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CONSIDERATIONS FOR CRITICAL THINKING AND WRITING
1. first response. How did you react to Bambara's serious social commentary in this story? Is it convincing? Preachy? Does it make you feel guilty?
2. What is the lesson Miss Moore tries to teach Sylvia? Is she successful? Invent an alternative title that captures for you the central meaning of the story.
3. What is the conflict in this story? Is there more than one? How are these conflicts resolved?
4. Write a paragraph characterizing Miss Moore's point of view about herself. Then write a descriptive paragraph of Miss Moore from Sylvia's point of view. Try to capture their voices in your descriptions.
5. The story begins with an adult narrator recalling her youth: "Back in the days when ..." Although that adult perspective is quickly replaced by the young girl's point of view, what do you think the adult narrator thinks of herself as a young girl?
6. Explain why the use of an editorial omniscient point of view in this story would be inappropriate.
7. How does Sylvia's use of language serve to characterize her?
8. How do you feel about Miss Moore at the end of the story compared with your feelings about her at the beginning? Why?
9. How do Sylvia and Sugar get along? What does this relationship reveal about Sylvia?
10. What do you think the last line of the story means? Does Sylvia think Sugar is smarter than she is because Sugar knew the answer to Miss Moore's question and she didn't? Who else could the "nobody" in that line refer to besides Sugar?
CONNECTIONS TO OTHER SELECTIONS
1. Compare the treatment of youth and age in "The Lesson" with the treatment in Katherine Mansfield's "Miss Brill" (p. 258).
2. Discuss Bambara's characterization of children with Flannery O'Connor's in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" (p. 381). Which author's treatment of children seems more convincing to you? Why?
3. Write an essay comparing the lessons learned by the protagonists in "The Lesson" and in Ralph Ellison's "Battle Royal" (p. 223).
Anton Chekhov (1860-1904)
Born in a small town in Russia, Anton Chekhov gave up the career his medical degree prepared him for in order to devote himself to writing. His concentration on realistic detail in the hundreds of short stories he published has had an important influence on fiction writing. Modern drama has also been strengthened by his plays, among them these classics: The Seagull (1896), Uncle Vanya (1899), The Three Sisters (1901), and The Cherry Orchard (1904). Chekhov was a close observer of people in ordinary situations who struggle to live their lives as best they can. They are not very often completely successful. Chekhov's compassion, however, makes their failures less significant than their humanity. In "The Lady with the Pet Dog," love is at the heart of a struggle that begins in Yalta, a resort town on the Black Sea.
The Lady with the Pet Dog 1899
translated by avrahm yarmolinsky (1947)
A new person, it was said, had appeared on the esplanade: a lady with a pet dog. Dmitry Dmitrich Gurov, who had spent a fortnight at Yalta and had got used to the place, had also begun to take an interest in new arrivals. As he sat in Vernet's confectionery shop, he saw, walking on the esplanade, a fair-haired
young woman of medium height, wearing a beret; a white Pomeranian was trotting behind her.
And afterwards he met her in the public garden and in the square several times a day. She walked alone, always wearing the same beret and always with the white dog; no one knew who she was and everyone called her simply "the lady with the pet dog."
"If she is here alone without husband or friends," Gurov reflected, "it wouldn't be a bad thing to make het acquaintance."
He was under forty, but he already had a daughter twelve years old, and two sons at school. They had found a wife for him when he was very young, a student in his second year, and by now she seemed half as old again as he. She was a tall, erect woman with dark eyebrows, stately and dignified and, as she said of herself, intellectual. She read a great deal, used simplified spelling in het letters, called her husband, not Dmitry, but Dimitry, while he privately considered her of limited intelligence, narrow-minded, dowdy, was afraid of her, and did not like to be at home. He had begun being unfaithful to her long ago--had been unfaithful to her often and, probably for that reason, almost always spoke ill of women, and when they were talked of in his presence used to call them "the inferior race."
It seemed to him that he had been sufficiently tutored by bitter experience 5
to call them what he pleased, and yet he could not have lived without "the inferior race" for two days together. In the company of men he was bored and ill at ease, he was chilly and uncommunicative with them; but when he was among women he felt free, and knew what to speak to them about and how to comport himself; and even to be silent with them was no strain on him. In his appearance, in his character, in his whole makeup there was something attractive and elusive that disposed women in his favor and allured them. He knew that, and some force seemed to draw him to them, too.
