‘Enemies’ by Anton Chekhov

Chekhov_In-the-Twilight_AlmaI read the short story collection In the Twilight recently and thoroughly enjoyed reading more Chekhov. He really is a superb short-story writer, he often drops into and out of a narrative with the events apparently still unfolding. This can sometimes be annoying for the reader but with Chekhov it more often succeeds than fails because he creates incredibly realistic characters and often has something useful and interesting to say about the human condition.

In the Twilight was published by Alma Classics in 2014 and the collection is a selection of early works chosen by the author himself and originally published in 1887. As a collection the stories hang together extremely well with the possible exception of An Event which seems out of place. In the introduction Chekhov is quoted as saying that An Event and In Court should be removed if the publisher felt he needed to cut some stories and I think I’d agree with this assessement. For me, the best stories were near the end, Enemies and A Nightmare. A Nightmare was also in another collection of short stories that I read recently and touched on briefly in my post for The Exclamation Mark. Rather than go through each story I’m going to concentrate on the story Enemies. Please be aware that the whole plot will be revealed in what follows.

The story opens with a brilliant couple of sentences:

Towards ten o’clock on a dark September evening, the Zemstvo doctor Kirilov’s only son, six-year-old Andrei, died of diphtheria. As the doctor’s wife sank to her knees before the dead child’s little bed and was seized by the first paroxysm of grief, the doorbell rang out abruptly in the hall.

The visitor is Abogin, who is in need of the doctor to pay a visit to his wife who he fears is suffering from an aneuryism. Although Abogin shows concern for Kirilov’s predicament he pleads the doctor to come with him. The doctor is still in a daze from events and walks around the house and returns to his wife and son and watches over them:

Beauty could be sensed in the gloomy quiet too; Kirilov and his wife were silent, they did not cry, as if, besides the weight of the loss, they were conscious too of all the lyricism of their position…

They are aware that Andrei will be their last child as they are now too old and weary to have any more children. Kirilov goes downstairs and encounters Abogin, whom he had forgotten. Abogin pleads the doctor to help him and eventually Kirilov relents. Abogin assures him it will only take an hour at the most. The gloomy trip is almost carried out in silence:

Wherever you looked, everywhere nature seemed like a dark, boundlessly deep and cold pit, from which not Kirilov, nor Abogin, nor the red half-moon could escape…

They eventually arrive at Abogin’s house; all the lights are on but his wife cannot be found. Whilst Kirilov sits down in a catatonic state, Abogin searches for his wife, only to return to the room in a furious state; it appears that the ‘fit’ that his wife had had was faked and its intention was to get Abogin out of the house so that she could elope with her lover. Abogin rants and raves in front of the doctor, who slowly becomes aware of what’s happened.

“Forgive me, how can this be?” he asked, looking around in curiosity. “My child is dead, my wife is in anguish, all alone in the house…I can barely stand upright, I’ve not slept for three nights…and what? I’m forced to act in some low comedy, to play the part of a prop! I don’t…I don’t understand!”

Although they talk to each other, both Abogin and Kirilov are solely concerned with their own problems, however Kirilov feels as if he’s been insulted by Abogin and bangs his fist upon the table. He feels that Abogin, a member of the local gentry, has deliberately made fun of him and he feels repulsed, not only by Abogin, but by all of ‘his sort of people’. When Abogin tries to pay Kirilov this just makes Kirilov angrier and they exchange insults.

Abogin and the doctor stood face to face, and continued in their rage to hurl unwarranted insults at each other. Probably never in their lives, not even when delirious, had they said so many unjust, cruel and absurd things. The egotism of the unhappy was strongly in evidence in both of them. The unhappy are egotistical, spiteful, unjust, cruel and less able to understand one another than fools are. Unhappiness does not unite, but rather divides people, and even where it would seem people ought to be joined by the homogeneity of grief, many more injustices and acts of cruelty are committed than in a relatively contented milieu.

Kirilov cannot understand that Abogin is in pain as well, and feels that Abogin has engineered events in order to insult him. Abogin cannot understand how Kirilov feels being involved in what has the appearance of a farce when he has just lost his son. Kirilov leaves and on his trip back he can’t think of anything except of his hatred of Abogin and his type of people:

And a firm conviction about those people was formed in his mind.

Time will pass, and Kirilov’s grief will pass, but that conviction, unfair and unworthy of the human heart, will not, and will remain in the doctor’s mind to the very grave.

And with that the story ends. Even if you’ve read this post and now know the plot I hope that you will read the story, as it is beautifully written and stands up to multiple readings.



Filed under Chekhov, Anton, Fiction

9 responses to “‘Enemies’ by Anton Chekhov

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Great review. I loved this book – Chekhov deserves his title as the master of short stories in my view. I think NYRB are bringing out a collection of his early work which may well be worth looking out for.


    • Jonathan

      Thanks Kaggsy. Yes, The Prank is due out soon I believe. I’m tempted to rotate through short stories by Chekhov, Maupassant & H.E. Bates at the moment.

      Liked by 1 person

      • kaggsysbookishramblings

        They are very compelling. It’s so tempting to just pick up all these wonderful books. I’ve recently read my first Maupassants and loved them.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I love Chekhov short stories as well. I reviewed The Prank which is due out from NYRB at the end of the month.


  3. An excellent write-up of a brilliant story. I really enjoyed this collection too – such a strong sense of melancholy and lives unfulfilled.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      I agree Jacqui. And I liked the idea of putting ‘Enemies’ & ‘A Nightmare’ together in the collection. In ‘Enemies’ the two main characters remain divided whereas in ‘A Nightmare’ the main character begins to understand the priest’s situation and can even offer help.


  4. Checkov was such a brilliant writer. I think that I read all of his plays but only a few of his short stories. I need to read more of them soon.

    I find that many of his works reflect something dark and melancholy about the world. It sounds as if this may also be true of Enemies.


    • Jonathan

      I read most of his well-known plays years ago and I should re-read them – or maybe see them performed!

      What is great about Enemies is that you can sympathise with both characters. Poor Kirilov’s son has just died and he’s dragged away to be involved in what appears to him like a farce. But Abogin didn’t know that his wife was eloping, he genuinely believed that her life was in danger. What seems farcical to Kirilov is a source of pain for Abogin. Chekhov skillfully creates a situation in which each character acts ‘correctly’, but the enmity they have for each other at the end is unavoidable.


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