The Lady with the Pet Dog
Anton Chekhov 1899
“The Lady with the Pet Dog” was published in 1899, during Chekhov’s two-year stay at the seaside health resort at Yalta, where he had been sent because of his tuberculosis. Though he found Yalta painfully boring, he produced many of his finest stories during that time, including “Gooseberries,” “The Darling,” “On Official Business,” and “The Lady with the Pet Dog,” his most famous story. Well received by audiences when it was published, the reputation of this tale of adultery and discovery of true love has only grown over time. Many critics believe that Chekhov drew upon Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, an epic novel with an adulterous heroine, by painting a similarly complex moral and emotional portrait in only a few pages. Chekhov was able to speak volumes in a few words by his selection of gestures or details. Unlike Chekhov’s contemporaries—most notably Tolstoy and Dostoevsky—who were preoccupied with sweeping historical, philosophical, and religious themes, Chekhov was interested in the smallest moments of human interest. While Tolstoy and Dostoevsky were driven by profound moral convictions, Chekhov was noted for his cool objectivity. He was reluctant to moralize, adhering to his own conviction that it is less important to moralize over a horse thief or an adulterer than it is to understand them. In “The Lady with the Pet Dog,” Chekhov neither romanticizes nor condemns the illicit love affair between Gurov and Anna. He simply presents it, but with such clarity and perception that the reader recognizes Page 199 | Top of Articlethe profundity of what the characters experience and is entirely persuaded by their reality.
Born on January 29, 1860, in Taganrog, Russia, Chekhov, the third of six children, was the grandson of a serf who bought his freedom. His father owned a small grocery business which went bankrupt, leaving the family impoverished. Chekhov managed to earn a scholarship to study medicine at the University of Moscow, and by 1884 he went into practice. By this time Chekhov had published humorous sketches in magazines in order to support his family. He supported his mother and sisters for many years, turning out sketches and stories with astonishing speed while also practicing medicine.
Famous for the profound influence of his plays on the course of modern drama, Chekhov perhaps exerted an even greater influence on the modern short story. While he is known for his sympathy for and insight into the human condition, his stories ultimately exhibited dispassionate emotional balance, rigorous stylistic control, and a rational, ironic, and sometimes cynical attitude toward human relationships and aspirations. It is Chekhov’s cool, detached artfulness that distinguished his work from the confessional style of Dostoevsky, the moral fervor of Tolstoy, and the absurdist fantasies of Gogol.
Critics note that Chekhov wrote “The Lady with the Pet Dog”—the story of a middle-aged man’s belated discovery of true love—shortly before he himself married actress Olga Knipper in 1901. Their love was bittersweet, as he did not expect to live long. Some critics point out that just as Gurov felt bored and disgusted by the triviality of Moscow society in the absence of Anna, Chekhov felt miserable among high society at a health resort in Yalta (where he composed the story while seeking a tuberculosis cure) because he was separated from Olga. Like Gurov, Chekhov loved the company of women and seemed to share a special sympathy with them but simultaneously remained somewhat detached.
Chekhov was influenced by Tolstoy’s ideas on ascetic morality and nonresistance to evil. He especially became more actively concerned about human suffering after visiting and caring for patients at a penal colony on the island of Sakhalin. In one of his most famous stories, “Ward Six,” Chekhov depicts a doctor’s inner journey from philosophical detachment to deep human sympathy, which resembles Gurov’s journey from a thoughtless and cynical lady’s man to a deeply sympathetic lover in “The Lady with the Pet Dog.”
Chekhov’s first major work as a dramatist, The Seagull, was produced in 1896 by the Moscow Art Theater. Although the first performance of this unprecedentedly realistic and “uneventful” play caused the outraged audience to riot, it was soon appreciated as a new and profound kind of theater and was followed by Uncle Vanya, The Cherry Orchard, and The Three Sisters. Chekhov died from tuberculosis in 1904 in a Black Forest health spa.
Parts I and II
Dmitry Gurov is vacationing at a seaside spa in Yalta without his family. He is less than forty years old, but was married young and already has a twelve-year-old daughter and two sons. He finds his wife to be somewhat harsh and not particularly intelligent. Although Gurov is generally at ease among women, he is somewhat dismissive of the sex in general, referring to them as the “inferior race,” though he could not live a day without them. A new visitor to Yalta catches his eye—a young lady who walks her white pomeranian. He imagines a dalliance with her but is determined to keep it light and frivolous.
Gurov meets the young lady one evening by playing with her dog. He learns that her name is Anna Sergeyevna and that she is married but not travelling with her husband. Anna and Gurov take a walk by the sea, and later in his hotel room he remembers her softness, timidity, and beauty. She is very different from his wife, yet there is something pathetic about her, he thinks.
A week passes and they go together one sultry evening to greet the steamer. After the dock empties, they go back to Anna’s room and make love. Afterwards, Anna weeps, fearing that Gurov will no longer respect her. She bemoans the way she has deceived herself, not only in Yalta but throughout her married life. Her husband, a minor official in a small city, is a “flunkey,” she cries, and her life a disappointment. As she weeps, Gurov, bored and a little annoyed, munches on a slice of watermelon. He does not see why they should make a tragedy out
of their dalliance. They go out at sunrise to the beach at Oreanda, sit on a bench, and watch the sea. Gurov is moved by the scene, thinking about how everything in the world is beautiful when reflected upon—everything except what people do when they forget the lofty aims of existence and their own human worth.
