Alexei Laptev, the middle-aged son of a wealthy Moscow industrialist, is on a prolonged visit to a provincial town where he is helping to care for his sister Nina, who is recovering from a cancer operation. Nina’s husband has abandoned her and their two young daughters for another woman. Unexpectedly, Laptev falls in love with Yulia Sergeyevna, the doctor’s 22-year-old daughter. Laptev is an unattractive, but good-hearted man; Yulia, though beautiful, is bland and immature. She eventually accepts his offer of marriage, though she is somewhat repulsed by him as a person. Yulia is neither attracted by his money, nor by his social position; she just feels badly about disappointing him and, moreover, looks forward to living in Moscow, where life is more exciting.

Once married, both Yulia and Alexei suffer. She hates his family and friends, and feels no affection for him. Meanwhile, Alexei remains head over heels in love with her. Nina dies of her cancer, and the little girls come to live with them for a while. Eventually, Yulia finds her own group of friends, who consider her foolish for not taking on a lover. Yulia and Alexei have a baby, who becomes the center of Yulia’s life, until the child dies of diphtheria.

Time passes. The family business turns sour. Alexei’s bother Fyodor goes mad and has to be put into an asylum. And in the last scene, Yulia greets her depressed husband with tenderness: "You are precious to me. Here you’ve come. I see you, and I’m so happy I can’t tell you. Well, let’s talk." (p. 328)


Over a period of "Three Years" people may change. As is usually the case in Chekhov, this story has neither heroes nor villains. Everyone in the story has faults, but everyone is also deserving of love; however, only a lucky few achieve it. Yulia begins as a callow, but well meaning, girl who is devastated by the reality of her marriage to a man she doesn’t care for. Alexei falls hopelessly in love, though he well understands his wife’s feelings. He is a good man, supportive and compassionate toward his dying sister, a man who always tries to see the best in every situation; yet he is also gullible and impractical.

During the three years, Yulia resists easy "solutions" to her unhappiness; e.g. she refuses to take a lover and she doesn’t go home to her father. Likewise, Alexei avoids searching for understanding in another woman’s arms; e.g. starting an affair with his artistic friend Polina, who obviously disdains the younger, less educated Yulia.

Over time a process of accommodation occurs. Late in the story, Yulia confesses that she has grown accustomed to being Laptev’s wife; while at the end she admits that, in fact, she loves him. Mutual tolerance, mutual respect, and eventually love. Chekhov certainly doesn’t provide us with an "happily ever after" theme; it is likely that a lot of suffering and mutual recriminations lie ahead.

Nonetheless, the story evokes the possibility of mature love. In Yulia’s case, it is a love that has grown little by little out of shared experiences and progressively deeper understanding. In Laptev’s case, it is an overwhelming infatuation that quiets down into deeper understanding of and appreciation for Yulia as a mature woman.


First published: 1895. Translated from the Russian by Constance Garnett.

Primary Source

The Tales of Chekhov. Vol. 1: The Darling & Other Stories



Place Published

New York



Page Count