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.

31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 23: “Ward No. 6” by Anton Chekhov

May 23, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

From Stories

Anton Chekhov is best known through his plays and brief, impressionistic stories such as “The Huntsman” or “Lady with a Little Dog.” But Chekhov’s short fiction was more varied in tone and approach than most people credit it for; his early naturalism gave way to a more symbolic style in his middle period, a style that was characterized by dark irony and cutting social commentary that incisively dissected the Russian society of the day, often despairing at what it found.

Running to 50 pages, “Ward No. 6” is one of Chekhov’s longest stories; it is also one of his most philosophically dense. Ostensibly the story of two men – one the inmate of a mental institution, the other his doctor – the story is actually an extended meditation on human suffering, and what constitutes insanity in a society that has lost its values and anything resembling a moral compass.

The asylum inmate, Ivan Dmitrich Gromov, and the doctor, Andrei Yefimych Ragin, are doubles of one another. Both are intellectuals who were born into nobility; both end up losing everything and finding themselves incarcerated in the mental ward of the town hospital. But the trajectories by which they succumb to incarceration are very different. Gromov is a paranoiac, who imagines that everybody in town, from tradesmen who come to replace his landlady’s stove to policemen in the streets, is spying on him or watching for him to make a wrong move in order to scoop him up and imprison him. Gromov’s paranoia has reduced him to a kind of paralysis:

He did not sleep for whole nights, expecting to be arrested, but he snored loudly and sighed like a sleeping man, so that his landlady would think he was asleep; because if he did not sleep, it meant he was suffering from remorse – what evidence! Facts and logical sense insisted that all these fears were absurd and psychopathic, that, once one took a broader view, there was nothing especially terrible in arrest and prison – as long as his conscience was at ease; but the more sensible and logical his reasoning was, the more intense and painful his inner anxiety became. It resembled the story of the recluse who wanted to clear a little spot for himself in a virgin forest; the more zealously he worked with the axe, the deeper and thicker the forest grew. Seeing in the end that it was useless, Ivan Dmitrich abandoned reasoning altogether and gave himself up entirely to fear and despair.

For his part, Ragin is troubled by the lack of proper care available to the patients in his hospital, and succumbs to a sense of futility at the prospect of trying to adequately care for their needs:

Today you receive thirty patients, and tomorrow, lo and behold, thirty-five come pouring in, and the next day forty, and so it goes, day after day, year after year, and the town mortality rate does not go down, and the patients do not stop coming. To give serious aid to forty outpatients between morning and dinnertime was physically impossible, which meant, willy-nilly, that it was all a deceit. During the fiscal year twelve thousand outpatients were received, which meant, simply speaking, that twelve thousand people were deceived. To put the seriously ill in the hospital and care for them according to the rules of science was also impossible, because while there were rules, there was no science; and to abandon philosophy and follow the rules pedantically, as other doctors did, you first of all needed cleanliness and ventilation, not filth, and wholesome food, not soup made from stinking pickled cabbage, and good assistants, not thieves.

The world of the hospital that Chekhov portrays is irredeemably filthy, ruled over by the guard Nikita, who resides on top of the mounds of hospital garbage that are piled in the building’s front hall: “Mattresses, old torn dressing gowns, trousers, blue-striped shirts, worthless, worn-out shoes – all these rags are piled in heaps, crumpled, tangled, rotting and giving off a suffocating smell.” Indeed, Ragin believes that the hospital, in its grime and primitive conditions, is an “immoral institution” that should be closed down. However, Ragin lacks the political will to advocate for this and convinces himself that the mere fact of the hospital’s existence proves its necessity:

Besides, if people had opened the hospital and put up with it in their town, it meant they needed it; prejudice and all this everyday filth and muck are necessary, because in time they turn into something useful, as dung turns into black earth. There is nothing good in the world that does not have some filth in its origin.

To the extent that Chekhov’s hospital is meant as a microcosm for Russian society, the picture he paints is not a terribly flattering one. Russian society, Chekhov suggests, is mired in filth and muck, but will correct itself given time. Ragin’s assessment is counterpointed by Gromov’s notion of what time is capable of doing:

Those who take an official, business-like attitude towards other people’s suffering, like judges, policemen, doctors, from force of habit, as time goes by, become callous to such a degree that they would be unable to treat their clients otherwise than formally even if they wanted to; in this respect they are no different from the peasant who slaughters sheep and calves in his backyard without noticing the blood. With this formal, heartless attitude towards the person, a judge needs only one thing to deprive an innocent man of all his property rights and sentence him to hard labor: time.

In Gromov’s conception, time is connected with both the Russian bureaucracy, which in his paranoid mind is irredeemably malevolent, and with suffering. The ultimate result of allowing time to pass is that a judge will discover enough evidence against an individual to deprive that person of liberty and incarcerate him in a forced labour camp.

The association is not accidental: throughout Chekhov’s story, the hospital is explicitly compared to a prison. Not only are the two institutions contiguous to one another in the town, but from the very opening of the story, we are presented with the image of the hospital fence, “topped with nails” that point upwards, giving the building “that special despondent and accursed look that only our hospitals and prisons have.” Gromov constantly refers to the hospital’s mental ward as his prison, an association that Ragin will echo when he finds himself incarcerated in Ward No. 6 at the story’s end.

Throughout the story, Chekhov engages in an extended meditation on the nature and function of human suffering, which Ragin feels, invoking Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, can be “disregarded” and ignored. Gromov, from his particular vantage point as an inmate of a prison-like hospital ward, maintains no such illusions:

“God created me out of warm blood and nerves, yes, sir! And organic tissue, if it’s viable, must react to any irritation. And I do react! I respond to pain with cries and tears, to meanness with indignation, to vileness with disgust. In my opinion, this fact is called life. The lower the organism, the less sensitive it is and the more weakly it responds to irritation, and the higher, the more susceptible it is and the more energetically it reacts to reality. How can you not know that? You’re a doctor and you don’t know such trifles! To scorn suffering, to be always content and surprised at nothing, you must reach that condition” – and Ivan Dmitrich pointed to the obese, fat-swollen peasant – “or else harden yourself with suffering to such a degree that you lose all sensitivity to it, that is, in other words, stop living.”

If suffering is living, which of the two men, Chekhov implicitly asks, is more alive? When the doctor is incarcerated in the mental ward at the story’s end, it is left to the reader to decide whether this represents his comeuppance or his redemption. For in a society where intelligent, thoughtful men like Gromov are incarcerated as insane, while “dozens, hundreds of madmen are walking about in freedom because in your ignorance you are unable to tell them from the sane,” where, the inmate asks, is the logic? Ragin has only one answer to give: “That I am a doctor and you are a mental patient has no morality or logic in it – it’s a matter of pure chance.”