Dmitri Dmitrich Gurov leads a double life. The protagonist of Anton Chekhov’s short story The Lady with the Dog stretches himself between two places. In Moscow, he exists — a high-paying position at a bank, dinner parties with Muscovite intelligentsia, a wife and three children. And a deep boredom seeps through it all: his arranged marriage is less than loveless; his children are uninteresting; dinner parties are so much smoke from a bland cigar. There “he was bored and not himself … cold and uncommunicative.”1 But in Yalta, he lives. Gurov, as it turns out, is a regular womanizer. He has that seductive je ne sais quoi: he has it, knows it, and uses it. To him, each new affair “appears a light and charming adventure” that “so agreeably diversifies life.”2 In Yalta, he meets a young, attractive lady, travelling without her husband — Anna Sergeyevna, the lady with the dog. Unlike Gurov’s usually fleeting affairs, this one lasts. And so “he had two lives”:
“One open, seen and known by all who cared to know, full of relative truth and of relative falsehood, exactly like the lives of his friends and acquaintances; and another life running its course in secret.”3
The term ‘double life’ sounds like TV drama; Chekhov’s definition makes the phenomenon more common. Do I not, like Gurov, find myself sometimes floating in shallow social interactions, far from the depths of my soul? I walk into a party, and spend the evening discussing things that mean nothing to me. What I love and fear doesn’t belong here, couldn’t follow drinks and hors d’oeuvres.
But I at least recognize my inauthenticity and regret it: “I just wasn’t being myself.” But what does it mean to “be oneself”? Gurov believes that he is authentic in his romance with Anna Sergeyevna. “Everything in which he was sincere and did not deceive himself, everything that made the kernel of his life” belongs to this relationship.4 Chekhov, however, treats his characters’ relationship with a layer of irony. Gurov loves Anna Sergeevna, but the superficiality of his public life still seeps in. “Everything is beautiful in this world,” Gurov reflects at the affair’s most idyllic moment, sitting next to “a young woman.”5 The sentiment is ridiculous coming from him — surely, “everything” does not include his tiresome wife. And the abstraction from Anna Sergeyevna to “a young woman” betrays a thread of insincerity in his love for her qua Anna Sergeyevna. Even where he feels most like himself, inauthenticity infects his life.
I cannot say “I just wasn’t being myself,” because inauthenticity, like all sin, comes from myself. Saint Augustine searched for the origin of wickedness, and found it within himself:
“I inquired what wickedness is; and I did not find a substance but a perversity of will twisted away from the highest substance, you O God, towards inferior things, rejecting its own inner life and swelling with external matter.”6
The identity twists, contorts itself, perverts its form into inauthenticity. It swells with the hot air of empty words. After the party, my behavior seems to me grotesque, and I want to separate myself from it, make it other than myself: “I was not being myself.” But I was. The perverted identity is my identity, and the perversity is of my own will.
Chekhov leaves a small hope for Gurov. Before his affair with Anna Sergeyevna, Gurov did not even consider how to live authentically. He really could not; he considered his life in terms of boredom and excitement, not inauthenticity and authenticity. The story ends, however, with Gurov clutching his head and asking, “How? How? How?” How does one, he asks, “avoid the necessity for secrecy, for deception”?7 What brings about this change in him? Love, Chekhov writes, changes us.
For the first time, Gurov has loved someone, and by loving he learns to even begin to ask what is true and what is false. Anna Sergeyevna’s most noted feature is her gray eyes. Here, eyes are not windows, but mirrors. In a poignant scene, Gurov walks past a mirror, and sees that same color gray, only in his hair: “and it seemed strange to him that he had grown so much older, so much plainer during the last few years.”8 By loving her, he sees himself for who he is. Seeing himself thus, he wants, for her sake, “to be sincere.”9
But the power of Gurov’s love is limited. His love makes him desire authenticity, but shackles him to secrecy and deception. “Was not their life shattered?”10 Gurov and Anna Sergeyevna came to each other to escape loveless marriages, but they are not free. Gurov can ask the question How?, but he cannot answer it.
Loving another person might allow me to see my inauthenticity, but it cannot free me from it. Only a soul turned back to God, to return to Augustine’s passage, can be free. And who can redeem the soul from its perversion but he who made it? “Lord Jesus, let me know myself and know you,” Augustine prays.11 I know myself to be inauthentic, Lord. Only by knowing you, by loving you and being loved by you, I believe, can I be free from inauthenticity. Loving you, I see my inauthenticity. Being loved by you, Author and Perfecter of my soul, I am made free.
Joseph McDonough is a junior in Kirkland House studying Philosophy and Russian.
|↑1||Anton Chekhov, The Lady with the Dog, trans. Constance Garnett (London: Chatto & Windus, 1922), 4.|
|↑6||Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 126.|