The Lady with the Pet Dog Themes
by Joyce Carol Oates

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The Lady with the Pet Dog Themes

"The Lady with the Pet Dog" by Joyce Carol Oates is, at face value, about infidelity and the failure of a marriage. However, another theme or subtext of the story is existential unhappiness and the human desire to fill that existential void.

The main character in the story is unhappy with her marriage, and yet when she has an extramarital affair, she still feels the same discontentment she experienced in the beginning. This shows that, while infidelity is the most visible theme of "The Lady with the Pet Dog," the story is also character study, particularly of the modern housewife and her existential crisis in a society that has become selfish and places value on instant gratification.

"The Lady with the Pet Dog" is also a subtle feminist critique on the male-dominant culture of 20th-century America. The title itself implies that the lady is domesticated, like the pet dog. The main character is essentially her husband's "pet" who has not been attended to, and thus, she strays away from the marriage.

Themes

One of the primary themes in "The Lady with the Pet Dog" is adultery. The main character of the story, Anna, has an extramarital relationship with a man who also has a wife. One day, while spending time alone at the beach, Anna meets the man with whom she starts an affair. After a number of meet-ups, they both decide to end the affair and return to their respective spouses. Anna ends the relationship because she feels guilty and confused. However, the two are unable to control their desire for each other and end up having an affair again after meeting at a concert. Despite enjoying the relationship, Anna becomes depressed and thinks of killing herself when she realizes that her lover does not plan to divorce his wife.

Another theme that is manifested in the story is the search for happiness. Anna searches for true happiness by getting involved in an affair. She is not happy with her marriage and does not know how she can tell her husband the truth. Therefore, she finds temporary happiness in her lover. Unfortunately, the happiness that she experiences becomes short-lived when she realizes that the affair has no future.

Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The main thematic concerns that Joyce Carol Oates shows in this story can be summarized in a phrase that is the title of the 1972 collection that contains “The Lady with the Pet Dog”: Marriages and Infidelities. The themes work on the levels of literary tradition and social commentary.

On the level of literary tradition, the story reveals influences on Oates’s writing. In Marriages and Infidelities, the author re-imagines stories from seminal authors of world literature. This process metaphorically represents the marriage of two autonomous stories, as well as infidelities, that is, more or less subtle changes that may turn the narrative basis upside down. “The Lady with the Pet Dog” is based on Anton Chekhov’s short story of the same title. In addition to moving the plot from late nineteenth century Russia to 1970’s United States, two significant narrative changes affect the meaning of the story.

First, Chekhov’s novella arranges the same basic plot elements in chronological order, in keeping with in the classical dramatic structure of exposition, climax, and resolution. In sharp contrast, Oates’s version breaks up the chronology into a boxlike structure with three partially overlapping segments.

Second, Chekhov’s focus is on the development of a woman-hating womanizer who, for the first time in his life, finds true love. His story ends with the lovers’ mutual affirmation of their love’s power, although their love needs to remain hidden...

(The entire section is 906 words.)