"A Boring Story": Study Guide

Anton Chekhov in his study in Yalta, 1895-1900
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Summary

Formatted as a private autobiographical account, Anton Chekhov’s “A Boring Story” is the story of an elderly and illustrious medical professor named Nikolai Stepanovich. As Nikolai Stepanovich declares early in his account “my name is closely associated with the conception of a highly distinguished man of great gifts and unquestionable usefulness” (I). But as “A Boring Story” progresses, these positive first impressions are undermined, and Nikolai Stepanovich describes in great detail his financial worries, his obsession with death, and his bouts of sleeplessness. He even views his physical appearance in an unflattering light: “I am myself as dingy and unsightly as my name is brilliant and splendid” (I).

Many of Nikolai Stepanovich’s acquaintances, colleagues, and family members are sources of great irritation. He is tired of the mediocrity and absurd formality of his fellow medical specialists. And his students are a burden. As Nikolai Stepanovich describes one young doctor who visits him in search of guidance, ‘the doctor gets a subject from me for his theme not worth a halfpenny, writes under my supervision a dissertation of no use to anyone, with dignity defends it in a dreary discussion, and receives a degree of no use to him” (II). Added to this are Nikolai Stepanovich’s wife, an “old, very stout, ungainly woman, with her dull expression of petty anxiety,” (I) and Nikolai Stepanovich’s daughter, who is being courted by a foppish, suspicious fellow named Gnekker.

Yet there are a few consolations for the aging professor. Two of his regular companions are a young woman named Katya and “a tall, well-built man of fifty” named Mikhail Fyodorovich (III). Although Katya and Mikhail are full of disdain for the society, and even for the world of science and learning, Nikolai Stepanovich seems attracted to the uncompromising sophistication and intelligence that they represent. But as Nikolai Stepanovich well knows, Katya was once extremely troubled. She tried a theatrical career and had a child out of wedlock, and Nikolai Stepanovich served as her correspondent and counselor during these misadventures.

As “A Boring Story” enters its final stretches, Nikolai Stepanovich’s life begins to take an increasingly unpleasant direction. He tells of his summer vacation, where he suffers from sleeplessness in “a small, very cheerful little room with light blue hangings” (IV). He also travels to Gnekker’s hometown, Harkov, to see what he can learn about his daughter’s suitor. Unfortunately for Nikolai Stepanovich, Gnekker and his daughter elope while he is away on this dreary excursion. In the story’s final paragraphs, Katya arrives in Harkov in a state of distress and begs Nikolai Stepanovich for advice: “You are my father, you know, my only friend! You are clever, educated; you have lived so long; you have been a teacher! Tell me, what am I to do" (VI). But Nikolai Stepanovich has no wisdom to offer. His treasured Katya leaves him, and he sits alone in his hotel room, resigned to death.

Background and Contexts

Chekhov’s Life in Medicine: Like Nikolai Stepanovich, Chekhov himself was a medical practitioner. (In fact, he supported himself during his years in medical school by writing humorous short stories for St. Petersburg magazines.) Yet “A Boring Story” appeared in 1889, when Chekhov was only 29 years old. Chekhov may view the elderly Nikolai Stepanovich with pity and compassion. But Nikolai Stepanovich can also be seen as the kind of unimaginative medical man that Chekhov hoped he would never become.

Chekhov on Art and Life: Many of Chekhov’s most famous statements on fiction, storytelling, and the nature of writing can be found in his collected Letters. (Good one-volume editions of the Letters are available from Penguin Classics and Farrar, Straus, Giroux.) Boredom, dreariness, and personal failings are never subjects that Chekhov shies away from, as one letter from April 1889 indicates: “I am a pusillanimous fellow, I don’t know how to look circumstances straight in the eye, and therefore you will believe me when I tell you that I am literally unable to work.” He even admits in a letter from December 1889 that he is beset by “hypochondria and an envy of other people’s work.” But Chekhov may be blowing his moments of self-doubt out of proportion in order to amuse his readers, and he often summons a spirit of qualified optimism that Nikolai Stepanovich seldom displays. To quote the final lines of the December 1889 letter: “In January I’ll be thirty. Vile. But I feel as if I were twenty-two.”

“The Life Unlived”: With “A Boring Story”, Chekhov delved into an issue that preoccupied many of the most astute psychological writers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Authors such as Henry James, James Joyce, and Willa Cather created characters whose lives are full of missed opportunities and moments of disappointment—characters who are weighed down by what they didn’t accomplish. “A Boring Story” is one of the many Chekhov stories that raises the possibility of a “life unlived.” And this is a possibility that Chekhov explored in his plays as well—particularly Uncle Vanya, the story of a man who wishes he’d been the next Schopenhauer or Dostoevsky, but instead is trapped in placidity and mediocrity.

