“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
– Anton Chekhov (1860–1904)
According to Britain’s The Guardian:
When 25 noted authors were asked in 1987 to name the most crucial influences on their own work, Chekhov was cited by 10 of them, including Eudora Welty, Nadine Gordimer, and Raymond Carver; he received double the nominations of any other writer. Eudora Welty said “Reading Chekhov was just like the angels singing to me.”
High praise! Here are the beginnings of two Chekhov stories. First, “The Cook’s Wedding”:
Grisha, a fat, solemn little person of seven, was standing by the kitchen door listening and peeping through the keyhole. In the kitchen something extraordinary, and in his opinion never seen before, was taking place. A big, thick-set, red-haired peasant, with a beard, and a drop of perspiration on his nose, wearing a cabman’s full coat, was sitting at the kitchen table on which they chopped the meat and sliced the onions. He was balancing a saucer on the five fingers of his right hand and drinking tea out of it, and crunching sugar so loudly that it sent a shiver down Grisha’s back. Aksinya Stepanovna, the old nurse, was sitting on the dirty stool facing him, and she, too, was drinking tea. Her face was grave, though at the same time it beamed with a kind of triumph. Pelageya, the cook, was busy at the stove, and was apparently trying to hide her face. And on her face Grisha saw a regular illumination: it was burning and shifting through every shade of colour, beginning with a crimson purple and ending with a deathly white. She was continually catching hold of knives, forks, bits of wood, and rags with trembling hands, moving, grumbling to herself, making a clatter, but in reality doing nothing. She did not once glance at the table at which they were drinking tea, and to the questions put to her by the nurse she gave jerky, sullen answers without turning her face.
Or, from “A Joke”:
It was a bright winter midday. . . . There was a sharp snapping frost and the curls on Nadenka’s temples and the down on her upper lip were covered with silvery frost. She was holding my arm and we were standing on a high hill. From where we stood to the ground below there stretched a smooth sloping descent in which the sun was reflected as in a looking-glass. Beside us was a little sledge lined with bright red cloth.
“Let us go down, Nadyezhda Petrovna!” I besought her. “Only once! I assure you we shall be all right and not hurt.”
But Nadenka was afraid. The slope from her little goloshes to the bottom of the ice hill seemed to her a terrible, immensely deep abyss. Her spirit failed her, and she held her breath as she looked down, when I merely suggested her getting into the sledge, but what would it be if she were to risk flying into the abyss!
Note that the advice “don’t tell me, show me” is not taken to extremes. We are told the occasional bit of information for dramatic effect, such as: Nadenka is afraid. But mostly, we are drawn into the story by quick, deft sketches. Reading Chekhov is like looking over the shoulder of a visual artist sketching a quick drawing, using only a few strokes – a setting, a character, an incident about to happen.
“A glint of light on broken glass” is just that . . . a quick flash of a concrete but brief image, an intriguing visual clue that, instead of telling all, draws us in by making us wonder . . . what’s it all about?