The Punishments of the Real

Continuing with my discussion of Chekhov’s short story, “Lady with the Pet Dog,” (full text available here) it’s easy to see how the story is often cited as a prime example of nineteenth-century literary Realism. The story is highly visual and related in the calm, discreet voice we associate with a reliable third-person narrator. Chekhov’s selection of details are as artistically self-conscious as Flaubert could be, nevertheless Chekhov chooses details with care, from the “great numbers of generals” prancing around Yalta to the “vulgar lorgnette” Anna uses in the theater.

One of the first signs something is amiss in Chekhov’s well ordered realism occurs after Gurov and Anna first have sex in her hotel room. Gurov rolls over and picks up a piece of fruit from the bedside table. He consumes fruit for a solid hour, munching in complete silence as Anna suffers paroxysm of guilt. In this very odd scene we see Gurov from a less sympathetic angle for the first time. We also get a glimpse into Chekhov’s own guilt over his dramatist’s voyeurism, his unease at the intimacy of fiction compared to drama.

After some more pleasurable trysts, Anna and Gurov return to their homes and families. Gurov settles comfortably into his Moscow routine. But soon he is seized by a fever to tell. The image of Anna has wormed into his brain. He has no friends but plenty of acquaintances, so there’s no one he can tell about his affair that summer in Yalta. He is overwhelmed by the desire to bring his memories into the realm of discourse, which is not quite the real, but a whole lot closer than the imaginary in which his Anna is stuck. He finally floats the idea of Anna to see what happens. Chekhov relates the incident in devastating terseness:

One evening, coming out of the doctors’ club with an official with whom he had been playing cards, he could not resist saying:

“If only you knew what a fascinating woman I made the acquaintance of in Yalta!”

The official got into his sledge and was driving away, but turned suddenly and shouted:

“Dmitri Dmitritch!”

“What?”

“You were right this evening: the sturgeon was a bit too strong!”

These words, so ordinary, for some reason moved Gurov to indignation, and struck him as degrading and unclean. What savage manners, what people! What senseless nights, what uninteresting, uneventful days! The rage for card-playing, the gluttony, the drunkenness, the continual talk always about the same thing. Useless pursuits and conversations always about the same things absorb the better part of one’s time, the better part of one’s strength, and in the end there is left a life grovelling and curtailed, worthless and trivial, and there is no escaping or getting away from it–just as though one were in a madhouse or a prison.

Gurov’s Moscow life is suddenly revealed to be very much like his adultery: degrading and repetitive, completely lacking in any sense of self or the real. Previously, Gurov felt as if he were in harmony with all of nature; now his social world–the entire realm of discourse–appears rotten. Instead of a field of free play, it’s a prison containing a self he didn’t know existed before this moment.

Near the conclusion there’s another moment in which Gurov suffers from the real. He comforts a sobbing Anna as they realize they’re still in love with each other. Gurov looks over her shoulder at himself in a mirror and notices, “His hair was already beginning to turn grey. And it seemed strange to him that he had grown so much older, so much plainer during the last few years.” This theatrical moment is almost unbearably sad, for here we feel the impact of the slap of the real as well: we wanted to think Gurov was still a handsome, attractive man who was worthy of Anna’s undying love.

In the closing line of the story the narrator predicts that Anna and Gurov will be remade into new people, but not before suffering from repeated encounters with the real. “[I]t was clear to both of them that they had still a long, long road before them, and that the most complicated and difficult part of it was only just beginning.” With no illusions left, language no longer comforts. “How?” Gurov mutters as he contemplates a future without his familiar delusions, and the reassuring order of Realism.

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