Chekhov’s “The lady with the dog”

Anton Chekhov and Olga Knipper, 1901
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I find myself on this gorgeous Minneapolis day in a Caribou Coffee downtown.  Since the debate season is recently over I find myself in this odd period where there is little that demands my time and I just do not know how to handle the lack of any rush.  So, here I am in a coffee shop being stereotypically hipsterish with my two t-shirts, the long sleeved one under a short sleeved, ripped jeans (my only remaining pair of jeans somehow ripped over the thigh this weekend) and my cloth dark sneakers.  So it seems only natural that I should pull out my collection of Chekhov’s short stories and read one to which I keep finding references.

The story begins with Gurov visiting a resort, Yalta before Yalta became famous for geopolitics, and being utterly bored.  Chekhov’s brilliance in both writing and observation is first apparent in his description of this boredom: “One did not know what to do with oneself.”  Its brilliance is so obvious that I am unable to even explain why it affects me so.

When discussing Gurov’s and Anna’s marriages he describes both in the passive voice which is a brilliant stroke becaue it prepares us for the satisfactory and yet the unhappy natures of their marriages.  We then feel little, or at least less than normal, judgement for the affair they have.  It’s a clever turn that I at first did not want to attribute to Chekhov, marking it instead as translation or coincidence, but upon reflection I think that would be an unfair reading.

Gurov has had affairs before but this one marks him differently and the remainder of the story is then his attempt to reconcile this difference.  Chekhov makes another observation which I do not find novel, but sadly unknown to many people.

And he judged others by himself, not believing in what he saw, and always believing that every man had his real, most intersting life under the cover of secrecy and under the cover of night.

This is the problem of the analysand in the most succint rendering I have ever encountered.  As I walked downtown this morning I was carrying this Chekhov book and I wondered why I was doing that.  I did reach my stop sooner than expected so I did not have time to put it in my backpack, but there was more than that.  I thought it made me look cool.  I then thought what would happen if someone stopped me on the street (yes, I am that self-centered) and called me out on trying to look cool.  I thought about my response, and I had settled on this very criticism of the analysand.  “You think I’m trying to look cool?  No, I just didn’t have room in my backpack.  But what does that interpretation say about you?”  It seemed more compelling and Oh-Snap!-ish in my head.  In any case, I rarely see the problem of the analysand rendered in anything but scholarly works, which is sad given fiction’s necessity for interpretative theory.

One place I find Chekhov weak, however, is in the process of memory.  Gurov thinks back to his past (all, not just adulterous) affairs and how he was never once in love.  I do not doubt this judgement as a final product, but the judgement is not necessarily accurate and Chkhov could be reflective here, he has demonstrated the erudition to be so.  When looking back at past relationships it easy to rationalize away the love and affect felt during those relationships.  It is easy to be melancholic and self-loathing, to render moments of love into a deceptive remembrance.

This again begs a question I keep returning to (I am formulating a lengthy response to Sebold’s The Lovely Bones) about the division of the mind from the body in fiction and culture.  Chekhov uses Gurov to look back on past moments, past moments described like the affair with Anna, and to deny the body’s affection with those women.  We know that he was in love because he loves Anna, his body seizes his mind and forces him to act in ways he knows are risky and probably futile.  And yet Chkhov does not reflect on the past relationships and the memory of them.

Those are my initial thoughts.  I really enjoyed the story and I was impressed with Chekhov’s ability to easily convey complex thoughts and feelings.  I can only hope that my thoughts are read with such ease.

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