27 pages 54 minutes read

Anton Chekhov


Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1898

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “Gooseberries”

“Gooseberries,” by Russian author Anton Chekhov, is a short story that uses symbolism, subtlety, irony, and keen observation of human behavior to explore themes of the quest for happiness, the meaning of life, social expectations, privilege, and social equality. Written in mid-1898, the story is the second in what was later referred to as The Little Trilogy, together with “The Man in the Case” and “About Love.” All three stories explore the definitions of happiness through individual life experience and represent Russia’s difficult transition from traditional social structure to modern Western ideas such as individual freedom, human rights, and social contract.

Chekhov is widely regarded as one of the greatest masters of the modern short story and a major figure in late 19th-century Russian literature. His works often depict individuals’ everyday struggles, disappointments, and moments of quiet desperation in provincial Russian society. An expert at conveying depth and nuance in his characters, Chekhov reveals their inner lives through subtle gestures, silences, and implications. A sense of irony and ambiguity characterizes his stories, leaving readers to interpret the deeper meanings and moral dilemmas. In addition, he’s well known for establishing a story’s mood through climatic scenes, and nature symbolizes different layers of meanings in his works. “Gooseberries” is a classic example of Chekhov’s signature writing style.

This guide refers to the version of the text that is freely available on the University of Colorado Boulder website. It uses the translation of S. S. Koteliansky and Gilbert Cannan, first published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1917.

Using an omniscient point of view, “Gooseberries” follows two friends, Ivan Ivanich and Bourkin, as they explore the countryside on a cool, gray day. As rain begins to pour down, they take shelter in their friend Aliokhin’s house, a two-storied farmhouse, around which stands a river with mills scattered on it. Despite the bad weather, Ivan is excited by the idyllic country view. He plunges into the pool, talks to the peasants, and swims back. He even splashes the waves and exclaims that the water is “delicious” (Paragraph 19). After the three of them move into the drawing room on the second floor of the house, Ivan shares his memories of his younger brother, who had a deep desire to own his own farm and cultivate gooseberries.

In a story within the story, both the brothers Ivan and Nicholai Ivanich grew up in the countryside. Ivan went to college and became a veterinary surgeon, while Nicholai worked as a low official at the Exchequer Court. Their father, Tchimsha-Himalaysky, was a military officer and left his title and his estate to the brothers, though their father’s estate was confiscated to pay back his debts. Nicholai spent decades pursuing his dream of owning a farm. He led a frugal life to the extent of often starving himself. He even married a widow he didn’t love, merely for her substantial dowry. Three years into their marriage, the woman died in misery, nevertheless leaving Nicholai a generous heritage that enabled him to purchase a small piece of land. His dream of owning his farm and cultivating gooseberries finally became a reality.

Still in the drawing room and with his friends, Ivan Ivanich recounts his visit to Nicholai’s farm, where his brother justified his pursuit of personal happiness at the expense of others’ suffering. Nicholai became “old, stout, flabby” (Paragraph 30). He felt happy because the peasants had to address him as “Your Lordship” (Paragraph 34). He named his land after their father’s name and self-proclaimed him “a noble man” (Paragraph 36), which Ivan finds absurd because their father was “a common soldier” (Paragraph 36). The story within the story culminates with the two brothers eating the gooseberries that Nicholai cultivated. While Nicholai exclaimed how “good” those gooseberries tasted, Ivan could only describe them truthfully as “hard and sour” (Paragraph 41). To Ivan, Nicholai’s happiness was an illusion that corrupted his morality.

After Ivan finishes telling Nicholai’s story, he walks up to Aliokhin and Bourkin and warns them not to be allured by the illusion of happiness. Ivan wants them to believe that instead of pursuing happiness, they should seek grand meanings in life by improving social equality—but neither Aliokhin nor Bourkin seems impressed. All three say goodnight and go to their respective rooms to rest. However, upset by “a smell of burning tobacco,” (Paragraph 55) Bourkin can’t sleep for a long time. He listens to the heavy rain hammering his windows.