Today I’d like to talk about the short story “The Lady With the Dog” by Anton Chekhov, which can be found full text here. While Chekhov is most famous for his plays, his short stories remain among the classics of Russian literature, and “the Lady With the Dog” has been the subject of numerous film adaptations (most of which, unfortunately, are not in English).
One of the things that I find fascinating about Chekhov is his ability to create an impression in writing rather like a photograph. Instead of focusing on plot, he builds up every aspect of a moment so that one is able to feel it profoundly. This story does have more actual plot than Chekhov’s plays, which is why I chose it.
The story begins in Yalta when a man named Gurov notices a young woman walking her dog on the beach. Gurov is unhappily married, and so feels no qualms in beginning an affair with the woman. On the other hand, Anna Sergeevna feels guilt and remorse about the affair, while at the same time enjoying it. When Anna receives a letter from her husband (whom she was never in love with) requesting that she immediately return to Petersburg, she tries to forget about Gurov. Meanwhile, Gurov realizes that his love for Anna is the only love that he’s truly felt in his life. He finds her in Petersburg and convinces her to continue their affair in Moscow. Gurov is content with the situation, but leading a double life eats away at Anna. The story ends with her crying from stress and guilt, and Gurov reassuring her that they will someday find a way to continue their relationship without having to live a lie.
When reading the story, I saw a sharp criticism of the Russian social elite. Among the aristocracy, marriage was often conducted for political or financial reasons. Both Anna and Gurov resort to leading double lives that have far more meaning to them than their public facades. Gurov’s family is a classic example of this–on the outside, they seem happy, even though it is apparent that the husband and wife can barely tolerate each other. Meanwhile, Anna feels stifled by the marriage that she entered into too early and without feeling.
The stagnation that they feel in their own lives is a parallel to the stagnation of the aristocratic class as a whole. While it isn’t as obvious in this story, one of the themes that Chekhov continuously returns to in his works is the lack of purpose or function of the aristocratic class following the 1861 Emancipation of the Serfs. Until then, the aristocracy existed to oversee the serfs in agricultural functions, but after, capitalism was still seen as a lower-class function and below the aristocracy. Basically, aristocrats’ lives were rather pointless, but they put up a facade of importance and grandeur, pretending to be something that they weren’t anymore. Chekhov’s writing uses snapshots into the lives of individual characters and families to illuminate this greater social phenomenon, and does so in a poignant and beautiful way.