They spend the rest of their time at Yalta together, taking midnight trips to waterfalls or Oreanda, and are always impressed by the scenery.
When it is time to go home, Gurov feels remorseful. He does not think that Anna was happy with him. He had been warm but also ironical, keeping things light and treating her with the arrogance of a happy male almost twice her age. She had called him kind and high-minded, and he feels that he has deceived her. He now believes the affair to be over.
Back in Moscow, Gurov exults in the winter scenery which reminds him of his youth, and enjoys the distractions of Muscovite society. He cannot, however, get Anna out of his mind, and begins to find himself disgusted with frivolous and repetitive conversation in clubs and restaurants with scenes of drunkenness and gluttony. One night he tries to tell an acquaintance about Anna, but the man only wants to talk about the fish they just ate.
Obsessed with constant thoughts of Anna, Gurov is now determined to find her. He tells his wife he must go to St. Petersburg but instead goes off to Anna’s provincial city. He frequently watches her house, catching only the sight of her pomeranian, let out for a walk by the maid. He paces his provincial hotel room, wondering what he is doing in Anna’s city, and then goes that night to the local opera, where he sees Anna and her “flunkey” husband. Anna is horrified by the sight of him and tries to flee, but he pursues her into a dark and remote corridor. Anna tells Gurov that she misses him and promises to visit him in Moscow.
Back in Moscow, Gurov walks his daughter to school through the snow. He cannot stop thinking about Anna as they are talking, for he is on his way to a rendezvous. They have been seeing each other regularly in Moscow every two or three months. When he arrives at her hotel room she is pale and unhappy from waiting for him. Their situation is growing unbearable: They love each other like husband and wife, and he feels a profound compassion for her. Despite his intention that he and Anna would have a frivolous affair, he finds that he has fallen in love for the first time in his life. He catches sight of himself in the mirror and sees himself as a middle-aged man whose hair is starting to turn gray. He thinks that he has lost his looks, and that Anna, too, will soon begin to fade and wither. Normally logical and rational when Anna is sad, Gurov now only wants to be sincere and tender with her. He tells her that they will one day find some way to live openly, and when she asks him how, he clutches her head, speaking of how he believes that although a rough time is coming up for them, one day in the not too distant future they would be together.
Dmitry Dmitrich Gurov
While staying at a seaside resort, Gurov engages himself in an adulterous affair that changes his life. He is under forty, married, and has children. His parents “found a wife for him” when he was only in his second year of college, but he feels that she is unintelligent and severe. When he tries to hint that he is in love with another, she tells him that the Page 201 | Top of Articlepart of a lover “doesn’t suit him.” Although Gurov attracts women easily, he regards them as “the inferior race,” but “couldn’t live a day without them.” When he meets Anna, he wants only a casual dalliance. He knows from “really bitter experience” that love affairs always become complex and painful, but he tries this time to believe that an affair between he and Anna can be simply a charming diversion. During the affair, Gurov remains somewhat aloof, as evidenced by his munching on watermelon as Anna weeps. But back in Moscow, he cannot forget her. He is disgusted by Moscow society and goes to Anna’s city to find her. It is unlike Gurov to behave in such an impulsive, romantic way, but he realizes that he has finally found true love. He resolves to live openly with Anna, though this means sacrificing everything. He has come a long way from being a casual seducer.
Anna Sergeyevna is a young woman of twenty, unhappily married to a minor small-town official whom she refers to as a “flunkey.” She is timid and soft spoken and feels remorse as soon as she and Gurov have made love. She says that it is not her husband she has deceived but herself, for she persuaded herself that she loved her husband when she did not, and she married too young because she was driven by a passionate curiosity and a desire “to live.” Anna loves Gurov, and recognizes good qualities in him which he fails to see himself, but the affair makes her unhappy because she feels guilty and knows that their love is impossible. When Gurov comes to visit her in her small town, she is horrified, and instead visits him in Moscow, waiting miserably in her hotel room for long stretches at a time. She is often miserable and feels hopelessly trapped by her situation.
Morals and the Meaning of Life
Although Gurov lightly enters into an adulterous love affair with Anna that soon turns painful and complicated, it would be misleading to say that the main theme of “The Lady with the Pet Dog” is one of moral corruption or sin. In fact, it is through this adulterous affair that Gurov discovers his humanity and even his moral center. Gurov has always taken women for granted and has treated them without compassion or respect. During the course of his affair with Anna, however, he becomes more and
more concerned about the consequences of his actions. Chekhov’s treatment of morality is complex; he is not conventionally moralistic, yet his story suggests a strong personal morality. Gurov and Anna truly love each other, and their bad marriages are unfortunate aspects of their lives. Little sympathy or consideration is offered to the respective spouses of the adulterous couple. Anna grieves as soon as they have made love, but more because she is worried about what Gurov will think of her than because she feels that she has betrayed her husband: “It is not my husband I have deceived,” she believes, “but myself.” Gurov errs in thinking that their affair is unimportant, but this is not so much a moral error as an underestimation of his own moral character. He learns that he is not the cynical lover that he thought he was and suffers terribly for having placed Anna in an unhappy situation.
