Russian short story writer and playwright Anton Chekhov’s
The Lady with the Dog (1899) is a brilliant exposition of how society’s laws and institutions hinder an individual’s quest for freedom and happiness. According to the poet and critic Dana Gioia, the style in which the short story was written was 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”. On the other, it also mirrored the “modern psychological realism of early Joyce in which the action is mostly internal and expressed in an associative narrative built on epiphanic moments”. Hence, Gioia considered The Lady with the Dog, along with his later works, as a turning point in European literature.
The short story’s main character, Dmitri Dmitrich Gurov, was a man whose life was trapped early by society and the institution of marriage. During the 1900s, Russian society, just like all other societies, believed that marriage is a sacred institution. To go against this norm (by committing adultery) meant facing social condemnation and ostracism. However, Russia’s 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. Gurov was no exception. Although his 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” – simply put, a woman he did not love. As a result, Gurov was miserable, “bored and not himself…cold and uncommunicative (in the society of men)”.
But feminist critics argued that the real reason for the scorn he felt towards his wife was that she was an “outspoken woman who considers herself an intellectual”– Gurov was intimidated with assertive women and preferred a woman whom he could control. 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 to a “pitiable” existence. Although Gurov openly labeled women as “the lower race”, he “could not get on for two days together” without them. His treatment of and philosophy towards women reflected the hypocrisy of Russian society with regard to the issues of love, marriage and infidelity. 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. She no longer loved her husband, regarding him as a “flunkey”. In sharp contrast to Gurov’s wife, Sergeyevna was “soft and childlike, weepy and vulnerable, even a bit ‘pathetic’” – the ideal Russian woman of the 1900s. Eager to live a single and uncommitted life once again, she feigned illness and went to Yalta, a well-known health resort in Russia.
Free from the unhappy situation of their respective families, Gurov and Sergeyevna carried out an illicit affair in Yalta. Although Sergeyevna initially felt guilty after Gurov kissed her for the first time, she was already in love with him by the time she returned to S. Chekhov used symbolisms to describe the intensity of their passion for one another. The moon, a timeless symbol of fertility, symbolized the birth of Gurov and Sergeyevna’s affair. Sergeyevna’s pet Pomeranian, meanwhile, represented the dependency, loyalty, and amusement that they were looking for in their respective spouses, but found in one another. When Gurov and Sergeyevna resumed their normal lives, it was then that they realized how much they missed and loved each other. After meeting again in a theater, they decided to continue their clandestine affair. They secretly met in Moscow “once in two or three months”. But Gurov and Sergeyevna eventually got tired of hiding like thieves just to maintain their relationship. When they had their usual rendezvous at Sergeyevna’s room at the Slaviansky Bazaar hotel, they discussed “how to avoid the necessity for secrecy, for deception, for living in different towns and not seeing each other for long at a time”. But they were unable to come up with a clear solution.
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 adultresses. 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. 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.
But her perspective changed when Aleksander Timofeyich (fondly called “Sasha”) arrived from Moscow to visit her family. Upon learning of Nadya’s engagement with Andreyich, Sasha warned her about the lifeless existence that is the result of an arranged marriage. “Only enlightened and holy people are interesting, it’s only they who are wanted. The more of such people there are, the sooner the Kingdom of God will come on earth… Dear Nadya, the darling girl, go away! Show them all that you are sick of this stagnant, grey, sinful life. Prove it to yourself at least!” Despite Nadya’s initial misgivings, she heeded Sasha’s words. With his help, she fled to St. Petersburg, where she attended university. Nadya eventually realized that she made the right decision in relying on herself instead of on marriage to achieve happiness. Even her family ultimately supported her choice – their letters to her were “resigned and kindly, (as if) everything seemed to have been forgiven and forgotten”. Betrothed was “the last published work of Chekhov and thus his dying words to his literary audience”. 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”, in Betrothed, he imparted that if a man can create a society and the status quo, he can also change them.
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