Dmitri Gurov does not take love seriously. His wife annoys him, long-term relationships scare him, and his love life consists of brief affairs with women he meets at vacation resorts. In Anna, he finds someone who appears to be the usual victim—traveling alone, tired of her husband, and unlikely to make any effective demands for intimacy, something that seems to be revealed in the diminutive portability of her traveling companion. This time, however, he has met a match too powerful for his predatory ambitions. When is love’s bite bigger than its bark? Wes & Erin discuss Anton Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Little Dog.”
Thanks to Nick Ketter for the audio editing on this episode.
Wes: Okay, so today we are doing two Chekhov short stories. So I’d read one of these a long time ago. The Lady with a Little Dog and then the other one I hadn’t read The House with the Mezzanine… and really, I’ve only… I haven’t read a lot of Chekhov’s short stories. I’ve been exposed more to the place. But why did you choose these? And what’s your history with Chekhov?
Erin: Yeah. So I suggested these because I know Chekhov really well. I’ve been in love with Chekhov, probably even, like, just Chekhov the man, since I was, maybe, about 13. As you probably know, Wes, I have a picture of Chekhov visiting Tolstoy at Yasnaya, Polyana over my desk in my apartment, and yeah, I mean, I’ve always had this kind of fascination with Russian culture that was really, really big in my family for some reason, from the time that I was a very little girl… This is kind of apropos of nothing, but I remember in the first grade we had that… I don’t know why it was so early on, but, you know, those biography projects that you do in elementary school, like, usually people do them in, like, fifth or sixth grade, where they come dressed as a famous person and then do, like, a little speech as if they were that person. Everyone in my class, I remember like… and this will identify the time of my childhood, but all the boys came as like Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky, and all the girls came as… I think it was Mia Hamm, who was really big at that time, so they came as Mia Hamm and I came as, um, Anastasia Romanov… [laughter]
Wes: Oh, wow!
Erin: …and I was like, I was obsessed with the Romanovs and obsessed with Russian culture, so I got really, really into reading Russian literature, and my first exposure to his work was The Cherry Orchard. It was my favorite play of his for kind of a brief period. My mom had me read it, and then, coincidentally, just a few months later, I think they were mounting a production of it at the Yale Rep. I went to see it. I remember in the first act, I had this kind of transplendent experience. It was something in the combination, maybe of the night outside. It was this really crisp fall night, I remember. And then on the stage they had this backdrop that was sort of this hazy orchard and then the Russian woods. And I remember, like, the white dresses of all the women characters on the stage. And I was just totally transfixed by this. And then there was intermission. And then the second act, everyone came out in modern clothes and they had, like, cell phones in their hands. And they had done this, like, modern update in the second half of the play, [laughter] and lots of things they did were gimmicks with the cell phones, like, you know, instead of, you know, calling the manager of the estate over, you know, they, like, called him on the cell phone and everyone laughed and like, you know, it was intentional that the actors played to that, and so the spell was completely broken. And then Uncle Vanya and The Seagull like, rapidly rose in my estimation [laughter] after that. And then I started reading the short stories. But anyway, I guess it’s just another Chekhov staging failure. He had a lot of those. Anyway, all of that to say that I was super into Chekhov, and I have a long history with him, and these two short stories, I think, are some of his best known. I don’t know if they’re my favorite of his stories, but I mean, they’re certainly incredible stories. Which of the two would you say that you preferred?
Wes: I really like them both, but I think, for pure entertainment value, The House with the Mezzanine. There’s something about it. One of the things I like about Chekhov is the kinds of… people get into sort of philosophical discussions and debates or at the very… or not even necessarily that. They will talk extensively about their inner lives and what’s going on with them. And, you know, I find that in his plays, and I find that in some of his stories. So in The Mezzanine that debate between Lida and the protagonist, that’s one of the things I really enjoy about Chekhov, and it kind of… there’s a nice build-up to it in The Mezzanine story where he’s an artist and he’s idle and all that stuff, and then he’s being treated by this young girl as if he has no [laughter] interest in practical matters, and then he explodes and has a big argument with her and ruins his prospective romantic engagement with the girl’s sister.
Erin: What’s your history with Chekhov?
Wes: Many years ago I had read some short stories, including A Lady with a Little Dog. And then it was just a few years ago that I saw and read Uncle Vanya for the first time. And actually we have… a I did a prequel Subtext on this with a guest.
Erin: Oh, that´s right. Yeah.
Wes: Although we don’t get that much into the play. But I became obsessed with the play and wrote a 10,000 word, [laughter] still incomplete, essay on Uncle Vanya. I think one of the reasons I became obsessed with it is just the excellent BBC production, which is the first that I saw from 1983 or something like that.
Erin: Who’s in that one?
Wes: The actor is David Warner, and he’s Constantine in the 1968 version of the film version of The Seagull by Sidney Lumet.
Erin: Oh, okay, I know him… his face, but not his name.
Wes: And then he’s Uncle Vanya in the 1991 production, directed by Gregory Mosher, we don’t really know. Ian Holm is also in it.
Wes. Yeah, so excellent. So yeah, Uncle Vanya, I wrote a lot about that. And I think there’s a lot of rumination in Chekhov on different sorts of intellectual or spiritual aspirations in their conflict, you know. So in Uncle Vanya, you have a professor, and you have uncle Vanya, who wanted to be a great intellectual but gave up that life in order to support the professor. And then you have a doctor, which is a reappearing character for Chekhov -and, of course, Chekhov was himself also a doctor. And then you have the whole concept of work. So there’s a lot of rumination about work in Uncle Vanya, and I think in other Chekhov plays, including Three Sisters, which I watched not too long ago, and its work and its relation to intellectual aspirations. So you get some of that argument played out in The Mezzanine story. So The Lady with the Little Dog is also an interesting reflection on, I think, intimacy and love. And I think the work thing comes up a little bit in the sense of, you know, you… it begins with a vacation. It begins with people who are away from any occupation that they might have and talk about being bored, right? So that’s the sort of beginning of that. By the way, I wanted to say, You know, you have that Tolstoy- Chekhov’s picture and some of the background reading I was doing for this. I thought that their friendship was really interesting, in part because there’s such… they’re so different, as writers, right. Chekhov isn’t entirely Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy and they’re in a very, very different world, and he’s innovating into much, much different territory, the territory that I actually prefer. [laughter] It was funny that after seeing Uncle Vanya, Tolstoy said to Chekhov -or he was said to have said-, “You know, I can’t stand Shakespeare. But your plays are even worse than his.” [laughter]
Erin: [laughter] Tolstoy is, maybe, the only man who ever lived who would get away with saying that. [laughter]
Wes: Yeah. Yeah
Wes: You know. And then you talk to Chekhov’s… you know, he struggled with the plays. I know The Seagull in particular, right, did not get a good reception from the audience. I think it was booed. And then I read a little bit of Chekhov’s diary which is not very… there’s not a lot to it. But he says, “It is true that I fled from the theater, but only when the play was over.” So I like that image of Chekhov just seeing [laughter] seeing the audience boo one of his plays and then running out of the theater.
