Dispatches | May 28, 2013

During the month of May, The Missouri Review will highlight a single short story to help celebrate National Short Story Month. We’ve asked a diverse group of readers and writers to participate by sharing a short story that demands to be read. Today’s blog post comes from writer Elliott Holt.

“Every personal existence was upheld by a secret,” writes Chekhov in “The Lady with the Little[1] Dog.” [2]

That line kept running through my head when I saw Sarah Polley’s beautiful documentary “Stories We Tell” last weekend. The film is an investigation of her late mother and the secrets she kept. Polley interviews all of her siblings, her father, and her mother’s friends in an attempt to make sense of her family’s past. I often think about secrets, about how hard it can be to know another person completely, and about how much we humans need our hidden, interior lives. And so it’s not surprising that I return again and again to my favorite Chekhov story.

On the surface “The Lady with the Little Dog” is a love story, and a romantic one at that, but it’s also about the tension between the person we show the world and the one we keep to ourselves. The older I get, the more the story resonates with me.

I must have been in high school the first time I read “The Lady with the Little Dog.” Chekhov’s story can be found on many syllabi, of course, so I read it again in college and again in Russian at the Middlebury language school one summer. In college classrooms, I learned about what the critic D.S. Mirsky refers to as Chekhov’s “lyric constructions” (he notes the musicality of Chekhov’s stories, which tend to end on a minor note) and the “leitmotif of mutual isolation” (there is a lot of loneliness in Chekhov stories). I learned about how Chekhov revolutionized the short story and about his influence on modern American writers. And when I read the story in Russian, our professor, Lyudmila Parts, pointed out its intertextual relationship with Anna Karenina. Tolstoy’s novel about an adulterous love affair was published in 1877, a full twenty-two years before Chekhov’s story. And aside from their shared subject matter, and the fact that both women are named Anna, there are scenes in “The Lady with the Lap Dog” that directly reference Tolstoy’s book. As my sister Katharine Holt, a Russian literature scholar, recently reminded me, one could read “The Lady with the Little Dog” as a lower-stakes version of Anna Karenina. It’s a short story, not a novel. It’s an affair in which the woman feels guilty and sad, but doesn’t kill herself. We don’t see the unhappiness of the heroine’s home life the way we see Anna Karenina’s misery in the novel. It’s a snapshot of an affair, rather than the full narrative, yet it’s still deeply affecting.

Gurov is “not yet forty”[3] when he meets “the lady with the little dog,” while on holiday in Yalta. His wife and children are at home in Moscow. Gurov’s marriage is not a happy one: “he secretly considered [his wife] none too bright, narrow-minded, graceless, was afraid of her and disliked being at home. He had begun to be unfaithful to her long ago, was unfaithful often…” From the very beginning, “the lady with the little dog” is his target, and we know that he will succeed in sleeping with her.

I have read this story at least thirty times, but I still think of her as “the lady with the lap dog.” And that is surely Chekhov’s intention because he doesn’t reveal her name until the third page. At the beginning of the story, she is introduced as “a new face on the embankment: a lady with a little dog.” She is “a young woman, not very tall, blond, in a beret, walking along the embankment; behind her ran a white spitz.” People at the hotel refer to her as “the lady with the little dog.” When he finally learns her name once the flirtation is well underway, it’s an after thought: “And Gurov also learned that her name was Anna Sergeevna.”

Anna is married, but has never before been unfaithful to her husband. Gurov’s romantic history is more complicated. He observes that most of the women who have loved him didn’t really know him:

Women had always taken him to be other than he was, and they had loved in him, not himself, but a man their imagination had created, whom they had greedily sought all their lives; and then, when they had noticed their mistake, they had still loved him.

 But earlier in the story he admits that he doesn’t let anyone in completely. Intimacy “grows into a major task” and “becomes burdensome.” When Gurov loses interest in women, “their beauty aroused hatred in him, and the lace of their underwear seemed to him like scales.” (That is a brilliant description, not just because it’s a surprising, specific image, but also because it tells us so much about Gurov’s character.)

