Letters of Anton Chekhov, by Anton Chekhov

To A. S. Suvorin.

YALTA, February 12, 1900.

I have been racking my brains over your fourth act, and have come to no conclusion except, perhaps, that you must not end it up with Nihilists. It’s too turbulent and screaming; a quiet, lyrical, touching ending would be more in keeping with your play. When your heroine begins to grow old without arriving at anything or deciding anything for herself, and sees that she is forsaken by all, that she is uninteresting and superfluous, when she understands that the people around her were idle, useless, bad people (her father too), and that she has let her life slip — is not that more dreadful than the Nihilists?

Your letters about “The Russalka” and Korsh are very good. The tone is brilliant, and they are wonderfully written. But about Konovalov and the jury, I think you ought not to have written, however alluring the subject. Let A—-t write as much as he likes about it, but not you, for it is not your affair. To treat such questions boldly and with conviction, one must be a man with a single purpose, while you would go off at a tangent halfway through the letter — as you have done — saying suddenly that we all sometimes desire to kill someone, and desire the death of our neighbours. When a daughter-in-law feels sick and tired of an invalid mother-in-law, a spiteful old woman, she, the daughter-in-law, feels easier at the thought that the old woman will soon die: but that’s not desiring her death, but weariness, an exhausted spirit, vexation, longing for peace. If that daughter-in-law were ordered to kill the old woman, she would sooner kill herself, whatever desire might have been brooding in her heart.

Why, of course jurymen may make a mistake, but what of that? It does happen by mistake that help is given to the well-fed instead of to the hungry, but whatever you write on that subject, you will reach no result but harm to the hungry. Whether from our point of view the jury are mistaken or not mistaken, we ought to recognize that in each individual case they form a conscious judgment and make an effort to do so conscientiously; and if a captain steers his steamer conscientiously, continually consulting the chart and the compass, and if the steamer is shipwrecked all the same, would it not be more correct to put down the shipwreck not to the captain, but to something else — for instance, to think that the chart is out of date or that the bottom of the sea has changed? Yes, there are three points the jury have to take into consideration: (1) Apart from the criminal law, the penal code and legal procedure, there is a moral law which is always in advance of the established law, and which defines our actions precisely when we try to act on our conscience; thus, for instance, the heritage of a daughter is laid down by law as a seventh part. But you, acting on the dictates of purely moral principle, go beyond the law and in opposition to it, and bequeath her the same share as your sons, for you know that to act otherwise would be acting against your conscience. In the same way it sometimes happens to the jury to be put in a position in which they feel that their conscience is not satisfied by the established law, that in the case they are judging there are fine shades and subtleties which cannot be brought under the provisions of the penal code, and that obviously something else is needed for a just judgment, and that for the lack of that “something” they will be forced to give a judgment in which something is lacking. (2) The jury know that acquittal is not pardon, and that acquittal does not deliver the prisoner from the day of judgment in the other world, from the judgment of his conscience, from the judgment of public opinion; they decide the question only so far as it is a judicial question, and leave A——t to decide whether it is good to kill children or bad. (3) The prisoner comes to the court already exhausted by prison and examination, and he is in an agonizing position at his trial, so that even if he is acquitted he does not leave the court unpunished.

Well, be that as it may, my letter is almost finished, and I seem to have written nothing. We have the spring here in Yalta, no news of interest. . . .

“Resurrection” is a remarkable novel. I liked it very much, but it ought to be read straight off at one sitting. The end is uninteresting and false — false in a technical sense.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/chekhov/anton/c51lt/chapter134.html

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