Summary / Review / Appreciation

Gooseberries by Anton Chekhov is a story about social injustice and the quest for happiness.  On the surface it is a simple story. Ivan and Burkin walk contentedly through the Russian countryside. When a heavy rain begins to fall they seek shelter at the nearby estate of their friend Aleokhin. They are welcomed, given refreshments by a beautiful servant, and they bathe. Later that evening, Ivan tells his friends a story about his brother.

It is a bitter story about Nicholai, a civil servant, who nurtured a dream to retire to a modest plot in the country where he would live a simple life and grow gooseberries. But as he saves money his greed grows and his dream becomes less modest. He marries for money and starves his wife till she dies. Eventually Nikolai retires and buys a scrappy farm and plants twenty gooseberry trees.

When Ivan visits he finds his brother pompous and insufferable. The gooseberries are "hard and sour", but for Nikolai they are delicious. Ivan then embarks on a passionate speech against the inequality of a society where "the happy man feels good only because the unhappy bear their burden silently, and without that silence happiness would be impossible"

The story within the story told in the comfort and warmth of the interiors tries to convey the meaninglessness of seeking happiness in life.  The meaning and purpose of life, Ivan exhorts his friends, does not reside in happiness and comfort, "but in something more intelligent and great." Chekhov suggests this to be the freedom to roam the earth,  freedom to exercise our free spirit and doing good while you are able to do it.

Ivan calls happiness an illusion, just like the perceived tastiness of his brother's gooseberries.  Yet the reader is confused by the behaviour of Ivan in the bathing shed where he enjoys the bath and feels very happy.  We suspect that Nikolai’s happiness angers Ivan and perhaps his arguments have been constructed to justify his position.  The rejection of Tolstoy’s anti-materialism by Ivan is another confusing argument.  As is so often the case in Chekhov, the story poses many questions but supplies no definite answers. 

We are encouraged to use our own intellect and imagination to understand what motivates the characters and, additionally, to guess at the meaning behind events. But this makes the episodes and characters seem more realistic.  In "real life" we always hypothesize about what drives people's actions. Our conclusions may not be right in most cases.  This confusion is part of life and that is why this story creates an impression of a place filled with real people, living real lives.