Surprised by love: Chekhov and "The Lady with the Dog"

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Author: Robert Fulford
Date: Fall 2004
From: Queen's Quarterly(Vol. 111, Issue 3)
Publisher: Queen's Quarterly
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 3,647 words

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Coughing up blood so often that he carried around a small private spittoon, Anton Chekhov slipped into the last stages of TB and then died at a sanatorium in the Black Forest town of Badenweiler. He was ridiculously young, just 44, but what now seems absurd about his death is the date, July 15, 1904. A century has passed since he died, yet he remains close to us--his stories never out of print, his plays often in production and frequently quarried for movie scripts (two films of Uncle Vanya alone in the last decade), and his sensibility in the air around us at every moment. He's the supreme modernist in drama and fiction, omnipresent like no other writer.


ON the one-hundredth anniversary of Chekhov's death, I happened to pick up the August issue of Toronto Life magazine and found myself reading an eloquently Chekhovian story, "Leo fell," by David Bergen. It takes place in the present in two extremely unChekhovian places, Kenora and Winnipeg, but it's melancholy like Chekhov, funny like Chekhov, and tough like Chekhov. And it ends in precisely the way that Chekhov invented and impressed upon the world.

Those who knew Chekhov did not guess that their doctor friend was to be the father of both the modern theatre and the modern short story, but they knew they were dealing with someone exceptional. When Maxim Gorky read Chekhov's "The Lady with the Dog" in the December 1899 issue of the journal Russian Thought, he wrote to the author: "You are doing a great thing with your stories, arousing in people a feeling of disgust with their sleepy, half-dead existence ..."

Gorky's words suggest how variously Chekhov can be read. No one today makes a point of expressing disgust at the people depicted in "The Lady with the Dog." On the contrary, we are more likely to notice Chekhov's great-heartedness and the generous treatment of his characters. For Gorky it was natural to consider them symbols of decadent old Russia and to see Chekhov as a potential supporter of the new politics. Gorky's name, which he chose, means "The Bitter." He was on his way to becoming the founder of Soviet socialist realism, driving Russian literature down a blind alley. Chekhov, on the other hand, was striding onto the bright plains of modernity, shaping a literature without limits.

Since then people of every political and intellectual opinion have found reasons to quicken as they read Chekhov or see him performed. Vladimir Nabokov, who of course hated everything about Gorky, loved Chekhov and loved in particular "The Lady with the Dog." Long ago, James T. Farrell remarked that the translation of Chekhov early in the twentieth century was a turning point for English-language writers, the signal to revolt against the conventional plot story and draw closer to the true rhythms of life. In the early 1980s a New York editor asked 53 of the leading short story writers of the world, from Updike and Gallant to Kundera and Borges, what writers had most influenced them. The writer most often cited was Chekhov, a result that will surprise no careful reader of the fiction written in the last century.

The story that Gorky admired so much has come into English under various titles--"The Lady with the Dog," "The Lady with the Pet Dog," "A Lady with a Dog," "Lady with Lapdog," and "The Lady with the Little Dog." The dog walks into the first sentence, accompanying Anna, a married woman who has come to Yalta by herself from a small provincial city, as she strolls the seaside promenade. Gurov, a banker from Moscow, also alone, seduces her, as he has seduced many women before.

Gurov does not look back on these conquests with affection. In fact, he has discovered that when he loses interest in a woman she becomes hateful to him. As always, Chekhov makes this point with a telling detail, which appears in English in several versions. In different translations Chekhov can be more or less subtle, more or less cruel. The Chekhovian tone persists, but translators inevitably inflect it in different ways.

Consider the way Gurov's sour dislike of the women he has known fixes on their underwear. In 1919 the first great translator of the Russian writers, Constance Garnett, rendered a certain passage this way: "When Gurov grew cold to them their beauty excited his hatred, and the lace on their linen seemed to him like scales."

The original text contains just one word, chesuya (scales), mentioning no creature to which the scales belong. Translators have felt free to elaborate on it in order to convey the revulsion Gurov feels. In 1964 David Magarshack translated the passage as: "the lace trimmings on their negligees looked to him then like the scales of a snake." In the 1970s Ronald Hingley rendered it as: "the lace on their underclothes had looked like lizard's scales." And in 1991 David Helwig put it: "the lace on their underwear became the scales of a reptile." Thus the imagery varies--first scales, then a snake, next a lizard, finally an unnamed reptile. All versions make the point, some with more graphic intensity than others. We who do not read Russian can only guess at the overtones Chekhov wanted us to hear in that single word.

