A doctor is riding through the desolate steppe at twilight and loses his way. He comes to a hut along the new railroad where two men, an engineer and his young assistant, are spending the night. After they all have a few drinks, the engineer marvels over the beauty of lights in the distance, while the young man says the lights remind him "of something long dead, that lived thousands of years ago." (p. 607) He sees no point in human love or accomplishment because, after all, we all have the same fate--death. This encourages the old engineer to tell a tale of his youth.

Once, when visiting his hometown on business, he had come across a childhood friend, a woman who was unhappily married. He looked forward to having a brief affair with her, but she considered him her savior. She desperately wanted him to take her away. The engineer agreed, but then callously abandoned her.

Later, he realized that "I had committed a crime as bad as murder." (p. 635) He went back and "besought Kisotchka’s forgiveness like a naughty boy and wept with her . . . " (p. 639) At the end of "Lights," the doctor rides off at sunrise toward home. All around him nature seems to be saying, "Yes, there’s no understanding anything in the world!"


Lights is among the small group of Chekhov’s stories that evoke a quietist, mystical response to the world. In this case lights twinkling in the distance trigger differing feelings in the protagonists. To the cynical young man, the lights evoke death and meaninglessness. To his older colleague, they suggest a story about vulnerability and love, a story about a desperate woman whose suffering breaks through the hard shell of young, insensitive man and changes his life. The doctor, in his turn, seems transformed by the night’s events.

As he rides away the next morning, the light (sunrise) rises in him, though what he experiences is the dark brilliance of "no understanding anything in the world." Thus, the doctor experiences the essentially mystical identification of light and darkness, meaning and meaninglessness, understanding and no understanding. Other Chekhov stories that enter the mystics’ Cloud of Unknowing include Happiness (1887), On Easter Eve (1887), The Student (1894), and Gooseberries (1898) [see annotations].

"Lights" employs the narrative technique of telling story within a story. The inner tale illuminates the outer tale. Chekhov used this device on many occasions, including the famous Little Trilogy of 1898 (see annotations of About Love, The Man in a Case, and Gooseberries)


First published in Russia in 1888. Translated by Constance Garnett. Introduction to the Modern Library collection by Shelby Foote.

Primary Source

Early Short Stories 1883-1888


Random House: The Modern Library

Place Published

New York




Shelby Foote

Page Count