The Lady with the Pet Dog by Anton Chekhov

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An Overview of "The Lady with the Pet Dog"

(Short Stories for Students)

''The Lady with the Pet Dog'' is regarded as one of the greatest of all short stories, but it is not an easy story to "interpret," because Chekhov's chief aim in writing the story is to be as natural as possible and to respect people and things for what they are, rather than turning them into symbols and forcing them to convey a certain idea or message. Chekhov is reluctant to put himself above his characters and manipulate them. Perhaps the most famous criticism of the story comes from Vladimir Nabokov the Russian emigre who taught literature at Cornell University and wrote the classic American novel Lolita. In discussing Chekhov's story, he points out that ‘‘all the traditional rules of story telling have been broken ... there is no problem, no regular climax, no point at the end. And it is one of the greatest stories ever written.’’ One might wonder how such an uneventful and inconclusive story could be considered "great." It appears that Nabokov believes that its greatness lies in its trueness to the beauty and sadness of life. If one is looking for the kind of "entertainment" which helps one escape life, one will not find it in Chekhov, for he invites his readers to perceive and feel the beauty and pity of the world as it is. Nabokov states that for Chekhov ‘‘the lofty and the base ... the slice of watermelon and the violet sea, and the hands of the town-governor'' are all "essential" elements of that beauty. If one is looking for a satisfying moral or a final resolution, Chekhov will not provide one, for ‘‘there is no special moral to be drawn and no special message to be received,’’ Nabokov contends that ‘‘the story does not really end, for as long as people are alive, there is no possible and definite conclusion to their troubles or hopes or dreams.’’

Nabokov also admires the economy and conciseness of Chekhov's descriptions and characterizations, which are ''attained by a careful selection and careful distribution of minute but striking features, with perfect contempt for the sustained description, repetition, and strong emphasis of ordinary authors. In this or that description one detail is chosen to illumine the whole setting.'' This not only permits Chekhov to say more with less, but it also keeps the focus on the world within the story rather than on the pyrotechnics of the writer. By not overwhelming the reader with elaborate descriptions or philosophizing, Chekhov makes his art appear casual.

Nabokov certainly exaggerates his claims that there is no "problem" or "climax" to Chekhov's story. Gurov is the protagonist ; he is the only character who appears in every scene. The story is presented largely from his point of view, and it is his internal crisis, as we shall see, that indeed constitutes the climax of the story. And Gurov has a problem, though he does not recognize it until late in the story. At the beginning, he is a mildly bored philanderer on holiday, looking for a good time. He meets Anna and seduces her, and when she weeps over having been unfaithful to her husband, he is bored and annoyed. He bids farewell to Anna with a mild sense of regret, sorry that the affair did not make her happy, but his mood brightens when he returns to the bustle of Moscow. As the winter deepens, however, Gurov finds that Anna is constantly on his mind. He wants to speak to others of his feelings for her, but nobody will listen. This eventually leads him to a great feeling of disgust towards the ‘‘savage manners,’’ the "gluttony," the ''continual talk always about the same thing'' that defines his existence in Moscow society. ''Futile pursuits and conversations always about the same topics take up the better part of one's time, the better part of one's strength, and in the end there is left a life clipped and wingless, an absurd mess, and there is no escaping or getting away from it—just as though one were in a madhouse or a prison.'' Gurov is so "indignant" after this moment of personal...

(The entire section is 1,804 words.)