Erin: [laughter] I don’t know about Chekhov’s opinion of his own work, though, and his own staging. There was the initial disaster, and then the triumph with The Seagull, because of that. Maybe it was the Moscow theater production, I think, the one that had Stravinsky as Trigorin, and I know that Chekhov really didn’t like Stravinsky or they had a very difficult relationship, and he didn’t really appreciate Stravinsky’s acting or his stagings or…
Wes: Oh, really? I didn’t know that.
Erin: Yeah. Yeah. So I kind of wonder like, you know, what Chekhov was envisioning. Because now, of course, in a post Stravinsky world, we’re so influenced by his… by the way that he kind of shaped the theater. I wonder what Chekhov didn’t like about him and how that may be influenced by what he saw as certain failures of the stagings of his plays. But I don’t know enough about it to know if he gave any specific criticisms. But I know that, like, for instance, a lot of his plays are played somewhat straight now. I know that, like, you know, The Seagull he envisioned as being more of a comedy. [laughter] So I think they are a lot, maybe more… at least in terms of the way we view them now, they were intended to be a lot more tongue-in-cheek, I think. And more satirical, maybe.
Wes: Mm, interesting. Well, they are, in a way, avant-garde. And I think they had a tremendous influence in shaping what we now know as the theater, right?
Wes: Right. I think you can watch them, and you can get that these are experimental avant-garde productions, in a way, because of the way things are plotted and and kind of meandering. Which I think there’s a meandering quality to his short stories as well.
Wes: Which is nice. So he started off, right, with the short stories, he started off writing comedy sketches, right?
Wes: Even some of them were like he was… for a while, he was putting out a lot of little 100-line… He had to keep himself to 100 lines. There’s a great letter where he writes his editor, asking if he could increase the line count to 120, that it will help him to stay sane if he just has that 20 lines of padding. By his own admission, he didn’t really take his writing seriously early on. He thought of it as a way to make money while he was in school and a way to support his family. So he received a letter of praise from… at some point… from a writer whose name I forget, which really affected him and really… It’s in his reply to this writer that he says, “You know, Yeah, I haven’t actually been taking my writing seriously, but I will now, now that you say this.” So he did. And, you know, before he died in his forties, he did a lot of great work, All right, so should we start with The Lady with the Little Dog?
Erin: Yeah. Let’s do it.
Wes: I tried to give a lot of thought to what the little dog is doing in this story [laughter] -what it represents, why it’s there, why it’s in the title…
Erin: With Chekhov, I think he would probably be resistant to the idea that there is any symbolism at all in his stories, maybe. Maybe that’s the wrong reading. But you know, his works just seem so realistic. And there are so many kind of, like, inconsequential details which we can talk about, especially in this story, that’s sort of famous for certain inconsequential details. So I would hesitate to put too much significance onto the dog, but at the same time, I think it is really important, I think that it marks the connection between Gurov and Anna at the very beginning, right? He sort of approaches her through the dog. And then later, when he goes to her town, that’s just called S., I think, he sees her and… or no, he sees the dog first, maybe, and he goes to call out to the dog, and he’s so moved that he can’t remember the dog’s name. You know, I don’t know… she’s just identified in Yalta as being “the lady with the little dog”, and maybe that gives her a sense of superficiality. And it’s a false blind.
Wes: Yes, it is. Yeah, When I was thinking about this, I thought of Paris Hilton at some point. [laughter] If the dog could be in a purse, it would be even better.
Erin: Yeah, and one wonders. I mean, nobody else is referred to by that, but one wonders if in a place like Yalta, you know, there’s like “the lady with a little dog”, and maybe there’s “the man with the purple tie” and the…
Wes: Mm-hmm… Mm-hmm…
Erin: …you know, because you’re seeing everybody in this holiday atmosphere and never, really, you know you’re passing each other all the time, and maybe you might coexist with them but never learned their name. And so it becomes a point of identification and then a point through which, or rather, the avenue through which Gurov actually learns that she’s not just this little superficial woman. And so maybe there’s something here about, you know, I think there’s a lot about surfaces and deeper realities in the story, too. So maybe this is something that is like a misleading surface that will have deeper consequences later, [laughter] putting it in a kind of vague way.
Wes: Yeah, it’s telling about him that he is confronted with a type, right?
Wes: Although this is also a feature of Chekhov’s writing that he’s… because he was humorist, in a way, that’s the way he begins his career. A lot of his stories are about examinations of different… or the characters, in a way, are types, even though they don’t end up that way in the story, they end up as very nuanced. In a way, that’s the premise of the story. But in this case, you know, it’s important to the character of Gurov, because that’s the way he is going to confront someone like this. He is on vacation for the sake of having affairs, and he’s identified someone who I think he thinks he can… you know, he wants something of light. “Light” is a word used in the story. So, in hurry, he identifies the kind of person that he can have a light affair with, and the dog signifies that. There’s a lot of things, I think, going on that you can think about with the little dog, and of course, a lot of that would go well beyond Chekov’s conscious intentions in doing this and whether or not he wants to… I think that’s the kind of big discussion in the secondary literature, whether you should think too much about the symbolism in his stories, because I think a lot of people do make a lot of that and the tension between that and his realism. But there is a cool contrast in the story between the little dog in the beginning and the big angry dogs who are attacking a beggar at the gate at the very end of the story… [laughter]
Wes: …which is kind of a symbol of Gurov’s position, at that point. The tables have been turned on him. You know, with a small white dog I’m reminded of… you probably don’t watch Rick and Morty, right?
Erin: I’ve only seen a few clips.
Wes: Okay, this is an animated sci-fi cartoon, but there’s an episode in which a small white dog develops human level intelligence, or even super intelligence, and basically takes over the world, makes other dogs intelligent and and it’s very vengeful… [laughter]
Wes: …about how it’s been treated. And one of the big turning moments for that dog is watching a documentary about how wolves have been successfully bred into these harmless little cute creatures. [laughter] So I think that’s part of what’s going on with a small dog, and it’s meant to represent, in part, her inner life, her breeding of her own passions, Anna’s passions and desires, into something that’s more diminutive, into something that’s cute, into something that doesn’t have to be taken seriously. So you know, little dogs are all bark, right, and no bite, or their bites aren’t very effective. In the same way, you know, he’s… Gurov thinks he’s safe from her. He knows from his past affairs that at some point she’s going to get unhappy. She’s going to make demands on him. But this is something he’s always had a way of coping with. In this story that will turn out not to be the case. She will get under his skin. Her bite will mean something more than he’s used to, but that’s his initial starting point. You know, I love the scene where they meet right where he’s noticed her boredom. And then there’s the spits, the dog growling at him as he shakes his finger at it. What’s the sequence? Does he shake his finger first and then the dog starts growling,
Erin: He calls the spits, and then he shakes his finger at it when the dog comes over and then the dog growls at him. And then he shakes his finger again.