Oft-repeated and really bitter experience had taught him long ago that with decent people--particularly Moscow people--who are irresolute and slow to move, every affair which at first seems a light and charming adventure inevitably grows into a whole problem of extreme complexity, and in the end a painful situation is created. But at every new meeting with an interesting woman this lesson of experience seemed to slip from his memory, and he was eager for life, and everything seemed so simple and diverting.
One evening while he was dining in the public garden the lady in the beret walked up without haste to take the next table. Her expression, her gait, her dress, and the way she did her hair told him that she belonged to the upper class, that she was married, that she was in Yalta for the first time and alone, and that she was bored there. The stories told of the immorality in Yalta are to a great extent untrue; he despised them, and knew that such stories were made up for the most part by persons who would have been glad to sin themselves if they had had the chance; but when the lady sat down at the next table three paces from him, he recalled these stories of easy conquests, of trips to the mountains, and the tempting thought of swift, fleeting liaison, a romance with an unknown woman of whose very name he was ignorant suddenly took hold of him.
He beckoned invitingly to the Pomeranian, and when the dog approached him, shook his finger at it. The Pomeranian growled; Gurov threatened it again.
The lady glanced at him and at once dropped her eyes.
"He doesn't bite," she said and blushed. 10
"May I give him a bone?" he asked; and when she nodded he inquired affably, "Have you been in Yalta long?" "About five days."
"And I am dragging out the second week here." There was a short silence.
"Time passes quickly, and yet it is so dull here!" she said, not looking at him. 15
"It's only the fashion to say it's dull here. A provincial will live in Belyov or Zhizdra and not be bored, but when he comes here it's 'Oh, the dullness! Oh, the dust!' One would think he came from Granada."
She laughed. Then both continued eating in silence, like strangers, but after dinner they walked together and there sprang up between them the light banter of people who are free and contented, to whom it does not matter where they go or what they talk about. They walked and talked of the strange light on the sea: the water was a soft, warm, lilac color, and there was a golden band of moonlight upon it. They talked of how sultry it was after a hot day. Gurov told her that he was a native of Moscow, that he had studied languages and literature at the university, but had a post in a bank; that at one time he had trained to become an opera singer but had given it up, that he owned two houses in Moscow. And he learned from her that she had grown up in Petersburg, but had lived in S--since her marriage two years previously, that she was going to stay in Yalta for about another month, and that her husband, who needed a rest, too, might perhaps come to fetch her. She was not certain whether her husband was a member of a Government Board or served on a Zemstvo Council, ° and this amused her. And Gurov learned too that her name was Anna Sergeyevna.
Afterwards in his room at the hotel he thought about her--and was certain that he would meet her the next day. It was bound to happen. Getting into bed he recalled that she had been a schoolgirl only recently, doing lessons like his own daughter; he thought how much timidity and angularity there was still in her laugh and her manner of talking with a stranger. It must have been the first time in her life that she was alone in a setting in which she was followed, looked at, and spoken to for one secret purpose alone, which she could hardly fail to guess. He thought of her slim, delicate throat, her lovely gray eyes.
"There's something pathetic about her, though," he thought, and dropped off.
A week had passed since they had struck up an acquaintance. It was a holiday. 20
It was close indoors, while in the street the wind whirled the dust about and blew people's hats off. One was thirsty all day, and Gurov often went into the restaurant and offered Anna Sergeyevna a soft drink or ice cream. One did not know what to do with oneself.
In the evening when the wind had abated they went out on the pier to watch the steamer come in. There were a great many people walking about the dock; they had come to welcome someone and they were carrying bunches of flowers.
Zemstvo Council: A district council.
And two peculiarities of a festive Yalta crowd stood out: the elderly ladies were dressed like young ones and there were many generals.
Owing to the choppy sea, the steamer arrived late, after sunset, and it was a long time tacking about before it put in at the pier. Anna Sergeyevna peered at the steamer and the passengers through her lorgnette as though looking for acquaintances, and whenever she turned to Gurov her eyes were shining. She talked a great deal and asked questions jerkily, forgetting the next moment what she had asked; then she lost her lorgnette in the crush.
