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Love and Morality in Chekhov's "the Lady with the Dog"

Updated on June 21, 2012


Love is essential to human existence, however it often fails to transcend boundaries of accepted morality due to a complicated reality. The diction, syntax and tone of “The Lady with the Dog” work together to convey the idea that it is difficult to overcome societal standards of morality and live however one wishes. Gurov is inspired by the magical surroundings of Yalta and his affair with Anna and realizes that his relationship with Anna, however immoral or shallow under the interpretation of society, is in fact far more beautiful and dignified than his social life in Moscow. He sees that people are only truly alive when they are able to shed their masks and expresses their real emotions. He feels no remorse for he believes that he could not be judged by societal standards of morality and he should be free to live however he wishes to. He decides that he should not abandon his human dignity in order to conform to society because the world is indifferent to his actions. Chekhov illustrates Gurov’s epiphany by describing setting in detail and creating a romantic atmosphere in which he could actively examine his existence.However, his realization does not exempt him from moral judgement and he chooses to remain a member of society which causes him misery. His diction and syntax also create a shift in the tone of the story, which signifies a change in Gurov’s attitude towards his affair and himself. When Gurov is back in Moscow, Chekhov uses a significantly different tone to show a further development in Gurov’s character which reinforces the theme that live and love unaffected by society.

Chekhov creates a vivid image of Oreanda where Gurov sits in silence and contemplates his life in Moscow and life in Yalta. Gurov sits next to Anna and takes advantage of a rare opportunity to be himself. The diction of this passage presents a thoughtful side of Gurov’s personality as well as his romanticism and naivety. He is shown to be surrounded by beautiful and perpetual nature: “leaves did not stir in the trees,” “grasshoppers chirruped,” “the monotonous hollow sound of the sea rising up from below,” “the sea, mountains, clouds, the open sky” (452). Chekhov utilizes complex, flowing sentences to illustrate a soft, calm atmosphere. This setting represents a moment of peace and clarity where only the present exists and matters. The physical description of this beautiful oasis gives the passage a mood of enchantment and surrealism. At the same time, Chekhov separates his protagonists from his pitiful reality. This marks a transition in the story, as Gurov is given a chance to reflect upon a different, abstract reality, in the midst of his seemingly superficial and fickle passion. The temporary suspension of Gurov from his loveless marriage and meaningless pursuits allows Gurov to examine the fundamentals of his existence. Paradoxically, without the bothers of everyday life and moral judgement, all of which make up his identity, Gurov’s temporary reality is nothing more than a romantic escape. The positive connotation of the words used to describe Oreanda and Gurov’s thoughts reveals Chekhov’s support and appreciation for Gurov’s introspection. However, phrases immediately following Gurov’s contemplation give a sharp contrast to the romantic, bold mood: "There is dew on the grass," said Anna Sergeyevna, after a silence. "Yes. It's time to go home" show that reality prevails despite of Gurov’s efforts to avoid it (453).

Chekhov’s attitude towards Gurov’s detachment also reflects the belief that one must reconcile two realities for love to survive. The apparent contradiction shown in Gurov’s perception of reality reinforces the idea that morality is tangled in men’s struggle for love and acts as an inevitable obstacle. In the case of Gurov, only when he is taken out of reality is he able to reflect upon his separate social and private lives objectively. Enchanted by his surroundings and the beautiful girl next to him, he has the courage to truly examine his hypocrisy and cowardice. Gurov declares that as long as he does not abandon his “higher aims of existence” everything he does in life could and should be considered beautiful (453). In this way, he rationalizes his adultery and denounces his loveless marriage. Gurov realizes that his affair with Anna is his chance to escape a mundane and deceitful life. Gurov redeems himself in Anna, for he hopes to find his “eternal salvation” in his innocent love (452). He observes that the sea “will sound as indifferently and monotonously when we are all no more.”and understands that his limited time on earth has little impact on the ageless world (452). Checkhov uses personification to depict the timeless nature as a higher power devoid of judgement and criticism: “in this complete indifference to the life and death of each of us” and the sea “spoke of the peace.” This stresses Chekhov’s idea that men should not limit themselves in order to satisfy social expectations (452).

Anton Chekhov chooses phrases that are general and abstract to illustrate also the ambiguity of Gurov’s thoughts. It displays Gurov’s failure to connect these deep ideas to his current situation. For example, “eternal sleep,” “life and death,” “unceasing progress towards perfection.” imply that Gurov is considering the big questions with a detachment to his unfaithfulness and problematic future (452-453). Anaphora is used in this passage to highlight the introspective and passionate state Gurove is in: “So it must have sounded,” “so it sounds now,” “and it will sound” (452). These abstract statements also create a philosophical and profound mood which characterizes Gurov as a deep, sensitive human-being capable of questioning his existence. The same diction of the passage brings out Gurov’s flaw. Gurov is made to appear as a romantic with no regard for the intricacies of love, and a failure who does not actually overcome the boundaries determined by society.

