Anton Chekhov’s late stories mark a pivotal moment in European fiction–the point where nineteenth-century realist conventions of the short story begin their transformation into the modern form. The Russian master, therefore, straddles two traditions. On one side is the anti-Romantic realism of Maupassant with its sharp observation of external social detail and human behavior conveyed within a tightly drawn plot. On the other side is the modern psychological realism of early Joyce in which the action is mostly internal and expressed in an associative narrative built on epiphanic moments. Taking elements from both sides, Chekhov forged a powerful individual style that prefigures modernism without losing most of the traditional trappings of the form. If Maupassant excelled at creating credible narrative surprise, Chekhov had a genius for conveying the astonishing possibilities of human nature. His psychological insight was profound and dynamic. Joyce may have more exactly captured the texture of human consciousness, but no short story writer has better expressed its often invisible complexities.
It is an instructive irony that at the end of the twentieth century current short fiction seemingly owes more to Chekhov than to Joyce or any other high-modernist master. In 1987 when Daniel Halpern asked twenty-five of the noted writers featured in his collection, The Art of the Tale: An International Anthology of Short Stories 1945-1985 (New York: Viking, 1987), to name the most crucial influences on their own work, Chekhov’s name appeared more often than that of any other author. Ten writers–including Eudora Welty, Nadine Gordimer, and Raymond Carver–mentioned Chekhov. (James Joyce and Henry James tied for a distant second place with five votes each.) Chekhov’s preeminent position among contemporary writers is not accidental; no other author so greatly influenced the development of the modern short story. As the late Rufus Matthewson once observed, Chekhov fully articulated the dominant form of twentieth century short fiction: “the casual telling of a nuclear experience in an ordinary life, rendered with immediate and telling detail.” Chekhov was the first author to consciously explore and perfect this literary method in his vast output of short stories.
Chekhov does not eliminate–or even minimize–plotting from his stories. He is masterful in creating narrative suspense. His plots, however, are usually highly compressed. Early in his career Chekhov had to write according to strict space limits (only one hundred lines of newsprint), and he learned by constant practice to eliminate all unnecessary elements from a story. What Chekhov offered instead was the luminous detail, a few significant particulars that summon up a character or scene. In a letter to his brother, Chekhov explained how by depicting the right external detail, he could evoke the inner state of a character or special quality of a landscape:
When describing nature, a writer should seize upon small details, arranging them so that the reader will see an image in his mind after he closes his eyes. For instance: you will capture the truth of a moonlit night if you’ll write that a gleam like starlight shone from the pieces of a broken bottle, and then the dark, plump shadow of a dog or wolf appeared. You will bring life to nature only if you don’t shrink from similes that liken its activities to those of humankind.
In displaying the psychology of your characters, minute particulars are essential. God save us from vague generalizations! Be sure not to discuss your hero’s state of mind. Make it clear from his actions. Nor is it necessary to portray many main characters. Let two people be the center of gravity in your story: he and she. (Letter to Alexander Chekhov, May 10, 1886.)
What seems most distinctive about Chekhov’s mature stories is how the plot inevitably originates from the inner force of his characters. The story line never seems imposed for its own sake as it often does, for example, in the shorter works of Balzac or Hoffmann, which revel in narrative twists and surprise endings. One sees parallels to Chekhov in certain stories by Melville, Tolstoi, and Flaubert. Their main interests, however, lay in the novel, and they had no inclination to explore so fully or adventurously the potential of short fiction. Chekhov, by contrast, was obsessed with the form of the short story. Although he died at forty-four, and had careers in both medicine and theater, he wrote over eight hundred stories.
Chekhov’s major innovation comes from realizing the psychological potential of the character-driven story by merging plot and protagonist. As the narrative develops, Chekhov allows the protagonist to change as well–subtly and credibly. There is perhaps no better example of Chekhov’s dynamic psychology than Dmitry Gurov, the protagonist of “The Lady with the Pet Dog,” which Vladimir Nabokov called “one of the greatest stories ever written.” Published with symbolic appropriateness in 1899, this story shows Chekhov (who would die within five years) reinventing the form for the twentieth century. In the case of this brief tale, Gurov undergoes a strange and winding course of emotional and moral growth that few readers would expect.
The opening section of this story deserves close attention. We first meet Gurov on the esplanade at Yalta where he is taking a holiday alone. An attractive man from the upper class, he has been trapped for years in a loveless arranged marriage. Not yet forty, he has already become an experienced seducer. His affairs always end badly, but he cannot resist starting new ones. His doomed adulteries have left him cynical and bitter. Chekhov presents Gurov in a mostly unfavorable light emphasizing his manipulation, misogyny, and amorality, and yet the author refuses to simplify his protagonist into a stock villain. Gurov possesses contradictory impulses. His low opinion of women, for example, accompanies an inexplicable preference for their company. Nothing in the story’s opening suggests the inner transformation that Gurov will undergo–more or less against his will–and the initially unfavorable view of his character ensures that the reader’s attitudes will also need to be transfigured.
