From Historical Account to Fictional Account: Chekhov’s Two Versions of Penal Colony Experiences

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Here is a sample student essay that performs the requirements described in Research Prompt Option 2.

Please note:

1) This author is using a primary source that we did not look at in this class.

2) This thesis (or introduction) paragraph presents a clear, genuine problem but does not actually present the thesis (i.e. the resolution of the problem) --- this is a weakness in this essay.

3) Your essay should present a thesis (or a resolution to the problem) in both the introduction and in the body of the essay.

4) This paper is really useful for looking at a) how to create a problem and b) how to go about developing one body paragraph claim at a time (with evidence and analysis) to slowly build your argument.

5) Every body paragraph begins with a claim and is followed by evidence and analysis that argues for that body paragraph claim.


From Historical Account to Fictional Account: Chekhov’s Two Versions of Penal Colony Experiences

When one reads Chekhov’s historical book about Russian penal colonies on Sakhalin Island, and then reads his fictional account of some prisoners’ experiences, the conceptual problem that emerges is: Why did Anton Chekhov first write The Island in 1890, a book of historical facts describing penal colonies, and then write a story, “In Exile”, depicting one penal colony in 1892? Why should Chekhov find it necessary to write a work of fiction when he had already written a historical account of what occurred on Sakhalin Island? Perhaps Chekhov felt that there was something lacking or insufficient in his historical account, and that a fictional account would provide his readers with a truer sense of what life was like for convicts in exile on Sakhalin Island’s penal colonies. In order to discover what motivated Chekhov to write his fictional account of Sakhalin Island after completing the historical account, two secondary sources are examined for evidence. One is Robert Payne’s essay, “Introduction” to Chekhov’s book, The Island. The second source is an essay by Cathy Popkin, “Chekhov as Ethnographer: Epistemological Crisis on Sakhalin Island”.

To begin with, it is essential to know what a penal colony is. A penal colony is a settlement used to exile prisoners and separate them from the general populace by placing them in a remote location, often an island or distant colonial territory. Although the term can be used to refer to a correctional facility located in a remote location, it is more commonly used to refer to communities of prisoners overseen by wardens or governors having absolute authority (Wikipedia: Penal Colony). One of these penal colonies is Sakhalin Island. The island soon gained notoriety as a Russian penal colony. Sakhalin Island is described as, “that cold and barren island which the Russian government had chosen as the place of exile for its most dangerous prisoners (The Island xiii). Based on this information, it should be safe to assume that factual historical documentation will be available in The Island about prisoners exiled to penal colonies.

When Chekhov began his research, there was minimal factual information about Sakhalin Island. The number of prisoners sent to the island through the years was not known. In a letter Chekhov wrote to one of his friends, Chekhov claims, “It is clear that we have sent millions of people to rot in prison. We have driven people for thousands of miles in chains through the cold…” (The Island xix). Chekhov uses the number ‘millions’ to denote an enormous amount of people although no definitive statistics were available. Chekhov decided to go to Sakhalin Island in the year 1890 to find out the historical facts first-hand. He discovered that we do not know the exact amount of prisoners sent there because the prison guards were corrupt and wrote the wrong information or they simply did not have correct information and left the prisoners’ files blank.

In his historical account, The Island, Chekhov writes about the conditions of the prisoners on the island, and he also writes accounts related to him by convicts about their crimes and convictions, including many miscarriages of justice that they experienced. For example, as Chekhov was walking to his cabin on Sakhalin Island, he describes being “surrounded with swarm of mosquitoes” (9). The sleeping chambers of exiles that is described by Chekhov is disturbing. “There was no bedding…Each prisoner must take care of his natural needs in the presence of twenty witnesses” (55). The prisoners had to sleep on beds that were full of bedbugs and other insects that were on the island. They could not use the bathroom in privacy, but rather had to use it in front of all the prisoners who were in their barrack.

Another thing he describes in The Island is the flogging of the convicts. These convicts were punished for not doing the simplest jobs that they were told to do. It was as if they were in a forced labor camp. “Chekhov was not revolted by them. He was revolted by the machine which inevitably produced them” (xxxiii). Chekhov was amazed at how the guards could become so inhumane as to torture the convicts on Sakhalin Island with machines that were indescribable.

One of the stories that he describes in his book The Island is about a captain of a ferry who was sent to Sakhalin Island for running away from the “army out of foolishness” (45). Chekhov meets this captain when he is traveling on a ferry to the island. They had a conversation about the captain’s experiences on Sakhalin Island. The captain, who is seventy-one years old, says that when he was first sent to the island, while on the road to the penal colony he already attempted to escape. He was recaptured and sentenced to twenty years of hard labor and ninety lashes. Chekhov asks the captain what his name is but the captain tells Chekhov that he tried to place his real name on the official records the previous year, but instead of changing the record to make it accurate, the official told the captain, “Before we make the correction, you’ll be dead” (46). This is a proof that in penal colonies they had poor records for their prisoners. This one encounter that Chekhov describes demonstrates the challenges that he faced in his attempt to gather factual information about life on Sakhalin Island.

Chekhov relates another story from a convict named Yegor on his placement on Sakhalin Island which demonstrates the flaws in the justice system. Yegor tells Chekhov that he was sent there as a result of being accused of committing murder (69). Chekhov asked to be told the complete story. Yegor explains that he worked for a baron and on the way home from work one night he, his brothers, and his friends, Andrey and Sergukha, stopped to have a drink in a tavern. The next day an official came and asked Yegor who had hit Andrey. Andrey himself said that Sergukha was the one who had hit him. So the officials started to interrogate Sergukha, but he did not admit that he was guilty. Andreys died. The police found Yegor and his two brothers, Ivan and Kirsha, guilty of the murder of Andreys. Yegor and his brothers tried to prove their innocence, but no one would listen to them, “In Moscow we tried to send petitions for pardons but they did not listen to us” (71). This incident is just one example of the lack of justice Chekhov notes in the legal system.

