Chekhov’s (1860-1904) love stories are not romantic accounts of unrequited love or of love at first sight. Or, even of tortured love that is amplified by the agony of being unfulfilled. No, these are Chekhovian tales that surprise and intrigue our imagination. Chekhov, exactly like Ibsen, knows his characters very well. He knows them well beyond the confines of the stories in which they make their public appearance. Despite his deep knowledge of them, one often gets the sense that Chekhov is as surprised by his character’s choices and actions as we are. In these stories, we are dealing with characters whose motivations and impulse to action can be mysterious even unfathomable. Just like they are in real people.
“The Lady With the Little Dog” is set in Yalta. Superficially, it is a holiday romance. Gurov is a married man but he holidays on his own and has a history of holiday affairs. He meets the lady of the story’s title with her Pomeranian dog that ‘scampered after her’. She is also married and on holiday on her own, for the first time. She is Anna Sergeyevna, slender with a frail neck and beautiful grey eyes. By the end of the first week of their meeting, standing at the jetty looking out to sea after the crowd of others had dispersed they kissed for the first time. It was sudden but not unexpected. Everything led up to the moment but it was yet surprising as these things can be
Then he looked at her intently, put his arms round her suddenly, and kissed her on the lips, and was enveloped by the scent and moisture of her flowers.
The kiss was unaccompanied by string music and the backdrop was not a beautiful sunset. It is sometimes said that young American women are surprised at the silence or abrasive traffic noise accompanying their first kiss, in the cramped and unromantic space of a motorcar, the steering wheel and gear stick in the way, for example! Indeed in Chekhov’s story, on the following day, after that first kiss, Gurov and Anna Sergeyevna went on an outing to Oreanda, the atmosphere that Chekhov creates is not of a poetic landscape but one of the futility of human life, and the impermanence of it
The leaves on the trees did not stir, the cicadas were chattering, and the monotonous, muffled noise of the sea coming up from down below spoke of rest and of the eternal sleep which awaits us. It had made that noise below when neither Yalta nor Oreanda existed, it was making the noise now, and would continue to make that noise in that same hushed and indifferent way when we are no longer here.
Chekhov is hinting at the impermanence of love and shortly after this scene Anna Sergeyevna has to return to care for her husband. But, instead of Gurov, the well-practiced adulterer forgetting her, he becomes preoccupied with her. On his return home he is out of sorts, unsettled, blown off course. And, he goes in search of her. This is a story of how love, with stealth and guise, slips in and wreaks havoc. It is love as insidious infection that grows to delirium. There is only sadness and tragedy. This love also revealed to Gurov the fact of his ageing and of time passing, and of the fragility of Anna Sergeyevna’s beauty
He went over to her and took her by the shoulders so he could caress her and make her laugh, and just at that moment he saw himself in the mirror. His hair was grey. He found it strange that he had aged so much in the last few years, and had lost his looks. The shoulders on which his hands were placed were warm, and they were shaking. He felt compassion for this life, still so warm and beautiful, but probably on the point of fading and wilting, just like his own life.
Chekhov’s approach to love stories is highlighted in “About Love”
People of other nations poeticize love, or adorn it with roses and nightingales, but we Russians have to adorn love with imponderable problems, and we always pick on the most uninteresting problems too […] we can never stop asking ourselves as to whether we are honest or not, whether we are acting wisely or stupidly, whether the relationship is going anywhere and so forth. I don’t know whether all this is a good or a bad thing, but I do know that it holds us back; it’s not rewarding, it’s just a source of irritation.