The festive crowd began to disperse; it was now too dark to see people's faces; there was no wind any more, but Gutov and Anna Sergeyevna still stood as though waiting to see someone else come off the steamer. Anna Sergeyevna was silent now, and sniffed her flowers without looking at Gurov.
"The weather has improved this evening," he said. "Where shall we go now? Shall we drive somewhere?"
She did not reply. 25
Then he looked at her intently, and suddenly embraced her and kissed her on the lips, and the moist fragrance of her flowers enveloped him; and at once he looked round him anxiously, wondering if anyone had seen them.
"Let us go to your place," he said softly. And they walked off together rapidly.
The air in her room was close and there was the smell of the perfume she had bought at the Japanese shop. Looking at her, Gurov thought: "What encounters life offers!" From the past he preserved the memory of carefree, good-natured women whom love made gay and who were grateful to him for the happiness he gave them, however brief it might be; and of women like his wife who loved without sincerity, with too many words, affectedly, hysterically, with an expression that it was not love or passion that engaged them but something more significant; and of two or three others, very beautiful, frigid women, across whose faces would suddenly flit a rapacious expression--an obstinate desire to take from life more than it could give, and these were women no longer young, capricious, unreflecting, domineering, unintelligent, and when Gurov grew cold to them their beauty aroused his hatred, and the lace on their lingerie seemed to him to resemble scales.
But here there was the timidity, the angularity of inexperienced youth, a feeling of awkwardness; and there was a sense of embarrassment, as though someone had suddenly knocked at the door. Anna Sergeyevna, "the lady with the pet dog," treated what had happened in a peculiar way, very seriously, as though it were her fall--so it seemed, and this was odd and inappropriate. Her features drooped and faded, and her long hair hung down sadly on either side of her face; she grew pensive and her dejected pose was that of a Magdalene in a picture by an old master.
"It's not fight," she said. "You don't respect me now, you first of all."
There was a watermelon on the table. Gurov cut himself a slice and began eating it without haste. They were silent for at least half an hour.
There was something touching about Anna Setgeyevna; she had the purity of a well-bred, naive woman who has seen little of life. The single candle burning on the table barely illumined her face, yet it was clear that she was unhappy.
"Why should I stop respecting you, darling?" asked Gurov. "You don't know what you're saying."
"God forgive me," she said, and her eyes filled with tears. "It's terrible."
"It's as though you were trying to exonerate yourself."
"How can I exonerate myself? No. I am a bad, low woman; I despise myself and I have no thought of exonerating myself. It's not my husband but myself I have deceived. And not only just now; I have been deceiving myself for a long time. My husband may be a good, honest man, but he is a flunkey! I don't know what he does, what his work is, but I know he is a flunkey! I was twenty when I married him. I was tormented by curiosity; I wanted something better. 'There must be a different sort of life,' I said to myself. I wanted to live! To live, to live! Curiosity kept eating at me--you don't understand it, but I swear to God I could no longer control myself; something was going on in me: I could not be held back. I told my husband I was ill, and came here. And here I have been walking about as though in a daze, as though I were mad; and now I have become a vulgar, vile woman whom anyone may despise."
Gurov was already bored with her; he was irritated by her naive tone, by her repentance, so unexpected and so out of place; but for the tears in her eyes he might have thought she was joking or play-acting.
"I don't understand, my dear," he said softly. "What do you want?"
She hid her face on his breast and pressed close to him.
"Believe me, believe me, I beg you," she said, "I love honesty and purity, 40
and sin is loathsome to me; I don't know what I'm doing. Simple people say, 'The Evil One has led me astray' And I may say of myself now that the Evil One has led me astray."
"Quiet, quiet," he murmured.
He looked into her fixed, frightened eyes, kissed her, spoke to her softly and affectionately, and by degrees she calmed down, and her gaiety returned; both began laughing.
Afterwards when they went out there was not a soul on the esplanade. The town with its cypresses looked quire dead, but the sea was still sounding as it broke upon the beach; a single launch was rocking on the waves and on it a lantern was blinking sleepily.
