Translator: Constance Garnett
Original Language: Russian
Year of First Publication: 1917
Year of Publication for This Edition: 2004
Number of Pages: N/A
Publisher: Project Gutenberg
A few weeks ago, I read my first Chekhov play, Uncle Vanya. I liked it so much, that I decided to read some of Chekhov’s short stories as well, beginning with the Project Gutenberg edition of The Lady with the Dog and Other Stories.
I never know how to write about collections like this where there’s not much of a common theme, so instead, I’ll write about each story individually.
“The Lady with the Dog”
One of Chekhov’s most famous stories, it concerns a banker who feels trapped in his middle-class Moscow existence. While on a trip to the resort town of Yalta, he meets a young woman who is equally unhappy in her recent marriage. The two begin an affair that, despite their promises otherwise, never really ends, and the story closes on the two of them in a hotel in Moscow desperately trying to think up a way for them to be together. It’s a stroke of genius on Chekhov’s part, leaving us hanging with the fulfillment of our expectations indefinitely deferred, similar to the predicament of his two protagonists. Combine that with the gift Chekhov has for mapping the interior space of his characters, and you have yourself a fabulous story.
“A Doctor’s Visit”
A very socially conscious Chekhov tells us a story about a physician who is called to tend to the daughter of a rich factory owner. Upon visiting the factory, just next door to the owner’s home, the doctor is appalled by the conditions in which the laborers are forced to live and work. He sees the daughter’s physical illness as a reaction to the moral and spiritual degradation around her. Preachy? Maybe a little.
A day in the life of a household struggling to cope with its controlling, eternally-suspicious matriarch. It’s one of the shortest stories in the book, and yet in that tiny space, the husband’s desperation and the tension of the whole house become palpable.
Dmitri Ionich Startsev is young doctor who has set up a practice in a small town. He befriends the delightfully ridiculous Turkin family, and falls in love with their daughter, Yekaterina Ivanova (Kitten for short). He would marry Kitten, but she intends to study music and doesn’t want to be tied down to a house and family. Instead of moving on, Startsev lets Kitten’s rejection turn him bitter until he’s incapable of loving anyone or anything. It’s a very simple plot, but still moving, with excellent characters
“The Head of the Family”
Basically “An Upheaval,” but with the gender reversed: this time, it’s a father who terrorizes his family with constant outbursts of temper, then cannot understand why they’re all so afraid of him. It gets even sadder when you find out that the character was probably modeled after Chekhov’s own father.
“The Black Monk”
Another very famous story, about a monomaniacal philosopher’s slow descent into madness. This story made the book for me. It’s so beautifully done, so vivid (especially that ending!), and so delicately walks the line between realism and fantasy. It’s my favorite in the collection.
Reading this after Turgenev’s First Love was a little bit of déjà vu, and not just because the protagonists have the same first name: a teenage boy falls in love with an older (and in this case, married) woman and her rejection sends his life into a tailspin. While I didn’t exactly “enjoy” the story, it was interesting to see how quickly Chekhov could take his reader from sympathizing with the main character to recognizing him for the petty, self-centered child he really is.
“An Anonymous Story”
This is a long one: a young man named Vladimir goes to work as a valet for a man called Georgy Orlov. Orlov is in a relationship with a married woman named Zinaïda Fyodorovna, but only stays with her because he finds her physically attractive. One day, Orlov is shocked to find that Zinaïda has left her husband and wants to move in with him. He does everything he can to make Zinaïda feel unwelcome, and when that doesn’t get rid of her, he begins lying to her, telling her that he’s going on business trips when he really intends to spend the week at his friend’s house across town. As his valet, Vladimir becomes an accomplice in these deceptions, a job he hates doing because, while Orlov was trying to get rid of Zinaïda, Vladimir was falling in love with her.
This ended up being my least favorite story in the book. For one thing, the character of Vladimir is a little odd. When we first meet him, he’s a member of a radical political organization. His whole reason for taking the valet job in the first place was so that he could get closer to Orlov’s father—a prominent politician whom Vladimir’s group opposes—and learn things about him that could later be used to blackmail him. That all seemed a little contrived to me, and the references to Vladimir’s association with that group felt like a distraction from the real story, his relationship with Zinaïda. The second thing that bothered me was the tone of the story overall. Like all of the other stories in this book, “An Anonymous Story” ends sadly; unlike the other stories in the book, it seemed Chekhov was working extra hard here to make you pity his main characters. It just felt too forced and sentimental over all.
Ah yes, the good old Russian trope of the bitter old man who feels that he is unworthy of happiness, and therefore tries to destroy it every chance he gets. As a character study, I think it’s one of the stronger stories in the collection: very simple and straightforward, but still compelling and real.
That’s all for today. If you have any other recommendations for short story collections, Russian or not, leave them in the comments below.