Don’t Tell Me the Moon Is Shining; Show Me the Glint of Light on Broken Glass

Anton Chekhov? Apocryphal?
chekhovmoon03Dear Quote Investigator: Recently I was reading a collection of writing tips designed for neophyte scribblers, and I came across a valuable piece of advice that was attributed to Anton Chekhov:

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.

I have seen this statement several times before, and I believe it provides excellent direction, but no one states where it originally appeared. Did Chekhov really offer this counsel?

Quote Investigator: QI hypothesizes that this expression was constructed as a summary of the instructions Anton Chekhov gave to his brother in a letter written in 1886. The summary was eventually re-assigned directly to Chekhov. Below is an English language version of a passage from the letter which was originally written in Russian. The translation was performed by Avrahm Yarmolinsky and published in “The Unknown Chekhov” in 1954: 1

In May, 1886, Chekhov wrote to his brother Alexander, who had literary ambitions: “In descriptions of Nature one must seize on small details, grouping them so that when the reader closes his eyes he gets a picture. For instance, you’ll have a moonlit night if you write that on the mill dam a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright little star, and that the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled past like a ball.”

There are crucial points of commonality between this passage and the abbreviated expression. Chekhov suggested using details to communicate the presence of moonlight. Also, the distinctive phrase “broken bottle glittered” was transformed into “glint of light on broken glass” in the summary.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Interestingly, Chekhov had already implemented his own advice in a short story “published in the issue of a Petersburg daily for March 17, 1886”. The tale called “Hydrophobia” concerned a wolf bite and the grim possibility of rabies. Chekhov employed a strategy for description similar to that suggested in his letter: 2

The dam, flooded with moonlight, showed not a bit of shade; on it, in the middle, the neck of a broken bottle glittered like a star. The two wheels of the mill, half-hidden in the shadow of an ample willow, looked angry, despondent . . .

Chekhov even included a ball-like shadow for a wolf in the story:

Suddenly it seemed to Nilov that on the farther bank, above the osier bushes, something resembling a shadow rolled by like a black ball.

A revised version of “Hydrophobia” entitled “The Wolf” was created by Chekhov several years later. The ending was modified, and the ambiguity was deepened. The sentences above were not changed.

In 1896 “The Seagull”, one of Chekhov’s major plays, was first produced in St. Petersburg, Russia. 3 Remarkably, descriptive phrases congruent to those above were used once again by Chekhov in “The Seagull”. The drama contained a character named Boris Trigorin, a celebrated novelist who shared some characteristics with Chekhov. The writing style of Trigorin was highly praised by a character named Konstantin Tréplev who simultaneously criticized his own style. Here is an excerpt from a translation of “The Seagull” published by 1913: 4

Trigorin has worked out a process of his own, and descriptions are easy for him. He writes that the neck of a broken bottle lying on the bank glittered in the moonlight, and that the shadows lay black under the mill-wheel. There you have a moonlight night before your eyes, but I speak of the shimmering light, the twinkling stars, the distant sounds of a piano melting into the still and scented air, and the result is abominable.

In 1954 “Unknown Chekhov: Stories and Other Writings Hitherto Untranslated” was published, and it included an English translation of the advice sent by Chekhov to his brother in May 1886. The text was given previously in this article. “Unknown Chekhov” also mentioned the consonant sections in “Hydrophobia” and “The Seagull”.

In 1957 the scholar Walter Horace Bruford published a literary and biographical analysis titled “Anton Chekhov”. Bruford discussed the May 1886 letter from Chekhov: 5

In the same letter to his brother he had recommended the use of evocative detail, such as ‘A piece of glass from a broken bottle shining like a little star on the dam of the water-mill,’ to suggest moonlight, but Magarshack thinks that when he makes Trigorin use this same example in The Seagull, Chekhov’s intention is ironical, as this device seems to him now a little artificial. It is commoner anyhow in his early writings.

In 2002 the modern condensed version of the Chekhov’s commentary was printed in a compilation titled “The Quotable Book Lover”: 6

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.
Anton Chekhov (1860-1904)

In 2009 a book for young people called “You Write It: Mystery” included the statement and attributed the words to Chekhov: 7

Russian novelist Anton Chekhov once said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

In conclusion, QI believes that Anton Chekhov probably did not say or write the statement under investigation. However, he did express a similar idea in a letter to his brother. The guidance in the letter was reformulated into a concise injunction and this compressed statement was ascribed directly to Chekhov. QI does not know who crafted the short form. Perhaps future research will uncover the details of this hypothesized progression.

(Great thanks to Najaf who inquired about this quotation and gave impetus to QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Najaf helpfully mentioned the relevant passage in “The Wolf” short story. Special thanks to researcher Bill Mullins for pointing to an article at Buzzfeed that contained a collection of writing tips including the quotation attributed to Chekhov.)

Notes:

  1. 1954, The Unknown Chekhov: Stories and Other Writings Hitherto Untranslated by Anton Chekhov, Translated by Avrahm Yarmolinsky, Section: Introduction, Start Page 9, Quote Page 14, Noonday Press, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1954, The Unknown Chekhov: Stories and Other Writings Hitherto Untranslated by Anton Chekhov, Translated by Avrahm Yarmolinsky, Story: Hydrophobia, Start Page 95, Quote Page 98, Noonday Press, New York. (Verified on paper)
  3. 2005, The Oxford Dictionary of Plays by Michael Patterson, Entry: The Seagull, Oxford University Press. (Oxford Reference Online; accessed July 30 2013)
  4. 1913, Plays by Anton Tchekoff, (Uncle Vanya, Ivanoff, The Sea-gull, The Swan Song), Translated from Russian to English by Marian Fell, Play: The Sea-gull, Act IV, (Treplieff speaking), Quote Page 216, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  5. 1957, Anton Chekhov by Walter Horace Bruford, Quote Page 26, Yale University Press, New Haven. (HathiTrust full view)
  6. 2002 Copyright, The Quotable Book Lover, Edited by Ben Jacobs and Helena Hjalmarsson, (Quotable Series), Quote Page 34, Globe Pequot Press, Guilford, Connecticut. (Google Books Preview)
  7. 2009 Copyright, You Write It: Mystery by John Hamilton, (You Write It! Series), Quote Page 21, ABDO Publishing, Edina Minnesota. (Google Books Preview)