They found a cab and drove to Oreanda.
"I found out your surname in the hall just now: it was written on the 45
board--von Dideritz," said Gurov. "Is your husband German?"
"No; I believe his grandfather was German, but he is Greek Orthodox himself."
At Oreanda they sat on a bench not far from the church, looked down at the sea, and were silent. Yalta was barely visible through the morning mist; white clouds rested motionlessly on the mountaintops. The leaves did not stir on the trees, cicadas twanged, and the monotonous muffled sound of the sea that rose from below spoke of the peace, the eternal sleep awaiting us. So it rumbled below when there was no Yalta, no Oreanda here; so it rumbles now, and it will rumble as indifferently and as hollowly when we are no more. And in this constancy, in this complete indifference to the life and death of each of us, there lies, perhaps, a pledge of our eternal salvation, of the unceasing advance of life upon earth, of unceasing movement towards perfection. Sitting beside a young woman who in the dawn seemed so lovely, Gurov, soothed and spellbound by these magical surroundings--the sea, the mountains, the clouds, the wide
sky--thought how everything is really beautiful in this world when one reflects: everything except what we think or do ourselves when we forget the higher aims of life and our own human dignity.
A man strolled up to them--probably a guard--looked at them and walked away. And this detail, too, seemed so mysterious and beautiful. They saw a steamer arrive from Feodosia, its lights extinguished in the glow of dawn.
"There is dew on the grass," said Anna Sergeyevna, after a silence.
"Yes, it's time to go home." 50
They returned to the city.
Then they met every day at twelve o'clock on the esplanade, lunched and dined together, took walks, admired the sea. She complained that she slept badly, that she had palpitations, asked the same questions, troubled now by jealousy and now by the fear that he did not respect her sufficiently. And often in the square or the public garden, when there was no one near them, he suddenly drew her to him and kissed her passionately. Complete idleness, these kisses in broad daylight exchanged furtively in dread of someone's seeing them, the heat, the smell of the sea, and the continual flitting before his eyes of idle, well-dressed, well-fed people, worked a complete change in him; he kept telling Anna Sergeyevna how beautiful she was, how seductive, was urgently passionate; he would not move a step away from her, while she was often pensive and continually pressed him to confess that he did not respect her, did not love her in the least, and saw in her nothing but a common woman. Almost every evening rather late they drove somewhere out of town, to Oreanda or to the waterfall; and the excursion was always a success, the scenery invariably impressed them as beautiful and magnificent.
They were expecting her husband, but a letter came from him saying that he had eye-trouble, and begging his wife to return home as soon as possible. Anna Sergeyevna made haste to go.
"It's a good thing I am leaving," she said to Gutov. "It's the hand of Fate!"
She took a carriage to the railway station, and he went with her. They were 55
driving the whole day. When she had taken her place in the express, and when the second bell had rung, she said, "Let me look at you once more--let me look at you again. Like this."
She was not crying but was so sad that she seemed ill, and her face was quivering.
"I shall be thinking of you--remembering you," she said. "God bless you; be happy. Don't remember evil against me. We are parting forever--it has to be, for we ought never to have met. Well, God bless you."
The train moved off rapidly, its lights soon vanished, and a minute later there was no sound of it, as though everything had conspired to end as quickly as possible that sweet trance, that madness. Left alone on the platform, and gazing into the dark distance, Gurov listened to the twang of the grasshoppers and the hum of the telegraph wires, feeling as though he had just waked up. And he reflected, musing, that there had now been another episode or adventure in his life, and it, too, was at an end, and nothing was left of it but a memory. He was moved, sad, and slightly remorseful: this young woman whom he would never meet again had not been happy with him; he had been warm and affectionate with her, but yet in his manner, his tone, and his caresses there had been a shade of light irony, the slightly coarse arrogance of a happy male who was, besides, almost twice her age. She had constantly called him kind, exceptional, high-minded; obviously he had seemed to her different from what he really was, so he had involuntarily deceived her.
Here at the station there was already a scent of autumn in the air; it was a chilly evening.
"It is time for me to go north, too," thought Gurov as he left the platform. 60
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