Gurov expects the encounter with Anna to be as brief and casual as his earlier affairs, and the story turns on his surprised recognition that something more significant has happened to him. When he and Anna return from Yalta to their separate home towns and families, he discovers he cannot forget her. She has entered him in some way; she is with him all the time. She's like a safety net (to borrow a simile from the early Alice Munro) that's stretched beneath him; he never knows when he's going to fall into it. He goes to her town, risks a scandal to speak with her, and obtains her agreement to meet him in Moscow. They are in love, yet they can see no way to be permanently together. Eventually they discover that this clandestine love has become their reality, and their lives with their families are now only shadows, meaningless but impossible to escape.

THE nineteenth-century feelings running through a Chekhov story like this one could as easily be emotions of the twenty-first century. Beneath his narrative we sense a profound personal investment in love, much like the one most of us still make or long to make. Without quite articulating our purposes, or examining them, we pour into the vessel of love many of the emotions and expectations once connected to religion; at the same time we look to romance and marriage for a concentrated version of the satisfactions once provided by expansive family connections.

Chekhov understood that sexuality, when partially freed from traditional constraints, soon provided its own intricate set of problems. Gurov's customary attitude to lovemaking demonstrates an affliction that often accompanies liberated sexuality, an aversion to intimacy. In even the most sensitive among us this may well appear as cold-blooded opportunism. It may also lead us into seeing sex as the way to solve the puzzle of a relationship; in this frame of mind you "get it out of your system," purging yourself of a feeling by physically expressing it. In Gurov's case, as in many others, the lovers find instead that unwanted bonds between them have been silently, almost secretly created.

Chekhov characters tend to be trapped: by their marriages, their parents, the rules of their communities, their own lassitude, or the very nature of Russia. They yearn to escape. In Chekhov, yearning is a major theme, like manliness in Hemingway or anger in Philip Roth. Chekhov's people yearn for a different life, one they can just dimly imagine. In the course of a story they often discover that their present existence seems false. They see the truth, announce that they must change, and usually discover that they cannot escape. Bernard Shaw said that Chekhov's genius lay in discovering that for some characters the tragedy is that they do not shoot themselves.

Chekhov bestowed on the writers who came after a magnificent gift: he demonstrated that not every issue raised in a serious work of fiction has to be resolved. Some, in fact, are better left unresolved. He did not believe in what we now (unfortunately, and misleadingly) call "closure." At the end of Uncle Vanya we are told explicitly that the dreary provincial frustration we have observed is all that his characters can ever know. Who could have guessed that, a century after the first performance, audiences would demand to see this story enacted again and again? Not Chekhov. He wasn't sure it worked in the first place.

AMONG its many distinctions, "The Lady with the Dog" is, I believe, the only short story to which a book of criticism has been devoted. In 1973 Virginia Llewellyn Smith, in Anton Chekhov and the Lady with the Dog, argued that no other work of his better expresses Chekhov's attitude to women and love. In its twenty or so pages, he draws together so many threads of thought and experience that the story becomes a summary of all that he will ever know about the subject.

In 1899, at the age of 39, Chekhov fell in love for the first time. He set his heart on Olga Knipper, an actress eleven years younger. He had been tubercular for some time, and to save his diseased lungs from the Moscow winters he was spending months of each year in what he called "abominable Yalta," the drowsy resort town on the Black Sea. He felt like an exile in the south, but he had no choice. Every autumn, as the first cold winds arrived in Moscow, he would begin coughing blood.

He had a fresh reason for disliking Yalta in 1899. Olga was not there. Earlier in the year they had grown close, and he had slowly come to understand the depth of his feeling for her. Now she was gone, back to her work in the theatre, and he was alone. Boredom afflicted him at the best of times, and now he had to deal with both loneliness and boredom. It was in this state that he wrote, in August 1899, "The Lady with the Dog."

Is the story an account of their love? No--and yes. It is not about them because, first, Gurov is a banker rather than a doctor and writer, Anna a housewife rather than an actress. Both have spouses and children back home, so their affair must be secret. Chekhov and Olga Knipper were not married, and though they were discreet they had no need to hide their meetings.

