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.
The story begins with a description of a bored banker, Dmitrii Gurov, on vacation in the southern Russian city of Yalta. Idly attentive toward the other vacationers, Gurov takes special interest in a recent arrival to the resort town, a young woman named Anna Sergeevna von Diederitz, who strolls along the embankment with her little dog. Judging from her appearance, Gurov decides that she is a married woman alone and bored on her vacation. Although he too is married, he has had many affairs, and he becomes excited by the prospect of having a brief affair with this stranger. Beckoning her dog toward him, he uses the pet as an excuse to strike up a conversation with her, and within a short time they develop an easy air of companionship.
Anton Chekhov next depicts the pair after a week has passed. It is a warm, windy day, and the two go down to the pier to watch a ship come in. As the crowd around the ship gradually dissipates, Gurov asks Anna Sergeevna if she wishes to go for a ride. Suddenly, on an impulse, he embraces her and kisses her. He then suggests that they go to her room. The next scene portrays Anna Sergeevna and Gurov in her room; they have just made love for the first time. She is distraught because she feels guilty, not only because she has deceived her husband but also because she has discovered that she has been deceiving herself for a long time. She tells Gurov that she was twenty when she married her husband and has since realized that he is nothing but a flunky. Anna Sergeevna, on the other hand, wants to live, to experience life. Now she believes that her infidelity has proved her to be a petty, vulgar woman and that Gurov will not respect her. Gurov listens to this confession with an attitude of boredom and irritation. He feels that her repentance is unexpected and out of place. Nevertheless, he comforts her, and within a short time her gaiety returns.
They leave the hotel and drive to Oreanda, a scenic spot outside Yalta. There they gaze in silence at the sea and listen to its incessant, muffled sound. Chekhov writes that in the constancy of this noise and in the sea’s calm indifference to human life and death there perhaps lies a pledge of eternal salvation, of uninterrupted perfection. Listening to this sound in the company of an attractive woman, Gurov gains a new insight into life. He perceives that everything in this world is beautiful except that which people themselves do when they forget about the highest goals of existence and their own human worth.
After this moment of transcendent reflection, the two return to Yalta, and for the next several days they spend all of their time together, indulging in the sensual pleasures of Yalta and the joys of their new relationship. At last, however, Anna Sergeevna receives a letter from her husband asking her to return home. After she bids Gurov farewell at the railroad station, presumably forever, he, too, thinks that it is time for him to return home to Moscow.
Back in Moscow, Gurov tries to return to his familiar routine of work, family life, and entertainment. He assumes that his memories of Anna Sergeevna will fade, just as the memories of his other lovers always have. He discovers, though, that he cannot stop thinking about Anna Sergeevna, and soon he begins to regard his present life as nonsensical, empty, and dull. Impulsively he decides to travel to Anna Sergeevna’s hometown, hoping to see her and to arrange a meeting with her. After arriving in her town, he seeks out her house but does not enter it. Instead he decides to attend a premiere at the local theater that night in the hope of seeing her there. When he confronts her at the theater, she is shocked yet thrilled, and she agrees to meet with him in Moscow.
Now begins an agonizing time for Gurov. Meeting with Anna Sergeevna once every two or three months, he finds that he is living a double life. His everyday life is routine and conventional, but he regards it as being full of lies and deception. His other life, the one involving Anna Sergeevna, is of necessity kept secret, but it contains all that is important to him, and indeed it represents the core of his being. In the final scene of the story, Chekhov depicts the two lovers trying to come to terms with their difficult situation. Anna Sergeevna is in tears; she believes that their lives have been shattered by their love and the deceit that it requires to survive. He too recognizes that he cannot tear himself away from her, and he perceives a fearful irony in the fact that only now, when he has begun to turn gray and to lose his good looks, has he found true love. The anguished pair talk about the necessity of changing their lives, of breaking through the walls of deception around them, but they cannot see a solution to their dilemma. Chekhov concludes his tale with the comment that it seemed as though a solution would be found shortly and that a new, beautiful life would then begin but that it was also clear to the couple that the end was still a long way off, and that the most complex and difficult part was just beginning. With this moment of unresolved uncertainty, Chekhov brings to a close his penetrating study of human love and human destiny.