30 pages 1 hour read

Anton Chekhov

The Lady With The Dog

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1899

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “The Lady with the Dog”

First published in 1899, “The Lady with the Dog” is one of Anton Chekhov’s most well-known stories. The short story examines the conflict between conformity to marital and gender conventions and faithfulness to one’s inner principles. Focusing on an adulterous relationship, the story challenges the patriarchal mindset, criticizes the arbitrariness of prescribed gender roles and marriage conventions, and explores the meaning of genuine relationships. Chekhov’s protagonists expose the crippling effect of societal gender roles on men and women in marriage. His main characters also demonstrate the potential and limits of regaining personal and relational integrity under pressure to conform to prescribed norms of behavior.

Chekhov wrote the story while living in Yalta during the winter of 1898 and 1899. It was published in the magazine Russkaya Mysl (Russian Thought), with the first English translation debuting in 1903. A staple of the Western literary canon, “The Lady with the Dog” has been adapted for film and stage, including theater and ballet.

This guide refers to the version in Later Short Stories: 1888-1903, a collection of Chekhov’s work translated by Constance Garnett.

The story opens with Moscow banker Dmitri Dmitritch Gurov vacationing alone in the Crimean seaside resort of Yalta. A father of three children, he is unhappily married to a woman he both despises and fears. Despite considering women “the lower race” (569), Gurov seeks female company and often pursues brief and enjoyable love affairs. After two weeks in Yalta, Gurov notices a new visitor walking by the sea: an attractive young lady with a white Pomeranian. He begins encountering the woman and her little white dog multiple times a day. Gurov surmises that she is married, alone, and bored.

Looking for another quick love affair, Gurov strikes up an acquaintance with the lady. In their subsequent walks and conversations by the seaside, he details his banking career in Moscow, his background as an arts student, and his training as an opera singer. The young woman’s name is Anna Sergeyevna. She is initially from St. Petersburg but lives in the town of S—, and she is married to a government bureaucrat of German descent named Von Diderits. Reflecting on his acquaintance, Gurov sees “something pathetic” in Anna even as he admires her tender, youthful features (571).

A week later, Gurov and Anna venture out to watch a steamer’s arrival. Waiting and watching late into the evening, Anna seems particularly emotional and absent-minded. Sensing Anna’s heightened emotions, Gurov embraces and kisses her. They go to her hotel room, where they consummate their relationship. Anna’s distress and contrition in the aftermath do not fit any category of Gurov’s previous experiences with women. “You will be the first to despise me now,” she laments (572). Spotting a “water-melon” on a table, Gurov crosses the room to cut into it. They sit in silence as he languidly eats the fruit. After 30 minutes, he finally speaks: “How could I despise you? […] You don’t know what you are saying” (573).

Anna laments her unhappy marriage at 20 to a “flunkey” of a husband (573), her arrival in Yalta on the pretense of illness, and her unfaithfulness to herself with Gurov because she desperately desires “to live” and experience “something better” in her life (573). And yet after pursuing those desires through their tryst, she feels only guilt and self-loathing: “I am a bad, low woman; I despise myself and don’t attempt to justify myself” (573).

Irritated, Gurov questions what Anna wants. She insists that she loves a “pure, honest” life and that she finds sin “loathsome,” yet she has no explanation for her adulterous actions. Tired of her fretting, Gurov hushes her with kisses, and eventually Anna’s mood improves. After, they take a cab to Oreanda, a settlement in Yalta, where they settle on a bench not far from a church. Together, they observe the scenery: the white clouds, motionless in the still air; the chirping grasshoppers; the mountaintops; and the “monotonous hollow sound of the sea rising up from below,” speaking “of the peace, of the eternal sleep awaiting us” (574). Gurov is struck by the beauty of the moment:

Sitting beside a young woman who in the dawn seemed so lovely, soothed and spellbound in these magical surroundings—the sea, mountains, clouds, the open sky—Gurov thought how in reality everything is beautiful in this world when one reflects: everything except what we think or do ourselves when we forget our human dignity and the higher aims of our existence (574).

As time passes, their affair grows into regular meals and outings. Unexpectedly, Anna receives a letter from her husband summoning her home since he cannot come to Yalta as initially planned. Seeing the letter as the “finger of destiny” intervening in their affair (575), Anna leaves Yalta. She promises to remember Gurov and wishes him happiness, certain they will never reunite because they “ought never to have met” (576). Saddened by her departure, Gurov regrets his deception of Anna. He recognizes in retrospect how he feigned affection for Anna while hiding his “coarse condescension” (576). Even then, as the summer ends, Gurov is ready to move past this relationship.

On returning to his native Moscow, Gurov resumes his familiar social life with the arrival of autumn and then winter. He expects that his memories of Anna will soon fade like memories of his past affairs. However, Anna’s image haunts Gurov, memories of her intensify, and he grows restless in his desire. Frustrated by a lack of close confidants, Gurov comes to loathe his social and family life. Everything about his respectable lifestyle now seems meaningless and oppressive—a “prison” without escape (578).

In December, under a pretense, Gurov travels to S— to find Anna. After discovering Von Diderits’s address, he visits her house but cannot think of a credible reason for his presence. He paces outside along the “long grey fence adorned with nails” opposite the house (579). At some point, he hears someone in the house playing piano and sees Anna’s dog let out. After a while, he returns to the hotel disappointed. Learning about a local stage performance, Gurov goes to the theater hoping to find Anna there.

At the theater, Gurov finds Anna with her husband. Anna’s husband matches her description of him as a “flunkey” (573, 580). With “his side-whiskers,” early baldness, and “sugary” smile, Von Diderits seems to be “continually bowing” as he walks (580). When Von Diderits goes out during the interlude, Gurov seizes the moment and approaches Anna. Shocked, Anna stands and walks away as Gurov follows her through the crowd. Finally, she stops as they reach a more secluded part of the theater. They are both overwhelmed with emotion as Anna confesses how miserable she has been without Gurov. He begins to kiss Anna passionately, but she begs him to leave, promising to visit him in Moscow.

Inventing excuses for her husband, Anna starts coming to Moscow every few months, where Gurov visits her in a designated hotel room. During one such visit, as Gurov walks his daughter to school, he thinks about Anna and his double life. Gurov ponders how the true and “essential” part of his life—its “kernel”—remains a secret (583), while everything superfluous and “false” about his life—its “sheath”—stays visible (583).

At the hotel room, Gurov finds Anna in tears. She cries for some time as they both grieve the difficulty of their relationship and reflect on the endurance of their love. Comforting Anna, Gurov glimpses his reflection in the mirror. He notices then his aging and how Anna’s beauty will soon “fade” too (584). It seems inexplicable to him why, after so many other relationships, he fell “properly, really in love” only now (584), near his middle age.

Gurov and Anna come to love one another “like husband and wife, like tender friends” (584). Changed by their love, they feel trapped in their loveless marriages, like a “pair of birds of passage, caught and forced to live in different cages” (584). Unlike before, now Gurov comforts Anna compassionately. They talk for a while, searching for an escape “from this intolerable bondage” of secrecy and deception (584). Just as a solution and their happiness appear possible, they realize that they are only starting the hardest season of their relationship.