Anton Chekhov was 38 years old when he wrote “A Case History”. He was already an experienced doctor and evocative writer, and some of his best short stories, including this one, effortlessly combined elements of both medicine and human nature. The dismal grey factory town in “A Case History”, to which a doctor is summoned, has all the depressing features of late 19th century Russia. Within its walls languishes the neurasthenic daughter of a rich factory owner. She is sick. Always sick. And tired and depressed.
A brief conversation and examination give the doctor the diagnosis – that of no diagnosis. Today, after a few tests, she would be labelled with depression or chronic fatigue or fibromyalgia. But Chekhov and his alter ego know the real cause of her illness. She explains it herself in her last few words to the doctor:
“I’d like to tell you what I think. It seems that I’m not ill, and I’m worried and terrified for that reason…I’m always having medical treatment and of course I’m thankful and I wouldn’t say it’s all a waste of time. I don’t want to talk to doctors, though, but to someone close to me, a friend who would understand me and could convince me whether I’m right or wrong.”
Of course, nothing is resolved. The doctor moves on, out of the town, to the rest of his life.
Chekhov doesn’t try to give us a feel-good story. But we feel something.
Is it because we Eavesdropped? Or was there Transference from, or even to, the young woman? Or can we blame Schadenfreude?
Whatever, it’s certainly real. Even in a different time and place.