Lady with Lapdog and Other Stories by Anton Chekhov (trans. David Magarshack)

Anton Chekhov was born in 1860 and died in 1904. He is considered one of the greatest short story writers and dramatists in the history of literature. In a letter addressed to Chekhov, fellow Russian writer Gorky commented: “You are doing a great thing with your stories, arousing in people a feeling of disgust with their sleepy, half-dead existence . . . (as cited in Magarshack, 1964, p. 14).“ In these words, Gorky captures the essence of Chekhov’s short fiction, which often features characters coming to the realization that they’ve taken their lives for granted. These characters learn that what they thought was true about the world and the state of their lives is really false. Chekhov’s characters are often depicted over the course of twenty pages with as much depth and richness as many talented novelists manage to achieve over the course of hundreds of pages in a novel. Chekhov seems to pick the perfect words to paint a scene and breathe life into his characters; he is the great master of linguistic economy, saying a lot with so little.

In “Grief” a drunk who habitually beats his wife travels in a terrible blizzard to bring his sick and dying spouse to the doctor. Along the way he reflects on his wasted life, his unhappy marriage, and considers how his life has seemed like one big fog of drunkenness since the day he was married. He remembers the day of his marriage when the future had seemed so full of hope and promise. He realizes that he has wasted his life in an intoxicated stupor. This is a story about regret, about a wasted life spent in drunkenness, and the character realizing he could’ve lived a much happier and more fruitful life had he made different choices, but only when it is too late to actually change anything.

 

“Agafya” is surprising in that the eponymous character doesn’t appear until halfway through the story. The beginning describes a handsome well-built intelligent young man named Savka whose major flaw is that he is lazy. The women of the village provide him with food in order to sleep with him. For his part, he loathes their loose morals and hypocrisy, as many of them are cheating on their husbands, although he sleeps with them anyway. Agafya then arrives halfway through the story. She is a woman married to a middle-class clerk who works out of town and has come to sleep with Savka, while her husband is away at work. She wants to do the deed before her husband arrives home on the train in order to remain undetected. Savka takes his time, unhurried, causing her to panic over the fact that the train will arrive soon and her husband, along with the entire village, will discover that she slept with Savka. She could, of course, just leave without sleeping with him. Although she becomes desperate as he continues to delay, her desire for Savka outweighs her fear over the social repercussions and her reputation. The village criticizes Savka for his laziness and thus not meeting their expected social standards, but each of these women who cheats on their husband with Savka shows the illusion of these social standards and the hypocrisy of these individuals who espouse them. These hard-working middle-class people live in a façade, claiming to live happy family lives as their wives cheat on them while the men work.

 

In “Misfortune” a married woman named Sophia Petrovna rendezvouses with a hopeful lover who is trying to convince her to cheat on her husband. She tries to convince him with various platitudes about the virtues of married life in order to get him to stop propositioning her. His response is that he wishes he could stop, but his desire keeps overpowering his rational thoughts and he can’t stop thinking about her. He rebukes her, claiming that if she really felt nothing she would not keeping meeting him like this only to return again and again. As she heads home to her husband, she considers this point about their continual meetings and comes to realize that she is unhappy with her husband. The story then hints that she goes back out to meet him in order to begin an adulterous affair. However, as she leaves she feels disgusted with her own hypocrisy and lack of virtue. This is another story about the hypocrisy of our inner desires in comparison to social expectations and the superficial contentment of middle-class lifestyle. Often a person thinks they want one thing, but it only takes one unexpected event to reveal to them that they want something else in their lives and never realized it.

