Anton Chekhov, The lady with the little dog (#Review)

Penguin collection, translated by Wilks, book cover

“The lady and with the little dog” was an out-of-left-field recommendation for my reading group for two reasons. One is that it is a single short story – not even a whole collection which we have done before. And the other is that the member who recommended it did so on the basis of its being referred to a few times in Sebastian Smee’s recent Quarterly Essay (72), Net loss: The inner life in the digital age, which I’ll review next, hopefully.

So, what to read? We were as a group challenged, albeit was a good challenge. First, “the lady and the little dog” has appeared in many Chekhov collections over the years, accompanied by different selections of stories (though of course some individual ones do recur more than others.) Second, the story has been translated by many translators, including Constance Garnett, Ivy Low Litvinov, collaborators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, and Ronald Wilks. So, do we read all or some of the other stories in the collections we variously acquired (or try, even, to suggest we all read the same collection? That wasn’t going to happen! Particularly given availability challenges.) Or, do we just read the story plus the work that inspired its recommendation? (But what about the fact that there was a mix-up not resolved until late in the month about what exactly was that work!) In the end, our being a disciplined but not controlling group, we all chose our own paths, which made for an interesting meeting.

Penguin collection, translated by Garnett, book cover

Now, I have to admit that at the end of my first reading of the story – this story that is the lead story in so many collections and so must be well-regarded – I was a little underwhelmed, though why is hard to explain. After all, much as I love Guy de Maupassant’s short stories with their dramatic twists, I also love quiet stories about character, which is more Chekhov’s style. I think the issue was that I read it too fast, too distractedly, because when I reread it, Chekhov’s skill started to shine through. Chekhov, by the way, is seen as marking the transition between the mid- to late-nineteenth century realism of de Maupassant and the modernism of early twentieth century Joyce.

The story concerns an adulterous affair between 40-year-old Gurov and the much younger Anna, who meet while holidaying in Yalta without their respective, unsatisfactory spouses. Gurov’s arranged marriage was to a woman whom he considered “not very bright, narrow-minded and unrefined” and who “makes love insincerely”, while Anna sees her husband as “no more than a lackey” or “flunky” (depending on your translation!) She wants “to live life to the full”. Gurov initially sees his seduction of and relationship with Anna as “just another adventure”, not expecting to care when she returns home to St Petersburg. But, after he returns to Moscow, he realises that he’s been touched by her. Life has become meaningless:

Those pointless business affairs and perpetual conversations – always on the same theme – were commandeering the best part of his time, his best strength, so that in the end there remained only a limited, humdrum life, just trivial nonsense.

Penguin collection, translated by Pevear and Voslonsky, book cover

Consequently, he seeks out Anna, and finds that she too was unhappy, and so their affair resumes.

As the affair progresses, Gurov makes a distinction between his inner and outer lives (which is what Smee references in his essay). Gurov thinks:

He was leading a double life: one was undisguised, plain for all to see and known to everyone who needed to know, full of conventional truths and conventional deception, identical to the lives of his friends and acquaintances; and another which went on in secret. And by some strange, possibly fortuitous chain of circumstances, everything that was important, interesting and necessary for him, where he behaved sincerely and did not deceive himself and which was the very essence of his life – that was conducted in complete secrecy; whereas all that was false about him, the front behind which he hid in order to conceal the truth– for instance, his work at the bank, those quarrels at the club, his notions of an ‘inferior breed’, his attending anniversary celebrations with his wife – that was plain for all to see. …

What I noticed more on my second read through was Gurov’s personal growth. In the beginning, he is bored, misogynistic, and selfish. He found men boring, and preferred female company, and yet “he always spoke disparagingly of women and whenever they were discussed in his company he would call them an ‘inferior breed’”. Moreover,

Repeated – and in fact bitter – experience had long taught him that every affair, which at first adds spice and variety to life and seems such a charming, light-hearted adventure, inevitably develops into an enormous, extraordinarily complex problem with respectable people – especially Muscovites, who are so hesitant, so inhibited – until finally the whole situation becomes a real nightmare.

Penguin collection, translated by Slater, book cover

Then Anna appears, and this self-centred man is suddenly possessed by “those stories of easy conquests … and the alluring thought of a swift, fleeting affair, of a romance with a strange woman whose name he didn’t even know.”

By the end, though, not only has he realised that he had “genuinely, truly fallen in love – for the first time in his life”, but that he had come to a new understanding of himself:

Anna Sergeyevna and he loved one another as close intimates, as man and wife, as very dear friends. They thought that fate itself had intended them for each another, and it was a mystery why he should have a wife and she a husband. And in fact, they were like two birds of passage, male and female, caught and forced to live in separate cages. They forgave one another all they had been ashamed of in the past, forgave everything in the present, and they felt that this love of theirs had transformed them both.

There is, however, no easy conclusion – no clever twist, no clear ending, happy or tragic.

And so, of course, as I should have realised on the first read, “The lady with the dog” (or “with the little dog” or “the lap dog” or “the pet dog”, depending on your translation) is a tight, moving, ironic story about a man who, like many of Jane Austen’s best characters in fact, discovers the errors of his attitudes, and is transformed by the knowledge.

Anton Chekhov
“The lady with the little dog”
in The lady with the little dog and other stories
(trans. Ronald Wilks)
London: Penguin Books, 2002)
(“The lady with the little dog”, first pub. 1899)
ISBN (eBook): 9780141906850

Avalailable online at Adelaide University’s etext site.