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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

To read about movies and TV shows I'm watching, visit my other blog: Elliot's Watching

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Why Chekhov's Grief is a great story, plus a story by Ambrose Bierce

Two stories that fellow blogger Charles May noted during May/Short Story Month (who comes up w/ these "months" BTW?), one I'd never read before the other I'd read many times. First, Chickamaugua (sp?), by Ambrose Bierce, a 19th-century American writer about whom I know very little - was he a friend of Twain?. This story focuses on a 6-year-old boy living on a Southern plantation who is fascinated by military adventures - he wanders off into the woods pretending to be a soldier on the attack, gets lost, falls asleep for a while, wakens and sees thousands of men crawling like animals - he can't figure this out, begins to follow, climbs on the back of one of the men who tosses him off, and so forth, until he gets home and finds his house in ruins. At the end Bierce gives us the "surprise": the boy is a deaf-mute and slept through the entire eponymous battle - and at the end sees, without really understanding, the devastating effect of war - far from the romantic nobility of his imagination: all a bit heavy-handed and polemical, but the description of the wounded and dying after battle, as perceived by a child who can't understand what he is witnessing, is quite powerful. The other story I read last night was Chekhov's famous "Grief" - a story that is probably very widely taught, so simple, so sad, so powerful, almost the perfect image for a story: a cab-driver (this is circa 1890, cabs were horse-driven carriages) in the Petersburg snow: each fare he picks up is mean and abusive, pushing him to whip the horse, to go faster, and each time he turns to the fare and tells him that his son just died. The man is literally dying to speak about his grief but no one will listen, they are completely isolated and hardened; to them, he's a servant, an object. At the end, he finally begins to tell of his grief and relieve his aching heart, as he speaks to the old horse. Like all great stories it's "about" nothing but itself, a purse action or image or moment - but you could say it's also about class relationships, about human kindness or lack thereof, about treatment or mistreatment of animals, and most of all about the pain of loss and the potential for alleviation through kindness, expression, and exposition - or for that matter through reading, and though literary creation. The story itself eases the pain.

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