Learning from Chekhov

“Winter, evil, dark, long, had ended so recently; spring had arrived suddenly; but neither the warmth nor the languid, transparent woods, warmed by the breath of spring, nor the black flock flying in the fields over huge puddles that were like lakes, nor this marvelous, immeasurably deep sky, into which it seemed that one would plunge with such joy, offered anything new and interesting to Maria Vasuilyevna, who was sitting in the cart.”

“The Cart” by Anton Chekhov

I really like this sentence.

  • The sentence gives readers a landscape and a character and her mindset.
  • The semi-colons set the stage. They control broad establishing temporal shots, letting readers know about the time of year without allowing that information to be presented in a static way. We know what winters are like in this world Chekhov is building and we know how this spring has arrived. But the seasons are presented abstractly at first
  • For most of the rest of the sentence, a world is presented in images. Those images are built from actual, specific objects (woods, flock, fields, puddles, sky), sensory language (warmth and black, most obviously), and some metaphors.
  • The sentence is also structured to present a mystery. The phrase “but neither the” leads readers into the rest of the sentence wondering what the elements implied by it will be. The mystery begins to be answered with a character’s reaction to the world. The images didn’t offer “anything new and interesting to Maria.” We read on, at least partly, to see why and how there could be nothing new or interesting for her here. Chekhov presents a place that is likely to interest readers and then lets them know this character is not interested in it.
  • “Joy” appears in the sentence to create engaging contrast with the character’s state of mind.
  • Anti-climax is used strategically as the sentence ends with “sitting in the cart.” At the same time, it almost immediately reminds readers of the title of the story.

Chekhov certainly took the advice that “sentences should do more than one thing” seriously.

What might you add to these ideas about the sentence?

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