The Lady with the Dog

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Date: 2008
From: Short Story Criticism(Vol. 102. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Work overview; Critical essay
Length: 2,155 words

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About this Work
Title: The Lady with the Dog (Short story)
Published: January 01, 1899
Genre: Short story
Author: Chekhov, Anton
Occupation: Russian playwright
Other Names Used: Chekhov, Anton Pavlovich;

WRITINGS BY THE AUTHOR:

Short Fiction
  • *Pestrye rasskazy [Motley Tales] 1886
  • Nevinnye rechi [Innocent Speeches] 1887
  • V sumerkakh [In the Twilight] 1887
  • Rasskazy [Tales] 1888
  • Detvora [Children] 1889
  • Gloomy People 1890
  • Stones and Tales 1894
  • Chekhov: Polnoe sobranie sochineniy (short stories and dramas) 1900-04
  • The Black Monk, and Other Stories 1903
  • The Tales of Chekhov. 13 vols. 1917-23
  • Polnoe sobranie sochinenii i pisem A. P. Chekhova. 20 vols. [Complete Works and Letters of A. P. Chekhov] 1944-51
  • The Oxford Chekhov. 9 vols. (short stories, plays, and letters) 1964-75
  • Polnoe sobranie sochinenii i pisem A. P. Chekhova. 30 vols. [Complete Works and Letters of A. P. Chekhov] (short stories, plays, and letters) 1974-83
Other Major Works
  • Ivanov (play) 1887
  • Leshy [The Wood Demon] (play) 1889
  • Chayka [The Seagull] (play) 1896
  • Dyadya Vanya [Uncle Vanya] (play) 1899
  • Trei sestry [The Three Sisters] (play) 1901
  • Vishnevy sad [The Cherry Orchard] (play) 1904

Introduction

Chekhov's tale of adultery and transformation by love is regarded by many critics as his finest short story, and has been universally praised for its psychological depth and quiet emotional power. The story traces the illicit love affair between an ageing philanderer, Dmitry Gurov, and the younger Anna Sergeevna, after a chance meeting at the Yalta seaside. The action of the story is minimal, but readers are offered a profound glimpse at the interior life of the protagonist and at the unlikely connection between the two main characters that changes their lives. Chekhov does not romanticize the adulterous relationship, nor does he moralize or condemn the actions of the lovers. He presents moments in their experience with such clarity and simplicity that their intimacy becomes real and their struggle deeply affecting. "The Lady with the Dog" has generated a great deal of critical commentary, both in Russian and English. Vladimir Nabokov has noted that it is "one of the greatest stories ever written."

Plot and Major Characters

The story opens with a description of the protagonist, Dmitri Dmitrich Gurov, a banker who is on vacation at the Russian city of Yalta. Gurov is bored, but his interest is sparked by a recent arrival at the seaside town, a young woman named Anna Sergeevna von Diederitz. He sees Anna strolling along the sea-front with her Pomeranian, and later again in the gardens. Since she is not accompanied by a husband, Gurov decides to make her acquaintance. Gurov, it is explained, is not yet forty, but is long married, with three children, and has had many affairs. He married young and now finds his wife intolerable. She is staid, intellectual, and seems older than her years. Gurov thinks very little of women in general--he calls them the "lower race"--but he enjoys their company more than the company of men.

One evening while Gurov is dining in the gardens, Anna Sergeevna sits at the table next to him. He decides that she is married and bored as well, and becomes excited by the prospect of having an affair with this stranger. He calls her dog toward him, as an excuse to start up a conversation, and within a short time they strike an easy friendship. In bed later that night, Gurov continues to think about her and wonders how long ago the woman was still in school, as his own young daughter now is.

A week goes by. It is a warm, windy day, and Gurov and Anna go down to the pier to watch a steamer come in. On impulse, he kisses her and suggests they go to her hotel room. In her room, as he looks at her, Gurov thinks of the other women he has had affairs with, many of them experienced and beautiful, but cold. With Anna, he reflects, there is a sense of life, even if there is diffidence, inexperience, and awkwardness. After Gurov and Anna make love, she becomes distraught. She says she feels guilty not only for deceiving her husband but because she realizes she has been deceiving herself for a long time. She married her husband at twenty and has since realized that he is nothing more than a flunky. She has wanted more--"To live, to live!"--but now she feels her infidelity has shown her to be vulgar and contemptible. She fears too that Gurov will not respect her. Gurov is bored and irritated as he listens to her confession. He feels her remorse is out of place. But he comforts her, and within a short time they are laughing and happy.

They leave the hotel and drive to the town of Oreanda. They sit and look at the sea in silence, and then return to Yalta. For the next few days the two spend all their time together, dining, walking, making love, and enjoying the beauty of their surroundings. Anna continues to express her guilt and fear that Gurov thinks her a common woman. Then Anna receives a letter from her husband asking her to return home. She seems almost relieved at the prospect of leaving, saying it is the "finger of destiny." After he leaves Anna at the railroad station, Gurov reflects on the relationship and thinks of it as yet another episode in his life that has come to an end. He feels a slight tinge of remorse, but thinks too that this young woman he would never see again was not really happy with him, and besides he had not showed her his true self. Gurov decides to go back home to Moscow.

