‘Both Smirnov and Popova in the play, The Bear, have similar characteristics.’ Do you agree? Support your answer with detailed reference to the play.
Anton Chekhov wrote the play in the late 1880’s, more than two decades after the abolition of serfdom in 1861. He is famous for exposing (through exaggeration) the flaws and foibles of the decadent aristocrats (bourgeois). I agree that the two main characters in the Bear have similar characteristics – I will attempt to explore these through this essay,
POINT 1 – FICKLENESS – NEGATIVE OPINIONS ABOUT THE OPPOSITE SEX WHICH CHANGE QUICKLY
Both Popova and Smirnov have strong opinions about the opposite sex. However, even though they had vowed to never again be intimate with the opposite sex, both of them end up breaking their vows. This is comical and exposes how fickle humans can be.
Popova is in mourning. Even after seven months of grieving, she still wears widow’s weeds and vows to be a good wife even to her dead husband.
Let his ghost see how well I love him….
There, beyond the grave, he will see me as I was before his death….
It seems like she wants to prove to herself of her faithfulness – the audience is made aware that the husband was unfaithful and caused much heartache when he was alive. However, even through these experiences, her resolve to be faithful to him even at his death seems honourable and somber. However, at the end of the play, it takes merely a few minutes for her to jettison her affection, loyalty and the vow she had made to mourn her husband for the rest of her life. This is further consolidated by her instructing Luka to not feed Toby (the horse that Nicholai used to ride. At the beginning to the play she asks Toby to be given an extra serving of oats because it is a sentimental thing that links to the memory of Nicholai). This points to the fact that she is ready to completely let go of her late husband. This glaring irony emphasizes the contradiction between what she says and her actions.
In the same token, Smirnov manifests his bitterness toward women and reveals to us that he has vowed to never love again. He elaborates on how he was once a passionate lover.
I used to love passionately, madly…
I wouldn’t give a brass farthing for the lot, madam!
He had apparently fought for women. He had rejected 12 women while 9 have rejected her. He also mentions how he lost half his wealth because of his labours of love. He apparently embraced the emancipation movement for the progress of women, but had grown to become resentful of all women in general. It is even safe to say that he has become excessively misogynistic. His disclaimer ‘present company always excepted’ before he vilifies women point to the hypocrisy in his speech. With each zealous loathing towards women, he seems absolutely resolute in his stance to never court any female ever again.
POINT 2 – EMPTINESS OF THEIR WORDS
However, all these expressions of excitement come crumbling down when Popova shows her audacity, nerve and her more masculine side. As he falls in love, or into infatuation with her, the audience realizes the emptiness of his vows and bitter rants as the gap between what is expressed and enacted become exceedingly explicit.
He resents the beauty and perceived lack of intellect of women. However, despite Popova being beautiful (specifically her dimples that make her so according to him) and formidable, he is instantly attracted to her.
Another instance when words and actions do not align is when Smirnov insists that he knows how to behave in front of women. The social code at the time is that a man should not display aggression in front of a woman; instead, he should be chivalrous.
‘How well you look in mourning!’
However, as the audience is shown, Smirnov is anything but gentle or genteel in his behaviour towards Popova. He insults her. Even though he proclaims with confidence that he is a refined, civil and cultured gentleman, he behaves like a boor (or a bear).
On the other hand, popova also trips on her words by continuing to berate his late husband about his unfaithfulness and lack of affection toward her. When Smirnov insists that women are unfaithful, she reacts with an emotionally charged response, and the promises she made out of loyalty to her dead husband about loving him till death are made cheap.
This best of men shamelessly deceived me at every step!
She vents out all her frustration, anger and inner turmoil, unleashing all her pent up sorrows upon Smirnov. This shows that even though she portrays herself as a loving, forgiving and persevering wife, behind the mask made of words, she was hurting deep down and had all the pain and sorrow buried deep in her.
Popova’s rant about how men are unfaithful is born out of her experiences with her unfaithful husband. To the audience it is apparent that she has completely lost faith in men and their ability to remain loyal in marriage. This may be one of the reasons that she decides to never court a man ever again. Even when she has the means (horses and enough wealth to still project herself as a wealth lady), when Luka urges her to move out and explore her options as a young and beautiful widow, she refuses, perhaps because the trauma of being in a relationship where she was not treated with care or faithfulness is still fresh in her mind. She comes to a conclusion about men based on her experience with her husband and concludes that men are never faithful. She is passionate and confident about her statement. Yet, the woman who declared the inherent evil in men, and who was audacious enough to engage in a pistol fight with a man, finds herself being emotionally attracted to Smirnov. Her resolution about how all men are unfaithful is discarded in a moment as she gives herself to him by the end of the play.
POINT 3 – THEY DESPERATELY ATTEMPT TO MAINTAIN THEIR IMAGE OF ARISTOCRACY
Smirnov brags about the number of people he has lent money to. He lists them down, and mentions that he is a land-owning gentleman. He asserts his authority and aristocracy. Even the act of lending money (these were probably people who used to work under him on his fields before serfdom was abolished) is a statement of the ability to do so; it reinforces his image as a wealthy gentleman. However, even though he rants on about his wealth and ownership of land, he behaves as a petulant and spoiled child pestering its mother for pocket money. He does not even have enough money to pay the interest on his mortgage. This ironically and comically portrays the hypocrisy of the bourgeois society who try to live in a past with the privileges they used to enjoy, which are all slipping away from their lives. His actions stand in contrast with the image of the wealthy gentleman that he tries to express to the world, through not only his words, but also his deeds.
Popova on the other hand seeks to uphold the image of the pure, dutiful and submissive wife which was expected from a woman in the patriarchal Russian society. We come to realize that her inheritance has been wasted by Nicholai, her late husband. Yet, she has many servants in the household, and continues to feed extra oats to Toby while her finances and debts seem to be piling up. According to Luka, the household is in disarray. Even through such a tight situation, the only way Popova knows how to live is as an aristocrat. Therefore, even through her ‘life-long’ period of mourning, she does not fail to powder her face. Just like for Smirnov, she is highly conscious about her image as a lady – both of them desire to maintain their aristocratic status.
Thus, what is evident is that throughout the play, the playwright plays with the fickleness of the characters and how they swing like a pendulum from one end to another, and how what they say does not reflect what they do. It also shows how sometimes language is used as a mask to cover the reality about a person, their longings, anxieties and their situations.
Hey all, I hope the model answer helped. Do you agree with me? Remember, its not a blog – its a conversation. If you disagree or have something to add to what I mention above, please do not hesitate to comment!
Also, on a different note, would you agree that beneath the comic exterior, there is a menacing reality which the characters will eventually have to face? How do you think will their new-found infatuation end? Will it blossom into a love story found in John Green’s novels, or would it go south and end up in Smirnov’s warm blood in Popova’s hands? We might have to call upon A E Housman to write a poem about Popova’s bloody hands.
Stretching the imagination to the snapping point, what do you think would happen if they had a child? Would that change their personalities? Or would they continue to be themselves and if so, how would this affect the child? I would think that Popova would be consumed/obsessed by her love for the child that she would probably leave Smirnov and create her own path – like Enola Holmes seems to chant throughout the movie.