If Chekhov posits moral values here, they are such values as honesty, seriousness, and true love. Deception more than infidelity causes Anna and Gurov to suffer, and at the end of the story they know that they must make painful and difficult decisions which will allow them to live together openly and honestly. After he becomes involved with Anna, Gurov discovers that “everything that was of interest and importance to him, everything that was essential to him, everything about which he felt sincerely and did not deceive himself . . . was going on concealed from others; while all that was false . . . went on in the open.” Gurov learns that he cannot tolerate living a lie and that it was wrong to engage in a superficial relationship with Anna.
Similarly, Gurov has learned a moral lesson regarding his attitude towards women in general. He has always belittled women, regarding them as the “inferior race,” but throughout the story gains a certain respect for Anna, and regards her as a friend.
True love appears to be the highest good in “The Lady with the Pet Dog.” Anna and Gurov must extricate themselves from false marriages and together create a genuine one, as they already love each other “like man and wife, like tender friends.” Once Gurov has discovered true love, he finds himself intolerant of the Moscow social life, a life “clipped and wingless, an absurd mess.” This allusion to the possibility of a more meaningful, dignified, and fulfilled life refers back to his revelation when he sat with Anna watching the sea at Oreanda and was struck by the beauty of “everything except what we think or do ourselves when we forget the higher aims of life and our own human dignity.” The “higher aims” are not spelled out, but if the story is an indication, they lie in the pursuit of love, truth, and beauty. In this case, truth and beauty appear to reside in nature.
Nature and Its Meaning
Gurov and Anna are united by their appreciation of natural beauty, and beauty which brings out the best in both of them. After they first make love, there is a somewhat painful scene in Anna’s hotel room in which she frets about her bad marriage while Gurov, callous and impatient, munches on watermelon. They later go to the beach to watch the sun rise, and Gurov is “soothed and spellbound” by nature’s beauty. Listening to the timeless surf, he contemplates the scenery as a moral, even mystical reverie that reminds him of the “higher aims of life.” This is the most lyrical, intense, and deeply felt moment in their early love affair. The fact that they are looking at the sea rather than at each other binds their deep love for each other into the timeless natural order of things. The Greek philosopher Plato believed that beautiful things were a physical manifestation of spiritual “eternal forms,” of God, and Gurov thinks that the constancy of the surf is perhaps “a pledge of our eternal salvation.”
In “The Lady with the Pet Dog” that which is false, difficult, and painful is described in the context of human civilization, and that which is beautiful and true is described in the context of nature. The most terrible and painful moment of the story occurs in a second-rate opera house, a theater of man-made illusions. Moreover, Gurov and Anna often find themselves confined in depressing, impersonal hotel rooms. Gurov tries to speak of love at his men’s Page 203 | Top of Articleclub, but his companion is more interested in his dinner. Anna lives in a house that faces a long gray fence studded with nails. Gurov is only happy away from Anna when admiring trees or snow. Civilization is a prison for them, but nature is a place of refuge and spiritual significance.
Point of View
The narrative style used by Chekhov in “The Lady with the Pet Dog” is third person, somewhat cool and detached like the character of Gurov himself. In this story, however, the third-person point of view is not entirely omniscient (in which one knows everything and can go anywhere) because the reader never directly perceives the thoughts of Anna Sergeyevna. It is a limited third person, through which the reader can understand Gurov’s thoughts and feelings, and it is through Gurov’s thoughts and perceptions that we learn about Anna. In the very first sentence, for example, the third-person narrative is subtly limited to Gurov’s point of view: “A new person, it was said, had appeared on the esplanade. . . .” An omniscient narrator knows everything, and would simply know there was a new person; he would not need to hear about it. It is Gurov, then, who hears things said about a new female arrival. Moreover, the title of the story itself advertises Gurov’s point of view, for an omniscient narrator would know the lady’s name. All that Gurov knows at first is that there is a lady with a pet dog. Chekhov explores at length Gurov’s shifting thoughts and feelings about Anna. Interestingly, Gurov never thinks about how his family will be affected by his infidelity; his thoughts are only of Anna. To the extent that the story has a “rising action” and a “climax,” these are largely internal, as Gurov goes from viewing himself as a casual seducer of a “lady with a pet dog” whose name he does not know to the true and responsible lover of Anna Sergeyevna, whose name means more to him than any words in the language.
At the very end of the story, the third-person point of view becomes fully omniscient as Chekhov reads the thoughts of both his lovers at once: it “was clear to both of them that the end was still far off. . . .” By breaking the rule and entering Anna’s head as well as Gurov’s, he underscores their love by having them now, at last, thinking with one mind and feeling with one heart.
Chekhov sets the scene in this story with great economy, yet certain unforgettable settings powerfully enhance a given mood or effect. Little is known about Yalta save for the sultry heat, the wind, which makes people restless, and the effect of various lights, including moonlight and dawn, upon the sea. These details create an erotic and dreamy atmosphere in which the reader may understand that Anna and Gurov would have difficulty thinking clearly. There is also a timeless, eternal quality to the sleepy landscape, marked by the rhythm of the sea and the clouds which sit motionless on mountain peaks.
