Tuesday, August 08, 2006

More Questions than Answers

Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) has been credited with “inventing a new kind of story” and ascribed the status of “the father of the modern short story.” Written in 1899, “The Lady With the Dog” is one of his mature stories, and has been deemed by many to be his best. Vladimir Nabokov pronounced it "one of the greatest stories ever written."

When I reread the story to prepare for our discussion, I wanted to experience it as a story that stands on its own. But I also wanted to think about it in connection with Chekhov’s role in the evolution of the short story form. In what way did it, at the time of writing, constitute “a new kind of story”? What does it have in common with contemporary short stories?

I remember that one of the things about this story in particular, and about Chekhov’s work in general, that struck me upon first reading was how modern it seemed. This quality makes Chekhov’s stories very accessible to contemporary readers but I think it also makes it easy to underestimate his contribution to the form. Without knowing what went before, it’s hard to appreciate how original his stories were when they were first written and published.

I confess that my own short story reading hasn’t extended much further back than Chekhov, so I’m shamelessly borrowing from Richard Pevear’s introduction to Anton Chekhov’s Stories in articulating here what was so novel about Chekhov’s approach. Pevear notes that in his own time Chekhov’s writing technique was compared to impressionist painting. He elaborates: “The most ordinary events, a few trivial details, a few words spoken, no plot, a focus on single gestures, minor features, the creation of a mood that is both precise and somehow elusive—such is Chekhov’s impressionism.” Chekhov’s writerly stance was that of a detached observer who presented characters and situations without moralising or judging. His subject matter was “the common stuff of humanity” rather than “monumental personalities dramatically portrayed.” He offered no clear conclusions. All of these factors are at play in “The Lady With the Dog” and, to my mind, these are the factors that make the story seem so modern. No doubt due to Chekhov’s influence, the contemporary reader of short stories is well accustomed to stories which offer up no clear morals, no neat conclusions.

In a letter to his publisher dated October 27, 1888, Chekhov wrote:

Anyone who says the artist’s field is all answers and no questions has never done any writing or had any dealings with imagery. The artist observes, selects, guesses, and synthesizes… You are right to demand that an author take conscious stock of what he is doing, but you are confusing two concepts: answering the questions and formulating them correctly. Only the latter is required of an author.

In that spirit, rather than attempting a definitive analysis of “The Lady With the Dog,” I will put forward for discussion a number of questions that occurred to me while reading it:

1. Close to the end of the story, the following passage appears: “They had forgiven one another the things they were ashamed of in the past, they forgave everything in the present, and they felt that this love of theirs had changed them both.” I don’t have a strong enough sense of who Anna Sergeevna was at the beginning of the story to venture an opinion as to whether the love affair changes her. But what of Gurov? Dana Gioia writes that “Gurov undergoes a strange and winding course of emotional and moral growth that few readers would expect” and sees this transformation as central to the tale. I have my doubts. Certainly his feelings about Anna Sergeevna change over the course of the story, but has he changed by the end?

2. What is Gurov’s appeal for Anna Sergeevna or for any of his previous conquests? It’s difficult to tell from inside his head. He expresses a fair bit of hostility toward women, particularly the ones he’s close to, but he doesn’t seem very keen on himself either. Why are women drawn to him?

3. Virginia Llewellyn Smith, who wrote a whole book about “The Lady With the Dog,” described the story as “a summary of the entire topic" of "Chekhov's attitude to women and to love." I haven’t read her book and I’m not sure what to make of this quotation in isolation. Certainly we learn a great deal about Gurov’s attitude to women and to love, but is there a grander message here outside of Gurov’s point of view that can be ascribed to Chekhov? If so, what might that message be?

4. Yalta is a resort town where people go for fun and frolic. But it’s also a place where people go for their health. Chekhov himself moved there after a lung haemorrhage caused by tuberculosis. In the story, Anna Sergeevna came to Yalta after telling her husband that she was ill. We don’t know about Gurov, but surely he wouldn’t be there for weeks on end without his family unless he too had used ill health as a pretext. Stefanie’s recent post on illness in literature prompts me to ask whether that spectre of illness, however subtle, is important in this story.

5. Did anybody else read multiple translations of the story? If so, did it make any difference to your perception of it? I read two different translations and I think that I preferred that of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky to that of Ivy Litvinov. The language of the former seemed more direct and pared down. But subjective preference apart, I did wonder which translation was closest to Chekhov’s intentions. In my own stories, I can spend months just changing one word back and forth, so the difference that a translator’s choices can make to the meaning and effect of a story strikes me as a very substantial variable to consider.

I’d love to hear others’ views on these questions.

Click over to A Curious Singularity to read more posts on “The Lady With the Dog” and to join in the discussion flowing from them.


Quillhill said...

I think to best understand how his form of short story was new, we need to see it in relation, not to modern short stories, but to the short stories that were written before his.

Kate S. said...


I agree. I'm plotting to read some Gogol and to reread de Maupassant with that in mind as I've seen both cited as his influences. To properly understand his place in the evolution of the short story, though, clearly I'll also have to have a look at stories of the sort that he did not admire but was reacting against.