In “About Love”, Alyokhin, a landowner, tells his friends about his great love, Anna Alexeyevna, who is married with two children. Over the course of their relationship he visits regularly and is welcome into her home by her husband, children and servants. This is a story of undeclared love on both sides
Each time I came into town, I could see from her eyes that she had been expecting me; and she herself would confess that she had felt something special all day, and had guessed that I was going to come. We would talk for a long time, and be silent for a long time, but never confessed our love to each other, always hiding it shyly and jealously. We were frightened of everything that might betray our secret to each other. My love was tender and deep…
Eventually Anna Alexeyevna and her husband were posted away and Aloykhin went along with others to see them off. It was only at this point, when separation was imminent and certain, that love was demonstrably expressed but without altering the future material facts of their lives
As soon as our eyes met while we were standing there in the compartment, our emotional strength left us and I embraced her; pressed her face to my chest, and tears ran down her face; as I kissed her face, her shoulders, and her hands, which were wet with tears – oh, we were so unhappy! – I confessed my love for her, and with a burning pain in my heart I realized how unnecessary, petty and deceptive everything which had got in the way of our love had been
What is it that sets Chekhov’s love stories apart? I think it is the fact that the protagonists are always aware of their love, experience it self-consciously, analyze it even in the very throes of anguish and passion. In this conception of love, love is akin to a perception. It has a material presence about it that can be studied and examined for its dimensions, its texture, tenor and color. It is rarely joyful or satisfying. And, the hallmark of Chekhov is that the endings of the stories are unpredictable and often open to further inquiry. Unlike Hollywood, the hero hardly gets the girl and when he does it isn’t happily-ever-after. No violins, no sunsets, no closure. Alas, that is life!
The question is how relevant these stories are to clinical practice, that is if you’re a psychiatrist. Love is undoubtedly important to human life. But, the love that is the subject of clinical inquiry is the basic, primordial experience of attachment to a primary caregiver, the love that forms the basis for all subsequent relationships. This is ‘Love’ as something that passes between mother and child, something that cements their interactions. It is primordial in the sense that it is instinctual and the foundation for normal brain development, for the smooth acquisition of language, and for the architecture of self-esteem. It is primordial in the sense that it precedes language, it is preverbal and archaic in form. Sexual or romantic love is merely a subset of this primal love.
I can recall two people where love was the central mechanism in their sorrow, what Robert Burton (1577-1640) called ‘Love melancholy’. I knew an attractive middle-aged blond woman whose unlined face registered her inner sadness. She had no spontaneous smile or laughter and her eyes held the same darkness as a muddy pool in the gloom, they were dejected even soulless. She had fallen in love with a married man, had left her own husband and children in order to be with her lover. He never left his wife and she ended up a mistress, the other woman in Nina Simone’s song. Yet, it was impossible to explore with her how she had come to be in this situation or even to examine how the situation might be remedied. She was incapable of seeing that her love was greater than his. It was as if in the presence of a roomful of furniture she did not desire to look at the sofas, the coffee table, the writing desk, the Berber rug for fear that they might turn out to be illusory. To examine her love would have diminished her lover and therefore threatened the very basis of her existence. The illusion itself sustained her impoverished life. She brought to mind one of the cases discussed by Irving Yalom in his book Love’s Executioner. Yalom’s case centered on Thelma, a woman who had a love affair with her therapist. And, Yalom’s opening remarks emphasized the trouble with romantic love
I do not like to work with patients who are in love […] The good therapist fights darkness and seeks illumination, while romantic love is sustained by mystery and crumbles upon inspection.
There was also a young and single Hindu woman who was having an affair with a married, middle-aged Muslim man who had assured her that he longer loved his wife. The families were neighbors. The secret liaison caused immense anguish to her family. They threatened, admonished, and entreated her but to no avail. It was clear that he had no intention of leaving his wife. She used the clinical appointments as an excuse to leave the family home for rendezvous with her lover. She had no interest in understanding the origins of her inner turmoil, her sleep disturbance, her poor appetite and, her melancholy. Her pain and her love were intertwined. To disentangle them was to threaten the survival of her love. The pain, too, confirmed that she was alive. To lose the anguish was to pass once more into insignificance.
In Chekhov, the inner workings of love and passion, the silent and invisible ingredients that turn pure water into a toxic effusion, are laid out for us to see, as far as is possible and the tragic consequences dramatized. I end with Robert Burton in The Anatomy of Melancholy
I had rather contend with bulls, lions, bears, and giants, than with Love; He is so powerful, enforceth all to pay tribute to him, domineers over all, and can make mad and sober whom he list…
He goes on
Cruel Love, to what dost though not force the hearts of men? How it tickles the hearts of mortal men…I am almost afraid to relate, amazed, and ashamed, it hath wrought such stipend and prodigious effects, such foul offences. Love indeed (I may not deny) first united provinces, built cities, and by perpetual generation makes and preserves mankind…but if it rages, it is no more love, but burning lust, a disease, frenzy, madness, hell…
Photos by Jan Oyebode