“..it is a corpse, and not man, which needs these six feet. . . . It is not six feet of earth, not a country-estate, that man needs, but the whole globe, the whole of nature, room to display his qualities and the individual characteristics of his soul.” (Ivan Ivanovich)
These were the lines told by the character Ivan Ivanovich in the story “Gooseberries” by Anton Chekhov. One of the most noted Russian playwright and short-story writer who brought early modernism into theatre, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov practiced as a medical doctor throughout most of his literary career. Gooseberries was written towards the end of Chekhov’s life and this tale explores the themes of social injustice, the quest for fulfillment and happiness as well as our perceptions of what makes us happy.
In short, Ivan Ivanovich, tells the story of his younger brother Nikolai Ivanovich. The latter is a government official who is possessed by the desire to return to the country where he had spent his early years with happiness and carefree joy. The sign of this cherished dream was owning land with a gooseberry bush. Finally his aspiration came true. Ivan Ivanovich tells of his visit to Nikolai, who has become now idle, stingy, mean and apparently happy living in what he imagined to be his earthly paradise. Ivan Ivanovich then contemplates about the nature of human happiness, which according to him is the result of any man’s views within the walls of the narrow world he’d built for himself.
For me, the beauty of this story lies in the measures by which we define our happiness. Each one has their own concept of being happy. While one labels being happy in the creature comforts and the luxuries confined within the four walls or one’s estate neglecting the outside world, the other feels happy by engaging in social activities and routines with other fellow beings.
The pursuit of happiness does lie in what we want in our lives. Fame, riches, material gains versus being free of spirit, enjoying social works and community, morality or spirituality; we get to decide what we want. One fact that is glaringly obvious is that happiness is a perspective that is temperamental. Happiness can be an illusion or a reality. Either by living a life of a buoyant pragmatic approach realism or by a vacuous bourgeois existence, we get to chose how to be happy. Just as no man is an island, our happiness increases when we share it. The approach for happiness might be different for each one of us, but if the path to one’s happiness lies in the complete destruction of another person, then that view of happiness is not only distorted but is dangerous and disastrous as well.