Wes: Right. Right. [laughter] What does that say about him and his…? You know…
Erin: That he’s more of a cat person, maybe? [laughter]
Wes: [laughter] He’s beckoning, but then… He’s saying yes, and he’s saying no. He’s calling to it and then he’s shaking his finger like the dog should not respond to the call. So I think there’s… Of course, there’s something about his method of seduction.
Erin: It’s a little bit of a warning. You know, one of the things I love about Chekhov… This isn’t really told through the first person, the way The House with the Mezzanine is, where you get a lot of, like, really funny… because you’re hearing everything through the narrator’s perspective, you could hear the narrative sort of like rationalizations for things. And there’s a lot of very intended funny moments on the part of Chekhov, where you’re getting this insight into the way the person is thinking, and he’s, you know, maybe thinking grandiose things about himself [laughter] or something that comes through and it’s very humorous. And here it’s told through the third person perspective. But I think that it’s also… Chekhov also kind of… like, dips into the guy’s mind a lot and maybe expresses things through Gurov’s point of view. So we get his sense, for instance, that women are an inferior race and that he has all of these really negative associations with women, despite being something of a ladies’ man and, you know, a perpetual womanizer, which I think makes sense. But I wonder if you know not to play psychiatrist here. But there seems to me to be a lot of self hatred in this guy that he is not really aware of. So I like this idea that he’s shaking his finger at the dog is like almost a warning not to get involved with him because he sort of knows what he is, maybe.
Wes: Yeah. Yeah. [laughter] I thought about Annie Hall while reading this story. In part because there’s a memory and nostalgia actually play a role in this story as well, in the way that they do in Annie Hall, but also the way it starts off where he’s got a wife, who… she thinks of herself as a thinking person. He thinks of her as narrow minded and graceless and not really that bright. His wife is someone who takes herself seriously, and I think he’s looking for women in general who don’t take themselves seriously. He’s looking for relationships that he doesn’t have to take seriously. And he’s conflicted about women, right? His women are inferior, but he’s ill at ease in the company of men, and experience has taught him that intimacy has become a burden. But he always forgets that when he meets a new woman and [quote-unquote], you know, “he wants to live” or he wanted to live. He associates these affairs with some sort of vitality. That’s what’s driving him, some sense that there’s more to life, that there’s something more vital to be had out of life. But it’s not like he’s in a loveless marriage, and he’s thinking, “Oh, I need to find someone to fall in love with.” He’s in a loveless marriage with somebody he doesn’t like and, you know, his idea of vitality is really superficial.
Wes: So I think his mode of viewing women is a product of what he thinks he needs from relationships, which is the superficiality. So it’s important to him to view women as superficial and the cute little dog, right, is, again… it’s a representation of that -diminutive, cute, doesn’t have any bite. I think you’re right when he… the shaking of the finger… it is a warning about who he is. He’s pretty confident in his ability to ward off the negative consequences of these affairs. Which is to say he’s pretty confident that he can escape unscathed and not get involved and not have his emotions get pulled into things. And even if he’s hurting people, he can do that without too much of a sting of conscience. So that finger, I think, is about that ability to ward off those sorts of things.
Erin: I think what you talk about, too, with his wife, that sort of gets to this sort of blending of Chekhov’s and Gurov’s perspectives because I kind of wonder if Gurov is giving his wife a fair assessment. You know, I wonder if we’re just seeing her through his perspective…
Erin: …and if she is actually a more interesting person. I mean, he has… he thinks that he could size up all these people and he’s bored by his wife. And she certainly does sound, you know, dull and pedantic and annoying. But we also, I think, have to take all of these assessments with a little bit of a grain of salt, because he can sort of reduce everyone to these sorts of, um, types in the same way that he tries to reduce the lady with a little dog to a type, and she turns out to resist that. But I think that that sense that I’m getting of him not really giving anyone a fair shake, I think, also plays out in a little bit of… I don’t know if you felt this, a little bit of incredulity about whether or not he really is transformed by Anna. I think it’s clear at the end that he is, but his transformation… we wonder, in the beginning, if this is like one of the stages of his womanizing…[laughter]
Wes Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
Erin: …because he goes through, as he says, you know, the same sort of pattern with all of these conquests, and one wonders if this is yet another version of that, because, according to his sort of, you know, the types of women that he goes through, you know, he describes one as that great moment of when the women are sort of like too ravenous, and then the lace on their underwear becomes like scales.
Wes: So this is a good example of what you’ve just been talking about, the reductiveness of his way of viewing people in the harshness. So he’s in… they’ve just been kissing in her hotel room after hanging out for a week, and this is the first time they hook up,
Her hotel room was stuffy and smelled of the perfumes she had bought in a Japanese shop. Gurov, looking at her now, thought: “What meetings there are in life!” From the past he had kept the memory of carefree, good-natured women, cheerful with love, grateful to him for their happiness, however brief; and of women—his wife, for example—who loved without sincerity, with superfluous talk, affectedly, with hysteria, with an expression as if it were not love, not passion, but something more significant; and of those two or three very beautiful, cold ones, in whose faces a predatory expression would suddenly flash, a stubborn wish to take, to snatch from life more than it could give, and these were women not in their first youth, capricious, unreasonable, domineering, unintelligent, and when Gurov cooled towards them, their beauty aroused hatred in him, and the lace of their underwear seemed to him like scales.
Wes: That’s really great. So you were talking about his view of the predatory types of women then.
Erin: Yeah, and reading this analysis, you know, I feel kind of resistance towards this point of view. On the one hand, you know, you kind of trust him because he’s a guy who’s had a lot of experience, has known a lot of people and therefore must be able to classify within a certain margin of error a lot of different types of women. But on the other hand, there’s something about this that is so cruel and diminishing that I don’t really buy it a hundred per cent.
