Expression versus expectations in Chekhov’s The lady with the pet dog
In The lady with the pet dog, Chekhov’s notion of romantic love coincides with his idea of the duplicitous self and society. Central to Chekhov’s discussion of romantic love is the individual and the institutions that define him (in particular, marital and domestic ones) which Chekhov sees as anything but intact. What whole is perceived on the surface is in reality a fragmented clumsily held together by bogus and empty morality tantamount to hypocrisy.
In this case, the romantic impulse comes as a liberating and redeeming sensibility. However, Chekhov asserts, the survival, let alone existence of the romantic love is possible only in the dark—in the small, private (and forbidden) enclave away from the persecuting and prying eyes of the collective.
Chekhov (2007) writes of Gurov, “…everything that in which he was sincere and did not deceive himself, everything that made the kernel of his life, was hidden from other people; and all that was false in him…all that was open” (chap. IV). Indeed what stands out in Chekhov’s work is the clash between individual sentiments and social expectations; defiance versus the norm, liberating passion as opposed to the stifling demands of pseudo-propriety.
Such contestation of values is played out in the characters of Anna Sergeyevna and Dmitri Gurov. Both are trapped and paralyzed by their family and marriages, relationships which are more nominal than actual. Both suffer from a breakdown of communication with their partners and more importantly, their selves. Hence, the disruption of self-expression. Their efforts toward self-definition and determination are brutally countered by the conventions of their sexuality and status. As a result, what occurs is an extinction of their personality and consequently, the imperilment of their love.
In this climate, masks are the only means of self-preservation. Gurov, for one, is a man of several faces. His façade appears to be in strict compliance with the behavioral codes attendant of his class and gender. His misogynistic gestures belie his genuine nature. He “always spoke ill of women, and when they are talked about in his presence, used to call them the lower race…. yet he could not get on for two days together without the ‘lower race’” (I).
Convention, together with his pretensions, reduces Gurov to a flat and passive character. So flat, in fact, that his entire life and personality can be summed up by the following words: “He was under forty, but he had a daughter already twelve years old, and two sons at school” (I). In this respect, Gurov is a typical family man. He is head (or better yet, cog) of a family the stability and comfortability of which is owed more to economic and social factors than human warmth and understanding. The family stands for the simple reason that Gurov and his wife, no matter how superficially are playing their parts well.
Paradoxically and yet, understandably, Gurov’s extra-marital affairs offer no significant threat to the solidity of his domestic sphere. His women are but fleeting muses, objects of a passion that fades just as quickly as it ignites. Such transient and cold encounters inevitably deteriorate: “…every intimacy which at first so agreeably diversifies life and appears a light and charming adventure, inevitably grows into a regular problem of extreme intricacy, and in the long run the situation becomes unbearable” (I). In a sense, Gurov’s relationships with other women are simply extensions of his mechanical family life.
Gurov is deader than alive; older than his years. Despite his numerous preoccupations— “He already felt a longing to go to restaurants, clubs, dinner parties, anniversary celebrations… entertaining distinguished lawyers and artists” (III)—his hunger for life and love remains unsatisfied. His romantic sensibility continues to stagnate. Gurov’s fate is a microscopic version of the spiritual inertia plaguing larger society. As Gurov laments, “What senseless nights, what uninteresting, uneventful days! The rage for card playing, the gluttony, the drunkenness, the continual talk always about the same thing” (III).
Apparently the preoccupied life of the materially comfortable fail to fill the gaping hole within the individual, in this case, a premature organism at most. What intactness is gained through the observance of superficial social rituals is nothing but conformity and monotony.
Gurov’s premature self translates to the frustration of his artistic sensibility. Gurov “had taken a degree in arts, but had a post in the bank; that he had trained as an opera singer, but ad given it up…” (I). Again, passion has given way to practicality and material considerations.
Though practically nameless (indeed, one can only name her through Gurov, and partially at that), Gurov’s wife is far from being a peripheral and passive figure. She enters the story (one can even say, intrude) almost simultaneously as Gurov does. The first glimpse of Gurov is intertwined with that of her that one appears to be the foil of another. Chekhov’s description of her evokes strength (and to a degree, death and deadliness) uncommon of her sex: “…his wife seemed half as old again as he…. as she said of herself, intellectual. She read a great deal…he secretly considered her unintelligent, narrow inelegant, was afraid of her, and did not like to be at home” (I).
His wife’s sense of individuality proves corrosive to their relationship. Not that Chekhov despises individuality in women, Anna’s struggle toward self-definition show otherwise. What makes Gurov’s wife’s fatal is that it consumes, by emasculating, Gurov. An individuality such as her hampers union and unity, disadvantageous to love. The juxtaposition of Gurov and his wife’s sensibility lays bare a glaring incongruity, symptomatic of the failure of their marital communication.
The marital environment isolates them both. For Gurov “in his home it was impossible to talk of his love, and he had no one outside…” (III). And when his wife catches on and reacts to his hints on love: “…no one guessed what it meant; only his wife twitched her black eyebrows, and said: ‘The part of a lady-killer does not suit you at all, Dimitri’” (III). Their marital union is grounded on repulsion and revulsion.
In stark contrast to his wife is the character of Anna Sergeyevna, whose individuality, at least in the beginning, is yet to be defined. Which is not to say that she is empty, for like Gurov, Anna is in search of a life above the mundane: “To live, to live!… I was fired by curiosity…I could not control myself; something happened to me, I could not be restrained” (I). The amorphousness of Anna and Gurov serves as a point of connection, a common ground for them.
Anna’s gradual progression from anonymity to indiviulaity is paradoxically combined in her identity as “the lady with the pet dog”. When Gurov’s “romance with an unknown woman” (I) unexpectedly escalates to full-blown romance – “that sweet delirium, that madness” (II) — Anna’s personality becomes indelible: “Anna did not visit him in dreams, but followed him about everywhere and haunted him…” (II). Indeed, what marks Gurov’s love for Anna is its sense of permanence and identity. Anna’s face is not gobbled up by oblivion, nor does it fade in the crowd. To Gurov, she is the only “lady with the pet dog”.
This sense of eternity is not bound to be challenged though. Society looms as a more powerful and sinister force in the lovers’ lives. Their love is taboo, a truth which they can only postpone but never defeat: “…it seemed to them that fate itself had meant them for one another, and they could not understand why he had a wife and she had a husband…” (IV).
Chekhov does not negate the potency, even necessity of genuine romantic love. He does not offer false hopes about it either. Gurov and Anna can only dwell in the present; what the future has to offer is far from hopeful: “…and it was clear to both that they still had a long road before them, and that the most complicated and difficult part is only just beginning” (IV).
Chekhov, A. (2007). The lady with the pet dog. Retrieved December 1, 2007, from