Historical Criticism of Anton Chekhov's The Lady with the Dog Essay

Historical Criticism of Anton Chekhov’s The Lady with the Dog

Russian short story writer and playwright Anton Chekhov’s The Lady with the Dog (1899) is a brilliant exploration of the potential for social mores and social institution to undermine the individual desire for freedom and individual definition of happiness. According to many literary critics, Chekhov’s style in  the short story remains consistent with the emerging trends in nineteenth-century short story writing. On one hand, it was based on the “anti-Romantic realism of Maupassant with its sharp observation of external social detail and human behavior conveyed within a tightly drawn plot” (Gioia, n. pag.). On the other, it also mirrored the “modern psychological realism of early Joyce” (Gioia, n. pag.) which granted a unique narrative style and vision for the story.

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With this unique technique, Chekhov wove a tale which represents not only the triumph, but the cost, of human love when measured against social convention.

The story’s protagonist, Dmitri Dmitrich Gurov, is a man whose life is trapped by social expectations and the institution of marriage.  During the 1900s, Russian society, like many other societies, believed that marriage is a sacred institution. To go against this norm (by committing adultery) meant facing social condemnation and ostracization. However, the Russian upper-classes only paid lip service to this rule – marriage for them was more of a convenient way to establish and secure fortunes and bloodlines,  therefore, while they paraded themselves in public as respectable and happily-married people, they secretly engaged in extramarital affairs to temporarily escape the harsh reality of being trapped in a loveless marriage. Against this backdrop, Chekhov insists that “love radically alters the landscape of existence. When touched by love, we know the world in a different way” (Fulford) and the overturning or challenge to social convention is a part of the lesson that love is the transforming element of our lives. (Fulford).

Although Gurov’s real interest lay in the arts (he graduated with a degree in this field), he was forced to take up a “dignified” job in a bank. To make matters worse, his parents had set an arranged marriage for him with a woman he described as “unintelligent, narrow (and) inelegant” (Chekhov, n. pag.) – simply put, a woman he did not love. As a result, Gurov was miserable, “bored and and not himself…cold and uncommunicative (in the society of men)” (Chekhov, n. pag.). Just like many other Russian upper-class men of his time, Gurov found solace in extramarital affairs; for him, these liaisons were more than just outlets for lust – they were manifestations of his protest against the society which condemned him.

Gurov came across an ally in his latest mistress, Anna Sergeyevna. Just like him, Sergeyevna was also a prisoner of her marriage – she got married young (20 years old), but soon regretted having done so and no longer loved her husband. Free from the unhappy situation of their respective families, Gurov and Sergeyevna carried out an illicit affair in Yalta. During the course of the affair, Gurov, “a habitual lecher” becomes “transformed when he falls in love for the first time. One of the story’s most impressive aspects is Dmitry Gurov’s gradual metamorphosis: subtle details of action and dialogue illustrate a profound revision of his cynical attitude toward relationships with women.” (Stanion).

 

Indeed, Gurov and Sergeyevna’s illicit liaison was a no-win situation. True, they had found real love in each other. But in a society that abhors relationships such as theirs, they were left with three options: run away, tell their respective spouses the truth or end the affair then and there. Divorce was out of the question – in 1900s Russia, it was a social taboo, along with adultery. Divorced people were met with the same social denunciation and isolation bestowed on adulterers and adulteresses. The open-ended conclusion added more credibility to the short story’s theme – the choice between being true to one’s self or adhering to what society believes to be correct. (Stanion).

Chekhov’s other writings also echoed the animosity between an individual and society. In the short story Betrothed (1903), the protagonist, Nadya, was engaged to Andrey Andreyich, a man whom she didn’t love (Chekhov, n. pag.). She had no other choice – Russian women during the 1900s were not allowed to study or to work outside the home. Hence, marriage appeared to be Nadya’s only ticket to economic advancement (Eshbaugh, 3). But her perspective changed when Aleksander Timofeyich (fondly called “Sasha”) arrived from Moscow to visit her family.

Upon learning of Nadya’s engagement to Andreyich, Sasha warned her about the lifeless existence that is the result of an arranged marriage (Eshbaugh, 3).  Betrothed was “the last published work of Chekhov and thus his dying words to his literary audience” (Eshbaugh, 3). In a way, this explains its optimistic ending. If in The Lady with the Dog, Chekhov exposed the futility of society’s norms of “marriage for monetary gains (and) living an idle life without purpose and without love” (Eshbaugh, 3), in Betrothed, he imparted that if man can create society and the status quo, he can also change them.

This last observation is key to understanding the uplift intended by Chekhov in his narrative inquiry into the nature of love and social obligation as represented in “The Lady With the Dog.” It is the capacity for change and for understanding that presents humanity’s truest strength and reservoir of endurance when coupled with the motivation of love. The ending of the story is “the contemplation of “a wonderful new life.”[…]focusing on a new beginning,” (“Reading Chekhov: A Critical”).

The ability for life and love to endure despite human misunderstanding or, in fact, social obstruction to the native ability to love and grow is a key theme in Chekhov’s work and is nowhere else expressed as fully and with as much daringly original technique as in the story “The Lady With the Dog.” The blend of the abstract: notions of love and enduring relationships, contrasted with a realist’s eye for detail allowed Chekhov to probe the true nature of human experience in fiction with a better-than-average sense of authenticity and verisimilitude.

As more than one critic has observed: “Overwhelmingly, that sense of life arises from the astonishing, unelaborated concreteness of Chekhov’s evocations of the world” (“Reading Chekhov: A Critical”) and this evocation extended not only to the factual details which surrounded Russian life in the early 20th century, but to the universal experience of humanity as expressed throughout world cultures in the pursuit of the meaning and motion of love and human relationships as they collide, for better or worse, with the  strictures, conventions, and social mores we have constructed in an attempt to bring order to our world.

 

 

Works Cited

 

Fulford, Robert. “Surprised by Love: Chekhov and “The Lady with the Dog”.” Queen’s Quarterly Fall 2004: 331+. Questia. 20 Mar. 2008 <http://www.questia.com/PM.          qst?a=o&d=5008214653>.

 

“Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey.” The Atlantic Monthly Jan. 2002: 126-31.           Questia. 20 Mar. 2008 <http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5002448837>.

 

Stanion, Charles. “Oafish Behavior in “The Lady with the Pet Dog.”.” Studies in Short   Fiction 30.3 (1993): 402+. Questia. 20 Mar. 2008 <http://www.questia.com/PM.          qst?a=o&d=5000209037>.

 

Gioia, Dana. “Anton Chekhov’s ‘The Lady with the Pet Dog’.” 1998. Dana Gioia Online.         11 March 2008 <http://www.danagioia.net/essays/echekhov.htm>.

 

Eshbaugh, Ruth. “Literary Analysis of The Lady with the Dog by Anton Chekhov.”      21June 2007. AssociatedContent. 11 March 2008 <http://www.associatedcontent.            com/article/88282/literary_analysis_of_the_lady_with.html>.

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