Alternately titled “The Lady with the Dog” or “The Lady with the Little Dog,” this story treats the theme of adultery, akin to Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1875-1877; English translation, 1886), and has a heroine with the same first name. Yet whereas Tolstoy pursues and punishes his Anna for having violated a social and moral law, Chekhov treats his Anna gently and compassionately in one of his most accomplished tales.
The plot can be briefly summarized. The banker Dmitry Dmitrich Gurov, a married but philandering man of almost forty, spends a vacation alone in the seaside resort of Yalta, where he meets and skillfully seduces a much younger lady, Anna Sergeyevna, who is also on holiday without her spouse. Their first encounter leads to a furtive and sporadic liaison, with Anna, who lives in a provincial town, having trysts with him in Moscow once every two or three months. Now deeply in love, the couple faces an unpredictable future. Chekhov ends the story on this indeterminate note.
Like a play, the narrative is divided into four parts, each of which deftly dramatizes a different phase of Anna and Dmitry’s romance. The first, of course, deals with their meeting in Yalta. The reader makes Dmitry’s acquaintance as a type: He is a cold-blooded roué, contemptuous of women as easy conquests yet compulsively erotic. He approaches Anna by fondling her dog, discovers that Anna is a gentlewoman who, like himself, is bored on holiday, and finds himself charmed by her shyness, slimness, and “lovely gray eyes.”
In part 2, they walk on the pier, Dmitry kisses her passionately, they have sex back at the hotel, and Anna is immediately remorseful, while he calmly cuts himself a section of watermelon. The alternation of Dmitry’s feelings between cynicism and lyricism recurs rhythmically. Chekhov treats Anna tenderly, rendering her shame and penitence as genuine, with her unconsciously assuming the posture of a classical Magdalen. When she leaves for home, both lovers assume that the brief affair has ended. He reflects that she overestimated his character in calling him “kind, exceptional, high-minded,” while his treatment of her was arrogantly condescending.
Part 3 starts with Dmitry busily immersed in his Moscow life and expecting Anna’s image to have filtered out of his memories within a month. Not so. He discovers himself in love with her and finds life without her “clipped and wingless.” He travels to Anna’s town to see her, only to find her house virtually sealed off by “a long gray fence studded with nails.” That is the first of a series of images of hardness, constriction, and enclosure. They symbolize the difficulty and sadness of a love between people both married to others. Anna’s town is the apotheosis of grayness: the fence, a gray carpet in the hotel room, a gray cloth covering the bed, the inkwell on the desk gray with dust.
Dmitry finds Anna attending a first night performance in the local theater. In the scene describing their reunion there, the tone of the tale assumes dramatic tension. Both speak in anxious, short, urgent exclamatory phrases. Dmitry, now realizing that his heart belongs to Anna, treats her deferentially and no longer worries whether onlookers can see them embracing. The best that they can do, however, is to meet on the theater’s narrow and gloomy staircase. She swears that she will visit him in Moscow and does so in part 4.
In Moscow, Anna and Dmitry find a pathetically marginal happiness together. Chekhov contrasts the scene in her hotel room there with that in part 2. Dmitry is now soft and considerate with Anna, no longer slightly bored and irritated. For the first time, he finds himself loving a woman unselfishly. The story’s concluding mood is one of gentle melancholia, of mingled joy and pain and sadness.