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“An Attack of Nerves”

May 15, 2014

Scott G. F. Bailey:

[…] let’s say I’ve read some 300 stories by Anton Chekhov, and I can only think of one of those stories that seems to have been directly influenced by the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky. I am going to claim that the 1889 story “An Attack of Nerves” (also known as “A Nervous Breakdown”) is inspired by the fourth section of Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground, the encounter between the Underground Man and the prostitute Liza.

The table of contents of the collection where “An Attack of Nerves” appeared. There were also pieces by Merezhkovskii, Saltykov-Shchedrin, and Minaev, as well as the late Turgenev's letters to Garshin.

The table of contents of the collection where “An Attack of Nerves” appeared. There were also pieces by Merezhkovskii, Saltykov-Shchedrin, and Minaev, as well as the late Turgenev’s letters to Garshin. Click to see the larger original.

The Russian title of “An Attack of Nerves” (Припадок, 1889) just means “Attack,” but attack as in “heart attack,” not “attack and defend,” so you can see why translators add something. The main character of  the story is a young man who goes to a brothel for the first time, finds it more horrifying than other young men do, and looks for a way to rescue the women he has just seen living intolerable lives as prostitutes. Bailey finds Chekhov-Dostoevskii parallels beyond the common theme, and Chernyshevskii comes in as a point of comparison too.

This Chekhov story was written for a volume dedicated to Vsevolod Garshin (1855-April 5, 1888), who had recently committed suicide. Chekhov’s letters (to A. N. Pleshcheev of September 15, 1888 and to Suvorin of November 11, 1888) describe his “honest and deeply sensitive” protagonist as similar to Garshin. That doesn’t take away from the parallels to the Underground Man, of course.

I was convinced by Bailey’s post, and one of the most prominent Chekhov scholars in the U.S. agrees with him too: Carol Apollonio (then publishing as Carol A. Flath) wrote an article called “Chekhov’s Underground Man: ‘An Attack of Nerves’” (2000). And she says that the connection was made in less depth by others, including a Joseph Conrad in 1967. Interestingly, she backs Bailey up on both the link between “An Attack of Nerves” and Notes from Underground and on the unusualness of Chekhov alluding to Dostoevskii. Measuring inches of space in the index of the standard edition of Chekhov, she finds that out of several big names, “Dostoevsky is a distant last, mentioned less than half the times Turgenev is, and just over one fifth of Tolstoy’s total. Nowhere does Chekhov offer a sustained discussion of Dostoevsky or his works.”

2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 19, 2014 1:37 pm

    How pleasing to see that my shallow poking at “research” is borne out by the work of real scholars! I read somewhere recently that “Attack” is based on ideas from Tolstoy, but the argument didn’t seem at all compelling. I’ll try to remember where I read that.

  2. May 27, 2014 3:22 am

    Very interesting. I confess I could not stand the Underground Man tormenting the poor girl. I skipped whole chunks of his diatribe.

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