Could Know is arranged chronologically. In each chapter the author discusses one or more stories or plays, using them as grist for his topical mill, beginning with "Kashanka" (1887) and ending with The Bishop (1902) and The Cherry Orchard(1903).

According to Kataev, the key to understanding Chekhov is to understand his epistemology or philosophy of knowledge. Basically, in Chekhov’s world the characters do not have access to a privileged perspective or to ultimate truth. "The relative, conditional nature of ideas and opinions, and of stereotyped ways of thinking and behaving; the refusal to regard an individual solution as absolute; and the baselessness of various claims to possession of ’real truth’: these are constants in Chekhov’s world." (p. 164) Thus, the characters communicate poorly and often end up inadvertently causing pain, or sabotaging their own life projects.

Nonetheless, Chekhov’s vision is not pessimistic. Chapter 16, "Chekhov’s General Conclusions," summarizes Kataev’s analysis of the author’s overall approach. Chekhov’s conclusions "may be negative {no one knows the real truth), or affirmative (seeking the truth is an inalienable part of human nature), or they may take the form of indicating the criteria and conditions necessary for establishing real truth." (p. 168) Thus, Kataev expresses here, as well as in his analyses of individual works, the dialectical (my term--JC) relationship between the facts of Chekhov’s stories (i.e. failed beliefs, failed communication, missed opportunities) and his compassion for human nature that searches endlessly for love and meaning in life.


The dustcover of If Only We Could Know claims that one of the book’s "special virtues" is its "persuasive discussion of the role that medical training played in Chekhov’s approach to writing." In general, this is true, although the author doesn’t sufficiently emphasize the continuing dynamic between Chekhov’s writing and his practice of medicine and public health during most of his working life.

It wasn’t simply his medical training, but rather the creation of a medical identity that became an essential part of Chekhov’s self-image. The characteristics of concreteness, impartiality, empathy, compassion, and diagnostic acumen certainly, in Chekhov’s case, arise from, and/or are consistent with his medical sensibility. Likewise, his focus on the individual case rather than the grand scheme, whether in fiction, philanthropy, or social action, goes along with a medical perspective.

In an earlier analysis, Doctor Chekhov: A Study in Literature and Medicine (1997, see annotation in this database), John Coope takes up some of the same issues. Coope identifies a broader array of medical influences on Chekhov’s work; for example, he takes into consideration Chekhov’s ability to describe medical syndromes with accuracy, as well as his skill in creating realistic physician characters. In the Introduction to Chekhov’s Doctors: A Collection of Chekhov’s Medical Tales (see annotation) editor Jack Coulehan explores the latter issue (Chekhov’s physician characters) somewhat more extensively, while placing them in an epistemological framework similar to that developed here by Vladimir Kataev.


Translated from the Russian by Harvey Pitcher


Ivan R. Dee

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Harvey Pitcher

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