Gurov’s Watermelon: Prop Work as Character Work in Anton Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Pet Dog”
By Patrick Thomas Henry •
Wherever I write, I stow props: photographs and notebooks, found objects, mementoes of life away from the page. Despite my effort to shake off the strictures of my own workshop experiences, I still believe Raymond Carver’s observation in his essay “On Writing,” that one can “write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things [. . .] with immense, even startling power.” For Carver, that “startling power” refers to metaphor or the amplification of conflict. I’d extend that further: props in fiction are powerful because—when we let our characters use them—we’re providing hints about their motives, beliefs, and inner selves.
By way of demonstration, let me stage a prop for you. On the desk in my office, I keep a hand-painted wooden watermelon, with one slice missing. It was a gift from a pair of students after a fall 2019 fiction workshop. This specific memento is an homage to a critically underevaluated scene in Anton Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Pet Dog.” The scene in question occurs after the story’s primary characters have sex for the first time: afterward, Anna Sergeevna bares her soul to Dmitri Gurov, who reacts by cutting himself a slice of watermelon.
After the last meeting of our workshop, the two students asked me if they could visit outside of my office hours. I assumed it was to talk about revisions, but instead, they delivered the wooden watermelon. When they handed it to me, they said that our analysis of that scene taught them more about character development than any other story or craft essay had. The scene was a touchstone for our workshop: in critiquing peer submissions and published stories alike, students spoke about (and occasionally yearned for) “Gurov’s watermelon” moments.
In reminiscing about that single scene from Chekhov, my students were awestruck, animated. I generally try to remain a smidge stoic when my students revel in aesthetic epiphanies, but on that occasion I did tear up. Just a little.
I’ve told you little about my students and their personalities, little about myself as a teacher or a writer. But I’ve shown you a scene from an office on the campus of a state university. Whatever you’ve learned about our characters stems from your interpretation of this prop, this hand-painted wooden watermelon, and our interactions with it.
It’s easy to read Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Pet Dog” as a case study in epiphanies, or character arcs, or redemption. However, I’d argue that “Lady” is a master class in how understated, subtle prop work can develop a character in a profound way. The story’s use of props also exemplifies what George Saunders, in his study of Russian fiction writers A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, calls the “Ruthless Efficiency Principle”: “Every element should be a little poem,” Saunders contends, “freighted with subtle meaning that is in connection with the story’s purpose.” (Indeed, “Lady” models this principle so well, and it’s such a darling of MFA-land workshops, that I find it mildly baffling that Saunders doesn’t write of it.)
To make this case for prop work, and to contextualize Gurov’s watermelon, I’ll start by offering a paraphrase.
In the story, middle-aged Dmitri Dmitrich Gurov begins an affair with the dog-owner of the title—Anna Sergeevna, a young woman (Gurov eventually realizes) not much older than his own daughter. Her arrival in the resort town of Yalta piques the interest of the bored and disaffected Gurov. At once, he begins to angle his way into Anna’s confidence by giving little gifts and treats to her Pomeranian; soon, they dine together, take solitary walks together. After watching elderly couples reunite at the pier, they repair to Anna’s hotel room. “Lady” is a work of nineteenth-century realism, so Chekhov isn’t about to explicitly tell us what occurs in the room. Yet, he informs us that the couple had sex with a euphemistic wink of formal language: “Anna Sergeevna, the ‘lady with the little dog,’” Chekhov writes, co-opting Gurov’s sensibility, “somehow took a special, very serious attitude towards what had happened, as if it were her fall.”
Gurov is a serial philanderer. Earlier in the story, Chekhov notes that whenever Gurov meets an “interesting woman,” he would forget the troubles of his earlier trysts, and “everything seemed quite simple and amusing.” At this moment in the story, he doesn’t see why a single night of sex with Anna would break that pattern. Yet, Anna doesn’t take Gurov’s casual, flippant view of their affair. She frets about the affair’s toll on her soul and its indictment of her moral character. To Gurov, she laments, “It’s not good. [. . .] You’ll be the first not to respect me now.” At once, Chekhov pans the narrative camera to Gurov. His reactions are languid, time-consuming, but only span three swift, wrecking paragraphs:
There was a watermelon on the table in the hotel room. Gurov cut himself a slice and unhurriedly began to eat it. At least half an hour passed in silence.
Anna Sergeevna was touching, she had about her a breath of the purity of a proper, naïve, little-experienced woman; the solitary candle burning on the table barely lit up her face, but it was clear that her heart was uneasy.
“Why should I stop respecting you?” asked Gurov. “You don’t know what you’re saying about yourself.”