 

“A Boring Story” is the tale of an old professor who is one of the most famous scientists in his country slowly dying from a disease and the changes to his life that occurred due to his fame. This story contrasts well with “Grief.” Whereas in “Grief” the main character lived a lowly and miserable life as a drunk, the professor in this story is as successful as one can get, celebrated in his profession, feeling an intense passion for his wife in their younger days, and originally having an extremely happy family life. In his early days, home was his sanctuary. However, time and fame has changed all that as success completely changed his life. Now in his old age and on the verge of death from disease, nothing gives him pleasure anymore. He wonders when his wife got so fat and the passion disappeared from their relationship, he no longer enjoys dinner at his table (where the simple meals that he enjoyed of earlier times have been replaced by more sumptuous fare), and even science that he has spent his life studying no longer gives him hope for the future.  The story shows that even a life that seems filled with success and everything a person could desire can also be full of regrets and unhappiness. The coming of death makes all that once seemed meaningful and important suddenly meaningless. It also contain a sub-plot about an adopted daughter who has a life of regret as well after a failed theater career and a betrayal by her lover. She turns to the old professor, a father figure to her, for guidance in order to figure out what she should do with her life, but when she finally opens up to him for help it is when he has sunk to his lowest and has lost all meaning in life and accepted that he will soon die. For this reason he is unable to offer her the guidance she seeks. The story seems to imply that no matter how happy or successful we are, we all must die alone.

 

“The Grasshopper” is about a newlywed couple who form an unlikely pair. Olga is a highly cultured socialite with friends who are famous writers and singers; she believes the most important people in society are artists. The husband Dymov is a hardworking doctor and also a devoted husband, hosting grand parties with these famous people to keep his wife happy. Although she respects her husband as a person, she finds his boring job as a doctor rather plebeian in comparison to her famous artistic friends. Eventually Olga cheats on her husband with a morally bankrupt (but passionate) artist and Dymov ends up dying from not taking proper precautions when treating a patients for a serious illness. It is implied he did so due to feeling depressed over his wife’s infidelity. Only on his deathbed does Olga come to realize her husband’s greatest. After listening to the other doctors speak about his unrealized potential, she comes to understand that her husband was an extremely talented medical scientist who was on his way to being a famous name in the country before his life was cut short and realizes such a person is more important than all the writers, artists, and singers put together. This is another story where the character only realizes what they had after it is gone.

 

“Ward 6” begins by detailing the life of the inmates of a psych ward attached to a dysfunctional provincial hospital. It is a place of misery and poorly run. The apathetic doctor in charge of the place Dr. Ragin is responsible for all this misery by doing nothing to fix it. Most days he doesn’t even bother to visit the hospital. One day he decides to break his normal daily routine of reading literature and philosophy to visit the psych ward where he meets a young former student named Gromov who is now an inmate there. Dr. Ragin starts to take real pleasure in their conversations when he comes to realize Gromov is the only truly educated man in the entire countryside. They talk about deep philosophical issues in which the doctor advocates the ideas of the Stoics, claiming if a person really thinks about it there is no difference between being locked up in a psych ward versus freedom to do whatever one likes outside it. It’s merely a state of mind. Gromov counters that it is obvious the doctor has never suffered any real hardships and that’s why such a philosophy like the Stoics advocates seem good to him. Eventually the ambitious assistant doctor overhears Dr. Ragin’s deep conversations with this madman and manages to convince everyone in town, including the important political figures that Dr. Ragin has gone mad himself and that can be the only explanation for why he would spent so much of his time conversing with an insane individual in a psych ward. This leads to a tragic spiral where Dr. Ragin loses his position at the hospital, all his money, and eventually ends up in the psych ward himself. There he suffers both physical beatings from the former attendant that once worked for him and psychologically over his situation, which shows the shortcomings of all his previous philosophical rants. Stoic philosophy proves useless in the face of real tragedy and the evils of societal institutions, while its often these justifications that perpetuate such flawed systems.

 

In “Ariadne” a young Russian landowner on a steamer makes a new acquaintance and philosophizes about the nature of women and the obsession Russians have with them. He then tells the stranger about his most recent love affair with an impoverished noblewomen whose beauty and charms allow her to manipulate any man she wants. The story addresses the ideas of women’s liberation as a misguided extension of female manipulation. It takes a misogynist stance that women are manipulative towards men and see men only as potential husbands and lovers. At the same time, it also suggests the solution to this problem is broadening the education of women so that they receive an education similar to a male’s. It is also the personal story of a young man who goes from infatuation and naïveté to heartbreak when he discover his love interest is sleeping with another man to eventually becoming her lover himself and coming to realize over time how he is being manipulated by sacrificing his monetary comfort, personal morals, and property in order to fulfill her expensive tastes. It makes an interesting parallel with “Lady with Lapdog” because that story is about a seduction in which the adulterous affair makes both participants realize how stifled they feel in their marriages, while in “Ariadne” it is the affair that comes to feel stifling and the young Russian landowner wishes he can find some way to escape it.

