Chekhov, trains, and telegraphs

If we are going to discuss social change, we have to consider the materials, technologies, or media that facilitate and shape communication. We can’t just talk about “the history of ideas,” as some disembodied thing. This is why Luhmann wrote about the impact of the printing press, among other technologies, in the evolution of modern society.

In a post on Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, I mentioned trains and telegraphy as important technologies; indeed, telegraphy was the most important early digital technology. As one researcher wrote,

The telegraph was the first digital technology, i.e., information is transmitted by turning an electrical circuit on and off. The telegraph allowed instantaneous communication between very great distances. It revolutionized communications and in doing so changed the basic institutions of society, much as the Internet is currently doing.

Phillips, R. (2000). Digital Technology and Institutional Change from the Gilded Age to Modern Times: The Impact of the Telegraph and the Internet. Journal of Economic Issues, 34(2), 266-289. Retrieved from

Adopting the vocabulary of Latour, we can call telegraphs and trains actants in a communication network. Prior to the invention of telephones, a person who wanted to communicate with someone else at a distance could send a letter or a telegram or physically travel to meet the other person(s). Trains carried mail as well as human beings, and telegraph wires were strung along railroad right of ways. The railroad operators also realized that they could use telegraph to coordinate arrivals and departures as well as to make the use of single-track rail lines safer. As Tomas Nonnenmacher writes

The telegraph and the railroad were natural partners in commerce. The telegraph needed the right of way that the railroads provided and the railroads needed the telegraph to coordinate the arrival and departure of trains. These synergies were not immediately recognized. Only in 1851 did railways start to use telegraphy. Prior to that, telegraph wires strung along the tracks were seen as a nuisance, occasionally sagging and causing accidents and even fatalities.

History of the Telegraph Industry.

So we see that telegraph lines were not strung along railroad right of ways in order to improve train travel, but they wound up be used for that purpose. When we have a chain of actants, none of the actants can control what comes next.

It’s interesting to look at the reactions people had to new technologies, which brings us back to Chekhov. In the very brief short story titled “Country Cottage,” a newly married man and woman were walking along a train platform.

“How beautiful it is, Sasha, how beautiful!” murmured the young wife. “It all seems like a dream. See, how sweet and inviting that little copse looks! How nice those solid, silent telegraph posts are! They add a special note to the landscape, suggesting humanity, civilization in the distance…. Don’t you think it’s lovely when the wind brings the rushing sound of a train?”

For Varya, the telegraph poles are part of the natural landscape; there is no culture/nature distinction, which was the basis of humanism. But the train, which the narrator calls the train “the dark monster,” brings several unexpected, unwanted relatives who will invade their cottage. Next comes an unpleasant exchange:

And Sasha looked almost with hatred at his young wife, and whispered:

“It’s you they’ve come to see!… Damn them!”

“No, it’s you,” answered Varya, pale with anger. “They’re your relations! they’re not mine!”

In another Chekhov short story, “Lights,” the first-person narrator describes a site of railroad construction which he sees as hellish:

It was an August night, there were stars, but it was dark. Owing to the fact that I had never in my life been in such exceptional surroundings, as I had chanced to come into now, the starry night seemed to me gloomy, inhospitable, and darker than it was in reality. I was on a railway line which was still in process of construction. The high, half-finished embankment, the mounds of sand, clay, and rubble, the holes, the wheel-barrows standing here and there, the flat tops of the mud huts in which the workmen lived — all this muddle, coloured to one tint by the darkness, gave the earth a strange, wild aspect that suggested the times of chaos. There was so little order in all that lay before me that it was somehow strange in the midst of the hideously excavated, grotesque-looking earth to see the silhouettes of human beings and the slender telegraph posts. Both spoiled the ensemble of the picture, and seemed to belong to a different world. It was still, and the only sound came from the telegraph wire droning its wearisome refrain somewhere very high above our heads.

Chekhov often speaks of the whining, moaning, or droning of telegraph wires–or as something that humans created but cannot control, like Frankenstein’s monster


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