Another memorable setting is the town where Anna lives. Chekhov gives the reader a feeling for the whole town when he describes the best room at Page 204 | Top of Articlethe hotel in which Gurov stayed: “the floor was covered with gray army cloth, and on the table there was an inkstand, gray with dust and topped by a figure on horseback, its hat raised in its hand and its head broken off.” Not only does this description convey the depressed and provincial nature of the place, and suggest how Anna must feel trapped here and thirsty for romance, but the headless figure with the raised hat can be seen as a symbol of Gurov himself, who has come to town to be the heroic lover but has little in the way of youthful heroism to offer. The fence studded with nails across from Anna’s house increases the sense of her being confined and unhappy, though the reader has yet to see her. Finally, the noisy local musical theater is a suitably second-rate and depressing place for Gurov and Anna to confront the unhappiness of their circumstances. Chekhov selects details of setting to convey a particular mood and illuminate the emotional lives of his characters.
“The Lady with the Pet Dog” was published in 1899 and heralded the moral dilemmas of the coming century. Marital infidelity was not exactly new in literature at the time. In fact, it was the central subject of three of the greatest novels of the latter half of the nineteenth century—Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Marriages were often arranged at this time, and people married very young and often for social or economic advancement. Consequently many marriages were unhappy, and divorce was not usually an option. Love affairs, then, were something of a preoccupation among the upper classes though they occurred far less frequently than literature, and the gossip of the time, led one to believe. Chekhov himself complained that the seaside resort of Yalta had a greatly exaggerated reputation for immorality, but in “The Lady with the Pet Dog” he did nothing to discourage Yalta’s reputation.
In any case, adultery was very much on the minds of the literate class, particularly women who lacked the economic power and freedom to keep men as men kept mistresses and could not resort, as men did, to the houses of prostitution which were common in major cities. The fiction of the popular French author Guy De Maupassant is filled with blithe love affairs, and it was a common complication in French theatrical farces. The darker side of infidelity was depicted in countless “women’s novels” of the time, a genre in which a woman must often struggle against a predatory male to preserve her virtue.
Though talk of love affairs was increasingly commonplace, it was disastrous for a woman to be caught in an act of infidelity. She would lose her reputation, her social standing, the custody of her children (as in the case of Anna Karenina), and she could find herself cast out of society, even by her own parents. If her husband divorced her, he could leave her penniless, with little hope of finding respectable employment. Such cold facts of women’s lives led such literary characters as Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary, for example, to take their own lives when their adultery was discovered. This may even have reflected the attitudes toward unfaithful women of Flaubert and Tolstoy themselves (though the degree to which these authors “punish” their adulterous heroines is greatly debated; Flaubert himself said, “I am Madame Bovary”). The punishments meted out to men who engaged in such affairs were not comparable, which is perhaps one reason why Gurov is more concerned about Anna’s plight than his own and why it is better for them to meet in Moscow, where Gurov is known but Anna is not. Better he be caught than she.
In “The Lady with the Pet Dog” the characters do not consider suicide. Gurov and Anna hope to someday be together, which reflects the lessening severity of the public attitude towards marital infidelity, but they are not terribly hopeful, either. The story ends on a powerfully uncertain note: it seems that the solution which will permit them “a glorious life” will be found in “a little while.” At the same time, however, they both know “the end was still far off,” and the most “complicated and difficult” phase of their life is just beginning.
A Climate of Uncertainty
The uncertain note upon which the story ends is fitting, for it reflects the uncertainty that was prevalent in Russia at the end of the nineteenth century. Acceptable morality was changing, religious beliefs were weakening, and the very legal and social fabric of the society was unraveling, as the serfs were granted more freedom and the Tsar, an absolute ruler, was surrendering more power to the people. The entire political structure was filled with liberal reforms and reactionary countermeasures. Artists like Chekhov, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky were uncertain
of what path the country should take. All of them were compassionate towards the suffering endured by the poor, and to varying degrees, were hostile towards the Tsar and to the current system of land ownership. All were suspicious, however, of the Bolshevik revolutionaries who would eventually overthrow the government and institute a Communist regime in 1918. Dostoevsky and Tolstoy had fervent, even mystical religious beliefs which made them dislike the atheism of the revolutionaries. Chekhov was much more concerned with social injustice and had no patience for the Russian church or other national institutions. Chekhov’s characters, particularly in his plays, are unable to think or act decisively. Gurov and Anna, at the end of “The Lady with the Pet Dog” are hopeful, but they are gripped with uncertainty.
Perhaps due to the spiritual malaise, and the social and moral uncertainty experienced by Europe’s middle and upper classes, many people were sent to “health resorts” or “spas” around the end of the nineteenth century to cure their mysterious ailments. Lassitude or depression was often interpreted as an early sign of tuberculosis, a very real disease that gradually killed a large number of people during that period, including Chekhov himself. These health spas were generally located in dry regions, high in the mountains or along the sea shore. Gurov and Anna were at the seaside resort town of Yalta, perhaps for health reasons. Although these are never specified, it would be one way to explain why they are able to vacation without their families. Perhaps they were suffering from some kind of “neurasthenic disorder” (a popular term at the time for what were perhaps a variety of physical and mental ailments today classified as “chronic fatigue syndrome,” “depression,” “nerves,” or in extreme cases a “nervous breakdown”), or perhaps they feigned ill health in order to remove themselves from their unhappy family situations, as people sometimes did at the time. The widespread concern about tuberculosis made such an excuse persuasive. Other great novels and stories have been set in health resorts, most famously Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain. The distinction in such places between the truly sick and those merely relaxing was, like so many things at that time, uncertain.