 

“Ionych” is about a country doctor named Ionych who falls in love with Kitty Turkin, a young lady from a prominent family in town known for giving lavish literary and artistic entertainments. At these parties, the wife reads portions of her mediocre novels, Kitty plays the piano, the son acts out dramatic scenes, and the father tells jokes, witticisms, and provides hospitality. Kitty rejects Ionych’s marriage proposal because she believes she is destined to become a talented pianist and artist. In reaction to this rejection, Ionych gives up any real possibility at happiness, throwing himself into his work, putting on a ton of weight, and acquiring lots of money and property. Later, he meets Kitty again who is now interested in him romantically because she has become disillusioned with her dreams of being a famous artist and pianist after she meets many other girls her age who are as equally talented in the conservatory and she comes to realize that she is nothing special in terms of talent. However, Ionych doesn’t renew his proposal and chooses never to see Kitty again. He grows richer and fatter, turning into a grumpy old man driven by his greed. At first the Turkin’s lifestyle seems enchanting to Ionych, but after being rejected when he returns years later he comes to see how trite, mediocre, and insufferable is all their artistic pretensions and how mediocre they all are. Ionych acquires lots of money, but is miserable and unhappy.

“The Darling” is the story of a passionate woman who cannot function without a man or husband in her life. She marries two different men and takes on a lover after each previous one dies. In the end, she also starts to take care of her lover’s child as an overbearing mother figure, even though she isn’t related to him at all. All her opinions and views shift to match the opinions of her current partner, despite the fact that they may contradict the opinions that she held previously. She has no real idea or opinion of her own. It is her love interests that give her meaning and purpose in life. She has no individuality or autonomy without a love interest or role in relation to a male figure to guide her.

“Lady with Lapdog” is the story of a serial womanizer and adulterer who seduces a young woman with a lapdog who is vacationing in Yalta away from her husband. Unlike his previous love affairs, he falls in love with her, and their affair makes them realize how unhappy they are in their married lives. They both crave something more and find it in the affair, yet the expectations of society prevents them from being able to be with each other full time.

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The Best Short Stories by Guy de Maupassant

“And the two began placidly discussing political problems with the sound common sense of peaceful, matter-of-fact citizens — agreeing on one point: that they would never be free. And Mont-Valerien thundered ceaselessly, demolishing the house of the French with its cannon balls, grinding lives of men to powder, destroying many a dream, many a cherished hope, many a prospective happiness, ruthlessly causing endless woe and suffering in the hearts of wives, of daughters, of mothers, in other regions.” – from “Two Friends.”

I suppose one should expect a best of collection to be good–leaving the possibility that some duds from Maupassant larger oeuvre might be absent–but since this is my first experience with Maupassant, the consistent quality of these stories proves to me that Guy De Maupassant is a master of the form. I liked every story in this collection. Maupassant likes to write about the Franco-Prussian war (especially what it is like to live under Prussian occupation), the noble-nature of prostitutes and respectable society’s hypocrisy towards them, the french countryside (particularly the Normandy region), and impossible love affairs. Not only does Maupassant exhibit a talent for quality story-telling, but he also displays a mastery of descriptions, particularly of nature, employing an elegant prose style overflowing with beauty. I didn’t know whether to be more impressed with his skill at telling a fulfilling and entertaining story or the overwhelming beauty of his prose.