Wes: Well, there’s a sociopathic quality to this, I think. He’s… there’s a lack of compassion. So even he’s saying, “what meetings there are in life”, that’s kind of a variation on deep emotion. He wants to enjoy intimacy and deeper feelings, but by way of this superficialization of them, and the whole idea of carefree, good-natured women, cheerful with love, right, he doesn’t want any demands made on him. And the women who do make demands are like snakes, they’re predatory. So it’s obviously… yeah, this passage reveals something is quite broken with the way he views women, because he views them through the lens of satisfying his sexual appetites without anything deeper.
Erin: Yeah, and to take a step back a little bit, I guess the first time I read this was after I had read Anna Karenina. I saw this as a [laughter] lesser imitation of Anna Karenina, and I think in a lot of ways it was meant, of course, to call back to Tolstoy. I think a lot of what Chekhov wrote was probably in response to Tolstoy, as his forebear and sort of older… mentor is maybe too strong of a word, but I mean, it’s really apples and oranges, of course, but the similarities are there. Like the… obviously the title character of Anna has the same name as The Lady with a Little Dog, and they’re both tormented by guilt. And von Diderits is a lot like Alexey Karenin. And of course, Gurov is this sort of Bronski figure, though he’s far less sympathetic than Bronski. And so when I read this for the first time, I was really like, “Oh, I didn’t like this,” you know. And Gurov was such a bad guy, and I couldn’t get out of my head that the scene where… right after they’ve had an affair, Anna is tormented by guilt and he sits there and eats the watermelon.
Wes: Yeah, that’s a little bit after the part that I just read. Yeah, that’s…
Erin: Yeah, yeah. So you’re talking about appetites. You know what I’m thinking about, you know, thinking still about the watermelon. And it’s funny because that watermelon sort of worked on me in the way that Anna works on Gurov, you know, in, sort of, after the fact, like, you know, you can’t get… stop thinking about it, and maybe… maybe the story is better than you think, you know? But that watermelon, that cruelty, as she’s sitting there, looking -I love that- like a sinful woman in a painting with her hair all down around her, sitting there, dejectedly, and going on about how awful she feels and how terrible this is. And this is obviously her first time having an affair, and it’s all old hat for him. And he’s just sitting there like cutting himself watermelon and eating it and just being like, “Oh, it’s fine, I’m relaxed,” you know, that kind of thing. And so he dismisses all of her concerns, and he thinks that this is all tiresome. And I’m sure he’s dealt with this before, You know, that’s kind of the mystery of this, I suppose. He’s heard all this before, he’ll have these affairs, and then he has to sit and deal with the fact that these women, or at least this type of woman, gets very upset and has this whole, you know, wrecked conscience while they’re sitting there, bemoaning the fact that they went through with this, and they’re ruined and all that, and for him to be able to eat a watermelon during that, it’s, you know, he just doesn’t doesn’t care about them, and so that’s kind of like further evidence that you think that he’s not going to care about this woman, and it’s just going to be one more notch on his belt or whatever. And then that changes. But I…
Wes: Yeah, I think that the watermelon, the post coital eating, especially of fruit, right, is kind of a trope, right? You know, sex, and then there’s the, you know, the kind of self indulgent sharing of some kind of meal in bed as a extension of sensuality, even after sexual desire has been satisfied and people have gone into their kind of post-orgasmic [laughter] haze, let’s say. But that’s a shared… you know, that’s usually something shared. And he’s capable of doing that by himself, even as the other person is dejected and worried that they’ve lost any respect, which is the thing that she expresses a lot of worry about at various points. So he can ignore her, and that’s the way in which he… he’s misunderstood the situation, right? So the little dog turns out to be a misrepresentation of her in her life and its capacity to affect him because he will be affected. He doesn’t know it now, but she is going to get under his skin, and it’s precisely her demands the things that he associates with scales, something reptilian and demanding. It’s those demands which are going to get under his skin and produce a deeper emotion in him. If you can believe that, I think part of the track you are on is to say that we don’t really know at the end of the story how seriously to take his transformation, because it could just be a part of the whole cycle. But either way, she does end up getting under his skin. So he’s not going to be able to just sit and eat watermelons, so to speak, for the duration of their connection. [laughter]
Erin: Right. Well, and he has a series of different reactions to her during that, you know, their initial affair in Yalta. While he’s eating the watermelon, she’s saying, “God forgive me.” Her eyes are filling with tears. “This is terrible,” he responds. “It’s like you’re justifying yourself” [laughter] and she says, you know, “how can I justify myself? I’m a bad, low woman. I despise myself” and she goes through all these various… talking about how sinful it is, what she’s done, and how much she despises herself. He’s listening to all this. And then the narrator says, “Gurov was bored listening. He was annoyed by the naïve tone by this repentance, so unexpected and out of place…” And yet it seems not out of place “…had it not been for the tears in her eyes, one might have thought she was joking or playing a role.” He reads in this, you know what to him seems like a stock reaction, but what for her is, you know, a legitimate reaction to her first affair. And I love when she says, “Sin is vile to me. I don’t know what I’m doing. You know, simple people say ‘the unclean one has beguiled me.’ And now I can say of myself that the unclean one has beguiled me.” I guess there’s a parallel there between Gurov and the devil, but he sees the unclean one.
Wes: Yeah, you could read this story that way, by the way. Yeah, him as a devil. Satan.
Erin: Oh. Oh, yeah, sure. And then later, they’re strolling around on the embankment, and he is indifferent to her, then he’s bored and annoyed, and then when they’re out strolling, “she complained that she slept poorly and that her heart beat anxiously, kept asking the same questions, troubled now by jealousy, now by fear that he did not respect her enough. And often on the square or in the garden, when there was no one near them, he would suddenly draw her to him and kiss her passionately.” And so now it seems like he likes this or is attracted to her guilt, he doesn’t find it boring anymore. Now she’s sort of expressing her guilt, and then it’s punctuated by him suddenly kissing her passionately.
Erin: Besides, this feels very realistic to me because, of course, you know, one going through an experience like this can have a succession of very conflicting emotions towards something like this happening. And Gurov is going through all of those because we get this really deep glimpse into his perspective. What may be very natural, which is a series of conflicting emotions, seems suspect to us like we don’t know how to take it, even though this may be sort of hyper realistic, and how we ourselves would experience these, you know, successions of conflicting or contradictory emotions.
