The Chekhov Sentence That Explains Human Relationships


Doug McLean

Most stories about relationships in literature, TV, and film end one of two ways: The couple breaks up, or else they live happily ever after. But in a conversation for this series, Gary Shteyngart, the author of Lake Success, discussed a third possibility. He described how Anton Chekhov’s “The Lady With the Dog” ends not with a breakup or a wedding, but with a cliff-hanger, a brilliant, muscular last sentence that assures us the characters will stay together, even though their troubles will only deepen. We talked about the story’s stunning final moment, why Shteyngart feels it’s one of the wisest sentences in literature, and what it has to do with the creative process—where the most difficult part is always just beginning.

Lake Success’s protagonist is a hedge-fund manager named Barry Cohen, a clownish and hypocritical one-percenter who drowns his sorrows one $33,000 bottle of whiskey at a time. Dimly aware that his wealth may be ruining his life, Barry takes a quixotic trip across America by Greyhound—minus his credit cards, though he insists on toting along his collection of luxury timepieces. But this search for self-discovery is itself rooted in denial: He’s also left behind his wife and his nonverbal 3-year-old son, whose autism diagnosis Barry cannot bring himself to face. The novel is a darkly comic journey to the heart of Donald Trump–era America, one that explores the wages of narcissism, skewers the excesses of the ultrarich, and ultimately probes the hope that we may find ways to get beyond our starkly defined differences and be better to one another.

Gary Shteyngart is the author of three other novels, including Absurdistan and Super Sad True Love Story, and the memoir Little Failure. His work appears in magazines such as The New Yorker, Esquire, and GQ. He lives in New York City and a smaller town upstate, where he told me he can write twice as much in half the time. “There’s more space emotionally, creatively, artistically to explore things,” he said. “You become a much better noticer of things.” We spoke by phone.


Gary Shteyngart: My parents brought a copy of The Collected Works of Anton Chekhov in Russian when they came to America. They had me read it when I was 9 or 10 years old. In Russia, you read Chekhov when you’re younger, then build up to Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and all those guys. At one point, my father went to a PTA meeting at my elementary school, and someone said, “Have you heard your son reads Tolstoy in original Russian?” And he said, “No! Only Chekhov.” Chekhov was starter literary stuff.

I remember all those stories so well. But by the time I worked my way up to “The Lady With the Dog,” I clearly wasn’t ready for it. I knew nothing about love and adultery and relationships, any of that stuff. So I’m not sure the story made a whole lot of sense to me at the time. It wasn’t until I reread it in college, in the throes of my own first love affair, that I realized: Wow, this story says everything about the relations between people that you could ever hope to say.

It’s a simple premise, to begin with. A married man named Dmitri Gurov is on a business trip, where he sees a lovely woman sitting on the boardwalk with her little dog. He introduces himself, and his eventual seduction is confident and almost disdainful, as if it were all a game to him. He’s a contemptible character—and a comical one, in his own small way.

But the amazing thing about the story, the trick Chekhov pulls off, is that Gurov really does grow. He’s a different person by the end of the story. By the end, he’s fallen so in love with Anna that he’s transformed himself—into a less happy person, in some ways, but also a better and more aware person. It’s shocking that within the space of so few pages, you can make that transformation real. Entire novels try to do that and fail.

Part of what makes it work is the story’s gradualness. There’s so much narrative control. I hate to sound like I’m talking about a TV show, but the pacing is just terrific. Chekhov knows when to do summary and he knows when to write out a scene—there’s a page-turner quality to it. Besides, we’re reading about a romance. Reading about a romance is almost like reading a mystery, right? The mystery is: Will they last, or won’t they last? And if they won’t last, how won’t they last? The way Chekhov plays with our expectations around these questions is just masterful.

When you start out reading almost any story about a relationship, you think, “Okay, this is going to be a story about a relationship that falls apart.” It’s the falling apart that gives the story its structure—the beginning, middle, and end that the narrative needs to work. Because if the relationship keeps going, theoretically there’s no end, right? We intuitively know the relationship will end. The ending is what keeps the story from becoming a fairy tale.

But in this story—spoiler alert—the relationship doesn’t fall apart. It starts in Yalta, where the characters meet, and you suspect it will end there, too: that, like most stories, the whole thing will just be a snapshot in the life of two characters. But Chekhov doesn’t end there. Instead, he says, “Okay, that’s just the amuse-bouche. Let’s see how this will play out over the span of weeks, months, years.”

So we follow the characters as the affair deepens, as it grows from a brief dalliance to something more sustained and painful, trailing Gurov and Anna back to a provincial Russian town and into hotel rooms in Moscow. They continue on and on, with limited happiness, in what I guess Freud would call “managed unhappiness.” It captures the banality of life and marriage and relationships. Even adultery, which you think is this exciting thing, proves to be hard work that doesn’t really have many payoffs.