“Boule de Suif” (translated: Ball of Fat) is a story about an unlikely group of travel companions who gain permission after the Prussians occupy their town during the war to leave in the hopes of getting to an unoccupied town still controlled by the French. The travel companions include a nobleman and his wife, a rich wine merchant and his wife, a rich cotton merchant and his wife, two nuns, an alcoholic democrat, and a chunky prostitute (known as the Boule de Suif). At first, all the rich men and women feel scandalized having to share a coach with a prostitute. However, as the journey to their next stop takes longer than expected due to weather, their hunger gets the better of them and they all curse themselves for forgetting to pack provisions. Boule de Suif did remember to pack food, so she begins to eat in front of all her hungry companions. Eventually out of the kindness of her heart she shares her food with the others, which seems to change their opinions about her, declaring her a noble and kind-hearted person. They finally get to their first stop in another occupied town. The commanding officer in the town tries to proposition Boule de Suif, but she refuses to sleep with any Prussians due to her patriotic feelings. When they try to leave the next morning the commanding officer refuses to let them depart, wanting to sleep with Boule de Suif. Day after day this occurs, but Boule de Suif refuses on grounds of patriotism to sleep with the man. Her companions grow restless and accuse Boule de Suif of being selfish (after all, she’s slept with hundreds of men). They convince her to sleep with the Prussian officer using arguments that it will be a noble act of self-sacrifice that they will forever appreciate. She finally caves in and sleeps with the officer. The next day they leave, but once in the coach together everyone’s attitude is changed towards her, treating her likes she’s lower than dirt for having slept with the officer. This time she forgot to pack provisions. When dinner time rolls around, everyone eats their food, but nobody offers her any being a lowly prostitute and she begins to weep. This is without a doubt one of the best stories in this collection of Maupassant’s best stories. The obvious theme of this tale is hypocrisy. The rich treat her well when Boule de Suif has something to offer them. Her patriotism forms a stark contrast to their selfishness. They treat her as low as dirt for sleeping with the officer and plying her trade, despite being the ones to convince her to do so in the first place. They wouldn’t think of sharing their food with her, even though she shared all her food with them earlier.

“Two Friends” is a story about two friends living in Paris who haven’t seen each other since the Prussians invaded their country. One day they accidentally run into each other on the streets. They decide to go on one of their fishing trips by the lake. A French officer gives them a password to get in and out of Paris. While fishing they discuss the futility of war. They catch a lot of fish, but when they return to shore there are Prussian soldiers waiting for them. They bring them to an officer who accuses them of being spies. He threatens to kill them, unless they give him the password that will enable him to sneak troops into Paris. They refuse. He has them shot. The ending is actually extremely violent. This a story that notes how the innocent who only wish to mind their own business and do a little fishing with a friend get caught up in the war. Their discussion about war’s futility is paralleled by their ultimate fates; the Prussian General doesn’t get the password he wants and two innocent men are murdered. Nothing is gained, except death.

“Madame Tellier’s Establishment” is another story about prostitutes. In this tale, the men of the town are disappointed when they go to find the well-established brothel closed for a short time as Madame Tellier takes her employees to a neighboring village to visit her brother and celebrate her niece’s first communion. Maupassant explores similar themes as “Boule de Suif” but from a different angle. Maupassant is once again depicting the hypocrisy of society. Maupassant shows the prostitutes as having deep and genuine spirituality, suggesting even “lowly” prostitute who sell their bodies can have noble, virtuous and deeply religious sentiments. All the women in the church who aren’t aware that they’re prostitutes break down in tears before the deep spirituality and piousness of Madame Tellier and her girls. Meanwhile, if they knew they were prostitutes the women probably would’ve been scandalized. The upper class respectable citizens back home in town that society automatically assumes are more virtuous and respectable than prostitutes never exhibit pious feelings or noble emotions like the prostitutes, but instead worry about not being able to have their fun.

“Mademoiselle Fifi” is a fantasy revenge story in the similar vein as the recent Quentin Tarantino film, Inglourious Basterds (i.e. A lowly person in society takes revenge on her foreign occupiers during a war.) Four Prussian officers living in an occupied chateau amuse themselves by blowing up the expensive art. Being cooped up too long after an extended stretch of bad weather, they decide to amuse themselves by inviting four prostitutes to entertain them. At dinner, Mademoiselle Fifi, a particularly cruel and sadistic officer, starts hurting his prostitute named Rachel by pinching her and blowing smoke from his tobacco into her face. Eventually as the men get drunker they grow bolder and start bragging about their victories over France. This enrages the women, especially Rachel, who murders Mademoiselle Fifi and then manages to escape from the officers. They search the countryside, but are unable to find her. Besides being a fantasy revenge story, Maupassant relies strongly on symbolic stereotypes. Once again we have the noble prostitute demonstrating their superior character to the rest of society. Rachel is not only a prostitute, but a Jewess. The obvious symbolism is that even the lowest of the low in French society (a prostitute and a Jew) are more virtuous, brave, and noble than these German officers. Mademoiselle Fifi and the other officers embody stereotypes about German; when they blow up the art, Maupassant is suggesting that they have no appreciation of art or culture, and they’re nothing more than uncivilized brutes given to violence, too much drink, and prostitutes (the bodily pleasures rather than the intellectual ones).

