Henry James complained of the littleness of the subject in Madame Bovary. He regarded it as one of the miracles of art that so great a book should have been written about so small a woman. Tom Jones, on the other hand, is a portrait of a common man of the size of which few people complain. But then Tom Jones is a comedy, and we enjoy the continual relief of laughter. It is the tragic realists for whom the common man is a theme so perilous in its temptations to dullness. At the same time he is a theme that they were bound to treat. He is himself, indeed, the sole source and subject of tragic realism in literature. Were it not for the oppression of his futile and philoprogenitive presence, imaginative writers would be poets and romancers.
The problem of the novelist of contemporary life for whom ordinary people are more intensely real than the few magnificent personalities is how to portray ordinary people in such a way that they will become better company than they are in life. Tchehov, I think, solves the problem better than any of the other novelists. He sees, for one thing, that no man is uninteresting when he is seen as a person stumbling towards some goal, just as no man is uninteresting when his hat is blown off and he has to scuttle after it down the street. There is bound to be a break in the meanest life.
Tchehov will seek out the key situation in the life of a cabman or a charwoman, and make them glow for a brief moment in the tender light of his sympathy. He does not run sympathy as a “stunt” like so many popular novelists. He sympathizes merely in the sense that he understands in his heart as well as in his brain. He has the most unbiassed attitude, I think, of any author in the world. Mr. Edward Garnett, in his introduction to Mrs. Garnett’s translation of Tchehov’s tales, speaks admirably of his “profundity of acceptation.” There is no writer who is less inclined to use italics in his record of human life. Perhaps Mr. Garnett goes too far when he says that Tchehov “stands close to all his characters, watching them quietly and registering their circumstances and feelings with such finality that to pass judgment on them appears supererogatory.” Tchehov’s judgment is at times clear enough—as clear as if it followed a summing-up from the bench. He portrays his characters instead of labelling them; but the portrait itself is the judgment. His humour makes him tolerant, but, though he describes moral and material ugliness with tolerance, he never leaves us in any doubt as to their being ugly. His attitude to a large part of life might be described as one of good-natured disgust.