Orlov is a young playboy in St. Petersburg whose father is an important political figure. The narrator (the "anonymous man"), who is actually a political activist (perhaps even an anarchist), assumes a new fake identity and takes a job as Orlov's footman, in order to get inside information to use against his father. While working undercover in this way, the narrator ("Stefan") observes a domestic tragedy. Orlov charms and then seduces a beautiful young married woman, Zinaida Fyodorovna Krasnovsky, who subsequently leaves her husband, shows up on Orlov's doorstep, and moves in with him.

Zinaida bursts with romantic visions and loves Orlov passionately. However, Orlov thinks the whole thing is a bore. He can't bring himself to throw her out, yet he detests her assault on his freedom. Eventually, he begins spending weeks at a time away from the flat, supposedly on an inspection tour in the provinces, but he is simply avoiding Zinaida by staying at a friend's house in St. Petersburg. Meanwhile, "Stefan" experiences a growing compassion for the poor woman, who has given up her husband and family for love.

As a result of this situation, "Stefan's" political ideals sink into the background; for example, he gives up an opportunity to murder Orlov's father and, thereby, achieve his radical objectives. Eventually, he confesses the truth to Zinaida--that Orlov has deceived her and doesn't want her. "Stefan" also reveals his true identity (Vladimir Ivanitich) and entices her to flee with him to Europe.

They spend the next several months traveling together. At one point Vladimir has an acute exacerbation of "pleurisy" (actually tuberculosis) and, while nursing him back to health, Zinaida realizes that Vladimir is in love with her. This is a crushing blow to their relationship, because she was under the impression that he had been helping her for purely altruistic, idealistic reasons.

Meanwhile, Zinaida, who is ill herself and pregnant with Orlov's child, dies in childbirth. The baby (Sonya) survives, and Vladimir spends two happy years caring for her, until he, too, is about to die of tuberculosis. At the end of the story, Vladimir meets with Orlov, and they make arrangements for old Krasnovsky--Remember him? He was Zinaida's husband--to take the child and raise her as his own.


This is a strange, unsettling, and perhaps ultimately unconvincing story. Who is the "anonymous man"? He appears, first, as a person committed to a political intrigue that we know nothing about; presumably, he is an idealist reformer. However, the story he tells us has nothing to do with politics. He begins, almost incidentally, as an observer of the interaction between two "types"--the romantic love-obsessed woman and the cynical "superfluous man."

As the story progresses, the anonymous man becomes a participant. Eventually, he makes a commitment in the personal sphere (by running away with Zinaida) and, consequently, rejects the political sphere. This move backfires--ironically, Zinaida is unable to love the man who commits his life to her, although she has loved, and perhaps continues to love, another man who couldn't care less about her.

This novella contains a fascinating array of bits and pieces of Russian literary themes, as well as Chekhov's own life experience in the early 1890's. Zinaida and Orlov are characters that might have been created by Turgenev, especially Orlov who cynically accepts that his life is "superfluous" and meaningless. On the other hand, Dostoevsky might have imagined the anonymous man, with his concealed identity, secret purpose, and commitment to the interior struggle.

Where does Chekhov fit in? Toward the end of the story, the anonymous man--now identified--adopts a number of Chekhovian characteristics. He takes responsibility for the baby that isn't his, resolves his conflict with Orlov, and prudently makes arrangements for Sonya's care after he dies. He accepts the ignorance and pain of the present in the belief that future generations might be more enlightened and happy. Interestingly, just as his creator did in the early 1890's, the anonymous man visits southern France and Italy, and disguises his tuberculosis as "pleurisy."


First published: 1893. Translated by Constance Garnett.

Primary Source

The Tales of Chekhov, Vol. 3: The Lady with the Dog and Other Stories



Place Published

New York



Page Count