Wes: Yeah, it’s so psychologically well done. I’m just just backing up to the room where he’s bored, you know, then, annoyed by the naive tone. And then at some point, he asked her, “What is it you want?” So it’s as if he’s been hit over the head with the very idea that someone else wants something, and it’s confusing to him, and he can’t imagine what that would be. And she talks about honesty and a pure life. And honesty is something that will also come up at the… and truthfulness, right, that it will come up at the end of the story. It will become a big deal. We can talk about that when we get to it. And then when you… in the next phase, they’re hanging out, going out. There’s a vacation, a scenic feel to what’s going on. So there’s a great scene when they’re… after he learns her last name and they’re looking at the sea. “Yalta was barely visible for the morning mist. White clouds stood motionless on the mountaintops…” And by the way, just an aside: this is kind of a feature of his style, these little forays into the scenic, you know, into a description of the environment. He doesn’t overdo it, and it’s not… I don’t think he generally sets the scene this way. Rather, it’s sort of an extension of the inner lives with the characters. He describes the environment in order to elaborate on that. So,
Yalta was barely visible through the morning mist, white clouds stood motionless on the mountaintops. 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 décor—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.
It’s kind of a pseudo-epiphany, in a way, but it does reflect the first stage of her effect on him when she’s… you know, after her talking about honesty and a pure life. And it reflects his mode of what I’ve called “pseudo intimacy”, which I’ve discussed in other episodes, but which is to these connections to memory right? Like he likes to remember these past relationships. It’s as if he can enjoy them. You know they’re light, they’re superficial, but he can kind of savor them and get more deeply emotional once he’s away from them once they’ve gone by. And then there’s also this kind of “Hey, I’m taking a vacation and I’m looking at the sea and in enjoying the serenity and peacefulness of an environment, I can kind of connect to a person that way.” But this talk of higher goals of being in… and human dignity, I think that’s, in a way, the beginning of a transformation. And then the point that you were at just comes just after that, where there’s a lot of strolling around, admiring the sea, her being jealous, her fear of not being respected. And then he’s kind of excited by all of this. I think he gets turned on in a way by that. But also there’s something transformative about their idleness -Chekhov uses that word-, and kisses in the broad daylight, with a furtive look around, and the fear that someone might see them, the heat, the smell of the sea, and the constant flashing before their eyes of idle, smartly dressed, well-fed people. By the way, this is something that will come up in The Mezzanine story as well, the kind of romance of other people’s idleness and… we’ll have to get into a discussion of what that means. But Chekhov… It’s deeply affecting, I think, both to Chekhov, in this moment, and to this character.
Erin: I take that part as being pretty funny. Do you? Are we supposed to be amused by this? That, you know…
Wes: Well, I didn’t take it that way, although I can understand why you laughed. Um…
Erin: I mean, it’s pretty laughy… [laughter]
Wes: It’s an epiphany, right? So this is an epiphany scene, and unfortunately, this character is, you know, his… Cal has a frame of mind. It means that we ought to treat an epiphany like this with suspicion and as something incomplete. It’s an epiphany, but it’s… there’s something false about it. I don’t think it’s completely false. It’s on the way to something.
Erin: I think you’re right to a point to this as being kind of the beginning of his transformation, or the indication of his transformation. But I think the genius of Chekhov is that at the same time, this is a very false note to begin on, and a transformation can begin on a false note.
Erin You know, I mean, that’s the premise of the whole story, right? You can be transformed by an illicit affair, right. And so this falseness… I mean, everything is beautiful and think of what we can do when we have these higher goals of being in our human dignity. You know, this is pretty lofty, for a guy who’s just had an affair and who treats people as being pretty disposable. That cleverness that this can be legitimate and this can be the beginning of his legitimate transformation, and I believe it is, and at the same time, the idea that it’s ridiculous, I think, are really… they’re made very uncomfortable bedfellows here. But that’s actually very realistic.
Wes: Yeah, it’s still superficial, right? It’s still like… this is why I called it pseudo-intimacy. Because I think, you know, objectification and this sort of approach to relationships is a complicated thing. It’s not just about treating people as pieces of meat, essentially, and he’s extraordinarily selfish and he’s using someone but he’s trying to approximate the emotions that you might get out of something more intimate and connected. So at the beginning of the story he’s talking about the excitement of meeting new women and how… again, vitality, and giving him a reason to live. And here he’s getting a nice, serene feeling. So in the moment it’s all about lightness and lack of commitment, lack of… escaping any demands. But in the context of memory, he can have a deeper feeling about it, and so that’s his game. His game is to create a memory that can be something more than what it was in the moment, because the in-the-moment stuff is too much for him. It’s too demanding. There’s a connection between that nostalgic approach to love and the scenic stuff. This you know, this epiphany where he can enjoy the beauty of the world, right? The beauty of the world is always a good… [laughter] it’s a good substitute for human connection. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein… the creature despairs of connections with people but is extremely well connected to the natural environment and the beauty of the world. So this is his, you know, for whatever his brokenness, it’s an interesting pathway to the possibility of connection with people, which is this connection to the natural world.
Erin: Yeah, and even that natural world is a little bit unnatural, too, right, like the magical decor. I think decor is such an interesting word there and the staginess, maybe of that, and of the identification of Anna’s expressions of guilt as a performance, and playing a role. I think it’s important, too, that when he’s reunited with her, it’s in the audience of the geisha, of a play, and… You know, it’s almost as though… that Gurov is himself an actor. You know, he has this double life that he leads and he plays this role of the womanizer and then he is taken in by that role. And I think the importance of theatricality in this… I mean, I know -just for a little background, too- Chekhov’s wife, Olga, was an actress, and I think that they ended up living together in… Well, actually they rarely lived together. But I know that he ended up having to go and live in Yalta because of his tuberculosis, and she would have to be away and working a lot, which I guess turned out to be really good for their relationship, because he didn’t really have time for her. [laughter] But anyway, I guess when she came back to Yalta their reunions had this may be this sort of clandestine feeling, because of the fact that she was always away and stealing time to come back to Yalta to visit him. And the fact that she’s an actress and, of course, he’s a playwright. There was nothing illicit that I remember in their romance. But that theatrical significance, I think, is interesting that Gurov and Anna are these two people who are, at least from Gurov’s perspective, he’s playing a role, she’s playing a role. But then he realizes she’s really not playing a role. She’s being very serious. And then suddenly everything takes on that more serious element for him as well.
Wes: Mm-hmm. The little dog bites.
Erin: Yeah, yeah.
Wes: And the next stage in that, I think, is his… the scene at the train station seeing her off, in which she feels some remorse, right?
Erin: Oh, yeah. It’s…
Wes: So she gets a letter from her husband to come home, and then they’re parting. And the next step for him is to have his whole memory method of [laughter] approaching an intimacy kind of infected a little bit.
Erin: Yeah, this is another parallel with Anna Karenina, too, right? I forgot there’s even a train in this one. Um.. [laughter]
…left alone on the platform and gazing into the dark distance, 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…
Here at the station there was already a breath of autumn, the wind was cool.
“It’s time I headed north, too,” thought Gurov, leaving the platform. “High time!”
