Sunday, November 13, 2016

"The Lady With the Dog" (1899)

Read story by Anton Chekhov online.

Anton Chekhov's late story fits neatly enough into the 19th-century European realist version of adultery, with Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina. It's shorter, obviously, so somewhat abstracted, but no less potent. It focuses more on the mutual attraction between lovers, not just the woman's, though she gets pride of place in the title. (Translation note: The title has been variously rendered as "The Lady With a Dog," "The Lady With the Little Dog," "The Lady With the Small Dog," "The Lady With the Pet Dog," and "[The] Lady With [the] Lapdog." The literal translation from Russian is "Lady With Dog." I'm working with the Constance Garnett translations.) She's an eligible woman in a bad marriage. He's a banker also in a bad marriage. They meet on vacation, and have a brief affair. The story is told third-person, mostly from the point of view of the banker, who expects it will be a fling that soon fades from memory. But it does not. He can't stop thinking of her. Eventually he tracks her down and finds she feels the same. They begin a long-term, long-distance affair. The story's tone is not particularly judgmental, though it notes the inconvenience and meager rewards of their behavior. It's neither a glorious romance nor a doomed one. It simply exists more or less as a condition of life—a welcome one, in many ways, and an annoying one too, in many others. It's hard to envy them, but also hard not to sympathize. It feels very much like modern life as we understand it—or, more accurately, as we don't understand it. I like the way it moves along a spectrum of illicit relationship, from objectified sexual conquest as a kind of hobby, to the indignities of love. The story feels modern partly because it's so obvious that divorce would do nothing to change anything. Indeed, a modern version could well include both divorcing and then marrying each other and still come to a similar bittersweet conclusion. I'd like to take this place to raise my objections to the admonitions of William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, in their Elements of Style book, against using the term "the human condition." They—or Strunk, with White evidently concurring a few decades on—view it as a self-evident cliché or banality. But some things seem to fall squarely in the camp of exactly "the human condition"—that impossible paradox of desire and "reality" (I insist on the scare quotes). Among those things are a good many of the people and situations found in Chekhov's stories, not least this tale set in Crimea of inexplicable human passion. By the way, if it's any help, the dog is a white toy Pomeranian.

Delphi Complete Works of Anton Chekhov

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