There is little urgency in Gurov and Anna’s lives at the beginning of the story. When he first sees Anna, Gurov has already been on vacation for two weeks “and was used to it,” Chekhov writes, highlighting the character’s idle boredom. Later, while talking with Anna for the first time during dinner, Gurov comments that he is “dragging” through his second week in Yalta, to which Anna responds, “The time passes quickly, and yet it is so boring here!” Neither appears to have a strong sense of purpose guiding their days in Yalta, instead attempting merely to escape, through a change of scenery, the unhappiness that clings to their city selves and relationships. Nor does either take much notice of or pleasure in the present moment; the lack of genuine feeling makes their days paradoxically drag even as they fly by. Only upon embarking on their romance do the two become more acutely aware of the passage of time, and, it follows, of the fact that they have met each other a little too late—both already married, and Gurov into middle age. Through the resultant poignancy of their affair, the story ultimately suggests the importance of actively pursuing relationships that make life meaningful.
Chekhov imbues the story with a sense of time through his repeated references to the changing seasons—Anna and Gurov’s affair begins in summer and breaks off in autumn (Gurov tells himself, after he has put Anna on a train from Yalta back to St. Petersburg, that their parting is as natural as summer fading to fall), and their decision to try to be together more permanently occurs in winter. This seasonal cycle reflects the development of their relationship—which begins as a casual romance neither party expects to last beyond their stay in Yalta, turns an ongoing relationship that nonetheless must remain a secret, and finally becomes something that the two want to make permanent.
Even as the tenor of their relationship is subtly impacted by the passage of time, Gurov and Anna don’t seem to acknowledge any temporal restraints until the end of the story. At first, the couple remain relatively passive and idle. They fall into a steady rhythm in Yalta, developing a routine of dining, walking on the embankment, and looking at the sea together. Though they expect Anna’s husband to arrive any day, and know they both must leave Yalta soon, there is a sense of timelessness to their love that belies the reality of how limited their time together actually is.
This changes at the end of the story when, after having engaged in their secret affair for months, Gurov looks in the mirror and notices that he has gray hair. Beyond underscoring how much time has passed and how much he has changed since meeting Anna, such evidence of aging—and, it follows, mortality—prompts Gurov to lament wasting so much of his life on shallow affairs that had been “anything else, but not love,” and how “only now, when his head was gray, had he really fallen in love as one ought to—for the first time in his life.” Though their partnership in Yalta felt like time out of time, this moment shows Gurov beginning to realize that they cannot continue passively engaging in their affair and must instead take active steps to pursue the life they want together before it is too late.
Gurov and Anna’s response to knowing—and fearing—how short their time together might be is to love each other “like tender friends” and “forg[i]ve everything in the present.” Such deep, unconditional care, the story suggests, is in part borne from awareness of the fleeting nature of life and romance. Not only does love imbue the passage of time with a sense of meaning, then, but acceptance of the inevitable march of time makes love all the more powerful.
Time, Mortality, and Purpose ThemeTracker
Time, Mortality, and Purpose Quotes in The Lady With the Dog
Afterwards, in his hotel room, he thought about her, that tomorrow she would probably meet him again. It had to be so. Going to bed, he recalled that still quite recently she had been a schoolgirl, had studied just as his daughter was studying now, recalled how much timorousness and angularity there was in her laughter, her conversation with a stranger—it must have been the first time in her life that she was alone in such a situation, when she was followed, looked at, and spoken to with only one secret purpose, which she could not fail to guess. He recalled her slender, weak neck, her beautiful gray eyes.
“There’s something pathetic in her all the same,” he thought and began to fall asleep.
Anna Sergeevna was not a dream, she followed him everywhere like a shadow and watched him. Closing his eyes, he saw her as if alive, and she seemed younger, more beautiful, more tender than she was; and he also seemed better to himself than he had been then, in Yalta.
The leaves of the trees did not stir, cicadas called, and the monotonous, dull noise of the sea, coming from below, spoke of the peace, of the eternal sleep that awaits us. So it had sounded below when neither Yalta nor Oreanda were there, so it sounded now and would go on sounding with the same dull indifference when we are no longer here. And in this constancy, in this utter indifference to the life and death of each of us, there perhaps lies hidden the pledge of our eternal salvation, the unceasing movement of life on earth, of unceasing perfection. Sitting beside the young woman, who looked so beautiful in the dawn, appeased and enchanted by the view of this magical odor—sea, mountains, clouds, the open sky—Gurov reflected that, essentially, if you thought of it, everything was beautiful in this world, everything except for what we ourselves think and do when we forget the higher goals of being and our human dignity.
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 . . .
His head was beginning to turn gray. And it seemed strange to him that he had aged so much in those last years, had lost so much of his good looks. The shoulders on which his hands lay were warm and trembled. He felt compassion for this life, still so warm and beautiful, but probably already near the point where it would begin to fade and wither, like his own life.
“Why did she love him so?” Women had always taken him to be other than he was, and they had loved in him, not himself, but a man their imagination had created, whom they had greedily sought all their lives; and then, when they had noticed their mistake, they had still loved him. And not one of them had been happy with him. Time passed, he met women, became intimate, parted, but not once did he love; there was anything else, but not love.
And only now, when his head was gray, had he really fallen in love as one ought— for the first time in his life.
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.