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Swan Song

He graduated from the high school at Taganrog with every honour, entered the University
of Moscow as a student of medicine, and threw himself headlong into a double life of
student and author, in the attempt to help his struggling family.
His first story appeared in a Moscow paper in 1880, and after some difficulty he secured
a position connected with several of the smaller periodicals, for which, during his student
years, he poured forth a succession of short stories and sketches of Russian life with
incredible rapidity. He wrote, he tells us, during every spare minute, in crowded rooms
where there was "no light and less air," and never spent more than a day on any one story.
He also wrote at this time a very stirring blood-and-thunder play which was suppressed
by the censor, and the fate of which is not known.
His audience demanded laughter above all things, and, with his deep sense of the
ridiculous, Tchekoff asked nothing better. His stories, though often based on themes
profoundly tragic, are penetrated by the light and subtle satire that has won him his
reputation as a great humourist. But though there was always a smile on his lips, it was a
tender one, and his sympathy with suffering often brought his laughter near to tears.
This delicate and original genius was at first subjected to harsh criticism, which Tchekoff
felt keenly, and Trigorin's description in "The Sea-Gull" of the trials of a young author is
a cry from Tchekoff's own soul. A passionate enemy of all lies and oppression, he already
foreshadows in these early writings the protest against conventions and rules, which he
afterward put into Treplieff's reply to Sorin in "The Sea-Gull": "Let us have new forms,
or else nothing at all."
In 1884 he took his degree as doctor of medicine, and decided to practise, although his
writing had by now taken on a professional character. He always gave his calling a high
place, and the doctors in his works are drawn with affection and understanding. If any
one spoke slightingly of doctors in his presence, he would exclaim: "Stop! You don't
know what country doctors do for the people!"
Tchekoff fully realised later the influence which his profession had exercised on his
literary work, and sometimes regretted the too vivid insight it gave him, but, on the other
hand, he was able to write: "Only a doctor can know what value my knowledge of
science has been to me," and "It seems to me that as a doctor I have described the
sicknesses of the soul correctly." For instance, Trigorin's analysis in "The Sea-Gull" of
the state of mind of an author has well been called "artistic diagnosis."
The young doctor-writer is described at this time as modest and grave, with flashes of
brilliant gaiety. A son of the people, there was in his face an expression that recalled the
simple-hearted village lad; his eyes were blue, his glance full of intelligence and
kindness, and his manners unaffected and simple. He was an untiring worker, and
between his patients and his desk he led a life of ceaseless activity. His restless mind was
dominated by a passion of energy and he thought continually and vividly. Often, while
jesting and talking, he would seem suddenly to plunge into himself, and his look would
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