Shades of Grey: Love and Contradiction in "The Lady with the Dog"
Anton Chekhov's story "The Lady with the Dog" is a portrait of a love affair that is intended to be brief, but its reverberations change both its participants' lives. In Gurov, the male protagonist, Chekhov has created a character that is at once pitiable, despicable, and relatable. He is relatable mainly because one often feels both pitiable and despicable when it comes to love; it just depends on whether you are the one who is lovesick or the one in control/doing the hurting. The central purpose of the story is to ask more questions than it answers. It leaves the reader wondering where the story will go after its end: Will the main characters continue their affair or is it doomed to fail? Chekhov plays with his audience by challenging them to make moral judgments about the characters and then, a mere paragraph later, introducing information that makes them question that same judgment. Chekhov plays this game through literary technique: every moment of the story is imbued with ambiguity; like love, nothing in the story's world is black and white.
Nearly everyone, at one point or another, has gone through a period where they were unhappy with their choices in life. The feeling can be suffocating and one will take an escape anywhere an escape can be found. The two main characters in the story are no exception: Gurov and Anna both have problems in their respective marriages. Gurov is a relentless womanizer, married to a woman he does not respect. Early on in the story, he remarks that his wife is "unintelligent, narrow, inelegant"
. Right away, this gives the reader the impression that there is something fundamentally flawed about their relationship, and yet nowhere in the story is there a depiction of them at home together where their dysfunction could be observed. All the reader knows of Gurov's wife is what he himself shares. This creates two competing feelings: Either (a) Gurov's wife is truly a difficult woman to be married to, or (b) Gurov's perception of her is a convenient way to excuse himself from the guilt of adultery. Interestingly, the one line of dialogue his wife is given in the story (saying "The part of a lady-killer does not suit you at all, Dimitri"
) pokes fun at Gurov and serves to slightly endear the reader in her direction. So from the outset of the story, the reader is not sure whether Gurov is merely a victim of a loveless marriage or an unfeeling cad.
Gurov's womanizing leads him to Anna, the "lady" of the title. She is also frustrated with her life, though her dissatisfaction is in her inability to understand or connect with her husband and the general restlessness of youth. Her feelings about her husband are elucidated when, after her first dalliance with Gurov, she says, "My husband may be a good, honest man, but he is a flunkey!"
She also does not respect her husband, specifically his job, but she seems to be much more remorseful about her nascent relationship with Gurov. She continually calls herself common and low and tells Gurov, "I love a pure, honest life, and sin is loathsome to me. I don't know what I am doing."
From a moral standpoint, it is comforting to the reader that Anna does not approach the affair as callously as Gurov, who views cheating on his wife as "a light and charming adventure."
So while both characters are doing something wrong by having the affair, Anna seems to be the innocent and the reader gets the impression that Gurov is taking advantage of that naivete.
Anna goes on to say, about her age and what led her to Yalta that, "I was twenty when I was married to him. I have been tormented by curiosity; I wanted something better."
This statement alone makes Anna the more sympathetic character. Youth can make a person do things that they regret, even sensible things like marriage. Anna seems trapped in an impossible position: She must give up her life for love or stay stuck in a marriage with a person to whom she is not connected.
Chekhov's strength is in the complexity with which he creates the characterizations of Gurov and Anna. It becomes clear through the narrative that it is too simplistic to say that Anna is the passive, flattered receiver of Gurov's affections and Gurov is chasing her down like an animal stalking prey. In fact when Gurov and Anna part ways, Gurov becomes completely lovesick. This is expressed in how his entire view of Moscow, his hometown, changes after he returns from Yalta. When he first gets back, he expounds upon the joys of a Moscow autumn, and says that "he already felt a longing to go to restaurants, clubs, dinner-parties, anniversary celebrations, and he felt flattered at entertaining distinguished lawyers and artists, and at playing cards with a professor at the doctors' club."
These are the pleasures of his normal life and yet, he is soon unable to appreciate them. As his thoughts of Anna grow stronger, he becomes completely indignant at the city he loves, saying:
The rage for card-playing, the gluttony, the drunkenness, the continual talk always about the same thing. Useless pursuits and conversations always about the same things absorb the better part of one's time, the better part of one's strength, and in the end there is left a life grovelling and curtailed, worthless and trivial, and there is no escaping or getting away from it -- just as though one were in a madhouse or a prison.
This passage drives the audience's sympathy back toward Gurov. He too is trapped in a situation he cannot escape; only he is trapped in a worse way than Anna because he has children and a well-established life in Moscow. Gurov is clearly tormented here, comparing his life to a prison. Shortly thereafter the narration tells the reader that Gurov "was sick of his children, sick of the bank; he had no desire to go anywhere or to talk of anything."
It is obvious then that this affair is different from the others he has conducted in its seriousness and its implications. Thus it is evident that both Anna and Gurov are complicit in the affair, but both also have a lot to lose in pursuing it.
Another complicating factor in the relationship between Anna and Gurov is their age. Anna is in her early twenties and it is part of what attracts Gurov to her. He admires what he calls "the angularity of [her] inexperienced youth."
Gurov, by contrast, is approaching middle age with all its attendant insecurities. In the final scene, he notices, "His hair was already beginning to turn grey. And it seemed strange to him that he had grown so much older, so much plainer during the last few years."
These lines are expressed with a kind of remorse. He recognizes that though he loves Anna for her youth, it is "probably already not far from beginning to fade and wither like his own."
This too, feels like a very familiar truth about love. Even if one has not been in a May-December relationship like this one, the sentiment expressed here is one of love where one party is using the other for something they feel they are lacking. Gurov sees that he can not recapture his youth by being with Anna. He has to love her for who she is beyond her superficial qualities.
With this romantic notion in mind, it is not hard to see the story as a very straightforward advocate for love's power to conquer all the obstacles of life and endure. Anna and Gurov should not be together, yet they are drawn to one another so strongly that even after parting, they can not resist reuniting. Chekhov describes their love as being as deep as could be imagined; the reader is told they "loved each other like people very close and akin, like husband and wife, like tender friends."
The statement, while beautiful, is not without intentional irony: Anna and Gurov love each other as husband and wife, but they do not love their own actual husband and wife that way. Nevertheless, the narration promises in its final line that once Anna and Gurov find a way to be together permanently, "a new and splendid life would begin."
This tugs at the readership's collective heartstrings and begs the question: Is it fair for anyone to deny such a strong love?
Chekhov's uses color to point out the ambiguity of love. Several times throughout the story, the color grey is alluded to, often with connotations of sadness, frustration, or longing. The first instance is when Gurov is reflecting on Anna's appearance. He notes "her slender, delicate neck, her lovely grey eyes."
At first it seems like a positive use of the word, to connote beauty, but in…