Love and lies
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]