At times, Nikolai Stepanovich envisions the life he would have preferred: “I want our wives, our children, our friends, our pupils, to love in us, not our fame, not the brand and not the label, but to love us as ordinary men. Anything else? I should like to have had helpers and successors.” (VI). Yet, for all his fame and occasional generosity, he lacks the power of will to change his life substantially. There are times when Nikolai Stepanovich, surveying his life, finally arrives at a state of resignation, paralysis, and perhaps incomprehension. To quote the rest of his list of “wants”: “What further? Why, nothing further. I think and think, and can think of nothing more. And however much I might think, and however far my thoughts might travel, it is clear to me that there is nothing vital, nothing of great importance in my desires” (VI).

Key Topics

Boredom, Paralysis, Self-Consciousness: “A Boring Story” sets itself the paradoxical task of holding a reader’s attention using an admittedly “boring” narrative. Accumulations of small details, painstaking descriptions of minor characters, and beside-the-point intellectual discussions are all hallmarks of Nikolai Stepanovich’ style. All these features seem designed to exasperate readers. Yet Nikolai Stepanovich’s longwindedness also helps us to understand the tragicomic side of this character. His need to tell his story to himself, in bizarre detail, is an indication of what a self-absorbed, isolated, unfulfilled person he truly is.

With Nikolai Stepanovich, Chekhov has created a protagonist who finds meaningful action virtually impossible. Nikolai Stepanovich is an intensely self-conscious character—and yet, is weirdly incapable of using his self-awareness to improve his life. For instance, even though he feels that he is becoming for too old for medical lecturing, he refuses to give up his lectureship: “My conscience and my intelligence tell me that the very best thing I could do now would be to deliver a farewell lecture to the boys, to say my last word to them, to bless them, and give up my post to a man younger and stronger than me. But, God, be my judge, I have not manly courage enough to act according to my conscience” (I). And just as the story seems to be nearing its climax, Nikolai Stepanovich forms a weirdly anti-climactic resolution: “As it would be useless to contend against my present mood and, indeed, beyond my power, I have made up my mind that the last days of my life shall at least be irreproachable externally” (VI).

Perhaps Chekhov meant to hold his readers' attention by setting up and quickly overturning these expectations of “boredom.” This is what happens at the story’s finale, when Gnekker’s machinations and Katya’s problems quickly interrupt Nikolai Stepanovich’s plans for an unremarkable, irreproachable end.

Family Troubles: Without really shifting its focus from Nikolai Stepanovich’s private thoughts and feelings, “A Boring Story” provides an informative (and largely unflattering) overview of the larger power dynamics in Nikolai Stepanovich’s household. The elderly professor looks back longingly on his early, affectionate relationships with his wife and daughter. By the time the story takes place, however, communication has broken down, and Nikolai Stepanovich’s family slyly opposes his likings and wishes. His affection for Katya is a particular point of contention since his wife and daughter both “hate Katya. This hatred is beyond my comprehension, and probably one would have to be a woman in order to understand it” (II).

Instead of drawing Nikolai Stepanovich’s family together, moments of crisis only seem to force them farther apart. Late in “A Boring Story”, the aged professor awakes one night in a panic—only to find that his daughter, too, is wide awake and overburdened with misery. Rather than sympathizing with her, Nikolai Stepanovich retreats to his room and thinks over his own mortality: “I no longer thought I should die at once, but only had such a weight, such a feeling of oppression in my soul that I felt actually sorry that I had not died on the spot” (V).

A Few Study Questions

1) Return to Chekhov’s comments on the art of fiction (and perhaps read a little more in the Letters). How well do Chekhov’s statements explain the way “A Boring Story” works? Does “A Boring Story” ever depart, in major ways, from Chekhov’s ideas about writing?

2) What was your main reaction to the character of Nikolai Stepanivich? Sympathy? Laughter? Annoyance? Did your feelings toward this character change as the story went along, or does it seem that “A Boring Story” is designed to evoke a single, consistent response?

3) Does Chekhov manage to make “A Boring Story” an interesting read or not? What are the most uninteresting elements of Chekhov’s topic, and how does Chekhov try to work around them?

4) Is the character of Nikolai Stepanovich realistic, exaggerated, or a little of both? Can you relate to him at any point? Or can you at least identify some of his tendencies, habits, and patterns of thought in the people you know?

Note on Citations

The full text of "A Boring Story" may be accessed at Classicreader.com. All in-text citations refer to the appropriate chapter number.