Once home, Gurov tries to return to his familiar routine of work, family life, and entertainment. He assumes that his memories of Anna will fade in a month or so, as the memories of his other lovers have done. He finds, however, that he cannot stop thinking about her. His memories of Anna become more and more vivid, and begin to haunt him. He mentions Anna to an acquaintance, and is horrified that the only response he gets from the man is that the fish they ate at dinner was too strong. Gurov begins to regard his life as nonsensical, empty, and dull. He is sick of his children, his work, and his activities. He decides to travel to Anna's hometown of S--. He finds her house but does not go in, and returns to his hotel. The next day he decides instead to go to the local theater to attend a premiere of "The Geisha," in the hopes of seeing her there. At the theater that night, he sees her in the crowd and realizes she is the most precious and important thing to him in the world. When Gurov confronts Anna during intermission, she is shocked yet thrilled. She too has thought of nothing but him. They kiss passionately but she asks him to leave in case they are seen, and agrees to meet with him in Moscow.

Gurov and Anna meet once every two or three months. As he is walking with his daughter one morning, Gurov reflects that he is living a double life. His everyday life is routine and conventional, but he thinks of it as being full of lies and deceit. He must keep his other life secret, but it contains all that he thinks of as having value, and indeed it represents the kernel of his being. He goes to see Anna, who is waiting at the hotel for him. She is in tears; she believes that their lives have been shattered by their love and the way they must deceive everyone around them. He tries to comfort her, and as he holds her he sees his reflection in the mirror. He has grown old and gray and lost his good looks. But he has fallen in love properly for the first time in his life. The pair talk about how they can change their lives and avoid the travel and secrecy, but they see no solution to their dilemma. The story ends with their ambiguous hope that a solution will soon be found and that a new, beautiful life will begin; but the end is far off and the most difficult part of their life is just beginning.

Major Themes

The main theme of "The Lady with the Dog" is love: its unexpectedness, its depth, and its power over the human psyche. The protagonists of the story do not seek the type of relationship they eventually find, and when they discover their love it is shocking, painful, and exhilarating. Gurov at first seems to be a shallow philanderer whose view of women shows him to be without emotional or spiritual depth. He sees Anna from a distance and assumes he will have the kind of affair he has had so many times before, one based on physical pleasure and casual intimacy. All his expectations are overturned when he cannot stop thinking of her. Without expecting or wanting it, he discovers an emotional experience that is deep, sincere, and touching. He cannot even pinpoint what it is about Anna that moves him so much, what it is about her that has made her the center of his life. Love, Chekhov suggests, can transform lives, making the most ordinary people seem extraordinary, and endowing life with value.

Another important concern in the story is women. At the beginning of the tale, Gurov is seen as an opportunist who uses women. He thinks of them as the "lower race," but at the same time enjoys their company and is afraid of his intellectual wife. Gurov enjoys women's company because of the intimacy it affords, but only after he has fallen in love with Anna does he realize how deep his need for intimacy is. When Gurov is at his lowest point and seeks someone in whom to confide, his friend dismisses his reference to the fascinating lady he met at Yalta. Gurov is disgusted by the boorishness of males, their savage manners, their unacceptable attitude toward women, and their petty interests such as card-playing and drinking. Women offer true communication, true emotion, and true experience in a way that men do not. When he wants to talk about Anna, his friends do not know what he is saying; ironically, only his wife guesses what he is getting at with his sideways remarks. By the end of the story, Gurov has been transformed by love not only because it has opened up his own emotional life but because it has changed his view of women. Gurov has changed from an oaf who sees women as lower beings to someone who recognizes their ability to understand interior experiences as a source of life's greatest richness. However, the story is told from the point of view of Gurov, and there is far less sense of what Anna thinks and feels about what is going on; most of her emotions and thoughts are filtered though Gurov. Her point of view is never fully presented. Neither are the thoughts of Gurov's wife. Thus, while the story says a great deal about women, it remains very much rooted in a male perspective.

Critical Reception

When "The Lady with the Dog" appeared in 1899, Chekhov had already established his reputation as one of Russia's great short story writers. The tale was immediately popular; Maxim Gorky is said to have remarked that it made him want to "change wives." Gorky also wrote that the work "killed realism" and thus reinvented fiction, because of the way the author required readers to use their imaginations to fill out the story. Early critics noted that the tale opened up the form of the short story through its focus on character and the exploration of one person's moral and emotional growth.

Today, "The Lady with the Dog" is regarded by many critics as one of the greatest short stories in any language and one of the finest psychological studies of love ever written. Recent criticism on the story in English has concentrated on how the work reflects Chekhov's attitudes towards women and love. Other themes of interest to scholars have included the biographical elements in the story, notably parallels with Chekhov's own relationship with Olga Kipper; exactly what type of transformation is undergone by the protagonists; the work's lyricism and structure; the realism, humor, and pathos of the tale; and the story's treatment of memory. Critics have also discussed the influence of the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche on the work and the story's vast influence on other artists, from the Russian modernist I. A. Bunin, to the American short-story writer Joyce Carol Oates, to the filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov. Because of its brevity, simplicity, and lyricism, the work continues to enjoy wide readership. Its appearance in countless anthologies is a testament to its popular appeal and to Chekhov's reputation as a master of the short story.

Footnotes:*During his life Chekhov published most of his short stories individually in periodicals, notably in Peterburskaia gazeta and Novoe vremia.
 

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1410001910