Erin: This regret. And again, we wonder if this is part of his usual routine, right? You know, “I wasn’t great with her, and I could have been kinder. And she thought so well of me. And, you know, I didn’t really deserve it, and ah, well, you know, time to go back to Moscow.” And so you wonder if this is part of the routine or if this is, again, further evidence towards creeping towards that transformation.
Wes: Yeah. Is this part of his life cycle? [laughter]
Erin: Right. [laughter] Right.
Wes: As a womanizer?
Wes: Or is it… is he on into a new territory here yet? It’s unclear, but, you know, as you pointed out, the whole story could be part of his life cycle. Or there could be a point of departure somewhere where this is new, he’s falling in love with someone. And, you know, I’m reading it in that latter way just for the sake of argument, in this sense, but…
Erin: I am, too. But I think that none of these things are, maybe, truly beyond the pale until he finally gets back to Moscow.
Erin: And even in the first month of being back, everything is pretty normal. And then I think that the actual, real… I think there are a couple of big moments that show this true transformation, the first being the companion of his who misshears him and comments on the fish [laughter] which is just such a great moment.
Wes: So he gets this urge to bring this out in the open, his affair with Anna.
Wes: So first, you know, he’s back in Moscow. He’s immersed in that life. He’s reading three newspapers a day, [laughter] -the same sorts of problems as we have, we just do smartphones- but restaurants, clubs, dinner parties, celebrations, famous acquaintances. But the memory thing, so that, you know, that’s been his mode of pseudo intimacy, that’s his method, as I’ve called it. But now it’s… that’s the thing that defeats him, right? So “his memories would turn into reveries, and in his imagination, the past would mingle with what was still to be.” So that’s an interesting change, the past mingling with the prospective future. “Anna Sergeevna was not a dream. She followed him everywhere, like a shadow, and watched him.” And then that’s when he gets tormented by the desire to go beyond memory and beyond what is private and hidden, and to create something public and more present, in a way, which is to say, to tell someone and then he does. And that doesn’t work. [laughter]
…he found himself speaking vaguely of love, of women, and no one could guess what it was about, and only his wife raised her dark eyebrows and said:
“You know, Dimitri, the role of fop doesn’t suit you at all.”
One night, as he was leaving the Doctors’ Club together with his partner, an official, he could not help himself and said:
If you only knew what a charming woman I met in Yalta!”
The official got into a sleigh and drove off, but suddenly turned around and called out:
“You were right earlier: the sturgeon was a bit off!”
Wes: Yeah. So presumably in Russian, those two things sound like each other. But…[laughter]
Erin: Yeah, right.[laughter]
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 flee, as if you were sitting in a madhouse or a prison camp!
Wes: I’m never going on vacation again. [laughter]
Erin: Right. Yeah.
Wes: Now it’s ruined everything. I love the word nonsense here.
Erin: Yeah, it’s so indignant. And it’s interesting, too, because, you know, he’s accusing people of this endless talk of the same thing. And it’s kind of what Anna was doing, you know. And that’s kind of what they were doing on their vacation, too, it was like just talking about how boring everything was. [laughter] You know, this dissatisfaction. It’s just dissatisfaction, you know, in a different place. I’m reading all of this as if Gurov is, you know, really self deluded. And I think that self delusion is a really important part of his character.
Wes: Well, yeah, I think you’re right about the delusion, because, however in love he thinks he is, or is, or… you know. And even though the story ends on a positive note, women ought to be suspicious of a character like this, and so should we. We should be suspicious that there’s any lasting transformation in someone like this and that the love will last. And of course, it’s a certainty that love will be challenged. And will he be up to that challenge? But it’s a certainty that if they do get together, that they will move beyond the infatuation phase. And then the question is, does he have the… or both of them, you know, do they have the emotional resources to maintain connection, or will they end up with what they had in the first place? You know his marriage to a cold wife, let’s say, and her marriage to a lackey, [laughter] as she puts it, someone who is obsequious, obedient to authority because of his interest in status. You know, what does Gurov see on him? Some kind of badge belonging to some society or another?
Erin: Yeah. One thing we haven’t really addressed yet, which maybe we should take a step back and do that now, is another element that makes this kind of uncomfortable, which is the similarities he sees between Anna and his young daughter. That seems to be a big attraction for him.
Erin: This innocence, I suppose, and his daughter is only 12 years old.
Wes: She’s “timorous and angular”. He uses those two adjectives frequently.
Wes: And I take the angularity to be a product of… And similar descriptions, by the way, are in The Mezzanine story. But her angularity to be a product of her thinness and her… the fact that her body is evocative, at least in some ways, of a little girl’s body. So maybe that’s over reading that. That’s certainly there in The Mezzanine story.
Erin: No, I agree. He talks about the undeveloped breast of Zegna. Yeah.
Wes: In The Mezzanine. Yeah. Yeah. So there is something about that innocent quality that he’s looking for. But the angularity, right, turns out to be a… there’s a sharpness to that, that again, I like to read that as a… he gets pricked, -sorry- so to speak, [laughter] about that, he gets a bitten, you know, going back to the dog. So the timorousness and the angularity can be deceptive because they can actually become powerful forces. He can be deeply affected and wounded by them. He wants to see them as harmless. But that’s not what they turned out to be.
Erin: Yeah, one wonders if this… I don’t mean to suggest anything… um, creepy about…
Wes: Humper… humperdy about it?
Erin: Yeah.[laughter] This comes into play in the last… on the last page, which I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. But, you know, there’s an element maybe of, um… midlife crisis here. And, you know, maybe, the womanizer is getting soft, right? [laughter]
Wes: [laughter] Right. He’s gotten old and he’s just tired of doing it now. So now he’s ready to settle down.
Erin: Right. And that attractiveness, that youthful quality which he sees in his daughter, which represents this wellspring of possibility, I think, is what attracts him to Anna. Or maybe what he now suddenly finds transformative about Anna, that might have been inherent in any number of his conquests, but which now, because of the passing of time, and the sort of… the fact that he is now a man in his forties, strikes him in a different way. But let’s return to the story here, when he goes to S., the town of S. You know, he takes the best room in the hotel in S., and there’s the Nabokov’s famous ink stand, the gray ink stand on the table, gray with dust.
Wes: Oh, the details of Nabokov’s. Yeah. Enjoyed it, yeah.
Erin: Yeah. And then he goes to her house and sees that… “the front door open, and the white spitz running outside.” And there’s that moment when he wants “to call the dog but his heart suddenly throbs and in his excitement, he was unable to remember the spitz’s name.” That is an interesting…
Wes: And before that he’s seen the house kind of guard dogs, and they’ve attacked a beggar at the gates, [laughter] so it’s a very obvious….
Erin: Oh, that’s prior to that. Mm-hmm.