A century after “The Lady with the Pet Dog” was published in 1899, the short story’s critical reputation has not diminished, a testament to the fact that this story was both of its time and ahead of its time, influencing much of the short fiction that has been written in the twentieth century. Vladimir Nabokov, one of the greatest novelists of our time, author of the groundbreaking Lolita, asserts that in “The Lady with the Pet Dog” “all the traditional rules of story telling have been broken. There is no problem, no regular climax, no point at the end. And it is one of the greatest stories ever written.”
In the Soviet era, Russian critics focused on the fact that Gurov and Anna are representatives of the Page 206 | Top of Articlecommon people, not aristocrats like Anna’s namesake in Anna Karenina and her lover, Count Vronsky. Gurov and Anna, these critics note, seek to liberate themselves from the petty materialism and oppressive marital arrangements of their time, seeking a higher spiritual good and learning to respect each other as equals. Western critic Virginia Llewellyn Smith, however, argues that although Gurov and Anna are “changed for the better” through the discovery of true love, they are changed “not in relation to society, but in relation to their own inner lives. Gurov is shaken out of his romantic dreaming by a sudden recognition of the grossness of others in his stratum of society: but he does not give up his job or abandon his social life.”
Critics in the west have also focused on the comparison with Anna Karenina. Thomas Winner notes that “While both are stories of an Anna who, unhappily married to a prosaic bureaucrat, finds a lover, Chekhov’s Anna does not think of suicide. Rather, her love affair brings her contentment and some happiness.” Winner distinguishes both Chekhov’s attitudes and Chekhov’s style from Tolstoy’s when he writes that Chekhov’s development of the adultery theme “without dramatic collision and tragic endings, is a typical avowal of independence from traditional treatments. Stylistic and structural devices also reveal Chekhov’s antipathy to conventional forms.”
Critics also often note the parallels between Gurov’s situation and Chekhov’s own life. Chekhov was the same age as his protagonist, and, like Gurov, had just fallen in love for the first time, marrying actress Olga Knipper. Before that time, Llewellyn Smith notes that Chekhov, like Gurov, “enjoyed the company of women and had many female friends and admirers: but he failed, or was unwilling, to involve himself deeply or lastingly with them.” Chekhov recognized that when he finally fell in love it was too late, Llewellyn Smith suggests. He was dying of tuberculosis and had to confine himself much of the time to a Yalta sanitarium, while Olga Knipper pursued her acting career in Moscow. “The history of Gurov’s relationships with women is a transmutation of Chekhov’s history,” Llewellyn Smith claims, “and the essential point of the fiction was reality for him: true love had come too late, and complete happiness—poetry and communication and companionship—was impossible.” Winner disagrees with this gloomy assessment, believing that in “Lady with the Pet Dog” romantic love is “presented more hopefully than it is in other of Chekhov’s stories.” Despite the solemn tone and sober ending of the story, Winner points to the “lyrical” subtext, and observes that “The alternation between cynicism, sincerity, and lyricism becomes almost rhythmical.” Time and again, Gurov’s impulse towards cynicism is followed by a moment of honesty with himself, and this by a lyrical swell, as when Gurov is cynical about Anna’s weeping after they first make love, then becomes serious, and then, at the Oreanna seaside, has a lyrical epiphany. Again contrasting “Lady with the Pet Dog” with Anna Karenina, in which the “fallen” heroine eventually throws herself under the wheels of a train, Winner concludes “Rather than tragedy, the final note is of pathos. Muted and transient happiness is the fate which, as the concluding passage suggests, awaits Chekhov’s lovers.”
Huber has a Master of Fine Arts degree in Fiction Writing and currently teaches at the New York University School of Continuing Education. In the following essay, he provides an overview of the chief criticisms of “The Lady with the Pet Dog,” focusing particularly on Chekhov’s “casual” approach in writing the story.
“The Lady with the Pet Dog” is regarded as one of the greatest of all short stories, but it is not an easy story to “interpret,” because Chekhov’s chief aim in writing the story is to be as natural as possible and to respect people and things for what they are, rather than turning them into symbols and forcing them to convey a certain idea or message. Chekhov is reluctant to put himself above his characters and manipulate them. Perhaps the most famous criticism of the story comes from Vladimir Nabokov, the Russian emigre who taught literature at Cornell University and wrote the classic American novel Lolita. In discussing Chekhov’s story he points out that “all the traditional rules of story telling have been broken . . . there is no problem, no regular climax, no point at the end. And it is one of the greatest stories ever written.” One might wonder how such an uneventful and inconclusive story could be considered “great.” It appears that Nabokov believes that its greatness lies in its trueness to the beauty and sadness of life. If one is looking for the kind of “entertainment” which helps one escape life, one will not find it in Chekhov, for he invites his readers
to perceive and feel the beauty and pity of the world as it is. Nabokov states that for Chekhov “the lofty and the base . . . the slice of watermelon and the violet sea, and the hands of the town-governor” are all “essential” elements of that beauty. If one is looking for a satisfying moral or a final resolution, Chekhov will not provide one, for “there is no special moral to be drawn and no special message to be received,” Nabokov contends that “the story does not really end, for as long as people are alive, there is no possible and definite conclusion to their troubles or hopes or dreams.”
Nabokov also admires the economy and conciseness of Chekhov’s descriptions and characterizations, which are “attained by a careful selection and careful distribution of minute but striking features, with perfect contempt for the sustained description, repetition, and strong emphasis of ordinary authors. In this or that description one detail is chosen to illumine the whole setting.” This not only permits Chekhov to say more with less, but it also keeps the focus on the world within the story rather than on the pyrotechnics of the writer. By not overwhelming the reader with elaborate descriptions or philosophizing, Chekhov makes his art appear casual.
