The Lady With the Little Dog (Dama s Sobachkoi) by Anton Chekhov, 1899

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by Anton Chekhov, 1899

"The Lady with the Little Dog" ("Dama s Sobachkoi") is one of the most anthologized of Anton Chekhov's short stories. It is typical of his work in that it combines realism—accentuated by the avoidance of obvious literary devises and of moral or philosophical comment—with an understated symbolic quality, a combination that gives his work its unique atmosphere. The content of the story is on the surface very conventional, but it is Chekhov's treatment of this content, particularly the kind of concrete detail he supplies, that creates recognition and identification on the part of the reader while also being defamiliarizing, giving the work its power.

Gurov, a bank official from Moscow whose marriage offers him no fulfillment and who has had numerous affairs, is attracted by a new arrival in Yalta, where he is on holiday alone. When he meets this young woman with a Pomeranian dog it is significant that she is the first one to speak. She blushes and lowers her eyes, indicating an attraction toward him, and it is clear that the philandering Gurov will have little difficulty in persuading her to have an affair with him. Her name is Anna and her life seems as unfulfilled as his. Within a week they begin an affair. Later, as they are sitting looking at the sea, there is a striking passage in which the roar of the waves suggests the eternal sleep of death and nature's indifference to humanity. Yet paradoxically Gurov feels part of a never-ceasing movement of life and reflects that everything in the world is beautiful. When Anna has to return home Gurov does not seem particularly unhappy, regarding it at this point as just one more affair.

Back in Moscow he expects to forget Anna within a month but he finds that he cannot. All of the activities of his life, at home, at work, and at leisure, seem pointless. He therefore decides to travel to the town where Anna lives; eventually he finds her. She discloses that she has also been unable to forget about him, but his arrival fills her with dread. Shocked by his kisses, she promises to see him in Moscow.

Chekhov conveys the change that takes place in Gurov by the artful use of detail. Gurov tries to tell a friend about what happened in Yalta, but all he says is that the fish they had for dinner was off. This provokes in Gurov disgust with the waste and triviality of his and other people's ordinary lives. Chekhov describes Gurov's hotel room as having a grey carpet, a grey blanket, and an inkstand covered in grey dust on the table, with a headless horseman surmounting it. With the use of such detail the author builds an atmosphere with symbolic overtones. Indeed, the color grey pervades the story: Anna has grey eyes, her dress is grey, the fence surrounding her house is grey and studded with upturned nails, and at the end of the story Gurov notices that his hair is turning grey. This greyness is contrasted with the whiteness of the dog and the whiteness of the clouds as they look over the sea in the second section. No definite meaning is attached to such colors, and many readers will see them merely as part of the story's realism. They are, however, suggestive of other levels of meaning.

Both Anna and Gurov are reconciled to leading double lives. Gurov finds it difficult to understand why Anna loves him. Although they look forward to a time when they can escape their lives of deception and live freely, they accept by the end of the story that the most difficult part of their lives is only beginning.

The story does not make clear why these two people love each other so intensely. In numerous other works Chekhov shows love to be based on illusion and egotism. That is not denied in this story, but it is less important than Gurov and Anna's desire to find something in life that gives their lives meaning and significance. Their love has to be understood in the context of the barrenness and banality of their ordinary lives. Social pressures and conventions have driven them into marriages and domestic situations that do not offer satisfaction to their deeper sense of self. The price of confining life to the social level is repression. The love of Gurov and Anna is a rebellion against such repression.

Chekhov is often viewed as a writer who sees the human predicament in tragic terms. But his work can also be read as an indictment against society and its repressions. The world that confines Anna and Gurov in dead marriages and offers no outlet to their desires for some kind of transcendence is not unchangeable. This story, like many other Chekhov works, contains a utopian vision in Gurov's realization that the world is beautiful and that human beings have a higher purpose. Often those who have such visions, such as Trofimov in The Cherry Orchard (Vishnevyi sad), are treated ironically, but that irony does not mean that vision or yearning is invalid. They at least offer the hope of a better life and a better world.

It is probably no accident that the heroine of this story is called Anna, suggesting an allusion to Tolstoi's Anna Karenina (1875-77). Tolstoi's Anna is destroyed by rejecting her social life and social self in favor of a new self that does not inhibit passion and impulse. Though Tolstoi dramatizes Anna Karenina's desires with great power, he is convinced that they are fundamentally wrong and will inevitably prove destructive. In contrast Chekhov presents the desire to escape repression and liberate impulse in a positive light, though he is well aware that the chances of success are slight. Both negative social forces and the self's vulnerability to boredom and egotism have almost overwhelming power. Yet there remains some hope in the story. It ends with the lovers expecting a new and beautiful life, aware of the many difficulties and complications that lie ahead.

—K.M. Newton

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The Lady With the Little Dog (Dama s Sobachkoi) by Anton Chekhov, 1899

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