I recently went through some papers of my from my undergrad years at Cal-State, Long Beach, and found this brief gem– “gem” being used loosely. Checkhov has, of course, been written about more than anyone might care to spend their lives reading, but Lady with the Dog, however, is a story that has stuck with me throughout the years. This paper was written for an upper division course, taught by the absolutely wonderful Meg Pennington, whose infectious laugh will also remain with me, always.
The notion of a moral sermon within a story is something that Anton Chekov is not predisposed to. He chooses to remain objective about issues of morality in his writing, often times at the risk of heavy criticism as being indifferent. Yet he sees good and evil as inherent qualities of humanity. He does this by writing about common people whose ethical and moral shortcomings are blatantly clear to the reader, as with the characters Gurov and Anna in Lady with the Dog. Both characters face the emotional consequences of dishonest choices they consciously make, but cannot reconcile their actions with an otherwise far more dishonest life. In other words, adultery is the most honest decision they make. It’s Chekov’s sense of unbiased compassion that showcases these characters’ shameless humility.
Dmitry Gurov is a middle-aged man who spends time in Yalta seeking casual romantic affairs. Yalta is a resort town, a tourist destination in Ukraine where people stay only a short while, never enough time to make any serious social connections. Because of the fleeting, inconstant nature of society in the town, Gurov is free to dash in an out of affairs, and he does this almost in spite of his marriage and family. He had married at an early age to a woman who seems to not care that she pronounces his name wrong and “whose caresses were insincere.” Likewise, Anna Sergeyevna is in Yalta to escape her own cold marriage to a man whom, when describing, says that she “does not know what he does at his office, But I know he’s a flunky.” She too was young when she married by immature impulse, curiosity, and the desire for “something higher.” It is this youthful angst that carries over into mature years, though thriving on different terms for both characters when they meet. It is immediately clear that Gurov and Anna are in Yalta with the intention of engaging in an affair. Gurov even remarks to himself that “If she’s here without her husband…it wouldn’t be a bad idea to make her acquaintance,” then Anna is easily willing to join him after a chance meeting first meeting at lunch. However, it’s as if they are able to cast off the ethical implications of adultery in favor of a spiritual engagement and the deserving passions they lack in their marriages.
Chekov further examines Gurov as a man who not only thinks little, if nothing, about adultery, but as man who is almost to the point of misogyny being so bitter about his marriage and experiencing the nature of the women he has affairs with. His wife not only pronounces his name wrong, but he considers her as arrogant, “shallow, narrow-minded, and dowdy.” Then, when deceiving her, he finds that his “elusive charm in his appearance and disposition” attracts women, and almost too easily “[catches] their sympathies.” It’s as if he feels that, regardless of his charm and looks, he has no need to respect the gullibility of women to fall for it so easily. Then, once the affair has taken place, the women return to their husbands, leaving him alone again to continue the search for passion and meaning. After so many women, a few of which “aroused in him nothing but repulsion,” and whose “lace trimming on their underclothes reminded him of fish-scales,” this burgeoning contempt begins to weigh heavily on him to the point that he refers to woman as “the inferior race.” This raises an issue of perspective in the story. The narrative follows Gurov’s perspective. This leaves Anna as a delicate, fragmented theme which challenges Gurov to reengage and decipher his emotional afflictions. In the beginning of their affair, Anna expresses a heartfelt concern that he will lose respect for her if they continue. This is here where Chekov uses a sense of Anna’s distance from Gurov as “[a] solitary candle burning on the table scarcely lit up her face, but it was obvious that her heart was heavy.” Gurov’s callousness towards women begins to melt, just as the candle does, and it becomes clear to him that Anna is much more important to him than just an other sexual conquest. Chekov has thus presented two seemingly self-interested, lamented characters who discover their unethical actions lead them to unexpected fulfillment, moral judgment is then appointed to the reader.
In this story, where the moral dilemma and ethical implications are reversed– meaning the reader’s sympathies lie with the afflicted Gurov and Anna instead of the victims of their actions, their spouses –the antagonistic influences are difficult to discern. The two might have experienced a rekindling of a passion for life within themselves, a reconnecting with the vibrancy of life, but they are both pressured by ethical standards to return to their marriages. Yet, after having done so, both must live with a burden of dishonesty to their spouses, and more importantly a dishonesty to themselves. As Gurov tells himself, “when you [come] to think of it, everything in the world is beautiful really, everything but our own thoughts and actions,” he comes to terms with the consequences of what happens “when we lose sight of the higher aims of life, and of our dignity as human beings.” That is, the consequences of forfeiting our aspirations for a meaningful life far outweigh the consequences of breaking from ethical standards. Chekov uses the example of a night-watchman who passes by them as they sit together on a bench, and later in the story, when Gurov goes to visit Anna for the first time, curious boys watching them in a stairwell. It’s as if the watchman and the boys act as judgmental figures of society, but the bond between Gurov and Anna is stronger than any social stigma of adultery. For indeed, they had forgiven “one another all that they were ashamed of in the past and in the present, and felt that this love of theirs had changed them both,” but the burden of proof, or acceptance of their love is left to society. At this point Gurov and Anna have already come to terms with their actions; a contemptuous, grudging society is then invited to do the same.
Anton Chekov relates to the reader a sense of self-determination, that we are all accountable to the same fallacies inherent to human nature. In other words, we are all accountable to ourselves long before any social standards are imposed that attempt to define morality. Chekov challenges the readers’ assumptions about such issues by presenting the story of blatantly flawed characters, as if holding a mirror to the reader, in which case, humility is the responsibility of the reader, of society.