Wes: Yeah, …reference to his situation. He’s essentially a beggar now, and the supposed little dog has been much more. And he even says that, he’s like… he gets vexed at the end of this whole scene. He says, “here’s the lady with the little dog for you” talking to himself. You know, “you thought this was going to be so easy and simple and…”
Erin: And he sees the house has this fence that has spikes on it, [laughter] very ridiculous, and he has this sort of a generous thought, I think, which is that maybe Anna’s inside amusing herself with another man…
Erin: …and he says, or he thinks, that that was so natural in the situation of a young woman who had to look at this cursed fence from morning till evening. That’s really interesting, and I think that is indicative of a transformation, too, that this thought of her with another man arouses a kind of a sympathy for her situation rather than jealousy.
Wes: I just suddenly flashed back to the “What do you want?” scene, you know. He’s more attuned now to her in her life, and then what she might want and why she might want it.
Erin: So then they go to The Geisha, to the opening night, and at this moment, when he sees her, I think it’s just so beautiful and wonderful. She comes in and
She sat in the third row, and when Gurov looked at her, his heart was wrung, and he realized clearly that there was now no person closer, dearer, or more important for him in the whole world; this small woman, lost in the provincial crowd, not remarkable for anything, with a vulgar lorgnette in her hand, now filled his whole life, was his grief, his joy, the only happiness he now wished for himself; and to the sounds of the bad orchestra, with its trashy local violins, he thought how beautiful she was. He thought and dreamed.
Erin: And that, to me, seems… because they’re the “vulgar lorgnette” and the “trashy violins”, because it’s kind of shot through with this sort of dingy provincialism, this seems to me to be very, very, sincere, unlike the the magical decor of that, that mountain realization earlier. It’s very moving to me. And then we see her husband that he is like, stooping like you said. And “he nodded his head at every step and seemed like he was perpetually bowing.”
Wes: “The badge of some learned society gleamed in his buttonhole like the badge of a lackey.” [laughter]
Wes: So he joins her and, you know, she set him up to see him that way, obviously. She’s influenced his prejudices about the guy so that when he sees that badge, he’s primed to see it as a badge of a lackey. But I love that. I love that he’s joined her point of view so fully.
Erin: It occurs to me that maybe they could arrange this, so that Gurov and Anna can be together. And this lackey can hook up with Gurov’s wife and everyone will be happy. [laughter]
Wes: [laughter] Yes, the swingers version of this story. Yeah.
Erin: Yeah. They seemed like a good pair… um… but…
Wes: [laughter] A good pair of couples.
Wes: Very well matched.
Erin: And then he approaches her, and there’s this great moment that Nabokov points out. The two of them are talking with each other, and on this landing above them, there are these two high school boys that are smoking, and this really is one of those details, like the ink stand that kind of passes by. You know, it’s very filmic, like it’s all being caught on camera, and the details are relatively random. And Nabokov points out that if this was a story by Maupassant, there would be some consequence to this detail. You know they’ll be found out because the boys will gossip and they’ll get back to the husband and… or I think he even says, like, you know, the ink stand is maybe like where he’s going to write a consequential letter. Or so, you know, something is going to move the plot forward here, and there’s going to be some comeuppance or something that spins out from this, and instead it’s wholly inconsequential, you know, it’s just a detail. The boys are just there smoking, they don’t tell anyone and that’s it. So there’s these great moments that contribute so powerfully to the realism of Chekhov that it seems as though he’s just recording life, you know, just recording things exactly as they happen, and there are lots of sort of false blinds and dead ends in every corner.
Wes: Yeah, this is what I meant by meandering. Although I know he’s also known for, you know, that there’s the whole Chekhov’s gun, right?
Erin: Right. Right
Wes: …where if it appears in the first act, it must go off before the end. Does it go off in the 3rd, 4th, 5th, or…? Anyway, it’s got to go off at some point. You get a sense of realism because it’s like someone is there, just recording what they see. It’s not just someone inventing exposition or symbols or something that will be a… the material of a literary flourish. It just is what it is. That’s… there it is. Here’s the world. And I’m describing it because it is what it is… [laughter]
Wes: …not because it serves my purposes. Of course, that does serve his purposes as a realist, So we get their regular meetings in Moscow. She has a… tells her husband she has a female disorder. She has to go to the doctor for her, [laughter] which in a way is…
Erin: Sort of. Yeah. [laughter]
Wes: …is in a way accurate. [laughter] And then there’s another epiphany, right, where he gets sick of… you know, we’ve seen this before in him, wanting to tell someone about their affair, and this is after he’s been explaining something to his daughter and answering her questions. But he gets sick of leading two different lives, one that’s secretive and one that’s out in the open because the secretive life is more important and true, in a way, than the one that’s out in the open. So here’s the passage, and we can discuss how truth enters into this because it seems… it’s not apparent in what’s preceded, that this is going to be the big payoff in the story of these reflections about truth. But here it goes:
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 lie, 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. And he judged others by himself, did not believe what he saw, and always supposed that every man led his own real and very interesting life under the cover of secrecy, as under the cover of night. Every personal existence was upheld by a secret, and it was perhaps partly for that reason that every cultivated man took such anxious care that his personal secret should be respected.
Wes: Another great passage.
Erin: Mm-hmm. This, I guess, maybe gives credence to my thought early on, that Gurov is a real self hating guy because he thinks the inferior race is the one that is interested in him [laughter] and the one that he is free to be around. And he thinks that the inferior race -women, of course- um…
Erin: [laughter]…is empty and reducible to types and, you know, maybe stupider or whatever, and that that is, of course, himself, right? And now, because he’s living this secret life, this life which contains some joy for him in certain ways, but which is necessary to remain hidden, then he reads everyone else as having a secret life as well. And so there’s, maybe, a little bit of a positive movement in that, that he now sees people as having secret hidden depths, where before… or, you know, at least this alternate existence, which may be very seedy. At least there’s some… maybe some growth in that before he thought, “Well, I’m empty, so everyone else, or at least these women, who want to share my company, must be empty.” But now he sees hidden possibilities, well, be it sinful ones, but that’s a positive development, I think.
Wes: Yeah. That’s very good. It’s really interesting that at the very end of the story, we get something. It seems important to me, thrown in as an aside, which is that, you know, this whole thing about, for instance, his work at the bank, his arguments at the club, his inferior race, and we’re left wondering “What? What does he mean by “his inferior race”?” Is he a member of some minority? Is he Jewish? Is there some connection, which I thought you might have been making, but… between his view of women as inferiors and the fact that he may have been mistreated in some way. I don’t know if that’s… what’s going on here, if that’s right, or if this is… if he means this in some other way. It’s unclear.
