Despite the illicit nature of Gurov and Anna’s affair, Chekhov refuses to pass clear moral judgment on his characters’ actions. Instead, he makes a distinction between the social expectations placed on the lovers—which the story presents as petty and deeply hypocritical—and the actual, positive change that the Gurov and Anna have on each other through the deepening of their allegedly immoral relationship. In doing so, “The Lady with the Dog” suggests the arbitrary nature of societal conceptions of morality. What’s more, that fact that society in Chekhov’s story would keep those with genuine love apart ultimately serves as a condemnation of shallow societal mores.
Gurov and Anna’s affair notably begins while they are separated from the judging eyes of society. Though there is anxiety that someone will spot them in Yalta—Chekhov writes that though they kiss in broad daylight, such displays of affection are often accompanied by “furtive looks around”—their relationship is able to grow in large part because they have the space to explore their feelings without fear of repercussions. That something so genuine can form in such circumstances suggests the oppressive nature of social expectations, which would have quashed any burgeoning attraction between Gurov and Anna before it had a chance to begin. As such, they both assume their relationship must end when they leave the fantasy of Yalta for their real lives Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Moscow is cold and dark, distinctly contrasting with the brightness of Yalta in Gurov’s memory. This further suggests the oppressive, isolating nature of the society keeping Gurov and Anna apart. Chekhov describes Gurov as a Muscovite, who “gradually became immersed in Moscow life” upon his return—“drawn to restaurants, clubs, to dinner parties, celebrations”—yet ultimately unsatisfied by shallow social preening. Indeed, as Gurov’s longing for Anna grows, so, too, does his frustration with the meaninglessness of his well-to-do Moscow existence: “Frenzied card-playing, gluttony, drunkenness, constant talk about the same thing,” Chekhov writes. “Useless matters and conversations about the same thing took for their share the best part of one’s time, the best of one’s powers, and what was left in the end was some sort of curtailed, wingless life…” Here, Gurov directly connects aimless societal pleasures with the curtailing of life—that is, they are distractions that prevent people from truly living.
By the time that Gurov sees Anna again in St. Petersburg, his sense of propriety and societal values have radically shifted. He’s lost all taste for Moscow social life and instead is filled with joy upon seeing “this little woman, in no way remarkable, lost in a provincial crowd.” The usual, expected trappings of a love story—of a woman standing out in a crowd—don’t matter. When the two finally have a chance to talk in the stairwell of the opera house, Gurov embraces Anna heedless of the schoolboys coming up the stairs. In that moment, he’s overcome his estimation of societal appearances and taken a risky step towards a more genuine relationship. Gurov’s journey into love with Anna is a journey of overcoming the societal expectations that have made him unhappy towards being worthy of the woman who does make him happy (even if that means sneaking around).
The characters in “The Lady with the Dog” are knotty, ambiguous people who nonetheless feel genuine love for each other and allow themselves to be guided by that love. By creating a realistic, complex understanding of human actions, Chekhov rejects a binary world in which truth and faithfulness are inherently good and lying and cheating are inherently bad. In this world, people can only gauge their relative worth against their understanding of themselves.
Society and Morality ThemeTracker
Society and Morality Quotes in The Lady With the Dog
Repeated experience, and bitter experience indeed, had long since taught him that every intimacy, which in the beginning lends life such pleasant diversity and presents itself as a nice and light adventure, inevitably, with decent people—especially Muscovites, who are slow starters—grows into a major task, extremely complicated, and the situation finally becomes burdensome. But at every new meeting with an interesting woman, this experience somehow slipped from his memory, and he wanted to live, and everything seemed quite simple and amusing.
Then he looked at her intently and suddenly embraced her and kissed her on the lips, and he was showered with the fragrance and moisture of the flowers, and at once looked around timorously—had anyone seen them?
Gurov listened to the chirring of the grasshoppers and the hum of the telegraph wires with a feeling as if he had just woken up. And he thought that now there was one more affair or adventure in his life, and it, too, was now over, and all that was left was the memory. . . He was touched, saddened, and felt some slight remorse; this young woman whom he was never to see again had not been happy with him; he had been affectionate with her, and sincere, but all the same, in his treatment of her, in his tone and caresses, there had been a slight shade of mockery, the somewhat coarse arrogance of a happy man, who was, moreover, almost twice her age. She had all the while called him kind, extraordinary lofty; obviously, he had appeared to her not as he was in reality and therefore he had involuntarily deceived her . . .
He gradually became immersed in Moscow life, now greedily read three newspapers a day and said that he never read the Moscow newspapers on principle. He was drawn to restaurants, clubs, to dinner parties, celebrations, and felt flattered that he had famous lawyers and actors among his clients, and that at the Doctors' Club he played cards with a professor. He could eat a whole portion of selyanka from the pan…
Those words, so very ordinary for some reason suddenly made Gurov indignant, struck him as humiliating, impure. Such savage manners, such faces! These senseless nights, and such uninteresting, unremarkable days! Frenzied card-playing, gluttony, drunkenness, constant talk about the same thing. Useless matters and conversations about the same thing took for their share the best part of one’s time, the best of one’s powers, and what was left in the end was some sort of curtailed, wingless life, some sort of nonsense, and it was impossible to get away or fee, as if you were sitting in a mad- house or a prison camp!
He had two lives: an apparent one, seen and known by all who needed it, filled with conventional truth and conventional deceit, which perfectly resembled the lives of his acquaintances and friends, and another that went on in secret. And by some strange coincidence, perhaps an accidental one, everything that he found important, interesting, necessary, in which he was sincere and did not deceive himself, which constituted the core of his life, occurred in secret from others, while everything that made up his life, his shell, in which he hid in order to conceal the truth—for instance, his work at the bank, his arguments at the club, his “inferior race,” his attending official celebrations with his wife—all this was in full view.
He and Anna Sergeevna loved each other like very close, dear people, like husband and wife, like tender friends; it seemed to them that fate itself had destined them for each other, and they could not understand why he had a wife and she a husband; and it was as if they were two birds of passage, a male and a female, who had been caught and forced to live in separate cages. They had forgiven each other the things they were ashamed of in the past, they forgave everything in the present, and they felt that this love of theirs had changed them both.