Natural Beauty – How Do We Define It?
These couple of days I have been reading Anton Chekhov’s short stories for the fifth time. The book is called Later Short Stories 1888-1903.
I was reading through the stories and suddenly one of them answered a question of mine which I have been asking myself for the longest time – What is beauty? Why do we call someone beautiful? Is it because a particular person looks healthy (thin, smooth-skinned, athletic) or is it something more?
The story which resonated with me and gave an answer to my question is called The Beauties. The story is written in the first person narrative mode so Chekhov is the main character who tells us the story.
Before I go into the story I first would like to ask a question. What is our reaction when we see someone beautiful or think that someone is beautiful? The answer is simple – we stare or look at him or her twice because we feel we didn’t get enough of the visual input.
I think the reason that we don’t get enough of it is because of a certain symmetry – this symmetry I am talking about does NOT mean that the person has to be a model, be athletic or muscular and so on and so forth. The best way to explain it is to tell a little bit about the story and also quote Chekhov’s afterthoughts which answer this question to a profound extent.
The story-line is very simple – Chekhov visits an Armenian family who invited him for a dinner. As him and one of his friends are engaged in a discussion all of a sudden a young lady walks into the room.
When Chekhov sees her he immediately appreciates her beauty but it is at THIS moment when he doesn’t know why he thinks she is beautiful.
This is what he says about the Armenian girl – “And the oftener she fluttered by me with her beauty, the more acute became my sadness. I felt sorry both for her and for myself and for the Little Russian, who mournfully watched her every time she ran through the cloud of chaff to the carts. Whether it was envy of her beauty, or that I was regretting that the girl was not mine, and never would be, or that I was a stranger to her; or whether I vaguely felt that her rare beauty was accidental, unnecessary and like everything on earth, of short duration; or whether, perhaps, my sadness was the peculiar feeling which is excited in man by the contemplation of real beauty, God only knows.”
After a couple of days he sees another girl who is Russian. This girl does not happen to have the same perfect features as the Armenian girl but Chekhov still thinks she is beautiful.
After contemplating and analyzing his thoughts he says these beautiful lines
“The girl was remarkably beautiful, and that was unmistakable to me and to those who were looking at her as I was. If one is to describe her appearance feature by feature, as the practice is, the only really lovely thing was her thick wavy hair, which hung loose with a black ribbon tied round her head; all the other features were either irregular or very ordinary. Either from a peculiar form of coquettishness or from shortsightedness, her eyes were screwed up, her nose had an undecided tilt, her mouth was small, her profile was feebly and insipidly drawn, her shoulders were narrow and undeveloped for her age, and yet the girl made the impression of being really beautiful, and looking at her, I was able to feel convinced that the Russian face does not need strict regularity in order to be lovely; what is more, that if instead of her turn-up nose the girl had been given a different one, correct and plastically irreproachable like the Armenian girl’s, I fancy her face would have lost all its charm from change.”
I find this to be absolutely true from my perspective as well because beauty is a combination of things – as I have mentioned it is a certain symmetry which is SPECIFIC to a person. When one thing is removed the symmetry disappears which in turn takes away the charm.
Feel free to share your thoughts and opinions. I would love to know what everyone else thinks about this particular matter.