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Love and lies

May 17, 2016

Last week I wrote about my first impressions of Anton Chekhov’s “Three Years” (Три года, 1895), and now Scott Bailey, who knows the story much better, has a post on it. I should read the story with his interpretation in mind, but for now I’m having trouble reconciling myself to his central idea that “‘Three Years’ is a theme and variations: the theme is self-delusion and falsehood, the variations take the form of fantasies and lies. Almost every character lives in an imaginary reality, blinding himself to the truth. Almost every page has an example of someone either lying to himself or to someone else.”

I see the story in almost the opposite way: real reality intrudes on the characters’ lives so that, after three years of large and small chance events, Alexey Fyodorovitch Laptev and Yulia Sergeyevna Lapteva are changed in ways neither anticipated. At the beginning he loves her and she cannot love him, and both realize this (219); at the end she has come to love him and he no longer loves her, and both realize this (327-29). When he proposes, it would be useful for each of them to pretend that she loved him, but neither even tries to live strategically in that imaginary reality.

She loves him at the end even though he is unattractive, and is reluctant to marry him at the beginning even though he is rich. His love has cooled at the end even though she has grown more attractive: “She was not now the slender, fragile, pale-faced girl she used to be; she was a mature, beautiful, vigorous woman” [Это была уже не прежняя тонкая, хрупкая, бледнолицая девушка, а зрелая, красивая, сильная женщина, 91]. I felt that this late description of Yulia Sergeyevna was one of several lines that discouraged Bailey’s reading that “Alexey’s love for Yulia is mere physical attraction, for he doesn’t know her at all and during the course of the story he never gets to know her.” I take it that he knows her intimately well at the end of the story, but doesn’t love her because he isn’t the same man as three years earlier.

Bailey has a list (see below) of “examples of self-delusion, falseness and fantasies,” and I see where he’s coming from, but I would put the same items into several categories:

Examinations of human psychology under extreme circumstances. A terminally ill person like Nina Fyodorovna might inaccurately convince herself she is going to get better, but this is best seen not as falseness, but as an animal drive to live coming up to the civilized surface when day-to-day concerns can no longer keep these layers of a person separate. This could happen to anyone.

Examinations of passing psychological instants that do not represent the totality of a person’s feelings. Laptev’s desire for Yulia Sergeyevna to be unfaithful to him (273) is at the end of a long night that has shown him he’s useless to the young despite his money, and unable to enjoy the good things he has or could have that his brother covets. His despairing jealousy shows that he’s still not indifferent: at this moment he fears his wife coming to love Yartsev (or someone else, but probably Yartsev) so much that he wants it to happen immediately so he can stop dreading it. Later he’ll bring Yartsev to see his wife, speculate about them getting together, and not care.

Self-delusion, falseness, and fantasies. Panaurov’s “no means yes” ideas about women and his self-description as a “decent, honest man” seem false — evidence that he’s trying to deceive others if not himself — and to me at least they seem qualitatively different than anything the sympathetic major characters think, say, or do. Kostya’s legal speeches probably belong here too, and Kostya’s belief that “he had a subtle, aesthetic temperament” is immediately undermined by the narrator. I’m not sure how well I understand Laptev’s belief that “if he had studied he might have made a good painter” or his overconfidence in the world of art, and he seems different from Kostya in some respects, but I can see why it would count as an example of self-delusion.

On another topic, Bailey’s reading of “why this was so” (in “It was disagreeable to Laptev to hear his wife, not yet twenty-two, speaking so seriously and coldly about love. He understood why this was so”) as “because Yulia has been reading Tolstoy” is very interesting. I’d read this in a story-internal way: “why this was so” was because she didn’t then love her husband, wouldn’t even consider adultery, and therefore was inclined to belittle love and wish people would write about other important things. But maybe it really is about Tolstoy.

(Here is Bailey’s list of examples with the character each item is about in brackets.)

