Lady with the [Not Quite Real] Pet Dog

How many of you out there were assigned to read Chekhov’s “Lady with the Pet Dog” in a college Intro to Lit class? That’s what I thought: most of you American readers. (Is the same true for regular readers from Germany, France, Great Britain, Spain, Iran, Brazil, the Netherlands, Denmark, Italy, Japan, Canada, and elsewhere? In Russia, too?) The story was most likely assigned as an exemplar of third person point of view (the anthology I used to teach the course classifies it that way) or, more abstractly, as an example of realist narration. The two generally go hand in hand; third person narration is generally held to be more reliable than first person narrative. All the Intro to Lit textbooks tell us that. But what’s remarkable about “Lady with the Pet Dog” is that for all its directness and attention to detail, for all its apparent fealty to the phenomenal world, the story is about delusions–of desire, of love, of masculinity, of middle-class life.

In this story Chekov seems to be at his most straightforward. In translation, at least, he shows none of the slipperiness of free indirect style, like he does in “Rothchild’s Fiddle.” He creates an entire world–Moscow in winter–with sensual delight and masterly efficiency. “The old limes and birches, white with hoar-frost,” the narrator tells us, “are nearer to one’s heart than cypresses and palms, and near them one doesn’t want to be thinking of the sea and the mountains.” But a few paragraphs later Chekhov demolishes this world with one sentence. It’s the most important sentence in the story, and with it Chekhov challenges the very nature of Realism as a literary genre, and the nature of the real itself. One snowy evening after a dinner party, an official remarks to Gurov, the story’s protagonist, “‘You were right this evening: the sturgeon was a bit too strong!'”

With this one sentence, nineteenth-century Realism comes to an end, in the second to last year of the century.

One should always have a definition of reality. You never know when you’ll need one. I have two: the first comes from Jean Baudrillard, and the second from Jacques Lacan.

  1. The real is the opposite of the fictive. When MTV was first becoming popular in the US, there was much concern that American teenagers were confusing the music videos for reality. MTV responded by introducing The Real World and brief news segments. These “realistic” shows clearly marked the music videos as fictive, even though the latter didn’t fit neatly into any known category of fiction. To this day television exercises this fundamental divide. Reality shows only claim to the real is that they eschew the conventions of fictive drama.
  2. The real is that slap in the face that forces you to look at the world around you in a different way. Think of the scene in Sleepless in Seattle when Annie (Meg Ryan) first lays eyes on Sam and his son Jonah (Tom Hanks and Ross Malinger). In an eyeline match cut from Annie to a park, the father and son are shot in soft-focus, with a slight pinkish tint: a fantasizing shot. Annie is about to step forward to meet them when a truck roars past, almost hitting her. Annie blinks and retreats, her fantasy disrupted. She returns to Baltimore, convinced she is crazy. Later, of course, the power of fantasy will be reasserted, but for one moment, reality appears in the form of a passing truck.

For Gurov, the serial adulterer and smugly contented bourgeoisie, an off-handed remark by a man he hardly knows is the passing truck. More on that tomorrow.

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6 Comments

  1. Beautifully put. Thanks for this. I was thinking this morning before I read this about how our political fantasies of how the world should be share a lot in common with the fictive.
    Reality indeed intrudes on the vision as the slap in the face, the truck passing, the end of the dream. It’s always there, but much of the time we are able to avoid it. Then avoidance becomes impossible. Much like the current world wide economic meltdown.

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  2. Oh yes, this whole economic meltdown is a slap in the face–to me, to a lot of people, to the entire American economic system. We’re not going to have the same system when this is all over with–exactly the effect of the real as changing how we look at the world.

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  3. In contrast to your definition of the real, here is one from the WSJ last week.
    “…here are the words of Ronald Reagan’s pollster, Richard Wirthlin, as recorded in one of the main Reagan strategy documents from 1980: “People act on the basis of their perception of reality; there is, in fact, no political reality beyond what is perceived by the voters.””
    I think this is a highly cynical view of political reality. One that increases audience manipulation, and one that we are paying for dearly as this economic crisis unfolds. As you have so well pointed to here, the real slaps us in the face and points to a reality beyond our perception, humbling us with the shock. But it reminds us that reality exists beyond perception, and that we are either in a quest to find it, or it will eventually find us.

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  4. Or, instead of defining reality, we could do a Nabokov and just keep putting quotation marks around the sucker!
    “REALITY”
    PS: I like the post, but haven’t read the story (not in my Intro to Lit course!) and don’t quite follow how that one line destroys so much…

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  5. Hi Pacze:
    I added a link to the story online.
    I didn’t get too deeply into Lacan’s concept of the real, but effectively we put quotation marks around the real most of the time–or all of the time, in the case of Nabokov. We can’t function as subjects unless we do. (Remember, this definition of the real originates in psychoanalysis.)
    What struck me about the Chekhov story was that it’s usually classified as a realistic story, but it’s all about delusions. Most of the significant action happens internally.

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  6. Hi a.m.:
    I fully agree that the whole so-called Reagan Revolution is based on a cynical manipulation of reality. As individuals, we have to have our delusions to some degree, but politics is supposed to orient itself to very real conflicts and problems. What’s interesting about the 2008 election is that people finally seem to be seeing through the Republicans’ manipulations.

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