Vladimir Nabokov considered ‘‘The Lady with a Dog,’’ which Anton Chekhov wrote in 1899, ‘‘one of the greatest stories ever written.’’ Throughout the 20th century, critics have hailed it as a masterpiece, and it has influenced several generations of writers, particularly in England and America. Moreover, Joyce Carol Oates has even reworked the story and given it an American setting in her version, ‘‘The Lady with a Toy Dog.’’ Chekhov began work on ‘‘The Lady with a Dog’’ in August or September of 1899, and published it in the December 1899 issue of a major journal of the day, Russkaia mysl’ [Russian Thought]. He later made some revisions to the story for the edition of his collected works that appeared in 1903.

Like most of Chekhov’s works, the story has a simple plot. Dmitrii Dmitrich Gurov, who is vacationing in the resort town of Yalta on the Black Sea, meets a woman, Anna Sergeevna von Dideritz. They have a love affair, after which he returns to his wife and children in Moscow, believing that they have had only a brief encounter. However, he finds that he cannot forget Anna, and seeks her out in the provincial town of S. (usually considered to be Saratov), where she lives. He astonishes her by appearing without warning in a theatre, and she promises to come to Moscow to see him. When they renew their affair in Moscow, they realize that they truly love each other. ‘‘And it was clear to both that it was a long way to the end, and that the most complicated and difficult part was only beginning.’’ 

‘‘The Lady with a Dog’’ provides a good example of the way Chekhov often acknowledged the masterpieces of the past, while simultaneously reacting against them. In ‘‘The Lady with a Dog’’ he is reacting against the treatments of the theme of adultery in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Tolstoi’s Anna Karenina. In both novels, the heroine is a married woman who has an affair, and commits suicide as a result. In Chekhov’s story, however, the married woman who has an affair finds true love. Chekhov was also reacting against the portrayals of love in popular fiction which, in his day as in ours, tended to equate love with happiness. Thus, Anna neither commits suicide nor finds lasting happiness. The story has a similar relationship to Impressionist painting. The story begins in the summer, at a resort, which was a setting that the Impressionists often depicted. In fact, the artist Konstantin Korovin, a good friend of Chekhov’s, painted an Impressionist work, Cafe in Yalta (1905), which the story probably inspired. Just as the Impressionists often used arbitrary, asymmetrical framing in their pictures, Chekhov used open endings in his stories and plays, which rarely come to a clear resolution. However, Chekhov reacted against Impressionist painting by emphasizing psychological development, as Monet and Renoir rarely did.

The principal psychological interest in ‘‘The Lady with a Dog’’ lies in Gurov’s development. At the beginning of the story, he has a cynical attitude towards women, to whom he refers as a ‘‘lower race.’’ After he and Anna go to bed together for the first time, she wants reassurance that he still respects her. He cannot respond to her need, however, and merely eats a slice of watermelon. But when he returns to Moscow, and finds that he cannot forget her, he attempts to tell a dinner companion about her. ‘‘If you knew what an enchanting woman I met in Yalta,’’ he says. But his friend can only reply, ‘‘You were right: the turbot was a bit off.’’ When his friend cannot respond to him, as he could not respond to Anna, he begins to understand what she experienced. As his capacity for empathy increases, his capacity for love and self-awareness increase as well. Chekhov signals this change when he and Anna are in a hotel room in Moscow at the end of the story, and he looks in the mirror. He notices that his hair has turned grey; ‘‘And only now, when his head had turned grey, did he fall in love, as one ought to, really—for the first time in his life.’’ It is one of the great moments in modern literature.

‘‘The Lady with a Dog’’ shows Chekhov at the height of his powers. The story’s subtlety, its masterful understatement, and interplay of character and environment place it among the masterpieces of modern short fiction.

 

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