31 Days of Stories 2011, Day 15: “The Lady with the Little Dog” by Anton Chekhov & “The Lady with the Pet Dog” by Joyce Carol Oates

May 15, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Lady with the Little Dog

From Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Selected Early Stories

The first marked distinction between Anton Chekhov’s classic story of adulterous love and Joyce Carol Oates’s revisionist take on it is structural: whereas Chekhov tells his story chronologically, Oates begins her version after the affair has putatively ended. The scene in question appears in both stories, but its relative positioning gives it different weight in the latter. In both cases, the female object of desire, Anna, goes to the theatre where she is confronted by her male lover.

In Chekhov’s version of the tale, Dimitri Dimitrich Gurov, the protagonist, has returned to Moscow after a sojourn to Yalta, during which he met and bedded Anna Sergeyevna, whom he first spies walking her white Pomeranian. (No one in Yalta knows who this mysterious woman is, referring to her simply as “the lady with the little dog.”) More than a month after his return home to his wife and children, Gurov finds himself consumed by thoughts of Anna and their time together. He had assumed that the memory of his brief fling would fade with time, that Anna “would become misted over … and only occasionally would he dream of her touching smile,” but he finds that precisely the opposite is the case. Gurov becomes haunted by Anna, who invades his thoughts, which take on a kind of obsessive quality:

He did not simply dream of Anna Sergeyevna – she followed him everywhere, like a shadow, watching him. When he closed his eyes he saw her as though she were before him and she seemed prettier, younger, gentler than before. … In the evenings she would look at him from the bookcase, from the fireplace, from a corner; he could hear her breathing, the gentle rustle of her dress. In the street he followed women with his eyes, seeking someone who resembled her.

Gurov is startled by the strength of his feelings for Anna; he has had many affairs in the past, all of which began in an “easy and amusing” fashion, only to develop into “an enormous, extraordinarily complex problem with respectable people – especially Muscovites, who are so hesitant, so inhibited.” Yet despite “[r]epeated – and in fact bitter – experience,” Gurov continues to embark on new affairs, in part because he cherishes the novelty and the “charming, light-hearted adventure,” and in part because he has grown weary of his own wife, “a tall, black-browed woman” who is “plain-spoken, pretentious, respectable” as well as being “an avid reader” who “followed the latest reforms in spelling.”

So, when Gurov, so easily bored under most circumstances, finds himself unable to stop thinking about Anna, he feigns an excuse to travel to her home town, where he locates her at an opening night performance of an operetta called (probably not coincidentally) The Geisha, which she is attending with her husband.

The scene is a turning point in Chekhov’s story. After reacting to Gurov’s appearance with abject terror, thinking that her husband will learn of her affair, the two secret themselves in a staircase where Anna confesses to Gurov that in the time they have been apart she has “only existed by thinking about” him. The two part, but Anna begins visiting Moscow, where they carry on their assignation.

By placing the scene in the theatre at the opening of her story, Oates decontextualizes the relationship between Anna and her lover, making the situation, and the motivations behind it, initially unclear for those unfamiliar with Chekhov’s original, and for those who are, drawing attention to the altered circumstances of her own telling.

In addition to the structural shifts Oates imposes upon the story, the other essential difference is the point of view. In Oates’s story, it is Anna who serves as the main figure, not her lover, who is, significantly, unnamed. If Chekhov, who wrote his story in 1899, was interested, at least in part, in examining the social confines of late-19th century Russian society – in which, although propriety was paramount, a patriarchal social structure made it easy for a married man to engage in serial extra-marital affairs – Oates is concerned with the effect such an affair might have on a woman in 1972 America, a society no less patriarchal or puritanical. By placing the scene in the theatre right up front, and dramatizing it from Anna’s point of view, Oates heightens the fearful discombobulation that her protagonist experiences at glimpsing her lover: “Her blood rocked in her body, draining out of her head … she was going to faint … They stared at each other. They gave no sign of recognition. Only when he took a step forward did she shake her head no – no – keep away. It was not possible.”