“Miss Harriet” is a story that begins with a frame. Some bored ladies on a coach ride asks an old painter known for having many love affairs to tell them a story about one of his affairs. He tells them a tale of an old spinster from England passionate about nature and her peculiar version of religion. This woman who has never loved any man accidentally falls in love with the painter, while admiring the beauty of his paintings and realizing he shares her passion for the beauties of nature. Just as her feelings are developing she catches him engaging in a clandestine affair with a younger servant girl, which drives her to commit suicide. It ends with a memorable scene in which the painter kisses the corpse, telling us, “I imprinted upon those lips a kiss, a long kiss–the first they had ever received.” Maupassant’s descriptions of the natural surroundings and his deft hand with language in this story outdo the lushness and sensualness of any painting.

“The Necklace” is one of the author’s most famous stories. A pretty young girl wishing for a more opulent life after marrying a lower middle-class clerk convinces her husband to attend a ball being held by the Minister of Public Instruction so she can live her Cinderella fantasy of being someone important and rich. She borrows a diamond-studded necklace from her rich friend. She enjoys herself at the ball, experiencing for a brief moment what it would be like to be a member of the rich upper-class, but on her way home she discovers she has lost her friend’s necklace. They do everything in their power to recover the lost item, but cannot locate it. Eventually they purchase a new one just like it in a jewelry store that costs an astronomical amount of money, requiring them to take loans. She and her husband take extra jobs. After ten years of doing grueling work, they manage to pay off their debts for the necklace. The life of toil has spoiled the pretty young girl’s beauty. She meets out in public her rich friend years later who doesn’t recognize her anymore because her appearance is so changed from her difficult life. She confesses to her friend that they replaced her necklace and speaks about her hard life, only for the friend to tell her that the necklace she lost was fake costume jewelry, not real diamonds, making the whole story one big ironic punch line. This woman suffers a difficult life of hardship and grueling work on the brink of poverty and financial ruin because she isn’t content to live a sparing, but comfortable lower middle-class life and must put on appearances to pretend to other for one night that she is rich. Whereas she is spoiled and ungrateful for the life she has, the husband sacrifices his desires (such as money for a hunting gun and later taking on all those loans) for the sake of his wife’s desires.

“The piece of String” is a story about a thrifty man who picks up a piece of string on the road only to be caught doing so by his rival. When it is discovered that another merchant has lost his purse full of money, the rival claims to have seen the thrifty man picking up the purse of money rather than the string. The thrifty man tells everybody that will listen that he only picked up a piece of string and it is all a misunderstanding, but everybody mocks him believing he is guilty. Eventually a different man returns the purse to the original owner. The thrifty man believes this will exonerate him and goes around once again to try and convince everybody of his innocence, only for people to mock him further and believe he conspired to return the purse after stealing it. He becomes obsessed with telling the real story about the string and trying to convince people of his innocence, until it drives him mad. It is a story that tells us reputation and hearsay matters more than truth; once you develop a bad reputation in the eyes of society, it is impossible to clear your name, and any evidence that might be brought forth to exonerate a person will only be twisted to implicate them further.

Other stories that appeared in the collection include “Claire de Lune,” “Mademoiselle Pearl,” “Madame Husson’s Rosier,” “That Pig of a Morin,” “Useless Beauty,” “The Olive Orchard,” “A Sale,” “Love,” “Two Little Soldiers” and “Happiness.” Although I’m not planning to write about all of them, all of these stories were very good. I liked every story in this collection and I can’t say that about too many writers.