For my freshman seminar, we were assigned The Lady with the Dog by Anthony Chekhov and The Lady with the Pet Dog by Joyce Carol Oates. We had a week to read them. I read neither. Oates came to our classroom in Blair to speak to us about her piece. She spoke with a quiet definiteness, and she spoke with her hands. People have probably better described her speaking before. When she was done speaking, she pushed her chair away from the head of the table with a strength that contradicted the tremor that ran through her wrist. For a second, she was stopped in the movements between standing up and walking, and she looked like the top half of the letter C.
She talked about The Lady with the Pet Dog. Our professor had warned us that she may not be able to answer many questions because Oates has written so much, and this story is but a speck of dust in her career. She was right; Oates did not answer many of our questions about the piece. People took different stabs at the same question: why she inverted the time structure, why she wrote a blind character, what her writing process was. She did not answer any of these questions satisfactorily; however, I got the sense that it wasn’t because she had forgotten, or everything had blended together. No, as her words landed softly on her hands, which crossed and uncrossed as she talked with them, to them, it struck me that writing this story, this piece, was an inevitable act.
Inspired by her presence, I bought myself coffee with money from my grandparents and sat down to read The Lady with the Pet Dog. I have a compromised attention span, but I experienced one of those scenes I thought only happened in low budget TV shows, in which the laptop screen somehow jumped forward and everything behind it blurred, the mahogany chairs, the pillar with the wifi password, the faces behind it. And then suddenly, as quickly as everything faded away, I was there one moment, and in the bathroom the next, tears streaming from my eyes and my nose now a redder Rudolph shade, wondering how I was to return to that corner. I was laughing and sobbing with coarse paper towel in hand at the ridiculousness of the situation, at the notion that people would even notice my reddened, moistened face, and at my own vehement reaction to such a seemingly harmless piece assigned for class.
I’ve revealed a lot about The Lady with a Pet Dog without describing what it is. It is Oates’s response to Chekhov’s story about love. Perhaps it is a love story but I do not think it really is. It is not about the conventions of love, about the marriage, the hand holding that follows sex, the vows and the sickness and in health as much as it is about the innate and irrational sensation that drives these married characters together, over and over again. Both Chekhov and Oates narrate the same plot, but Oates’s story breaks down the time structure, interspersing their connection in the past and the present, from when these two characters first meet to their affair that follows. In Oates’s version, they meet on Nantucket, not Yalta; in her version, it is told from the wife’s perspective, not the husband, yet the thesis remains the same: Love is an inevitable act.
The last time I cried reading was when I read Marley and Me when I was 7 years old. I felt silly now, powerless to something so distant, so short. I often feel silly when I cry, but in this instance I felt a hint of pride, realizing that perhaps I am a living example of what I took away as Oates’s thesis: that certain feelings lead to inevitable acts.
It was something about the buildup, the push and pull of rejecting and succumbing to their relationship, the prose that ebbed and flowed like the woman’s will that built the tears before they fell. They fell in the penultimate scene, when she sees him in the mirror, his existence outside of herself, and we see that she loves him. She loves him, and at this moment, she accepts it.
This story felt more visceral than what I’ve lived. It almost felt like a bible for how humans should live. If aliens came to this planet and asked what humans are all about, I think I’d give them this story. I realize I was wrong about this story being just a story about love; these characters are already in love, and throughout this story, they succumb to it. And perhaps it is this truth that drove me to tears. To accept feelings that demand to be felt and that come with risk is no longer as easy as when I read Marley and Me. Oates, both in her writing and unknowingly dodging questions on it, has reminded of something essential when living in the wild wild west of teenagehood and adulthood: to accept inevitable acts.