Gurov is detached from the people around him. He’s surprised that he falls in love with Anna. And despite his professed love for her, Anna Sergeevna remains an abstract figure in the story. Gurov projects romantic notions onto her the same way women have projected things onto him. When he goes to find her in the city of S., he sees her in the theater (a place of projections and roles) and thinks, “this small woman, lost in the provincial crowd, not remarkable for anything with a vulgar lorgnette in her hand, now filled his whole life.” Gurov is convinced that he has never really been in love before, but he doesn’t know Anna very well.

I would argue that this story is less about Anna than about Gurov’s need to escape his conventional life:

He had two lives: an apparent one, seen and known by all who needed it, filled with conventional truth and conventional deceit, which perfectly resembled the lives of his acquaintances and friends, and another that went on in secret. And by some strange coincidence, perhaps an accidental one, everything he found important, interesting, necessary, in which he was sincere and did not deceive himself, which constituted the core of his life, occurred in secret from others…

He needs his secret life. It sustains him. It’s like the watermelon he eats after he has sex with Anna Sergeevna for the first time. Before you slice open a watermelon, you can’t see the juicy, bright red fruit inside. I can’t help but wonder if such a “secret” life is essential to artists, who need to preserve private emotional space in which to compose or write or paint. The “secret” life is one where the imagination flourishes. Perhaps Chekhov’s own marriage worked because he and Olga Knipper saw each other so rarely—she was in Moscow acting in his plays, he was in Yalta because of his poor health. They conducted most of their relationship by letter.[4]

Gurov lives in Moscow, Anna lives in the provincial city referred to as S.  She visits him occasionally in Moscow, but they know they can’t continue to live this way, married to other people and seeing each other only in secret. The secrecy is not sustainable. It’s making them miserable. (In Sarah Polley’s film, someone wisely observes that love affairs “need witnesses” to legitimize them.) Yet if the relationship were not secret, I can’t help but think it would lose its appeal to Gurov. Gurov doesn’t know himself as well as he thinks he does. The story ends on an ambiguous note:

And it seemed that, just a little more—and the solution would be found, and then a new, beautiful life would begin; and it was clear to both of them that the end was still far, far off, and that the most complicated and difficult part was just beginning.

Even after reading it dozens of times, this strikes me as a really ballsy way to end a story. (After all those years reading this story in literature classes, I now read it as a writer. I admire Chekhov’s craft; it’s enormously instructive.) He finishes a story by saying that the end is far off and that the most complicated part is just beginning. He subverts traditional notions of endings by putting the word “beginning,” at the end. And in doing so, he underscores the fact that for all the hope that Gurov and Anna have for their future, this relationship is doomed. As readers, we know their love can’t last. Gurov and Anna really believe that it will work out, but Chekhov’s minor key suggests otherwise. It’s heartbreaking because it’s true.

[1] Like most people I know, I refer to this story as “The Lady with the Lap Dog” because the first twenty or so times I read it, the title was translated that way. But Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translation, “little dog,” is closer to the Russian title.

[2] All quotes are from Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translation.

[3] It is worth noting that Chekhov was thirty-nine when he wrote this story and that I am thirty-nine now. As a writer who appreciates this story more every time I read it, I can only hope I will write something half this good. As a human being nearing her fortieth birthday, I am familiar with the restlessness that Gurov experiences in the story.

[4] And oh what letters they are! I read the romantic correspondence between Chekhov and Olga Knipper when I was about 22 and I remember wanting a love affair like that: conducted entirely by letter. The obstacle of distance made them more passionate and appreciative of each other. Better yet, they expressed this passion on paper. At 22, this seemed ideal. I suppose this reveals a lot about me. I need my space and I love writing.

elliottHoltElliott Holt’s debut novel, You Are One of Them, is out this month on Penguin. She was born and raised in Washington, D.C., and has lived in cities all over the world. A former copywriter who worked at advertising agencies in Moscow, London, and New York, Holt attended the MFA program at Brooklyn College at night while working full time in Manhattan during the day. Her short fiction has been published in Guernica, Kenyon Review, Bellevue Literary Review and The Pushcart Prize XXXV (2011 anthology).