In spite of acute pain she still imagined that she was getting better. [Nina Fyodorovna, Laptev’s sister]

He believed that he had a subtle, aesthetic temperament, and he always had leanings toward art. He neither sang nor played on any musical instrument, and was absolutely without an ear for music, but he attended all the concerts […] Kostya delivered a regular monologue: he fancied that he was very successful in imitating Ermolova. [Kostya]

It seemed to him that he would be glad if his wife were to deceive him that night with his best friend […] and now he had a passionate longing for her really to be unfaithful to him. He longed to find her in another man’s arms, and to be rid of this nightmare forever. [Laptev]

“I’m a decent, honest man […] I have not been always quite straightforward with women, but in my relations with the Russian government I’ve always been a gentleman.” [Panaurov]

If a woman protested he always interpreted it as a sign that he had made an impression on her and attracted her. [Panaurov]

He fancied that he had a good deal of taste, and that if he had studied he might have made a good painter. [Laptev]

He spoke very circumstantially and convincingly, displaying an unusual talent for speaking at length and in a serious tone about what had been known to every one long before. [Kostya]

In the evening she dressed a little more smartly and went to the evening service. But there were only poor people in the church, and her splendid fur coat and hat made no impression. And it seemed to her that there was some change in the church as well as in herself […] now she only waited for the service to be over. [Yulia Sergeyevna]


4 Comments leave one →
  1. May 17, 2016 11:08 am

    I have time now for only a brief reply, but I’d argue that Laptev never loved Yulia; he merely wanted to be in love with a pretty girl. I’d also argue that there is no evidence within the story to believe Yulia’s claim at the end that she loves Laptev; people have been making convenient claims about themselves from the start. There is also no evidence within the text to support a claim that Yulia and Laptev have actually gotten to know each other at all well. He may have a moment when he recognizes that she has changed (all outward changes, mind you), but that’s not a declaration that his understanding of her has deepened in any way. They spend most of those three years deliberately avoiding each other. Chekhov employs the tropes and language of a love story, but he also carefully puts no genuine love into it. A great story; I was really delighted to read it again.

    • May 19, 2016 3:36 pm

      I have to think more about how much they were avoiding each other and how much they got to know each other, but if you think Yulia doesn’t love Laptev at the end, how do you take the last three pages of the story?

      I see some evidence that Yulia really does love Laptev. She “flushed crimson” when she told him she loved him, which I see as a sign of sincerity rather than calculation. Just before that, she “scanned his face, his shoulders, his hat, with interest” – why “with interest,” if she’s indifferent to him? After Laptev rejects her, “he sat on the verandah and saw his wife walking slowly along the avenue towards the house. She was deep in thought; there was a mournful, charming expression in her face, and her eyes were bright with tears.” As I read it, we are meant to believe that she doesn’t know she’s being observed, and these are signs of actual sadness that her husband doesn’t love her anymore.

      Conversely, if she were lying, holding his hand insincerely, flushing on purpose to appear sincere, and crying in case anyone was watching, then why does she choose this moment to say she loves Laptev? If her real motivation all along was just to escape her father’s house and become a rich Moscow lady, she could have lied at the beginning to ensure the marriage would happen, but what reason could she have at the end of the story to declare her love insincerely that she hadn’t had earlier?

      • May 20, 2016 12:36 am

        I don’t say she’s lying to Laptev. The narrator never confirms that she’s truly in love; we get no more of her inner world, just Laptev’s for the rest of the story. She says she loves him (perhaps she wishes she did) and he walks away and this saddens her. I don’t see anything happening within the story to change her feelings for him, just a change in the way she views herself. The opportunity is presented to Laptev to accept life as it is, and to call it love (hearkening back to Yulia’s earlier debate with herself wherein she says that maybe love is just charity for one’s spouse) even if it’s not his idea of love, and he isn’t prepared to accept that. Maybe. The hopefulness at the end of the story is supplied entirely by Yulia and Laptev’s friend, and Laptev’s glimmer of hope surrounding their affection.

      • May 21, 2016 10:53 am

        Interesting – thanks for the reply! I’ll have a lot to think about the next time I read this story.

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