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...

(The entire section is 538 words.)