Gurov's Flights of Emotion in Chekhov's "The Lady with the Dog"
In 1921, Conrad Aiken [in Collected Criticism, 1968] made the following assessment of Anton Chekhov's work: ‘‘This, after all, is Chekhov's genius—he was a master of mood.'' Indeed Aiken's statement is a good starting point for a discussion of the structure of Chekhov's short fiction. Many of Chekhov's short stories—the later ones in particular—are structured around the main character's moments of strong emotion, a feature of the author's short fiction that has never been fully explored, even in discussions of individual stories. For example, much of the criticism of ''The Lady with the Dog,’’ one of Chekhov's most revered short stories, has focused on its parallels with his real life love for Olga Knipper, the influence of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, the story's similarities with Chekhov's later plays, and its exemplification of the author's realism and modernity, which have greatly influenced twentieth-century short fiction. In tracing the story's biographical and literary influences and its relation to other literature, though, Chekhov critics have generally ignored an important feature of ‘‘The Lady with the Dog’’—namely, the significance of Gurov's two flights of emotion, the first with Anna at Oreanda, the second outside the Medical Club at Moscow. These two moments of intense feeling are crucial to understanding Gurov's motivations and illustrate the importance of this kind of emotional flight to the structure of Chekhov's short fiction.
In the first of his two flights of emotion, Gurov contemplates the transcendence of love as he sits quietly on a bench with Anna at Oreanda:
Not a leaf stirred, the grasshoppers chirruped, and the monotonous hollow roar of the sea came up to them, speaking of peace, of the eternal sleep lying in wait for us all. The sea had roared like this before there was any Yalta or Oreanda, it was roaring now, and it would go on roaring, just as indifferently and hollowly, when we had passed away. And it may be that in this continuity, this utter indifference to life and death, lies the secret of our ultimate salvation, of the stream of life on our planet, and of its never-ceasing movement toward perfection.
Side by side with a young woman, who looked so exquisite in the early light, soothed and enchanted by the sight of all this magical beauty—sea, mountains, clouds and the vast expanse of the sky—Gurov told himself that, when you came to think of it, everything in the world is beautiful really, everything but our own thoughts and actions, when we lose sight of the higher aims of life, and of our dignity as human beings.
This passage reveals one of the strengths of Chekhov's writing, his superb handling of the theme of transcendence through love. In Anton Chekhov and the Lady with the Dog , Virginia Llewellyn Smith discusses the importance of this theme: ''In Chekhov's later work, this ideal of love was to become increasingly associated with the concept of something above and beyond the transient, or more precisely, with a quasi-philosophical speculative interest, and a quasi-mystical faith in the future of mankind.’’ Another critic, Beverly Hahn, makes a similar point [in Chekhov: A Study of the Major Stories and Plays , 1977], finding in some of Chekhov's work a ‘‘mysterious transcendence ... of the great moral and philosophical issues of existence.’’ Finding the eternal in a particular moment, Chekhov's characters can turn away mortality and meaninglessness, if only briefly, by turning to each other. However, it is important to remember that at this point in the story, Gurov clearly has not fallen in love with Anna. At first it is not Anna in particular whom he desires, but rather a pretty woman in general, and the reader is told that Gurov, who refers to women as ''the lower race,’’ actually ''could not have existed a single day’’ without them. Indeed, Gurov enjoys Anna's company at Yalta but is at first surprised, then bored and annoyed with her sense of...
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