Anna’s panic, we come to realize, is born in part from her fear that her husband will learn of her affair, but in part from the shame that she continues to feel over her actions, shame that induces her, upon her return to Ohio from Nantucket, where the affair occurred, to “[draw] a razor blade lightly across the inside of her arm, near the elbow, to see what would happen.” Anna’s shame is a function of what she sees as her betrayal of her husband – it is directed outward, toward another person. Her husband, by contrast, feels his own shame, but this is attached to his perceived sexual inadequacies – his shame is directed inward, toward himself. The two are brought together in a searing paragraph in which Anna ruminates on her situation following the encounter at the theatre:

In January her lover spied on her: she glanced up and saw him, in a public place, in the DeRoy Symphony Hall. She was paralyzed with fear. She nearly fainted. In this faint she felt her husband’s body, loving her, working its love upon her, and she shut her eyes harder to keep out the certainty of his love – sometimes he failed at loving her, sometimes he succeeded, it had nothing to do with her or her pity or her ten years of love for him, it had nothing to do with a woman at all. It was a private act accomplished by a man, a husband or lover, in communion with his own soul, his manhood.

Oates describes the husband’s body “working its love upon her,” indicating an act performed to her, not with her; when they have sex, he is “a little rough with her, as if impatient with himself,” and when he tells her that he loves her, he does so “fiercely, angrily.” His repeated question, “Did I hurt you?” is always met with the same stock response, “You didn’t hurt me.” “Always this hot flashing of shame between them,” Oates writes, “the shame of her husband’s near failure, the clumsiness of his love.” Anna’s assertion that the husband didn’t hurt her is as much a balm to his fragile male ego as it is a transparent lie.

But if her husband is depicted “working his love upon her,” this is hardly the only way Anna is denied agency in Oates’s story. Significantly, the titular canine, which belongs to Anna in Chekhov’s original, is the property of Anna’s lover in Oates’s version. “The lady with the pet dog” is the title of a sketch Anna’s lover makes at the beach in Nantucket, as the dog ferries back and forth between Anna and her lover’s blind son, who keeps calling out to it. Anna’s paralysis is tied into the lack of agency over her own life; taking the other man as her lover is a conscious attempt to try to impose some authority onto her situation: “She was frightened, yet it seemed to her necessary to give in; she had to leave Nantucket with that act completed, an act of adultery, an accomplishment she would take back to Ohio and her marriage.” Anna’s repeated thoughts of suicide are provoked in large measure by the notion that killing herself would be an act she might accomplish out of her own volition, free from the dictates of any men in her life.

Both Chekhov’s story and Oates’s end with the protagonists reaching an epiphany about the state of their marriages, but as with the stories’ openings, the emphasis is very different in each case. For his part, Gurov realizes that he has fallen in love with Anna – indeed, he has fallen in love for the first time in his life. “Then they conferred for a long time and wondered how they could free themselves from the need to hide, to deceive, to live in different towns, to see each other only after long intervals. How could they break free from these intolerable chains?” Chekhov’s insistence that “both of them clearly realized that the end was far, far away and that the most complicated and difficult part was only just beginning” is a fairly definite indication that Gurov and Anna will leave their respective spouses and set themselves up together, if and for as long as their society will allow them to do so. What is significant here is that the societal construct remains unquestioned: it is not the patriarchy that is at fault, nor even the institution of marriage, it is merely the inconvenient timing of meeting each other at a point in their lives when they were already committed to others.

Oates, by contrast, pushes Anna much farther in the direction of deconstructing the societal strictures that had created her paralysis in the first place. Her moment of realization is more dangerous than Gurov’s, because it calls into question the entire fabric of her society and its proscriptions:

And suddenly, joyfully, she felt a miraculous calm. This man was her husband, truly – they were truly married, here in this room – they had been married haphazardly and accidentally for a long time. In another part of the city she had another husband, a “husband,” but she had not betrayed that man, not really. This man, whom she loved above any other person in the world, above even her own self-pitying sorrow and her own life, was her truest lover, her destiny. And she did not hate him, she did not hate herself any longer; she did not wish to die; she was flooded with a strange certainty, a sense of gratitude, of pure, selfless energy. It was obvious to her that she had, all along, been behaving correctly; out of instinct.

“Why are you so happy?” her lover asks her upon noticing the change that has come over her. “What’s wrong?” Although Oates makes it clear that Anna loves the man she is with in the hotel room “above any other person in the world,” his ironic question is indicative of an unconscious nervousness at the awakening of her previously untapped independence, the notion that she does not have to live according to the code that her society imposes upon her. Gurov and Anna face a “complicated and difficult” period because they have admitted their love for one another but are resigned to live within the confines of their era. In Oates’s feminist retelling, Anna, like Nora at the end of A Doll’s House, breaks the shackles of the life that has been imposed upon her and begins to chart her own course. Both endings open outward, but with very different, very divergent implications.

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