In “The Darling”, Anton Chekhov reveals Olenka’s malleability, through the contrast of her two husbands. At the start of this story, we are introduced to Kukin: the pessimistic, eccentric, spiteful character whom Olenka marries. He is a man who makes lengthy, dramatic speeches about the horrors of rain, the nature of mankind, and the state of the general public (p. 1). Through the use of this speech, he seems incredibly overbearing. And yet, Olenka falls in love with him. As she does so, she adopts his opinions about humanity, she starts loving the theater as he does, and she starts repeating his ideas (p. 3). When he dies, she grieves with intense sobbing and painful feelings of abandonment. However, soon after his passing, we are introduced to Vasily Pustovalov. Pustovalov serves as Kukin’s foil, in appearance, profession, and nature. As opposed to Kukin, who is “short [and] gaunt, with a yellow face, and curly hair . . . and a thin tenor voice” (pp. 1-2), Pustovalov seems healthy, with a “sedate voice” and a “dark beard” (p. 4). Furthermore, Pustovalov is the manager of a lumber yard, which often involves outdoor, physical work. This contrasts to Kukin, who works inside a theater, and is visibly ill. Finally, Pustovalov’s character seems much more grounded, steady, and sympathetic, which contrasts to Chekhov’s pessimism and peculiarity. Despite the vast differences between these two men, Olenka falls in love with them both. Like she did with Kukin, she adopts Pustovalov’s opinions and learns about his profession. Beyond that, she stops enjoying the theater, since Pustovalov does not care for it. Olenka entirely changes herself when she’s with these different characters, which shows how malleable she is. To her, it does not matter whether she’s with a spiteful theater-worker like Kukin, or a grounded lumber-worker like Pustovalov. Either way, she loves them, and starts acting like them. Through Chekhov’s contrast of these two characters, he reveals how Olenka embodies her husbands’ personalities, rather than forming her own.
Due to Chekhov’s characterization of her, Olenka seems more like a caricature than a real person. Just like a caricature, she is exaggerated in many areas, yet superficial in others. Throughout “The Darling”, Chekhov repeats that Olenka is a “kind-hearted” (p. 2) girl, with “rosy cheeks” (p. 2) and a “naive smile” (p. 2). Through her interactions with men, she is portrayed as innocent, angelic, gullible, and loving. Beyond that, in both the title and contents of this story, she is referred to as a “darling”, in a condescending manner. People, including the readers, see her as someone to pity and patronize. Thus, we start viewing her as an idea, rather than a real person. Due to her lack of individual ideas, it is hard for us to truly get a sense of Olenka’s personality. We see that she deeply feels emotions of joy, when she gets married; love, when she interacts with her husbands and Sasha; and sadness, when she loses her loves. However, emotions are really all we get from her. As she admits, she has “the same emptiness in her heart and brain as in her yard” (p. 8). For these reasons, reading this piece was somewhat puzzling for me. I can empathize with her feelings of strong emotion, but I cannot comprehend her lack of opinions. This largely contributes to her caricatural essence; she fundamentally lacks an individual identity, which makes her seem superficial. Chekhov has created this effect using a collection of characterizing details, which work together harmoniously. Overall, I think he had done an excellent job of creating an intriguing, somewhat relatable, and somewhat frustrating caricature.