Furthermore, Gurov is shown to be immersed in his new found love for his life, which he once found ordinary and tedious. Chekhov emphasizes Gurov’s change in attitude with “this detail seemed mysterious and beautiful, too” (453). Gurov begins to take notice of what he has neglected before and chooses to engage in an actively examined life. However, Gurov’s appreciation for life comes at a price. Checkhov uses “spellbound” and “magical” to give insight into Gurov’s internal state: he romanticizes his affair with Anna and takes advantage of this opportunity to find himself (453). At the same time, the same diction of the passage illustrates Gurov’s ignorance to reality. “Spellbound” and “magical” as opposed to a more realistic description of Gurov’s setting foreshadow the impending reality Gurov must go back to once the spell is lifted. These phrases also again indicate that Gurov is oblivious to the troubles facing him in the near future, and he feels no guilt for his affair.

As the story progresses, Chekhov takes a significantly different approach to painting Gurov’s developing relationship with Anna in Moscow. Instead of developing his relationship with Anna in a vacation resort outside of his society, Gurov is once again back in his reality, Moscow. Instead of the colorful, light, and carefree description of Yalta and its people, Gurov in Moscow is painted as an aging, grey character, jaded yet in love. Chekhov uses words such as “grey, plainer, quivering” in contrast to words like “compassion, lovely, and warm” following immediately after (458). Chekhov’s diction and sentence structure show that after spending time in society, Gurov is troubled by his complicated reality and chained by cultural obligations. This contrast also creates a serious, sober tone which adds another dimension to Gurov’s character.

The continuation of Gurov’s affair and the growth of his love, when presented in a realistic setting, also add to the effectiveness of Chekhov’s message that reality can not be separated from love. Chekhov then uses rhetorical question and an elaborate response to reveal a change in Gurov’s personality and maturity. Gurov is shown to be capable of questioning his past, his deceitful nature, and his own feelings. This indicates a major development in Gurov’s character. Furthermore, the analytical, logical mood of the passage shows that even after properly assessing his affair, Gurov is only more sure of his love. Chekhov constructs sentences that are chronologically arranged and highly descriptive to show that Gurov is seriously considering his past love affairs which makes Gorov seem more aware of reality. Finally, phrases such as “always,” “not one,” “never once,” “not love” convey a confident, indisputable tone which shows that Gurov is sure of his past mistakes and is serious about his decisions now (458).

Chekhov then uses parallelism and simile to describe Anna and Gurov’s love with respect to Gurov’s understanding of his situation. “Like husband and wife,” “like tender friends,” “meant them for each other,” show just how deep their love is and how much Gurov treasures their relationship (458). Chekhov shifts the tone and describes the two lovers as “pair of birds of passage, caught and forced to live in different cages” (458). However, he immediately relieves the tragic tone by stating “they forgave each other for what they were ashamed of in their past, they forgave everything in the present, and felt that this love of theirs had changed them both.” Anaphora is used in these sentences to stress Chekhov’s idea that love is above society, morality, and even reality (458). Chekhov further illustrates Gurov’s heroic love with the statement “he no longer cared for arguments” (458) This shows that Gurov believes his love is also beyond analysis and logic. However, Chekhov does not end the passage on an optimistic note for he does not reveal a concrete plan for the lovers. Instead, they are still faced with an uncertain future which again illustrates that accepted morality is part of reality that even determined lovers can not escape.

The diction, syntax, and tone of Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Dog” work together to convey the idea that love is essential to men’s happiness however they often let societal and cultural constraints limit their actions. His diction and syntax help create an intimate and calm atmosphere in the first half of the story, which allows Gurov to see how shallow and meaningless his social life is. The beautiful description of Yalta also portrays how much Gurov enjoys and appreciates his affair with Anna. On the other hand, the same literary devices work to reveal Gurov as a character with little regard to reality as he initially explores his relationship with Anna. The shift in the story is used to show the difference in Gurov’s personality when he takes into account of reality. Chekhov accomplishes this with the creation of a serious atmosphere which shows that Gurov is hardened by his experience with society and is no longer solely romantic. The ambiguous end of the passage emphasizes Gurov’s acknowledgement of the hard times ahead.

References


Chekhov, Anton. “The Lady with the Dog.” Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing.
Ed. Edgar V. Roberts and Henry E. Jacobs. 8th ed. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2007.
452-453. 458.

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    • uNicQue profile image

      Nicole Quaste 

      6 years ago from Philadelphia, PA

      I like the realist nature of Chekhov's writing, so I'm eager to read more. I read and loved "The Cherry Orchard" by Chekhov, so I'm going to read this as soon as possible.

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