Friday, May 25, 2012

Viewing a Relationship from the Outside

   In Anna Karenina, Lev Tolstoy (1828-1910) stated that “every family is happy in its own way and every family is unhappy in its own way.” 1 This is a very true statement.  It is very difficult for people to understand a family or a marital relationship from the outside. 
    It is not uncommon for people to see a couple and wonder, “Why are they together?” A variety of things bring two people together.  In some cases it is love, in some cases it is money, and in some cases it is a connection which no one else may ever understand. 
   The topic of relationships has been written about by numerous people and has been examined from various standpoints, such as anthropology, religion, culture, and others.  Relationships is one of the main themes in Ivanov, a play by Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (1860-1904) which was first produced in 1887 at the Korsh Theater in Moscow. 
   The basic premise of the play is quite simple.  Nikolai Ivanov is a young estate-owner, heavily in debt, especially to Zinaida Lebedev, the wife of the head of the District Council. Ivanov used to be energetic, creative, and unconventional, the "star" of the local gentry. He married for love--a Jewish woman, Anna, whose parents disowned her after she converted to Russian Orthodoxy in order to marry Nikolai. Anna is totally devoted to him; however, Ivanov is suffering from profound depression.
    It seems to him that all his good ideas (like building a school for the poor) were for naught and he has become a "superfluous man." He spends every evening socializing at the Lebedev estate, even though he knows how this hurts his wife. Doctor Lvov, Anna's physician, is a humorless and terminally sincere young man who has no insight into Ivanov's depression.
   One night Anna gets fed up and follows her husband to the Lebedev house, where she discovers Ivanov kissing the Lebedevs' daughter, Sasha, who is hopelessly in love with Ivanov, although he doesn't reciprocate her affection. Some weeks later Anna's illness (tuberculosis) has gotten worse. Lvov condemns Ivanov for his lack of concern regarding Anna’s health.  The doctor suggests that Ivanov sent Anna to Crimea in order to get the help she needs, but he refuses to pay for the trip because he owes money to several people. After Anna dies, Ivanov and Sasha are set to be married, but at the last minute he cannot go through with it. At the end of the play Ivanov is confronted by several people who challenge him to a duel because they believe that he is marrying Sasha for the sole reason that he can get her dowry.  Instead of dueling, he retrieves a gun from one of his serfs and commits suicide. 2
    Looking at this relationship between Anna and Ivanov, it is difficult for us to understand how he can have such little regard for her health.  We do not know what is going on between them so we come to the conclusion that he is a cold and uncaring man.  However, we must keep in mind that his depression would make it difficult to think about anyone, but himself. 
    Had he married Sasha, it is possible that he would not be the same way with her as he was with Anna.  Severe depression makes it difficult for someone to enter into a healthy relationship; however, if the right person comes along he or she can be a wonderful source of support which can encourage the depressed person to get the help they need.
    This is a very challenging play since it speaks to us on many levels.  Not only is the play dealing with the relationship between Anna and Ivanov and eventually between Ivanov and Sasha, it is also a deeply political play which is addressing many of the issues which were facing low level bureaucrats in late 19th Century Russia.  The issue of bureaucracy was also discussed by Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852) and various other authors. 
    As with all Russian plays or stories, the use of surnames, especially men’s names, is very important.  The fact that Chekov chose the name “Ivanov” for his main character is significant.  Ivanov is the most popular surname in Russia and Ukraine, so there is a strong indication that Chekov was speaking to everyone, not use a chosen few.  In 1939, Frank Capra (1897-1991) produced a film entitled Mr. Smith Goes to Washington 3 which starred James Stewart (1908-1997) as the main character.  This film dealt with the impact of one man on American politics.  The name “Smith” is as popular in the US as “Ivanov” is in Russia and Ukraine.
    Relationships are always difficult to write about; however, Chekov does a wonderful job of giving us insight into this particular relationship.  If someone was writing a play or story about your relationship, what would they say?  You might be surprised to read what an outsider would say about your relationship. 
                                                       End Notes
1) "Anna Karenina" (accesse 5/24/12)
2) “Ivanov” (accessed 5/24/12)
3) “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington  (accessed 5/24/12)

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