The Lady With the Little Dog- Short Story Review

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.

 

 

Animal Farm

animal farm

Animal Farm, by George Orwell. Originally published in 1945. Paperback 140 pages.

I read the book online for free at this link.

All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others ~Animal Farm

This is a book that hardly needs an introduction. Our language has erected an entire lexicon around ideas we describe as Orwellian. Of course, we most often hear that particular term, Orwellian, used in reference to circumstances that resemble the narrative Orwell unfolded in his famous novel 1984. Although the allegorical Animal Farm paints a different, equally somber picture of human corruption, cultural manipulation, political malfeasance, his use of animals universalized its presentation.

In fact, the reason I re-read this book over the weekend, several decades since I first encountered it in high school, is that our children are currently reading it as a literature class assignment. I am really looking forward to hearing how they process this story. In the highly unlikely chance that someone may not be familiar with the story of Animal Farm, we’ll start with a brief synopsis.

On Manor Farm, the animals live the way farm animals live. They fulfill their work to produce income for the farm’s owner, Mr. Jones, and they are fed food appropriate to their needs and species. Life is neither misery nor bliss. It simply is what it is: farm life.

Brewing inside the heart of Old Major, the oldest boar on the farm however, was a dream that one day, animals would throw off the yoke of oppression which humans used to bind them.

“Now, comrades, what is the nature of this life of ours? Let us face it: our lives are miserable, laborious, and short. We are born, we are given just so much food as will keep the breath in our bodies, and those of us who are capable of it are forced to work to the last atom of our strength; and the very instant that our usefulness has come to an end we are slaughtered with hideous cruelty. No animal in England knows the meaning of happiness or leisure after he is a year old. No animal in England is free. The life of an animal is misery and slavery: that is the plain truth.

“But is this simply part of the order of nature? Is it because this land of ours is so poor that it cannot afford a decent life to those who dwell upon it? No, comrades, a thousand times no! The soil of England is fertile, its climate is good, it is capable of affording food in abundance to an enormously greater number of animals than now inhabit it. This single farm of ours would support a dozen horses, twenty cows, hundreds of sheep–and all of them living in a comfort and a dignity that are now almost beyond our imagining. Why then do we continue in this miserable condition? Because nearly the whole of the produce of our labour is stolen from us by human beings. There, comrades, is the answer to all our problems. It is summed up in a single word–Man. Man is the only real enemy we have. Remove Man from the scene, and the root cause of hunger and overwork is abolished forever.

He didn’t expect to live to see or participate in the animal rebellion, and he didn’t. But before he died, he made a rousing speech complete with an animal national anthem, and the animals he left behind began to plan for the revolution which would one day come. In that day, all animals would be equal comrades, wealth would be shared equally, no animals would kill other animals, and Utopia will be realized.

When the opportunity presented itself the animals revolted, fought hard, and won their freedom. It wasn’t long however before their stated principles gave way to reality, unlike anything the more gullible animals had expected after their “freedom” was secured. The pigs, descendants of Old Major, were the cleverest of all the animals and it wasn’t long before the camaraderie gave way to hierarchy, with everything this implies.

Seeing as I read this entire book in roughly 2 hours, I’d say it’s worth your time to reacquaint yourself with this modern classic. It’s particularly relevant in our current cultural and political environment.

Orwell really was a masterful writer, and Animal Farm is a wonderful book.

5 out of 5 stars.

The Scarlet Pimpernel

scarlet pimpernel

The Scarlet Pimpernel, by Baroness Emma Orczy.  Originally published in 1905. 304 pages.

You can read The Scarlet Pimpernel for free on Gutenberg.org.

Hurricane Dorian passed us by with a whimper, but we were still in stand still mode for the better part of three days, which gave me all the time I needed to power through this engaging page turner.

Set in 1792 during what is known as French reign of terror, The Scarlet Pimpernel weaves a story of a mysterious English hero who is rescuing the doomed aristocrats, who have survived to date, from the guillotine. This hero, The Scarlet Pimpernel, is a master of strategy and disguise as he outwits the French guards and whisks as many of the titled class as he can out of Paris, across the channel, and into the safety of England. England, where loyalty to the monarchy is high, and the very idea of the wholesale murder of noblemen in the name of  “liberté, égalité, fraternité” is an anathema, welcomes the refugee aristocrats to the safety of their shores.