A secondary source is an essay written by Robert Payne which is published as an introduction to Chekhov’s historical account, The Island. Payne comments on Chekhov’s historical account, “The horror is made all the more credible because he refuses to dramatize it” (xxxvi). In his essay, Payne provides some insight to the question: Why did Chekhov write a fictional account of the lives of prisoners in exile after he had written an historical account? Robert Payne sheds light on this question by quoting Chekhov himself. “I [Chekhov] realized I was holding something back, not letting myself go” (xxxv). What Payne is saying is that Chekhov feels that he had not captured what really occurred on Sakhalin Island. Chekhov was not enlightening his readers regarding the state of mind and hardships suffered by the convicts on Sakhalin Island. Perhaps, in order to make it possible for people to more fully understand, Chekhov writes his fictional account of what happened on Sakhalin Island in his short story, “In Exile”.

Another secondary source is an essay by Cathy Popkin entitled, “Chekhov as Ethnographer: Epistemological Crisis on Sakhalin Island”. Ms. Popkin provides extensive commentary on Chekhov’s The Island from which we may infer why Chekhov followed his historical account with a fictional account. Ms. Popkin says that The Island has many contradictions, and she concludes that it is not scientific research, but a collection of impressions of Chekhov’s experiences on Sakhalin Island. Popkin writes that, “Chekhov finds information is either unavailable or unreliable…Prison reports are written by guards who are supremely ignorant” (39-40). If the information that Chekhov was receiving was either false or simply inaccurate, then how could he write an historical account about what went on on Sakhalin Island. Some of this misinformation resulted from the fact that the prisoners themselves had lost track of the facts of their own lives between their arrival to the island and the many intervening years that they had spent in exile. Ms. Popkin also states that a reason for the lack of factual information is that the guards kept no files or inaccurate ones. Popkin also writes in her essay that Chekhov went to the island for a specific reason. “His goal is to make the invisible part of the criminal justice system visible, to produce a body of knowledge about it…He adopts the role of ethnographer” (37). But according to Popkin, Checkhov’s book ends up being his impressions of how the prisoners lived. According to Popkin, Chekhov failed to gather factual information about the exiles on Sakhalin Island and failed at writing a historical account. Ms. Popkins criticisms of Chekhov’s book, The Island could be a reason for Chekhov’s decision to write a fictional account about the Sakhalin Island exiles.

Chekhov may have been dissatisfied with his book, The Island. It seems he felt that readers would not gain a real understanding of what went on in penal colonies, therefore, he wrote a fictional account of a penal colony, “In Exile”. In this short story, he reveals the different individual philosophies that convicts on the island had towards the world and their suffering. By reading this short story by Chekhov, one can understand better the physical and emotional realities experienced by the people exiled on a penal colony.

In his short story, “In Exile”, we see the ferry captain from The Island transformed into the character referred to as The Explainer. This character has been in exile for many years, and his attitude to life has become one of indifference, “You need nothing! No father, no mother, no wife, no freedom, no bags, no baggage” (162). Chekhov contrasts this character with two others who still care deeply about family and having meaning in life through their relationships. One of these characters is Sergiech, who expends time, money and energy to save his daughter’s life. “I’m rushing to Anastasyevka. My daughter’s gotten worse again, and I’ve heard a new doctor has been appointed to Anastasyevka” (168). The Explainer thinks Sergiech should just “drink the money up” (165) instead of wasting it on feelings for family.

A third, and crucial character is the young Tartar. The Explainer attempts to influence the Tartar to adopt an attitude of indifference. The Tartar is miserably lonely for his parents and wife (162, 165). In the end, the Tartar declares his belief that in order to maintain his humanity, he will continue to strive for meaning in life. He denounces The Explainer’s view and approach to his exile by saying, “…you bad!...G-d created man for be alive, for be joy, and be sorrow, and be grief, and you want nothing, it means you not alive, you stone, clay! Stone want nothing, and you want nothing...” (168). It is clear that the Tartar sees the emptiness of The Explainer’s indifference to life when he accuses him of being a stone.

The poignant tale of the three prisoners in Chekhov’s short story, “In Exile”, succeeds where his historical account may fail to provide readers with a deeper experience of the impact of exile on the prisoners who were forced to live for decades or for their entire lives on the cold and barren Sakhalin Island. Payne tells us that Chekhov “…had reached a dazzling position in Russian literature as the acknowledged master of the short story and as a playwright of indisputable power” (xi). It makes sense that Chekhov would choose to express the experiences of prisoners on Sakhalin Island in the form of fiction, his greater literary power. It is probable that this is the reason that Chekhov wrote his fictional account, “In Exile”, after completing his historical book, The Island, about the same events.

Works Cited

Chekhov, Anton. Payne Robert. The Island. New York: Washington Square, 1967. Print.

Payne, Robert. The Island. Introduction. New York: Washington Square, 1967. Print.

"Penal Colony". Wikipedia Foundation, Inc. February 2013. 6 May 2013. Web.

Pevear, Richard. Volokhonsky, Larissa. Selected Stories of Anton Chekhov, "In Exile", Pages 161-169. New York: Bantam Books, 2000. Print.

Popkin, Cathy. "Chekhov as Ethnographer: Epistemological Crisis on Sakhalin Island". Stable URL Jstore. Slavic Review, Vol. 51, No. 1, Spring 1992, Pages 36-51. Print.

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