Erin: At the beginning, too, we’re told a little bit of his background and he was trained to be an opera singer, briefly. Or he did train briefly to be an opera singer.
Wes: Oh, I forgot about that.
Erin: Yeah, and then he actually studied to be a philologist and then ended up working in a bank. So he has his, you know, a couple of thwarted elements in his background. But that studying of language, right? And that’s interesting, too, because he notes that his wife is interested in the Orthographic…-I forget the name of it.. where is it?- Yeah, “she used the new orthography, called her husband, not Dmitri, but Dimitri.” So the I between the D and the M, and “he considered her none too bright.” So that interest in language… I don’t know why I’m getting the impression that this speaks to your point, and that philologist note is important here, that language as a uniter of people across races, perhaps, especially in Russia, but also as a cover. And here, of course, he’s lying. So he’s wondering what hidden realities are beneath other people’s appearances, of course, use language to lie all the time. So I don’t know what that says. Maybe I’m barking up the wrong tree here, just to use a little dog metaphor.
Wes: [laughter] Well, let’s explore more of this… the question of the truthful here. Part of what’s dishonest in what he describes, is connected to the whole lackey thing. It’s the ways in which our interest in status and its accommodated men, right, to go back to King Lear, the ways in which we engage in a lot of superficiality because those superficial trappings, like the badge of her husband, are signifiers of our place in society. So this actually goes towards the whole inferior race thing as well, and you have to keep up appearances. You have to be respectable. You know you’re supposed to have a wife, or husband, even if you’re unhappy with that person you’re supposed to stay with them. The honesty involved in intimacy and finding someone to love are kind of put to the side. So there may be something here, and I know this is one of my hobby horses, but about the intervention of status and questions of how one is seen by others interferes with truer connections between people. There’s a truer component of the cells that evades status in favor of longing, in favor of vulnerability, in favor of intimacy and, incidentally, that truer life is something that we associate with the instinctual. And the instinctual, right, is what gets covered up by the trappings of civilization. So I think we go back to the dog again, where we could see the littleness of the dog as a kind of attenuation of instinct or repression of it, an attenuation or repression of desire, or a representation of the way in which it becomes atrophied or hidden or dressed up as something cute and nice. Especially with women, right? So this is, you know, part of her predicament being inside the gates, the demand that her desire and her wishes remained hidden, and the burden of that. You know, there’s an important connection between this desire for honesty and for something to be out in the open with his desire for actual, real love and real intimacy. And then we’re set up for the climax of the story where he can actually express that. Does that make sense? Isn’t…?
Erin: Yeah, totally.
Wes: So I’m just thinking of the moment where they’ve been seeing each other regularly in Moscow, but there’s a point where in one of these meetings he kisses her like they haven’t seen each other for years and she’s crying and they’re living a secret, broken life. But he has the realization that this is not a love affair that will end, which is interesting, that despite being so impassioned, it’s not clear before this that he’s had this idea, that this is it, that this is the one, that this is going to continue forever.
Wes: And then he sees himself in the mirror, and he sees his gray hair and his loss of good looks. And then he thinks about her, and the fact that… the same thing, she’s aging as well, and so he has compassion for (quote) “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.” And then there’s talk of how women have loved him in the past, you know, so “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 then there’s talk of forgiveness, they’ve forgiven each other, things they’re ashamed of in the past, and they forgive everything in the present, and they have a love that’s transformed them both, and a deep compassion and sincerity and tenderness and things like that. So…
Erin: This is very interesting to me, because he’s noticing his gray hair, and that doesn’t make him then reflect upon the relative youth of Anna and how attractive she is to him for that reason. But this idea that she, as you say, is also going to age. And I think I’ve mentioned in the past how fascinated I am with eye color in literature. And it was noted at the very beginning that Anna has gray eyes. And Anna Karenina also had gray eyes, which is interesting. But anyway, she comes in for this scene. She’s wearing his favorite gray dress, and she doesn’t look very good -she’s pale and she looks tired. And so there’s this autumnal, you know, quality to both of them, that he’s registering, and that also seems to have lent a lot of sincerity that he’s not just looking at her to sustain this, this sort of, you know, midlife crisis fantasy. But he’s looking at them both on a continuum and recognition that both of them are, you know, mortal, and neither is particularly young, perhaps, or neither of them are. She especially, of course, is not going to remain young. And this very tender moment where he… it occurs to him that they are both “two birds of passage, a male and a female, who have been caught and forced to live in separate cages.” You know, I don’t know all of that. I mean, you know, the gray links them, of course, but this real, you know, reminds me, too, of Annie Hall, come to think of it…
Erin: …and what you said about nostalgia’s awareness of suffering and that this is very reminiscent of that.
Wes: Yeah. You see, in Woody Allen I saw it as a positive… The possibility of navigating love in the present intimacy, in the present, by way of trying to think about it as you might think about it in the future, once it’s gone, or what once it’s part of the past, and to to appreciate it with that nostalgic frame of mind as a way of giving it more longevity and preserving it, so overcoming the whole problem of the loss of novelty in relationships. Because novelty plays a role in producing excitement and it doesn’t last forever, obviously. But the way he used… at the beginning of the story was… he wanted to create these memories. He wanted to have superficial affairs and then to get some sort of deeper kick out of them once they were gone and once the women were safely out of his life and then he could have these memories, these nice memories. There’s a quality of mourning here, which there is to nostalgia as well. And the mourning is just, you know, what he describes. Part of real love is giving up on the ideal, you mourn the ideal, you give up on these… you know, these idealized qualities, what he says of women, right? Women who have loved him as a man their imagination has created. So in order to come to love a person for who they really are, you have to get beyond loving them as a signifier of something. Again. I’m thinking of the badge of her husband, the lackey. They can’t be just a badge. They can’t be just a symbol of mommy and daddy, [laughter] psychoanalysts might say, or of something perfect. You notice that they are flawed, you notice that they’re going to age, you notice that they’ve done shameful things and you forgive all of that and you feel gratitude that they will forgive you of that in return. And there’s something more honest about that and more… again, it gets us outside of that realm of superficial looks and representations. You know, the kind of things that he got sick of in society, um, towards the genuine intimacy, which… Yeah.
Erin: Mm. So the last paragraph of the whole story is,
And it seemed that, just a little more—and the solution would be found, and then a new, beautiful life would begin; and it was clear to both of them that the end was still far, far off, and that the most complicated and difficult part was just beginning.
Wes: Very beautiful.
Erin: Yeah, Just such a strange way to… to end
Wes: Well, and ambiguous. Yeah.
Erin: Yeah. Yeah.
Wes: All right. That was fun. Thank you.Erin: Thank you.