For the second week in a row I’ve drawn a Chekhov story that criticizes the madness of capitalism in the extreme. A young doctor, Korolyov, is called to see a patient==a twenty year old young woman who suffers from heart palpitations and yet no doctor has found anything untoward with her heart.
She lives with her mother and a governness. And they are wealthy: the mother and daughter own a complex of factories and have thousands of workers. The doctor is at first repulsed by the “senseless and haphazard” luxuries in which the three women wallow while all the factory workers live in noisy, grimy conditions. How can this possibly be a healthy life? Chekhov comments about the doctor:
“As a doctor accustomed to judging correctly of chronic complaints, the radical cause of which was incomprehensible and incurable, he looked upon factories as something baffling, the cause of which also was obscure and not removable, and all the improvements in the life of the factory hands he looked upon not as superfluous, but as comparable with the treatment of incurable illnesses.”
He sees the factory and factory life an an illness, and this is where he starts to develop also some sympathetic insight into the girl’s condition. It is not merely the factory workers,
“living on the verge of starvation…. a hundred people act as overseers, and the whole life of that hundred is spent in imposing fines, in abuse, in injustice, and only two or three so-called owners enjoy the profits, though they don’t work at all, and despise the wretched cotton. But what are the profits, and how do they enjoy them? Madame Lyalikov and her daughter are unhappy — it makes one wretched to look at them; the only one who enjoys her life is Christina Dmitryevna, a stupid, middle-aged maiden lady in pince-nez. And so it appears that all these five blocks of buildings are at work, and inferior cotton is sold in the Eastern markets, simply that Christina Dmitryevna may eat sterlet and drink Madeira.”
Logically the only beneficiary of all of this work is the governess.
The doctor finds the entire affair wicked:
“Korolyov sat down on the planks and went on thinking.
“The only person who feels happy here is the governess, and the factory hands are working for her gratification. But that’s only apparent: she is only the figurehead. The real person, for whom everything is being done, is the devil.”
The following morning, he sees his patient again. He tells her that she needs to leave as
“quickly as possible to give up the five buildings and the million if she had it — to leave that devil that looked out at night; it was clear to him, too, that she thought so herself, and was only waiting for some one she trusted to confirm her.”
Her diagnosis is “affluenza” as we might say today. Dr.Korolyov is like one of Chekhov’s young dreamers in his plays who see that the future will be a vast improvement when men are free and income is evenly distributed. Like Trofimov and Anya in “The Cherry Orchard” or Dr. Astrov in “Uncle Vanya” or like Chekhov himself, the idealist is introspective and appalled by the crazed injustice of the economic striations. In this story, the oppressive class is suffering from heart pains and throbbings as a displacement for the guilt about being an oppressor.
Chekhov is an idealist himself. The history of the world in the 113 years since he died has not nudged us much towards economic equality as he would have wished.