Adultery was not an issue in their lives, and in the story adultery is far from incidental. It takes place, and was written, during a long moment in the history of sensibility that we might call the golden age of adultery, the era that began in 1857 with Madame Bovary. A certain kind of "modern adultery" was providing a rich vein of drama and comedy for literature. As an act of love adultery retained the weight of meaning that it would begin to lose in the middle of the twentieth century. The newly emergent bourgeois of Russia placed family at the centre of their concerns. Lifelong marriage vows were embraced with deep seriousness, which made the frisson of sin and fear more intense than it has been for earlier or later generations.

At the same time, changes in social life provided increasing opportunities for breaking those vows. Women were moving toward independence, which might even take the form of holidays on their own. Railroads made it easier for lovers to meet. Anonymous hotels were everywhere. For the prosperous, living a double life was increasingly possible. Like many writers, Chekhov was delighted to exploit the narrative possibilities offered by this new world of erotic mystery and danger.

The experienced Gurov and the innocent Anna see adultery in sharply different ways. After they make love for the first time, Gurov remains aloof. He is satisfied, but she is disturbed. She says, "It's wrong. You will be the first to despise me now." Gurov doesn't bother to reassure her. There's a watermelon on the table. He cuts himself a slice and begins to eat.

And then, Chekhov writes, "There followed at least half an hour of silence." That's an astonishing amount of silence, an eternity in a situation of this kind, and every time I come across it I think for a moment that it's a mistake. It's not. Chekhov is saying that Anna is paralyzed by shame and cannot articulate her distress. And Gurov has nothing to say to her. Finally Anna begins: "God forgive me. It's awful.... I am a bad, low woman; I despise myself and don't attempt to justify myself."

And then, as if this titanic sexual act has somehow cracked open her personality, she confesses to Gurov her feelings about her life:

  It's not my husband but myself I have deceived. And not only just now;
  I have been deceiving myself for a long time. My husband may be a
  good, honest man, but he is a flunkey! ... I was twenty when I was
  married to him.... I wanted something better.... I wanted to live! To
  live, to live! ... I was fired by curiosity.... I told my husband I
  was ill, and came here.... and now I have become a vulgar,
  contemptible woman whom anyone may despise.

And the next paragraph begins: "Gurov felt bored already, listening to her ..." But she goes on: "I love a pure, honest life, and sin is loathsome to me. I don't know what I am doing. Simple people say: 'The Evil One has beguiled me.' And I may say of myself now that the Evil One has beguiled me."

This scene makes clear why Chekhov has arranged for his lovers to be married. Adultery is not the theme of his story, but adultery charges it with tragedy and guilt. That's why adultery filled so many pages of nineteenth-century literature. It was an event that a woman like Anna could regard as an earthquake in her life.

All of these details distinguish Gurov and Anna from Chekhov and Olga. But the similarities and parallels are equally striking. Gurov, like Chekhov at that time, must be satisfied with occasional moments of love, intermittent and limited, snatched from the demands of their other lives. More important, Gurov's responses to Anna echo Chekhov's to Olga. Chekhov's friends found him loveable and admirable, but a student of his life often encounters references to his detached attitude to women. Like Gurov, Chekhov needed the company of women; by comparison, men bored him. And yet--again like Gurov--he found their emotions hard to deal with and preferred to keep his distance.

In the language of this period we might say he found it hard "to commit." He kept marriage at bay. Ronald Hingley in his biography says Chekhov required his female friends to "be beautiful, elegant, well-dressed, intelligent, witty, and amusing; and above all that they should keep their distance." A more recent biographer, Philip Callow, author of Chekhov: The Hidden Ground, writes: "In a feminine part of himself he was drawn to the unpredictability of women, yet their emotional crises threatened his independence and he feared their intrusion into his inner life. The barrier behind which he lived held firm until the arrival of Olga."

There was a secret self he had guarded with care. Now he discovered that Olga had not only penetrated this self, she had become part of it; and this is precisely what happens to Gurov. Chekhov was writing the story in August with Olga on his mind. On September 3 he wrote her the earliest of his love letters that survives: "Dear, remarkable actress, wonderful woman ... I've become so used to you that now I feel lonely and simply can't reconcile myself to the thought of not seeing you again until the spring."

Chekhov at that moment hadn't reached his fortieth birthday, but he knew that tuberculosis had aged him. He transfers this perception of age to Gurov, who is also just under forty. At the end of the story Gurov, in a hotel room to meet Anna, glances in a mirror and sees himself as old and ugly: "And it was only now, when his hair had turned grey, that he had fallen in love properly, in the way that one should do--for the first time in his life."

