Life and Influences
Anton Chekhov was born on January 29, 1860 in Taganrog, Russia, the third of six children. His father, Pavel, was a grocer and his mother, Yevgeniya, was the daughter of a cloth merchant. In1875 Pavel's business failed and, threatened with imprisonment, he fled to Moscow. Yevgeniya remained behind with Anton and his younger siblings, but soon lost the house to a local bureaucrat. At this point, she joined Pavel in Moscow taking all the children, with the exception of Anton whom she left behind to attend school and support himself.
After completing his early studies, Anton received a scholarship to study medicine at the Moscow University and at this point reunited with his family. During this time, the family continued to be plagued by financial hardship. In an effort to help support them, Anton began to write humorous short stories for comic magazine. As time went by, Chekhov developed a love of writing, preferring this to the practice of medicine, and devoted himself to his craft. After 1880, his work shifted toward more serious subject matter and is filled with realistic views of the suffering of the poor, no doubt in memory of the struggles his own family had endured.
Comments and Concepts
An Upheaval is classified as a short story, but does not follow the traditional short story structure as defined by Freytag's Triangle. The story begins in medias res as Mashenka enters a household already in turmoil. Rather than at the beginning, the exposition takes place throughout the story as Mashenka's thoughts and actions reveal her background and place within the household. At the end of the story, the reader is left without resolution. This abrupt end to the action without an resolving the conflict is known as a zero ending.
The story An Upheaval is a slice-of-life narrative. Chekhov offers a dispassionate observation of life within an upper-class household. There is no deep psychological profiles within the story; all the characters are merely stereotypes. The view is naturalistic, with the socioeconomic background of the characters influencing their every action. The lady of the house believes she is well within her rights to search her servant's quarters when her brooch has gone missing. When Mashenka is upset by the search, the maidservant Liza reminds her somewhat delicately of her place by stating "still you are… as it were… a servant".
An Upheaval displays a rite of passage. At the beginning of the story, Mashenka is a simplistic child. She believes herself to be more than a mere servant within the household. Mashenka feels personally violated when she discovers a search of her room has been made without her knowledge. Mashenka leaps into adulthood when she realizes that although she is hired help and is, therefore, in a lesser position she is still a person within her own right. Rather than allow them to violate her sense of personal integrity, Mashenka decides to leave.
"Mashenka went into her room, and then, for the first time in her life, it was her lot to experience in all its acuteness the feeling that is so familiar to persons in dependent positions, who eat the bread of the rich and powerful, and cannot speak their minds."
Mashenka begins to recognize her place within the household and within society. She acknowledges that her life is controlled by others.
"Though you are a young lady, still you are…as it were…a servant…"
Liza forces Mashenka to acknowledge that she is a servant like the rest of them, nothing more.
"I don't say she took the brooch, but can you answer for her? To tell the truth, I haven't much confidence in these learned paupers."
The lady of the house removes all humanity from her servants. They are nothing more to her than beasts of burden.
"Forgive me, Nikolay Sergeitch, but I cannot remain in your house. I feel deeply insulted by this search!"
Mashenka reveals her new sense of self and personal integrity.
"Half an hour later she was on her way."
The story ends without any true sense of closure.
Relation to Current Culture
Today a search without permission or warrant is a criminal offense. Even as a hired servant living within someone else's household, a person is entitled to his own personal space and privacy. One would like to believe that the justice system would stand by the violated individual, but with the exorbitant price of good legal representation the wealthier person might well triumph, regardless of guilt or innocence. Maybe things have not changed too much after all.
I feel that it is no longer the wealthier individuals, but the large corporations that hold people in subservient positions and treat them like numbers. When I worked at GTE, I gave birth to my second child and he had some serious health issues. Needless to say, I missed quite a few days of work and this was well before the government had authorized the family leave act. When I asked the CEO of the company if there was any possibility of GTE declaring a family leave policy on their own he replied, "You can be replaced with another good employee who does not have a sick child." I felt violated like Mashenka and eventually left GTE to stay home with my children.
The Story Continues…
Mashenka returns home with a new sense of inner-strength. She organizes the people in her town and leads them to revolt. They tear down the old systems in place and form a new world order in which all people are treated as equals. No more searches of servants quarters were ever tolerated again.
Parallels with Visual Arts
Delacroix's An Orphan Girl in the Graveyard reminds me of the character of Mashenka from An Upheaval. Although her youthfulness is obvious, her face portrays maturity and understanding beyond her years. There is strength within; she will not be a victim.
Word Count: 989