Written by Marie-Ève Matte
“How does each of the four episodes of the story add to the reader’s understanding of Olenka’s successive states of mind?”
Anton Chekhov’s short story denounces the pitiable existence of women entrapped in patriarchal society. In “The Darling”, the protagonist’s excessive need of male recognition enlightens her problematic dependency on love. Chekhov reflects on female lack of self-esteem using exaggeration and satire to emphasis the nonsense and the immorality of the situation. Chekhov separated his episodic short story according to the various relationships of Olga Semyonovna, which highlights the importance of men in the protagonist’s life. This atypical way of separating by episodes also suggests that the story of Olga would not have existed without male characters. Therefore, each episode of “The Darling” reveals the protagonist’ states of mind within each relationship and exposes her psychological and physical alienation within patriarchal society. Chekhov’s short story criticizes the women’s conformity to patriarchal rules which are embodied by his main character’s lack of personality.
The first episode begins by portraying the moulding of Olga Semyonovna’s appearance to meet the physical conventions of the time. Her distinguished title “The darling” suggests the protagonist’s notoriety in society, provided by her wealth and appearance. The relationship she has with Kukin reveals the essence of Olenka’s affection toward men: “She was always fond of someone, and could not exist without loving. In earlier days she had loved her papa […] she had loved her French master.” (p.205) This information diminishes the impact of Olga’s love for her husband and brings the reader to question the nature of their relationship. Olga takes care of Kukin’s business as if it was hers and seems unconscious of her lack of personality. The protagonist’s exaggerated admiration for Kukin’s life shows the emptiness of Olenka’s existence while introducing the reader to her passive and submissive nature.
In the second episode, Olga seems to be deeply affected by the death of Kukin as she completely abandons herself to sadness and despair. However she meets a man on her way back from church a few months later, Andreitch Pustovalov, who sympathizes with her grief. Suddenly, Olga is charmed by the man’s attention and claims herself in love with him: “Three days later Pustovalov came himself. He did not stay long, only about ten minutes, and he did not say much, but when he left, Olenka loved him-loved him so much that she lay awake all night […]” (p. 208). From this sudden feeling, the reader questions the reasons behind her sadness, whether it’s the loss of her husband or the loss of the existence he provided her with. Within a few months, she completely changes her opinions and lifestyle to conform to her new husband’s routine, as if no trace was left from her first lover. The fact that she puts aside her interests while contradicting herself regarding her opinions exposes the character’s lack of identity while revealing her total devotion for the man she loves. A crucial event which reinforces the protagonist’s psychological struggle is the death of Andreitch Pustovalov. The protagonist repeats the same pattern as with her first husband’s death and once again falls into a state of despair and emptiness.
These two relationships clearly demonstrate the absurdity of Olga’s behavior and expose her obsession for male affection. Her unsatisfying relationship with the veterinary surgeon, Smirning, leads her to fulfill her needs of affection by taking care of his son, Sasha. As for the relationship with the ten-year old boy, she parrots Sasha’s opinions and takes care of him excessively like she did with the other males: “Ah, how she loved him! Of her former attachments not one had been so deep; never had her soul surrendered to any feeling so spontaneously, so disinterestedly, and so joyously as now that her maternal instincts were aroused” (p.212). The reader understands from Olga’s relationships with Smirning and his son that no matter how much she loves a man, she will never be respected by any of them.
Even though Olga conforms to the patriarchal expectations of woman’s behavior, the weakness of her personality and her submissive attitude will always keep her away from the affection and the recognition of men. Through the characterization of Olga Semyonovna, Chekhov denounces women’s disempowerment and the vicious circle of patriarchy they are trapped in. The satire in “The Darling” emphasises the ridiculous position of mimicry and self-negation to which women are reduced in order to get esteem and attention from men. Through Olga, Chekhov criticizes the power of patriarchal conventions which deprive womankind from of her identity in order to make of her, the husband’ shadow.