The Lady With The Dog
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. Marital infidelity was not exactly new in literature at the time. 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. 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.
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.
Chekhov's kernel of truth | Books | The Guardian
Better he be caught than she. 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.
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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. 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 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.
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. The widespread concern about tuberculosis made such an excuse persuasive.
The distinction in such places between the truly sick and those merely relaxing was, like so many things at that time, uncertain. There is no problem, no regular climax, no point at the end. And it is one of the greatest stories ever written. 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.
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.
Rather, her love affair brings her contentment and some happiness. Chekhov was the same age as his protagonist, and, like Gurov, had just fallen in love for the first time, marrying actress Olga Knipper. 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.
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 this or that description one detail is chosen to illumine the whole setting. By not overwhelming the reader with elaborate descriptions or philosophizing, Chekhov makes his art appear casual. 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. 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. 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.
The Lady with the Dog and Other Stories
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. 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. 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. That these two ordinary, unheroic people experience a moral awakening was significant to Soviet critics.
The Lady with the Dog and Other Stories
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. Only social constraints keep them from being happy. Instead, he leads a double existence. We are not impressed by their moral superiority, but moved by their loneliness.
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. Smith suggests that throughout his career Chekhov was torn between a romantic and a cynical 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.
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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. 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. There are other ways to read the sexual politics of the story. 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.
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. 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:. 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.
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.
However, it is important to remember that at this point in the story, Gurov clearly has not fallen in love with Anna. 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. 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 she simply the natural person for him to turn to in his time of depression? 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. 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.
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:.
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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.