There is a wonderfully described character named Moiseika in Chekhov’s story “Ward No. 6” who, although he has been consigned to the madhouse wing of the hospital, has picked up the habit of tenderness. Chekhov writes: “Moiseika likes to make himself useful. He gives his companions water, and covers them when they are asleep; he promises each of them to bring him back a kopeck, and to make him a new cap; he feeds with a spoon his neighbor on his left, who is paralyzed.”

Even though the word tenderness isn’t used, we feel its presence in these details, even when Chekhov goes on to enter a disclaimer by way of his commentary on Moiseika’s behavior: “He acts in this way, not from compassion nor from any considerations of a humane kind, but through imitation, unconsciously dominated by Gromov, his neighbor on the right hand.”

In a provocative alchemy, Chekhov combines words and deeds to cause us to reconsider the origin and nature of tenderness. Where does it come from? As a deed, does it still move the heart, even when abstracted from humane motives?

Somehow, the image of the isolate man performing gentle acts without expectation or even self-knowledge stays before us as an odd beauty we have been brought to witness. It may even reflect back upon our own lives with a questioning gaze.

–Raymond Carver, “Meditation on a Line from Saint Teresa”

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