Short story: “The Darling”

by look i have opinions

“The Darling,” by Anton Chekhov; translated by Constance Garnett and others

Collected in The Darling and Other Stories (on Project Gutenberg here); also online here; anthologized in Best Russian Short Stories, edited by Leonid Nikolayevich Andreyev (on Gutenberg here, audio version here)

4,957 words in English

I haven’t gotten much into Chekhov yet, but this story is wonderful, and wonderfully wicked.

When I first read Tolstoy’s commentary (in Constance Garnett’s translation here), I missed the byline and somehow formed the idea that it was written quite recently by a conservative U.S. Christian. Chalk it up to the biblical reference. At the time, I couldn’t help thinking that—though this unknown writer was obviously intelligent and had an excellent ear for analogy—I wouldn’t like to be stuck in conversation with him. He’s sharp enough, or compassionate enough, to know that ridiculous love is still love. But he lacks the sense of proportion and restraint that lets adults distinguish healthy love from self-immolation; or, if he does have that sense, he chooses to apply it only to half the species.

It can’t be denied that there is something moving about Olenka and her over-the-top adoration. Is that an exalted feeling, maybe even a sacred feeling, as Tolstoy seems to suggest? For me, it’s more or less the same feeling I have about baby animals and sadistic porn—a thrilling, slightly ridiculous sense of tenderness and power, a faint impression of the extreme edges of what life has to offer. High-quality fiction is more satisfying, but the basic drive is the same. (Or it’s possible I lack the emotional discernment to tell the difference. It’s also possible I’m just unusually shallow.)

It’s a testament to Chekhov’s subtlety that Tolstoy and readers like him are free to misjudge Olenka. The story never sets down any judgment of her, good or bad. Only the final lines hint at the true nature of her love. She all but prays that Sasha’s mother won’t send for him; it never occurs to her to ask herself what’s best for the boy. And that last I’ll give it you! is the cry of a child surrendering to a bully, hoping to be left in peace at last.

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