By Joyce Carol Oates Essay, Research Paper
September 21, 2000
Structure in “The Lady with the Pet Dog”
Often, the circumstances of a marriage can leave the people involved feeling empty and unloved. These feelings of hopelessness can lead people to make uncharacteristic choices. Adultery, even in a marriage without love, can have a dramatic effect on the people involved. For the adulterous partner, the feelings of guilt and anxiety can often lead to overwhelming confusion. The short story “The Lady with the Pet Dog” by Oates, shows how the act of cheating creates confusion in the mind of the main character thorough use of an unchronological structure, and unusual character development.
First, the structure of the story reflects Anna’s state of mind. The events in the story seem to take place with a total disregard for timekeeping. The opening sequence occurs when Anna sees a familiar face at the theater. This is her second encounter with the man, who is her lover, and she is immediately overwhelmed with a feeling of sickness. Yet, when she goes home her mind passes over him while she is with her husband and it is made apparent that the man she saw was at one time her lover. She seems completely confused as to who she really cares for, often blurring the two men in her thoughts. Then, the story flashes back to several months prior. This time Anna is in Nantucket trying to collect herself after leaving her husband. The back-story to their affair is given in the explanation of how they met and how they spend their time. The chronology is again thrown out as the storyline makes a jump forward to what was supposed to be their last meeting. Anna expects her lover to understand that she must go back to her secluded world and he must go back to his, but he doesn’t seem to want that for them. Anna, since the start of this affair, has been indecisive and confused, but as the story moves she grows out of touch with herself and the rest of the world. She alarms herself when she looks in the mirror. “She returned to her husband and saw that another woman, a shadow woman had taken her place” (181). In contrast, the final even takes place in perfect sequential order, and as a consequence Anna leaves the event with a clearer understanding of herself and the way she relates to the rest of the world. When she leaves her lover for the final time, she is content and no longer confused, she even seems happy. “Suddenly, joyfully, she felt miraculously calm” (190). The confusing sequence of events is wrapped up nicely with the sequential order of the ending, which culminates with a clearer minded Anna.
Anna’s unusual character development also lends itself to the image of confusion. She doesn’t seem to be able to make up her mind between her feelings of loyalty for her husband and the care she feels for her lover. After she sees him at the theater, she spends the evening with her husband, yet her mind is wondering to the time she has spent with the other man. “She shut her eyes and thought of that other man, as if betraying him would give her life a center” (179). Anna is ashamed of what she has done, and afraid of the pain it will cause her husband, yet she feels compelled to do it again, even going so far as to describe her lover as her real husband. She seems so confused and even baffled that at one point she cuts her wrist in an attempt to help herself return to reality. “She would rush home and strike a razor across the inside of her arm, and free that pressure, that fever” (189). Anna seems to completely lose her grip as the story spirals toward the inevitable conclusion. And then in the midst of the maelstrom of emotion and confusion, she finds peace and calmness. She understands that she can love one man and be with another, and he can act likewise. And while this is an unusual way to develop her character, it is a welcome relief to the confusion and lack of direction Anna seems to always be in possession of.
In conclusion, Anna’s character development and the non-sequitor arrangement of the story both add to confusion and the inability to understand the affair that is ever present in the story. Her unclear and unlogical decision making leaves her with the feeling of having accomplished a major event in her confused life. Knowing that her actions her morally wrong, Anna feels as if she had been “behaving correctly.”