The traditional male and female roles have always been an ongoing issue for human society. Moreover, there have always been certain behavioral patterns that should be considered by a man or a woman for them to remain respected in society. The perspective on these patterns has been altering throughout history, depending on the ideas and values appreciated in certain eras. Besides, the alterations of the social opinion could be easily traced when investigating literary works created at different periods of time. Being a powerful tool used to discuss the most topical problems and describe existing realities, literature also delved into the problem of traditional gender roles and relations between males and females.
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For this reason, it is possible to admit the existence of a certain archetype that is used to integrate all perspectives on duties, responsibilities, activities, and behavioral patterns, which should be peculiar to a man or woman (Charters 934). Besides, the complexity of society and the evolution of the approach to the traditional female role preconditioned the great importance given to this issue by various authors. For instance, Chekhovs The Darling could be considered an attempt to exaggerate the lack of self-identity development in women as a consequence of society’s expectations of females as primarily supportive figures in family and community.
To understand Chekhovs The Darling better, one should realize values and stereotypes peculiar to the community of that period of time. It was a patriarchal society in which males played the dominant role occupying all significant posts and determining the way the world would evolve. For this reason, a common woman was considered a mother and a housewife who had to take care of children and her husband for them to remain happy. She was not expected to have any ambitions and had to perform only supportive functions.
In this regard, The Darling perfectly reflects the spirit of the epoch. The main character, Olenka Plemyannikova, is a typical Russian woman. She lives in the shadow of her husbands, who are provided with her support and care. Being a wife of the theater owner Kukin, she helps him to run his business by working in the box office and accounting. When he dies, she finds another man, Vasiliy Pustovalov, who is a merchant from the timber yard. As his wife, Olenka forgets about theater and devotes her attention to Vasiliys business. Unfortunately, he also dies, and the main character enters into the relationship with a veterinary surgeon Smirin. Their relations are complex, though Olenka still provides him with her support, caring about Sasha and being afraid that Smirins wife will take him to Kharkov.
Resting on the plot, Olenka could be considered a loving and caring woman who is devoted to her husbands and tries to help them by working together and playing an important role in their businesses. The fact that she is successful in various spheres evidences her outstanding abilities and a specific attitude of mind. Being an all-round person, she engages in numerous activities and does her best. From this perspective, this character could be considered as “a vague image of a new woman” (Charters 992) who is equal to men and is able to perform the same activities, even exceeding them. However, her blind devotion to all males who played significant roles in her life and her desire to serve them demonstrate that her mentality remains unchanged. She accepts her supportive role and tries to be a good wife by caring for her husband. She is a good partner and mother, even considering the fact that Sasha is not her son.
Olenkas relations with society
Therefore, all Olenkas actions are performed in accordance with the values and behavioral patterns appreciated at that period of time. She remains in the shadow of her husband, performing only supporting functions and being satisfied with her role. She has no hesitations or doubts about her destiny and relations with men. Olenka is sure that a good woman and wife should act in this very way as it is the only possible pattern appreciated by society. That is why she is respected by the community, which sympathizes with her and approves the way Olenka faces challenges that are conditioned by her husbands deaths “Olga Semyonovna, poor darling! How she does take on!” (Chekhov 6). Altogether, she is a common representative of the society of that era.
Problem of self-identity
However, these facts could also evidence the problems with self-identity and self-realization. From this perspective, The Darling touches upon the important question of the personal evolution of a woman. Being considered an inherently social process (Miller and Mangelsdorf 51), self-development is obviously impacted by the stereotypes and gender roles promoted by a certain community. Olenka is totally deprived of any ambitions. She just follows her husband and provides them with the support that is expected from her. Chekhov creates an archetypical character who combines all traits that should be found in a woman of that period of time. She is caring, loving, supportive, and attentive. However, if to investigate the dominant perspectives of the past, one could realize the fact that Olenka was not able to act in a different way. Since their childhood, girls were raised with the idea that a woman was a companion who should remain in the shadow of her man and look after children. The level of education, basic skills, and perspectives implanted to them also contributed to the absence of any social ambitions (Finlayson 98) as a woman had to identify herself through her husband and his successes.
Yet, societys expectations of women as primarily supportive figures in a family and community could be taken as the main factor that shaped Olenkas mentality and conditioned her adherence to the accepted behavioral patterns. In Russian society, patriarchal traditions were especially strong as a man was considered the head of the family and had almost absolute power (Kukulin 6). He was able to manage his wifes life and chose the way a household will evolve. The value system remained almost unchanged in the period of time described in The Darling, and Olenka could be considered its integral part. Being a product of the system, she could not but perform the traditional role that was imposed by society. That is why she wears mourning every time her husband dies and engages in new relations, forgetting about her previous occupations and loving a new man. Additionally, she becomes obsessed with Sasha, who is not even her child. Yet, she is expected to be a good mother, and Chekhov obviously uses this devotion to emphasize the fact that Olga manages to comprise all features peculiar to the archetypical female heroine.
The institution of marriage
However, Chekhovs Olga could be considered a controversial figure (Charters and Sherdley 60). She easily falls in love with men who are met on her life journey. On the one hand, it could be appreciated as a sign of levity and shallowness of her feelings. On another, these details might be introduced by the author to underline the dominance and importance of social stereotypes that preconditioned the evolution and life of individuals. According to them, the institution of marriage was considered the basic aspect that guaranteed the functioning of any community. That is why a women had to get married to become appreciated, and Olga followed this very pattern.
Altogether, The Darling is a controversial novel that introduces several important problems related to the archetypical role of a woman. Olenka could be considered a typical representative of the society of that epoch. Being a clever, talented, and experienced woman, she still prefers to remain in the shadow of her numerous husbands, performing only supportive functions, caring about children, and keeping the house. The lack of self-identity and the absence of any emotions are the obvious consequences of existing societys expectations of women as supportive figures who were not able to play a significant role in the social life of that period of time. Olga Plemyannikova is often described as a new woman who manages to become successful in various spheres; however, she remains in captivity to stereotypes that determine the life and perspectives of any woman of that time. Chekhov managed to create a meaningful image that integrates different perspectives on the same issue (Bloom 34) and makes a reader think about the importance of social approval and the impact prevailing stereotypes had on the life of any person.
Bloom, Harold. Anton Chekhov. Chelsea House, 2001.
Charters, Ann. The Story and Its Writer. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011.
Charters, Ann, and William E. Sheidley. Resources for Teaching the Story and Its Writer : An Introduction to Short Fiction. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1995.
Chekhov, Anton. The Darling and Other Stories. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013.
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Finlayson, Brian. “The Darling.” Geographical Research, vol. 44, no. 1, 2006, pp. 97-99.
Kukulin, Il’ia. “The Strange Adventures of Feminism in Russia.” Russian Studies in Literature, vol. 44, no. 3, 2008, p. 6.
Miller, Peggy, and Sarah Mangelsdorf. “Developing Selves Are Meaning-Making Selves: Recouping the Social in Self-Development.” New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, vol. 109, 2005, pp. 51-59.