Nabokov certainly exaggerates his claims that there is no “problem” or “climax” to Chekhov’s story. Gurov is the protagonist; he is the only character who appears in every scene. The story is presented largely from his point of view, and it is his internal crisis, as we shall see, that indeed constitutes the climax of the story. And Gurov has a problem, though he does not recognize it until late in the story. At the beginning, he is a mildly bored philanderer on holiday, looking for a good time. He meets Anna and seduces her, and when she weeps over having been unfaithful to her husband, he is
bored and annoyed. He bids farewell to Anna with a mild sense of regret, sorry that the affair did not make her happy, but his mood brightens when he returns to the bustle of Moscow. As the winter deepens, however, Gurov finds that Anna is constantly on his mind. He wants to speak to others of his feelings for her, but nobody will listen. This eventually leads him to a great feeling of disgust towards the “savage manners,” the “gluttony,” the “continual talk always about the same thing” that defines his existence in Moscow society. “Futile pursuits and conversations always about the same topics take up the better part of one’s time, the better part of one’s strength, and in the end there is left a life clipped and wingless, an absurd mess, and there is no escaping or getting away from it—just as though one were in a madhouse or a prison.” Gurov is so “indignant” after this moment of personal crisis that he cannot sleep and finds that he is “fed up” with his job and his children. He has no desire to do anything. This dramatic moment is often considered the climax of the story, though what exactly it signifies is debated by critics.
Soviet critics have suggested that Gurov’s profound moment of alienation merely signifies his “moral regeneration.” Through the discovery of true love, they contend, Gurov has come to alienate himself from the amoral, gluttonous, frivolous life of his class. From this point forward he cares more about another human being, Anna, and less about his own sensual gratification, the pleasures of Moscow society, and the institution of bourgeois marriage.
These Soviet critics further note that Gurov and Anna are “ordinary” people of the middle class, not members of the nobility like the adulterers in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Gurov is, indeed, something of an “everyman,” with a typical family life and a dull and vaguely defined job, and Anna is merely “the lady with a pet dog.” Nobody in Yalta knows her name; she is the wife of a minor bureaucrat from a faraway provincial town. That these two ordinary, unheroic people experience a moral awakening was significant to Soviet critics. They further claimed that this story serves as a commentary against the bourgeois institution of marriage. In a sense it was, for the marriages in his fiction are almost never happy, and people frequently seem to have married young and for the wrong reasons. But Chekhov does not present an alternative way of life and expresses little optimism about how humans might live if the obstacles to pursuing their desires were removed. His characters often have trouble understanding their desires in the first place.
“The Lady with the Pet Dog” is more optimistic than most of Chekhov’s tales, for the couple is truly in love, and know what they want. Only social constraints keep them from being happy. Virginia Llewelyn Smith, however, focuses on the theme of love in Chekhov’s fiction and rejects the idea that the story should be read as a social critique. She notes that while Gurov is “shaken out of his romantic dreaming by a sudden recognition of the grossness of others in his stratum of society,” he “does not give up his job or abandon his social life. Instead, he leads a double existence . . . it is this life Chekhov is interested in, not in Gurov as a representative of his class.” She further observes that while Gurov and Anna are alone among their fellow men and women, this “does not point a moral: but it is where the pathos in their initial situation lies. We are not impressed by their moral superiority, but moved by their loneliness.” Love, Smith concludes, is the solution to this loneliness.
Smith, like other critics, notes the similarity of Gurov’s position to that of Chekhov himself. Like Gurov, Chekhov fell in love for the first time in his life when he was almost forty (he was thirty-nine and soon to be married when he wrote this story). He knew that he was ill and doubted that he would have long to enjoy his love, and so the faith in love expressed in “The Lady with the Pet Dog” and the air of pathos and sadness provoked by the discovery of love are both perhaps rooted in Chekhov’s own experience. Smith suggests that throughout his career Chekhov was torn between a romantic and a Page 209 | Top of Articlecynical view of love, contrasting the unhappy marriages and love affairs he witnessed with a romantic sense of what love could be. Gurov is also a romantic who enters every affair with high hopes only to be bitterly disappointed. When Gurov finally finds true love, he abandons his romantic dream of a love which can be simple and easy, and in the end struggles to keep true love alive in the real world.