"The Lady with the Dog" makes a clear point. What Chekhov says in this sophisticated parable is that love radically alters the landscape of existence. When touched by love, we know the world in a different way. Love changes the inner landscape, too. Under the pressure of love, Gurov looks inside himself and sees someone he has not known before, someone capable of feelings that he barely knew existed.

In the Soviet era Russian commentators used to say that Gurov was regenerated by love, made into a better person. Love had become a moral force. Those critics were not entirely wrong. In fact, Chekhov originally wrote at the end that love "made them [the lovers] both better." But he deleted that idea. He didn't want to dictate a moral. As a thought it lacks the tact we expect from Chekhov; it presumes too much.

The ending he used instead has become a legend. Writing when Chekhov was still something of a novelty in England, Virginia Woolf said that at first he baffles the reader. "A man falls in love with a married woman, and they part and meet, and in the end are left talking about their position and by what means they can be free ..." And Woolf quoted from the ending, the thought that "the solution would be found and then a new and splendid life would begin." She wrote: "That is the end. But is it the end? ... it is as if a tune had stopped short without the expected chords to close it." Does that make it inconclusive? No, she decided. With an alert sense of literature we will hear the tune, and in particular the last notes that complete the harmony.

Many others have been fascinated by the ending, but the most surprising treatment of it that I've seen appears in a biography unrelated to Chekhov. In 1968, by some strange means, the closing passage of "The Lady with the Dog" migrated from Chekhov's work over to Michael Holroyd's biography of Lytton Strachey, where it appears, undisguised but uncredited.

The closing sentence in the Constance Garnett translation of Chekhov reads: "And it seemed as though in a little while the solution would be found, and then a new and splendid life would begin; and it was clear to both of them that they had still a long, long road before them, and that the most complicated and difficult part of it was only just beginning." Now consider a passage from Lytton Strachey: The Years of Achievement, Volume 2, by Holroyd. It's 1917 and Dora Carrington has fallen in love with Strachey; she has learned for the first and last time what it is to love, and Strachey as a homosexual cannot physically return her love. This is how Holroyd ends that chapter: "... it seemed as though in a little while a solution must be found, and then a new and wonderful life would begin. And it was clear to her that the end was nowhere yet in sight, and that the most tortuous and difficult part of it was only just beginning."

One of my readers, Doris Cowan, pointed me to the Holroyd passage. I thought of writing to ask him how Chekhov's conclusion ended up in his book. I decided finally that I'd prefer to speculate. My guess is that, like many people, Holroyd read "The Lady with the Dog" many times, and read the ending with special care, because of its place in literary history as well as for the pleasure it gives. Eventually the words became a part of him and he innocently placed them inside his own text, where they fit perfectly.

Nabokov was perhaps the most distinguished of all the critics who wrote on that ending: "All the traditional rules ... have been broken in this wonderful short story.... no problem, no regular climax, no point at the end. And it is one of the greatest stories ever written." He gave six reasons why it was great, the sixth of which was: "the story does not really end."

In not ending it opens onto other stories; it leaves us with an infinity of possible results; it describes lives in process rather than lives completed. This is the sort of ending that serious short story writers around the world have ever since laboured to achieve. It is the kind of ending now familiar to the readers of Katherine Mansfield and Morley Callaghan, Flannery O'Connor and Tobias Wolf, a score of New Yorker writers, and many more authors, all of them in some way Chekhov's descendants.

THIS hugely influential aspect of his style did not come easily to him. He worried about endings. In 1889 he wrote, "My intuition tells me that it is in the conclusion of a story that I must manage ... to concentrate the impact that the whole of the story will leave on the reader and to do this, I must remind him, if only to a very small extent, of what has gone before." But he always questioned his work. He was never sure that his endings were right. In 1892 he said in a letter: "Those cursed denouements always escape me. The hero either has to get married or commit suicide--there seems to be no other alternative."

As he knew by then, there was another alternative, the Chekhov ending. He found it, and taught it by example to the writers of a whole century. Beneath it all there was a rule he followed consistently. Maintain the tension to the very last; never stop inserting precise detail, and then--just when the reader wonders how it can possibly end--stop.

ROBERT FULFORD is a columnist for the National Post and the author of, among other books, The Triumph of Narrative.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A125714192