Nabokov's dialogue with Chekhov: Ladies with an without dogs


  • Kirsten Rutsala


Paraules clau:

Nabokov, Chekhov, metafiction, parody, influence


Although Nabokov's admiration for Chekhov's work is well-documented, relatively little critical attention has been paid to the connections between the two writers' works. This article concentrates on two of Nabokov’s stories as part of his larger dialogue with Chekhov. "The Reunion" is analyzed in conjunction with Chekhov’s story ‚The Lady with the Little Dog,‛ focusing on the theme of deception in both stories, particularly the notion of secret, double lives. The analysis also includes an examination of the stories’ structural similarities, including the continual overturning of both characters’ and readers’ expectations. The expected endings do not occur in either story, and the ultimate conclusions are open-ended and ambiguous.
While "The Reunion" is a relatively straightforward story, "That in Aleppo Once. . . " is considerably more complex. Nabokov deliberately complicates matters by creating both an unreliable narrator and a second character (the narrator’s wife) who invents stories about her experiences. Thus Nabokov takes Chekhov’s ambiguity a step further: not only is the future of the characters uncertain, the past is as well. The Chekhovian subtext appears throughout the story, and it turns out that the story is a reversal or subversion of Chekhovian details and devices.
Perhaps most striking are the authors’ respective treatments of their heroines. While Chekhov creates a character in Anna Sergeyevna who at first appears to be a literary type and then transforms her into a complex individual, Nabokov reverses this course. The narrator’s wife continually evades his and the reader’s understanding; the more we seem to learn about her, the less we really know. Finally, the narrator declares that his wife never existed at all, that she is simply "a phantom" who exists only on the page. From a metaliterary angle, of course, this is entirely accurate, since she is a fictional character. Thus Nabokov’s story simultaneously pays tribute to Chekhov and lays bare the mechanics of storytelling, narrative decisions, and the creative process itself.