Chekhov’s attitude towards women is arguably reflected in this story. Gurov dislikes his wife, an outspoken woman who considers herself an intellectual, and he dislikes some of the sexually aggressive women whom he has been with in the past. Rather, he prefers Anna, who is soft and childlike, weepy and vulnerable, even a bit “pathetic.” Feminist critics might argue that Chekhov, or at least his protagonist Gurov, was threatened by strong women and preferred a woman he could dominate. There are other ways to read the sexual politics of the story. Chekhov himself describes Gurov as a man who believes women an “inferior breed” but who cannot “live a day without them.” By the end of the story, however, Gurov considers Anna his only “true friend.” Her weakness and pathos may be, to some extent, symptoms of her boredom and depression. Just before Gurov speaks to Anna for the first time, he looks her over and decides that “her expression, her gait, her dress, and the way she did her hair told him that she was . . . married, that she was in Yalta for the first time and alone, and that she was bored.” Gurov jokes in their first exchange that people claim to be bored in Yalta as if they come from some exotic place, when in fact they come from dull and dusty provincial towns. This wry joke seduces Anna but is of greater significance than it appears, for we learn that young Anna is indeed bored and unhappy both at and away from home. Gurov is drawn to her “pathetic” qualities not only because they make her easy prey but also because these qualities in Anna reflect an aspect of Gurov that he is slow to recognize. Gurov, like Anna, is bored and unhappy in his marriage and is “eager for life.” Moreover, he is not at home in the world, even before they meet. He seems to have no friends at Yalta and does not miss anybody back home. Gurov and Anna are both alone, lacking in other deep attachments, and perhaps Gurov feels sympathy for Anna in her sadness because he feels sad himself. When Gurov decides that he is disgusted with his life, perhaps he is discovering a loneliness and alienation which has bothered him for a long time but which he was unable to recognize until there was something meaningful in his life with which to contrast these feelings. That source of contrast was Anna and his unexpected love for her.
Source: Erik Huber, “An Overview of ‘The Lady with the Pet Dog’,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 1998.
Creasman is an Assistant Professor of English at West Virginia Wesleyan College. In the following excerpt, he claims that understanding Gurov’s intense display of emotion in “The Lady with the Pet Dog” [which he refers to as “The Lady with the Dog”], is not only crucial for understanding his motivations, but is helpful for the reader to gain a better understanding of the structure of Chekhov’s short fiction in general.
In 1921, Conrad Aiken [in Collected Criticism, 1968] made the following assessment of Anton Chekhov’s work: “This, after all, is Chekhov’s genius—he was a master of mood.” Indeed Aiken’s statement is a good starting point for a discussion of the structure of Chekhov’s short fiction. Many of Chekhov’s short stories—the later ones in particular—are structured around the main character’s moments of strong emotion, a feature of the author’s short fiction that has never been fully explored, even in discussions of individual stories. For example, much of the criticism of “The Lady with the Dog” one of Chekhov’s most revered short stories, has focused on its parallels with his real life love for Olga Knipper, the influence of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, the story’s similarities with Chekhov’s later plays, and its exemplification of the author’s realism and modernity, which have greatly influenced twentieth-century short fiction. In tracing the story’s biographical and literary influences and its relation to other literature, though, Chekhov critics have generally ignored an important feature of “The Lady with the Dog”—namely, the significance of Gurov’s two flights of emotion, the first with Anna at Oreanda, the second outside the Medical Club at Moscow. These two moments of intense feeling are crucial to understanding Gurov’s motivations and illustrate the importance of this kind of emotional flight to the structure of Chekhov’s short fiction.
In the first of his two flights of emotion, Gurov contemplates the transcendence of love as he sits quietly on a bench with Anna at Oreanda:
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Not a leaf stirred, the grasshoppers chirruped, and the monotonous hollow roar of the sea came up to them, speaking of peace, of the eternal sleep lying in wait for us all. The sea had roared like this before there was
any Yalta or Oreanda, it was roaring now, and it would go on roaring, just as indifferently and hollowly, when we had passed away. And it may be that in this continuity, this utter indifference to life and death, lies the secret of our ultimate salvation, of the stream of life on our planet, and of its never-ceasing movement toward perfection.
Side by side with a young woman, who looked so exquisite in the early light, soothed and enchanted by the sight of all this magical beauty—sea, mountains, clouds and the vast expanse of the sky—Gurov told himself that, when you came to think of it, everything in the world is beautiful really, everything but our own thoughts and actions, when we lose sight of the higher aims of life, and of our dignity as human beings.
This passage reveals one of the strengths of Chekhov’s writing, his superb handling of the theme of transcendence through love. In Anton Chekhov and the Lady with the Dog , Virginia Llewellyn Smith discusses the importance of this theme: “In Chekhov’s later work, this ideal of love was to become increasingly associated with the concept of something above and beyond the transient, or more precisely, with a quasi-philosophical speculative interest, and a quasi-mystical faith in the future of mankind.” Another critic, Beverly Hahn, makes a similar point [in Chekhov: A Study of the Major Stories and Plays, 1977], finding in some of Chekhov’s work a “mysterious transcendence . . . of the great moral and philosophical issues of existence.” Finding the eternal in a particular moment, Chekhov’s characters can turn away mortality and meaninglessness, if only briefly, by turning to each other. However, it is important to remember that at this point in the story, Gurov clearly has not fallen in love with Anna. At first it is not Anna in particular whom he desires, but rather a pretty woman in general, and the reader is told that Gurov, who refers to women as “the lower race,” actually “could not have existed a single day” without them. Indeed, Gurov enjoys Anna’s company at Yalta but is at first surprised, then bored and annoyed with her sense of having sinned. And when Anna must leave Yalta and return to her husband, Gurov does not seem greatly to regret that the affair has apparently ended: “And he told himself that this had been just one more of the many adventures in his life, and that it, too, was over, leaving nothing but a memory. . . .” However, when he returns home, he cannot seem to forget the lady with the dog.
