The Lady With the Little Dog, by Anton Chekhov. Originally published in 1899. Translated into English in 1903. Available to read for free at this link. It’s roughly 30 minutes to read in its entirety.
If you prefer reading stories in which virtue wins in the end, this is not such a story. It’s actually quite vexing, and if not for a particular portion that has remained with me, I’m certain I would not recommend it. However, the writing is beautiful and Chekhov’s descriptions of human nature are both poignant and direct.
This is a story of infidelity, plain and simple. Chekhov certainly alludes to the heinous nature of the offense here, but he doesn’t preach or bang a metaphorical fist on the table. The aggrieved spouses are not satisfied with retribution or expressions of remorse, and the guilty parties never experience profound epiphanies that fill them with regret. In other words, this is realistic Russian literature, which differs greatly from American literature where good always wins and virtue is unearthed from the recesses of the darkest human heart. I’ll try to offer a synopsis without spoiling the story.
Dimitri Gurov is a married father of three who travels frequently in his business endeavors. Any infatuation he once felt for his wife has long faded, and he routinely engages sexual liaisons of various durations with women when he is away from home:
He had been married young, when he was a student in his second year, and by now his wife seemed half as old again as he. She was a tall, erect woman with dark eyebrows, staid and dignified, and, as she said of herself, intellectual. She read a great deal, used phonetic spelling, called her husband, not Dmitri, but Dimitri, and he secretly considered her unintelligent, narrow, inelegant, was afraid of her, and did not like to be at home. He had begun being unfaithful to her long ago — had been unfaithful to her often, and, probably on that account, almost always spoke ill of women, and when they were talked about in his presence, used to call them “the lower race.”
On one of his trips, he notices a young woman walking along the seafront with her little dog and begins to strategize how he might make her acquaintance. The two eventually meet, and after a customary period and pretense of casual conversations, an affair begins. The young woman who is also married, experiences various degrees of angst over what she has done, but not without rationalizations:
“Forgiven? No. I am a bad, low woman; I despise myself and don’t attempt to justify myself. It’s not my husband but myself I have deceived. And not only just now; I have been deceiving myself for a long time. My husband may be a good, honest man, but he is a flunkey! I don’t know what he does there, what his work is, but I know he is a flunkey! I was twenty when I was married to him. I have been tormented by curiosity; I wanted something better. ‘There must be a different sort of life,’ I said to myself. I wanted to live! To live, to live! . . . I was fired by curiosity . . . you don’t understand it, but, I swear to God, I could not control myself; something happened to me: I could not be restrained. I told my husband I was ill, and came here. . . . And here I have been walking about as though I were dazed, like a mad creature; . . . and now I have become a vulgar, contemptible woman whom any one may despise.”
Gurov felt bored already, listening to her. He was irritated by the naive tone, by this remorse, so unexpected and inopportune; but for the tears in her eyes, he might have thought she was jesting or playing a part.
When the time of their particular travel in that city ended, their affair ended as well. Atypically, however, Dimitri is unable to shrug off his attachment to the young woman the way he had done with countless others. The more time elapsed, the more her visage haunted his dreams and memories, and he eventually pursues her. You’ll have to read the story for yourselves to find out what happens, but Chekhov does a masterful turn of describing the nature of life such as Dimitri’s, which has a private side which is unknown, even to those closest to him:
He had two lives: one, open, seen and known by all who cared to know, full of relative truth and of relative falsehood, exactly like the lives of his friends and acquaintances; and another life running its course in secret. And through some strange, perhaps accidental, conjunction of circumstances, everything that was essential, of interest and of value to him, everything 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, the sheath in which he hid himself to conceal the truth — such, for instance, as his work in the bank, his discussions at the club, his “lower race,” his presence with his wife at anniversary festivities — all that was open. And he judged of others by himself, not believing in what he saw, and always believing that every man had his real, most interesting life under the cover of secrecy and under the cover of night. All personal life rested on secrecy, and possibly it was partly on that account that civilised man was so nervously anxious that personal privacy should be respected.
I presume my readers, most of whom are far more intelligent than I, can see the parallels between Chekhov’s description and life in the digital age of this 21st Century.
Overall, this story, even with its beautiful writing, left me thoroughly dissatisfied and even a little melancholy. I’m not certain if I loathe it or love it, or both. I suspect its both, albeit for completely different reasons. You’ll have to read it for yourself to see what I mean.
3 and 1/2 out of 5 stars
*I was motivated to read this story after hearing Joshua Gibbs reference it in the latest installment of his Proverbial podcast.