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.
- 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.
- 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.