Baroness Orczy’s classic novel is equal courses of adventure, intrigue, and humor, with a side nibble of romance. Even though it was assigned to our kid as a part of her literature class this semester, I am certain that I enjoyed and appreciated the layers and nuances a lot  more than she did.

The political intrigue and the character’s commentaries reveal Orczy’s understanding of the English astonishment and abhorrence of the murderous reign of Maximillien Robespierre. Even among our French heroes and heroines in The Scarlet Pimpernel, those who were more Republican than monarchist, there is an acute sentiment that the current actions of French’s republican government has gone too far.

“It is only in our beautiful France that wholesale slaughter is done lawfully, in the name of liberty and of brotherly love”

 

It is with this backdrop that we first meet Marguerite St. Jus Blankeney, the beautiful and intelligent young actress who is the toast of Paris, and not just for her artistic talents. An outspoken republican, Marguerite had recently married the rich, handsome and tall dullard Sir Percy Blankeney. The union was far from idyllic. Somewhere along the way, Sir Percy had turned out to be a totally different man from the one she thought she’d married, and while he adored her as the book opens, she held him in contempt, and she was far from alone in her assessment:

“…and in repose one might have admired so fine a specimen of English manhood, until the foppish ways, the affected movements, the perpetual inane laugh, brought one’s admiration of Sir Percy Blakeney to an abrupt close.”

 

Along the way, we learn that nothing is quite as it seems, and that Marguerite, for all her intelligence and beauty, has woefully underestimated and misjudged her husband, along with many other things.

“She looks very virtuous and very melancholy.”

“Virtue is like the precious odors, most fragrant when it is crushed.”

 

As the race ramps up for the Scarlet Pimpernel to save as many noblemen as he can, the political intrigue, adventurous shenanigans,  and masterful strategery of the elusive and anonymous hero kept me plugged in from beginning to end.

I do recommend The Scarlet Pimpernel. It’s a stellar novel.

Content advisory: Murder, mayhem and violence associated with the French revolution, largely contained to the beginning and end of the book.

4 out of 5 stars

 

 

 

 

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty: A Short Story

walter mitty

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Kindle Edition. Story Originally published in 1939.

You can read The Secret Life of Walter Mitty online here for free. It’s a quick read. If you’ve never read it, I would love for you to read it since this review is full of spoilers.

Walter Mitty is a married man -at least middle aged but probably older- who lives his daily life taking orders from his wife, but inner life is the place where he gets to be the man he wishes he was. It doesn’t take much for him to retreat into his fantasy life. A hospital, a newspaper headline, any minute reference can send him off into an adventure of mythical proportions.

Unfortunately, Walter often zones out and goes to Fantasyland at the most inopportune moments, including behind the wheel of his car, where he almost hits another car:

“Back it up, Mac! Look out for that Buick!” Walter Mitty jammed on the brakes. “Wrong lane, Mac,” said the parking-lot attendant, looking at Mitty closely. “Gee. Yeh,” muttered Mitty. He began cautiously to back out of the lane marked “Exit Only.” “Leave her sit there,” said the attendant. “I’ll put her away.” Mitty got out of the car. “Hey, better leave the key.” “Oh,” said Mitty, handing the man the ignition key. The attendant vaulted into the car, backed it up with insolent skill, and put it where it belonged.

That brings me to a question I pondered with one of my daughters who also read the story:

Which came first: The Chicken or the Egg?

The story opens with Mrs. Mitty unpleasantly pulling Walter from yet another one of his intense daydreams. He finds him driving them into town at an unacceptable 55 miles per hour, a full 15 mph faster than Mrs. Witty feels is safe. In fact, very few of Mrs. Mitty’s interactions with Walter are free of reproof, command, or request. Walter’s frequent trips to faraway exotic places, and his wife’s responses, left my daughter and me commiserating on what, if anything, James Thurber is trying to communicate here about Walter and Mrs. Mitty’s lot in life. It surely couldn’t be the idea his daughter wrote in the introduction of the Kindle edition:

I celebrate his Daydream Method of small vacations from tedium and “quiet desperation”. As a child I was reassured to know that this practice could continue into grown-up years.