The story ends with one of the most unexpected and crushing lines in fiction:

And it seemed as though in a little while the solution would be found, and then a new and glorious life would begin; and it was clear to both of them that they still had a long, long road before them, and that the most complicated and difficult part of if it was only just beginning.

It’s a long, compound sentence with a semicolon—it’s gigantic, right? But if you apply that sentence to just about anything in life, you’ll find yourself in agreement with it. It’s about adultery, but it’s also about any relationship. It could apply to having a child, or going away to college, or starting a new job, or being ill in a serious way—anything. We all nurse this endless hope for some sort of respite, some sort of “new and glorious” turn that will make it all better. But in reality, that moment never comes.

Instead of leaving us with a happily ever after or a neat breakup, Chekhov leaves us with something much more complicated: this sense that the relationship will continue, but that we’ve only seen the very beginning of a much longer, sadder, and more complicated tale. It’s like the sadness you feel dropping your kids off at college: the sense that a larger and more complicated story is only just beginning, and you stand only on the periphery of it.

To me, that’s so much more satisfying than either of the more concrete endings we might expect in a story about a relationship: They break up, or they reach a place of contented equilibrium. This line suggests there’s no end to any story or novel, only a glimpse of what we will keep repeating over and over. We never really change, we just fight on against ourselves, looking for the truth and never really finding it.

Most literary writers believe that nobody ever really changes, that personal growth is a sentimentalized, Hollywood type of thing. I partly subscribe to that. I tend to think characters experience stuff and then go back to being who they are. Studies show that whether you win the lottery or lose a limb—a great thing or a terrible thing—people return to their usual level of happiness in a year and a half. It’s hard for almost any event, good or bad, to completely change everything, as much as we might wish for that outcome or fear it.

And yet—in this story, at least—there’s more to it than that. In this case, the characters do change for the better, and also in a way that makes the story all the sadder. In the first pages, when Gurov first meets Anna, he yearns for a simple fling, a brief affair with no strings attached. But as he gradually falls in love for her, the nature of his desire changes dramatically. He becomes willing to endure almost any hardship or complication to keep their romance going. The future is not going to be all that bright for them. Maybe their acknowledgement of that fate, and their acceptance of it, is how we know they’ve matured as people.

It’s a different take on the “Ignorance is bliss” argument: Personal growth is not some sudden breakthrough that solves everything. Instead, it’s incredibly protracted, hard-won, and painful. If anything, you’re less happy as a result, not more. But you get the sense the characters wouldn’t trade it. The final insight of this ending is that there is no final insight, there is no ending. You only keep on striving, and that’s the beauty.

I think writing can be like this, too: The most difficult and complicated part is always still ahead. I would say if it becomes easy, then you’re probably not doing it right. The best kind of novelist is somebody who’s a first-time novelist with every book. With writing, you’re tearing your hair out to make the next book. It’s how you know you’re onto something. You always know you’re on the right track when some of your fans complain and say, “This isn’t like the last book. Why are you changing? Why can’t you just be the same person I liked to begin with?”

All the novels I’ve written, including Lake Success, have a relationship at their center. There’s other ornamental stuff hung around, but there’s always a romantic relationship as the focus. Maybe that’s because they can be so much more dynamic than the relationships we have with our parents or with our children, the people who come from the same world as us. It’s a relationship with someone who is not your flesh and blood, who comes from a different universe from you—unless you marry your cousin like Giuliani.

In fiction and in life, a romantic relationship is almost like the ultimate adventure. Who’s it going to be? What’s going to happen? And what are you looking for—do you want a facsimile of your mother or father? Or do you want the opposite, someone who takes you as far as possible away from the world of your parents? And then there’s the excitement of romance, sex, all of it. Something about love just lends itself so beautifully to the written page. When you meet two people who are wearing their clothes, we kind of wonder what they’re going to look like without their clothes.

“The Lady With the Dog” was written in the 19th century, and Chekhov probably didn’t want to go there. But though the story isn’t explicit on the page, he nonetheless reveals these characters to us completely. Comical in their smallness at first, Anna and Gurov gradually become fuller, more lifelike, more human. By the end, the irony completely falls away and they have the heartbreaking earnestness of real people, standing naked before us. For me, the ultimate compliment is that you can still imagine them living today, even though the story is written in a different century. I could see these guys living in Bushwick right now, you know? You can picture them at a restaurant, at a bar, together, apart. They live on in our minds. They’re indelible, weirdly immortal.

And in that crushing final sentence, we recognize the truth of how their story will only continue—looking for that more glorious life, which will always remain far off. I’m a satirist, but I try to write novels that probe a little bit deeper into the human condition. I work in a humorous field and I write in a humorous way, but somehow this sentence remains the sentence for me, the prize I hope to reach one day. Not that I’ll ever reach it, as the sentence itself implies. See, it applies even here. It’s a sentence that contains almost all of life, one of the wisest ever written.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.

Joe Fassler is the editor of Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process. He regularly interviews writers for The Atlantic‘s “By Heart” series. He also covers the politics and economics of the American food system as a senior editor for The New Food Economy.

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