illustration of a man looking out a window at a woman in a hat and dress walking her little dog

The Lady with the Pet Dog

by Anton Chekhov

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What feminist criticisms can be made about "The Lady with the Dog" by Anton Chekhov?

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Chekov's story is about male desire. One possible feminist interpretation of the story would be to evaluate Dmitri's attitude toward women and why it is that he thinks of them as "the lower race" while also being obsessed with them. This interpretation would pay attention to Dmitri's relationship to his wife, who is a forbidding older figure, his emotional immaturity, and the way in which his "gaze" (the story begins with him seeing Anna walking her dog) constructs the woman as an object of desire.

This desire has little to do with Anna, who herself is married—she becomes an object onto which can project his own insecurities. For instance, Dmitri considers that Anna "was a schoolgirl" like his daughters not so long ago, which is a reflection more on his own immaturity than anything else. Similarly, his observation that there is something "pathetic" about her can be read as a comment about his own emotional state. After their affair begins and Anna expresses regret, Dmitri is "bored" with her scruples. It seems ridiculous to him that she should consider herself a "fallen woman," and he is unable to empathize with her in any way.

Another feminist reading of the story would concentrate on Anna. Her desire for "something higher" suggests that she too has personal ambitions but lacks the agency to act independently. Her early marriage to a husband she does not respect was an act of desperation. Her beauty, which attracts Dmitri, becomes a commodity, a source of alienation. She is unable to express this alienation in words other than saying she is a "fallen woman," mistaking shame for lack of agency.

Another reading would turn the story on its head and see Anna as the seducer and Dmitri as her dupe. In this reading, Anna makes a choice to be with Dmitri, and their affair is an expression of her dissatisfaction with her marriage, which mirrors Dmitri's marital unhappiness. Anna, in exerting her influence over Dmitri, is in effect pursuing that "higher place" she desires for herself.

In each case, the common theme is the lack of connection these characters have and their instinctive desire for empathy. Ultimately, a feminist reading would show that it is the sexual politics of desire, inherent in patriarchy, that make such connection impossible.

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In Chekhov's story, Gurov views women—his wife, his girlfriend (Anna Sergeyevna), and the numerous others he has had affairs with—in a stereotypical manner, even calling them (in Constance Garnett's translation) "the lower race." It's clear that when the story opens, he's tired of his wife because she's "too old," though she's probably the same age as he or even younger. Hence the attraction to Anna Sergeyevna, the "lady with the dog" when he meets her by chance at Yalta.

These factors would obviously be the object of criticism from a feminist point of view, not necessarily because they are extremely male-chauvinistic but because they are so ordinary and typical. Chekhov's story is a kind of extension of motifs already present in Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. Even the female protagonist's name is Anna. As with Tolstoy, it's difficult to tell if Chekhov is making a deliberate point about the injustice of women's disempowered position in society or is just describing the situation neutrally, as an observation without negative judgment. My guess is that in both cases, it's the latter.

One detail in which Chekhov and Tolstoy are explicitly similar is in the heroine's immediate reaction to the start of her extramarital relationship. Here, Anna Sergeyevna says to her lover:

"It's wrong will be the first to despise me now."

And then a bit later:

"God forgive me," she said, and her eyes filled with tears. "It's awful." [p. 10, Constance Garnett trans.]

As usual, the whole onus of guilt is thrust upon the woman. The situation in Tolstoy's Anna Karenina was even worse, where Anna bizarrely asks Vronsky to forgive her (because, Tolstoy says, she now has no one in the world but Vronsky) when Vronsky's relentless pursuit of her was what caused their getting together in the first place.

Both of these reactions, though perhaps understandable in the context of the times, are unfortunate reminders of the rigid gender double standard which one can only hope will eventually become totally a thing of the past if it hasn't already.

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In Anton Chekhov’s short story “The Lady with the Dog,” the main character, Dmitri Dmitritch Gurov, has an ambivalent relationship with women. Even though he thinks that women are inferior to men, he still prefers to be in their company. About his own wife, Gurov resents the fact that she has aged, and he is threatened by her intellectual pursuits. His attraction to Anna Sergeyevna seems predicated on her youth and “diffidence.” When he returns to Moscow without her, Gurov imagines Anna as “lovelier, younger, tenderer than she was.” Gurov is not threatened by Anna, and it is clear that he has felt threatened by some of the women in his past, whom he describes as “very beautiful, cold women, on whose faces he had caught a glimpse of a rapacious expression, ­an obstinate desire to snatch from life more than it could give, and these were capricious, unreflecting, domineering, unintelligent women not in their first youth.” Once Gurov “grew cold to them, their beauty excited his hatred.” Gurov feels victimized by the pull women hold over him, and he doesn’t seem capable of true empathy with those who belong to what he calls “the lower race.” When Gurov and Anna begin their adulterous affair, Anna is certain that Gurov will despise her, but his morality is never questioned.

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