We don’t really know Anna Sergeyevna, the lady with the pet dog, until her seduction. Before that decisive moment she is seen mostly from the outside. She is little more than a series of gestures, remarks, and generally understated reactions. She is a young, bored, upper-class married woman in Yalta for the first time. After “her fall,” she bursts out with a passionate fit of repentance. Only then does the reader gets a glimpse of her inner life. Although still quite young, she–like Gurov–is also a creature of contradictions. She wants to be honest and pure, but she also craves excitement and adventure. She, too, is trapped in a suffocating marriage. Anna wants to experience more of life “(“To live, to live!”). She has even faked an illness to escape on a holiday to the Black Sea resort. By the standards of Chekhov’s day, she is hardly a model heroine.
When Anna Sergeyevna leaves Yalta, her affair has seemingly concluded. Chekhov then explicitly shows the reader what was suggested all along–to Gurov the romance had little emotional depth. He had not sought love but only the emotional excitement of an infatuation. He was not even attracted by anything particularly personal about the young woman–only her obvious availability and the excitement of pursuit. The affair with Anna was merely “another episode or adventure in his life.” Its demise leaves him “moved, sad, and slightly remorseful” but certainly not heartbroken. Returning to Moscow, he expects to forget her–more or less–in a month.
Now midway in “The Lady with the Pet Dog” comes the quiet climax of the story. This quintessentially Chekhovian moment is so private and internal that it is easy to miss the first time one reads the story. Returning to his daily routine in Moscow, Gurov gradually realizes he is in love with Anna. As a result, he also recognizes that the separation between his external and internal lives has become intolerable. His family leaves him mostly irritated or bored. He especially loathes the vulgar male world he inhabits–”frenzied gambling, gluttony, drunkenness, continual talk always about the same things.” The mention of “talk” is not unimportant. Gurov’s loneliness does not seem primarily sexual, though that craving is part of it. He also feels the agonizing absence of anyone he can talk to meaningfully about the private realities of his life. He now resolves to visit Anna in her hometown–a dangerously bold thing to do by the social standards of this time. If he missteps, he could easily ruin both of their lives forever.
What follows Gurov’s decision is both simple and remarkable. Arriving in the city of S–, Gurov eventually manages to meet the astonished Anna at the theater one night. They both admit that they are in love. She promises to meet him discreetly in Moscow. (It would be impossibly risky to meet in her own city.) Under the pretense of consulting a physician for “a woman’s ailment,” she travels to Moscow every few months for an assignation. Although they remain trapped in their marriages, the couple carve out a secret world of happiness and dream–futilely, Chekhov hints–of escape.
Their solution–to continue their adulterous affair in secrecy and deception–is simple, but by the standards of 1899, hardly admirable. Chekhov, however, presents it in remarkably neutral terms. Conventional morality plays no significant part in the story’s conclusions. No one is censured. The couple seem, in fact, to enjoy the author’s qualified sympathy. Chekhov, however, does not rail against hypocritical public standards as a reformist like Shaw or Ibsen might. He simply portrays the couple’s situation. Perhaps even more interesting is his ultimate characterization of Gurov. The protagonist initially appeared a conventional literary seducer–handsome, urbane, calculating, and amoral–but Chekhov gradually reveals that his unattractive appetite for philandering was actually a misdirected hunger for something deeper. He craves intimacy, though he has mistaken sexual conquest for it. After almost dispassionately seducing Anna and ending the affair with seasoned skill, Gurov astonishes himself by finding love “really, truly–for the first time in his life.” The cynical roué unwittingly finds a sort of redemption–but not in any of the ways Chekhov’s audience would have easily understood or endorsed. Gurov does not repent his adultery and renounce Anna. Neither does he find the means to legitimize their relationship in marriage (an impossibility in the Russia of 1899). They simply continue to meet in secret. Only their furtive lives are, in a sense, redeemed, but at least their lives now touch something authentic. Readers today, especially students, might fail to understand how boldly this story moves to its conclusion.
Each of the story’s major settings–Yalta, Moscow, and the unnamed provincial town of S– –reveal something about the couple. The seaside resort of Yalta provides an almost anonymous place where both individuals can escape the restrictions of their repressive homes. It also serves as a romantic backdrop for their trysts. By contrast, Moscow is the social prison in which Gurov lives–locked in his loveless marriage and shallow friendships. Anna’s city plays the same harsh role in her life. It represents the social order that confines her in unhappiness. At the end of the story, however, the couple recreate a small secret island of happiness in a Moscow hotel–a small room of private authenticity symbolically set against a metropolis of public convention. Inside its walls, the couple is happy, but, as Chekhov suggests in the final paragraph, a place they can never safely leave.
First published in Eclectic Literary Review (Fall/Winter 1998)