I am a bad blogger. Almost two years without a post is embarrassing. This is a moment of change inspired by Chekhov’s story.
On the surface, Anton Chekhov’s story “Neighbors” is about a young woman who goes against society. Zina is young, but an adult. She leaves her home, with her mother and brother, to live with 40 year old, and married, Vlassitch. Scandal! Outrage! The narrator views the events from the brother’s point of view, where he sees his mother collapse in depression, and the servants clearly expect him to do something about it. As the story progresses, he tries to decide what to do. At one point, he feels the urge to beat up Vlassitch, even though he knows he doesn’t have the right to interfere in his sister’s life to that degree. If you haven’t read it, I would urge you to go do so before I spoil it here, but obviously I have to talk about the outcome to some degree. To complete the short summary, the brother goes to meet his neighbor, a man he has known for years, and instead of beating him up, they talk. He sees that his sister is more or less happy, and she urges him to convince mother to accept the “position”. She refuses to apologize for what she has done.
The heart of this story is something more than morality. It is a battle between a conservative view of life and a liberal view. The main character is a self-espoused liberal, as are Vlassitch and Zina. The mother and the servants represent a conservative view. This is emphasized in the story. A key quote regarding gives us this from the narrator:
“He was riding through his wood and waste land, and he imagined Zina would try to justify her conduct by talking about the rights of women and individual freedom, and about there being no difference between legal marriage and free union. Like a woman, she would argue about what she did not understand. And very likely at the end she would ask, “How do you come in? What right have you to interfere?” ”
What would a conservative do? An example is given in the story of another character who does just that. A rich, conservative man named Olivier had a beautiful daughter and he suspected a local student of having an interest in the girl, and tortured the student to death. The story ends this way: “He must have tried to wring something out of him. Towards morning the divinity student died of the torture and his body was hidden. They say it was thrown into Koltovitch’s pond. There was an inquiry, but the Frenchman paid some thousands to some one in authority and went away to Alsace.”
This odd little story in the middle of “Neighbors” is meant to point out the distinct differences in the way Pyotr, the main character, can handle the situation. He can reinforce conservative values, and act upon them. He can beat up his sister’s lover, even kill him in outrage, but what will that get? On the other hand, he has a hard time accepting what is happening, not for his sister’s sake, but for his mother and the servants. Pyotr himself seems ok with the living situation, but it just doesn’t seem right to him not to say or do something to show his sister that she is hurting other people. In the end, he does nothing and leaves. He has to accept it, but now he also has to go home to his mother and live his life with her.
Perhaps, in the end, this is why liberals in America today don’t even want to stand by the term liberal. They believe in liberal values, but they are surrounded by conservatives who are continually hurt and outraged by activities they cannot accept. Even conservatives who accept a liberal’s actions are held accountable by other conservatives. Gay marriage, for instance, touches a conservative family and if the conservative family accepts it, they might face opposition by their friends and other family members. People living in interracial relations, living together outside of marriage, living as unwed mothers: all of these groups that find acceptance in the liberal world face criticism from conservatives. Pyotr, as a young liberal, is caught between the two worlds. He sees both sides, sees himself as a liberal, and yet understands that conservatives are upset. How can he push forward? How can he stand up for liberal values in the face of strong conservative opposition? He is in a tough spot, and his indecision sours his liberal position but also infuriates the conservatives who call for action.
This speaks to the liberal, but I would hope it would also speak to the conservative. What would Pyotr gain by “making it right”? Obviously he shouldn’t kill his sister’s lover. Should he humiliate him? Lecture him on morality? What right does he have to control his sister’s life? What right does he have to dictate anyone else’s life if they are happy? In the end, Pyotr should go home and explain it to his mother, to try to make her understand, but anyone who has tried to talk to a conservative about accepting someone else’s right to happiness, when all the conservative sees in “sin” and “outrage” knows how difficult that can be.