The chicken or the egg question as it came up in our discussion at home was this: Was Walter Mitty given to these sudden and occasionally dangerous daydream vacations because his wife was a nag who made him miserable, or had she become a nag as a result of Walter’s inability to live in reality long enough to do anything more than just enough to get by? Thurber doesn’t tell us, leaving the readers to come to their own conclusions.

Recently, we watched the 2014 film adaptation of this story, which is quite different from the original James Thurber story, save for the frequent daydream vacations taken by the title character. Hollywood leaves us with a Walter Mitty who finds so much real-life adventure, including true love that his need for vacations to Fantasyland diminish to nearly nothing.

Thurber’s original story leaves us with Walter in the rain, leaned up against the wall of a drugstore, where his wife commanded him to wait for her, smoking a cigarette as he heads off into his imagination, where without fear, he faces a firing squad.

The Old Man and the Sea

old man and the sea

The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway, published in 1952. 112 pages.

This weekend, I decided to read this short novel from Hemingway for a couple of reasons. The first is his poetic way of describing natural beauty, and the second is because this is a very short book, and I was guaranteed to finish it off in less than two days. It is a very satisfying man vs. nature novella.

Santiago is an old fisherman, once successful, who has experienced a long run of bad luck on the seas. For a time, the young boy Manolin was his apprentice fisherman, and caretaker on and off the boat. However, since Santiago has gone for so long without catching any fish, his parents forbid him from fishing with him any longer. They send him to apprentice with more successful fishermen.

Manolin obeys his parents, but his heart is still with old Santiago, and he checks in on the solitary fisherman every morning and every night. He makes sure that he eats, gets him his morning coffee, and they talk baseball. Both love Joe Dimaggio.

One morning Santiago heads out early, determined that it will be the day his luck turns around. He loads his skiff and sails out farther than he normally would, following the current and the birds overhead who seem to indicate a place where he’ll find a large school of fish.

The thing I love about this book, despite having zero experience with sailing, is the way the sea is almost a character all its own. This was something I noticed when reading The Lion’s Paw and Captains Courageous as well. Here, Hemingway contrasts the way older fishermen like Santiago and younger fishermen characterize the sea:

He [Santiago] always thought of the sea as la mar, which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her. Sometimes those who love her say bad things about of her but they are always said as though she were a woman. Some of the younger fishermen, those who used buoys as floats for their lines and had motorboats, bought when the shark livers had brought much money, spoke of her as el mar, which is masculine. They spoke of her as a contestant or a place or even an enemy. But the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them. The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought. p.29-30

Leaving aside the political correctness or lack thereof in Hemingway’s description, it’s a poetically beautiful description of the sea which gives the reader a vivid picture of how much the old man loves her.

On the day when he goes far out to sea, his luck does indeed turn. He hooks a gigantic marlin, so large that it pulls him farther and farther out to sea. He holds on to marlin, suffering intense pain, hunger, and discomfort for two days. In the end…

You’ll just have to read it, which you can do for free right here. It’s so short that the only thing left is the ending, and I don’t want to spoil it for you!

4 out of 5 stars.

 

 

The Phantom Tollbooth

phantom tollbooth

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, originally published in 1961. 272 pages.

We read The Phantom Tollbooth this semester as part of a middle school writing and literature class I taught. It’s an interesting, fantastical book and initially, I wasn’t sure how the kids would react to it. Throughout the school year, there have been differing verdicts offered by the kids on various books and rarely a consensus. However, this book drew unanimous approval from each of the students. The sample size is pretty small, but since I agreed with their opinion, it’s safe to say it’s a great middle grade book.

The opening chapter offers a description of Milo, the reluctant hero of our story:

There was once a boy named Milo who didn’t know what to do with himself — not just sometimes, but always.

