Study Guide for Chekhov's 'The Lady with the Pet Dog'

This classic Chekhov story has many layers of meaning

Anton Chekhov’s short story "The Lady with the Pet Dog" begins in the resort town of Yalta, where a new visitor—a "fair-haired young woman of medium height" who owns a white Pomeranian—has caught the attention of the vacationers. In particular, this young woman piques the interest of Dmitri Dmitrich Gurov, a well-educated married man who has regularly been unfaithful to his wife.

Chekhov wrote "The Lady with the Pet Dog" in 1899, and there's much about the story to suggest it's semi-biographical.

 At the time he wrote it, Chekhov was a regular resident of Yalta and was dealing with protracted periods of separation from his own lover, the actress Olga Knipper.

As Chekhov wrote to her in October of 1899, "I have grown accustomed to you. And I feel so alone without you that I cannot accept the idea that I shall not see you again until spring."

Plot Summary of 'The Lady with the Pet Dog'

Gurov introduces himself to the woman with the pet dog one evening, while both of them are dining in a public garden. He learns that her she is married to an official in the Russian provinces and that her name is Anna Sergeyevna.

The two become friends, and one evening Gurov and Anna walk out to the docks, where they find a festive crowd. The crowd eventually disperses, and Gurov suddenly embraces and kisses Anna. At Gurov’s suggestion, the two of them retire to Anna’s rooms.

But the two lovers have very different reactions to their newly-consummated affair: Anna bursts into tears, and Gurov decides that he is bored with her.

Nonetheless, Gurov continues the affair until Anna leaves Yalta.

Gurov returns to his home in and his job at a city bank. Though he attempts to immerse himself in the life of the city, he is unable to shake off his memories of Anna. He sets out to visit her in her provincial hometown.

He encounters Anna and her husband at a local theater, and Gurov approaches her during an intermission.

She is disconcerted by Gurov’s surprise appearance and his unabashed displays of passion. She tells him to leave but promises to come see him in Moscow.

The two continue their affair for several years, meeting at a hotel in Moscow. However, they’re both troubled by their secretive lives, and by the end of the story, their plight remains unresolved (but they are still together).

Background and Context of 'The Lady with the Pet Dog'

Like a few of Chekhov’s other masterpieces “The Lady with the Pet Dog” may have been an effort to imagine how a personality like his would have fared under different, perhaps unfavorable circumstances.

It is worth noting that Gurov is a man of art and culture. Chekhov himself began his professional life divided between his work as a traveling doctor and his pursuits in literature. He had more or less forsaken medicine for writing by 1899; Gurov may be his attempt to envision himself in the kind of staid lifestyle he had left behind.

Themes in 'The Lady with the Pet Dog'

Like many of Chekhov’s stories, “The Lady with the Pet Dog”  centers on a protagonist whose personality remains static and staid, even when the conditions around him are sharply altered. The plot bears similarity to several of Chekhov’s plays, including “Uncle Vanya” and “Three Sisters,” which focus on characters who are incapable of forsaking their unwanted lifestyles, or of overcoming their personal failings.

Despite its romantic subject matter and its focus on a small, private relationship, “The Lady with the Pet Dog” also levels harsh criticisms at society in general. And it is Gurov who delivers the bulk of these criticisms.

Already jaded in romance and repelled by his own wife, Gurov eventually develops bitter feelings for Moscow society.  Life in Anna Sergeyevna’s tiny hometown, however, is not much better. Society offers only easy and fleeting pleasures in "The Lady with the Pet Dog."  In contrast, the romance between Gurov and Anna is more difficult, yet more durable.

A cynic at heart, Gurov lives a life based on deception and duplicity. He is aware of his less appealing and less overt traits and is convinced that he has given Anna Sergeyevna a falsely positive impression of his personality.

But as “The Lady with the Pet Dog” progresses, the dynamic of Gurov’s double-life undergoes a change. By the end of the story, it is the life he shows to other people that feels base and burdensome—and his secret life that seems noble and beautiful.

Questions about 'The Lady with the Pet Dog' for Study and Discussion

  • Is it fair to draw comparisons between Chekhov and Gurov? Do you think that Chekhov consciously wanted to identify with the main character in this story? Or do the similarities between them ever seem unintentional, accidental, or simply unimportant?
  • Return to the discussion of conversion experiences, and determine the extent of Gurov’s change or conversion. Is Gurov a very different person by the time Chekhov’s story draws to a close, or are there major elements of his personality that remain intact?
  • How are we meant to react to the less pleasant aspects of "The Lady with the Pet Dog," such as the dingy provincial scenes and the discussions of Gurov’s double life? What does Chekhov intend for us to feel while reading these passages?


References:

"The Lady with the Pet Dog" printed in The Portable Chekhov, edited by Avrahm Yarmolinsky. (Penguin Books, 1977).