Gurov’s second flight of emotion results from his sudden awareness of the grossness and banality of life in Moscow, and the way it pales in comparison to the time he spent with Anna in Yalta. When Gurov starts to tell one of his companions at the Medical Club about her, his friend interrupts him with a comment about dinner, “the sturgeon was just a leetle off.” At this moment, all of Gurov’s pent-up frustrations with his life in Moscow find release in the quintessential Chekhovian flight:
These words, in themselves so commonplace, for some reason infuriated Gurov, seemed to him humiliating, gross. What savage manners, what people! What wasted evenings, what tedious, empty days! Frantic card-playing, gluttony, drunkenness, perpetual talk always about the same thing. The greater part of one’s time and energy went on business that was no use to anyone, and on discussing the same thing over and over again, and there was nothing to show for all of it but a stunted, earth-bound existence and a round of trivialities, and there was nowhere to escape to, you might as well be in a madhouse or a convict settlement.
In some ways, this passage represents the climax of the story, for after Gurov resolves to go to Anna’s town, the remainder of the story, in which the characters are forced to keep up appearances by not telling anyone about the affair, has an aura of inevitability about it. In addition to this structural importance, this intense burst of emotion is also very important to an understanding of Gurov’s motivations for renewing the affair and thus raises an interesting question: is his decision to find Anna motivated more by love for her or by his desire to escape the tedium of life in Moscow? Certainly the Gurov in the first two sections of the story does not seem like the kind of man who is capable of falling in love with Anna. He becomes bored and uncomfortable, rather than concerned or sensitive, when she gets upset. Does Gurov truly love Anna, or is Page 211 | Top of Articleshe simply the natural person for him to turn to in his time of depression?
In his excellent “Chekhov and the Modern Short Story” [in A Chekhov Companion, 1985], Charles E. May argues that the question is unanswerable:
It is never clear in the story whether Gurov truly loves Anna Sergeyevna or whether it is only the romantic fantasy that he wishes to maintain. What makes the story so subtle and complex is that Chekhov presents the romance in such a limited and objective way that we realize that there is no way to determine whether it is love or romance, for there is no way to distinguish between them.
May’s otherwise good interpretation is slightly off the mark on this point. While it is true that throughout most of the story it is difficult—because of the objectivity to which May alludes—to determine whether Gurov loves Anna, the reader is directly told just before the conclusion of the story that the two main characters do indeed love each other and that Gurov has “fallen in love properly, thoroughly, for the first time in his life.” It is crucial to recognize that the Gurov at the end of the story is not the same as the one at the beginning, and the difference is not merely that he now needs love, but that he has clearly found the woman he loves. Certainly, Gurov does not love less simply because he feels a need for love in his life; in fact, it is precisely this yearning that causes his love for Anna to awaken and grow. And again the key to understanding Gurov’s motivations for leaving Moscow and going to Anna is his flights of emotion in which he recognizes the essential truth of the story: his love for Anna is far more noble than his banal, socially acceptable life in Moscow.
Still, at the end of the story, the couple’s problem—how to keep their love for each other alive while hiding the relationship from society—remains unresolved. Moreover, neither character seems to have the courage to reveal the truth of their love to anyone else, and therefore, the characters find themselves in a kind of limbo:
And it seemed to them that they were within an inch of arriving at a decision, and that then a new, beautiful life would begin. And they both realized that the end was still far, far away, and that the hardest, the most complicated part was only just beginning.
Gurov and Anna find themselves in a desperate situation, but as Beverly Hahn suggests, “desperation is not the dominant note of the story, nor is its outcome really tragic, because the hardship of Anna’s and Gurov’s love cannot be separated from the fact of that love and from the fact that it brings each a degree of fulfilment not known before.”
With its elegant language, complex main characters, and realistic detail, “The Lady with the Dog” is indeed a masterful story of many moods and, therefore, an illustration of the validity of Conrad Aiken’s judgment that Chekhov is a master of mood. Gurov’s two intense moments of emotion are important to the structure of the story and demonstrate an important feature of the author’s style, for similar Chekhovian flights can be found in many of his other stories, especially his later ones, such as “About Love,” “A Visit to Friends,” “The Bishop,” and “The Betrothed,” just to name a few. These flights of emotion are as important in Chekhov’s stories as epiphanies are in Joyce’s and therefore merit further exploration by those interested in the study of Chekhov’s short fiction.
Source: Boyd Creasman, “Gurov’s Flights of Emotion in Chekhov’s ‘The Lady with the Dog’,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 27, No. 2, Spring, 1990 pp. 257-60.
Virginia Llewellyn Smith
Smith is affiliated with Stanford University. In the following excerpt, she closely examines several aspects of “The Lady with the Pet Dog” [which she refers to as “The Lady with the Dog,”], maintaining that the story, which is intimately bound with “so many threads of Chekhov’s thought and experience,” is very useful in learning about Chekhov’s attitude towards women and love.
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Source: Virginia Llewellyn Smith, “The Lady with the Dog,” in Anton Chekhov and the Lady with the Dog, Oxford University Press, London, 1973, pp. 212-19.
“Anton Chekhov,” in Short Story Criticism, Vol. 2, edited by Sheila Fitzgerald, Gale, 1989, pp. 124-160; Vol. 28, edited by Anna J. Sheets, Gale, 1998, pp. 48-72.
“Anton Chekhov,” in Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 31, edited by Paula Kepos and Dennis Poupard, Gale, 1989, pp. 71-103; Vol. 55, edited by Marie Lazzari, Gale, 1995, pp. 28-80.
“Anton Chekhov,” in World Literary Criticism, Vol. 2, edited by James P. Draper, Gale, 1992, pp. 704-720.