When he was in school he longed to be out, and when he was out he longed to be in. On the way he thought about coming home, and coming home he thought about going. Wherever he was he wished he were somewhere else, and when he got there he wondered why he’d bothered. Nothing really interested him — least of all the things that should have.

The link above leads to the entire first chapter as reprinted on NPR. It’s an excellent chance to get a fuller picture of Milo, as his ennui sets the stage for his adventure into the world opened up to him through the mysterious gift of a phantom tollbooth which appeared in his room.

In this alternate reality, Milo encounters a wholly different world from anything he has ever known. One where things and people make little sense even though they fascinate him in ways he has never imagined.

The thing that my students enjoyed most about this book was the combination of literal and metaphorical elements. For instance, one of the first groups of people Milo meets on his journey is a strange set of creatures known as “The Lethargarians”. They are weird, slug-like, live in a place known as “The Doldrums”, and their lives are lived as their name suggests. After outlining for Milo their detailed schedule of daily events which consist of little more than various forms of dawdling and daydreaming, they explain to him why the itinerary is so strict:

“As you can see, that leaves almost no time for brooding, lagging, plodding, or procrastinating, and if we stopped to think or laugh, we’d never get nothing done.”

“You mean you’d never get anything done,” corrected Milo.

“We don’t want to get anything done,” snapped another angrily; “we want to get nothing done, and we can do that without your help.”

“You see,” continued another in a more conciliatory tone, “it’s really quite strenuous doing nothing all day, so once a week we take a holiday and go nowhere, which was just where we were going when you came along. Would you care to join us?”

“I might as well,” thought Milo; “that’s where I seem to be going anyway.”

“Tell me,” he yawned, for he felt ready for a nap now himself, “does everyone here do nothing?”

“Everyone but the terrible watchdog,” said two of them, shuddering in chorus. “He’s always sniffing around to see that nobody wastes time. A most unpleasant character.”

Tock, the literal watchdog is just one of the many intriguing and bizarre characters Milo encounters on his trip to Dictionopolis and on to a quest to be the hero of this strange world he has encountered as a result of his trip through the mysterious tollbooth.

Each character he encounters on his journey, from Tock to the Humbug to the Mathemagician and the Princesses Rhyme and Reason, adds a new layer of understanding and adventure to Milo’s journey. As a result, he ultimately learns that time is precious and his own world is full of fascinating things to learn and do.

4 out of 5 stars

No content advisory necessary.

Reading level: late elementary to early middle school. Younger students who are strong readers would have not trouble decoding, some of the allegorical notes may require explanation.

 

 

 

 

 

More big ideas in short stories

leaf_by_niggle_tolkien

Short stories, done well, are a literary treasures delivering a wealth of food for thought.

First inspired by Lindsay Brigham Knott’s piece at Circe Institute’s superb classical education blog, then further by Maeve at Wanna Be Martha, I spent a little time during a road trip this weekend reading short stories. The stories, which ran the gamut in terms of content and message, are all well done, literary treasures which delivered a wealth of food for thought. Each of these three linked stories are enjoyable, although in wholly different ways:

  • Thank You, Ma’am, by Langston Hughes: When a young purse snatcher picks the wrong mark on her way home from work one night, he gets far more than he bargained for, in the most unexpected ways.
  • A Good Man is Hard to Find, by Flannery O’Connor: There’s not a whole lot to love here besides O’Connor’s deft turn of phrase and the uncomfortable irony which rounds out this strange tale. This is classic Flannery O’Connor. You kind of either love her work or hate it.
  • Leaf by Niggle, by J.R.R. Tolkien: This one is last on the list, but certainly not least, as it’s the story I gleaned the most insight from of the three. Niggle fights the battle I have not yet conquered. It’s one which Lindsay Brigham Knott beautifully dissects in her Circe piece; the battle of mastering our time in such a way that we fulfill the duties of our vocations, fulfill our soul’s longings through our avocations, and get proper rest, all without being overwhelmed. Niggle learns this lesson “too late”. I interpret that Tolkien’s way of demonstrating how tough the battle is, even when, like Niggle, our hearts are “in the right place”.

If you happen to take the time to read any of these (or have read any of them), take a minute to include your opinions of them. I’m dying to know!

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