When I teach this story, my students usually pole vault to Anna’s response to Gurov—she excoriates herself, her “lackey” of a husband, and the curiosity that compelled her fling with Gurov. It’s a dynamic, vitriolic monologue, evidence that Chekhov’s prowess as a playwright informs his short fiction. Moreover, the moment reveals that Anna has desires, antipathies, and problems that defy Gurov’s expectations. This in turn presages the story’s dramatic arc: Gurov can’t forget Anna, the pattern of his affairs breaks, and their fates become entwined.
That’s a valid close reading of Anna’s speech, sure. But that narrow scrutiny ignores how Chekhov, in line with that “Ruthless Efficiency Principle,” prepares the reader for that dialogue. He stages Gurov and Anna in her hotel room. He lays out some props for them to use (or not)—the table, the solitary candle, a knife, and a watermelon. Their use (or avoidance) of these props will allow them to perform for the reader
So let’s consider it, Gurov’s watermelon.
In his book Thrill Me, Benjamin Percy argues that, if you don’t know how to elevate dialogue, you should hand your characters some props. “By that I do not mean give them a cigarette or a beer,” Percy instructs. “I mean make them grill a steak or attend a carnival or splat together a papier-mâché volcano or inch their car through a long stretch of construction.”
That’s what Chekhov does when Anna confronts Gurov. They don’t just talk. Chekhov outfits the hotel room with props, and what does Gurov do? He wants to avoid the discussion; he wants his illusions about their affair to linger a bit longer. But if he leaves the hotel room, he’ll prove Anna’s point about respect. So, he cuts himself a slice of watermelon.
Percy suggests that prop work like this creates “lower-order” goals. That is, if you give characters things to tinker with, you can propel the story to the next scene. Props add texture and bursts of conflict to the narrative.
Yet, when Chekhov gives Gurov a knife and a watermelon, he also wants us to understand something about this serial philanderer, whose attitude on love, desire, and loyalty will transform over the remaining pages. To put it differently, for Chekhov, the prop work is inseparable from the character work. Chekhov doesn’t have to tell us who Gurov is, what he feels, or what he wants. We can intuit everything from the fact that Gurov slices a watermelon, in this specific moment, in this specific interaction with Anna Sergeevna.
Let’s make a deeper cut into this scene. Anna has raised the ante on their relationship: she’s invoked respect, a concept altogether foreign to the casually trysting Gurov. Rather than respond to Anna, Gurov takes stock of the room: “There was a watermelon on the table in the hotel room,” Chekhov writes. By looking away from Anna and to the table, the narrator signals that Anna has stunned Gurov. She’s changed the rules, altering the affair from a diversion to a matter of the heart. Yet, Gurov remains crafty: using the materials at hand, he attempts to buy himself time. He goes on to “cut himself a slice and unhurriedly began to eat it,” before a half hour lapses in silence.
This scene wouldn’t work on the stage. (Who would linger for a half-hour of real time to watch a man eat a slice of watermelon?) Still, note what occurs here: in his attempt to stay and convince Anna that he respects her, Gurov satiates his physical appetites—because he doesn’t know how to do anything else. He doesn’t offer any immediate consolation, nor does he offer a slice of watermelon. Nor is he the confident, authoritative figure that he’s projected to Anna: that awkward half hour of silence signals that Gurov, actually, gets easily rattled. Chekhov needn’t inform his reader about any of this—about Gurov’s selfishness, his frail performance of authority, or his single-minded sexual desire for Anna.
By slicing and eating the watermelon, Gurov proves Anna right. In that moment, he only respects his desires and not her—not her, her needs, her inner life.
Yet, Chekhov seldom deals in absolutes, especially as far as characters are concerned. Through additional prop work in this scene, Chekhov complicates Gurov. There’s another object on that hotel table—the “solitary candle” that “barely lit up her face.” In its light, even Gurov—selfish as he is—can see that “it was clear that her heart was uneasy.” So he’s not irredeemable, nor is he completely callous. He’s only slow to realize that desire is a force like gravity, and that Anna has some power to pull him along.
After this prop work, in which Gurov’s few actions reveal the complexity of his character, he at last reacts to Anna’s comment about respect. (And yes, he does immediately attempt to gaslight her, by saying, “You don’t know what you’re saying about yourself.”)
But Chekhov has granted us the potential for change: the Gurov who ate the watermelon can become the Gurov who recognizes Anna’s uneasiness in the candlelight. That’s one way that prop work manifests characters in fiction, and those same techniques, redeployed later in the same story, allow a writer to develop characters with the potential for change.
In any discussion of Chekhov, props, and narrative, we’re likely to think of that old chestnut, “Chekhov’s Gun”: if a gun is displayed in the first act, someone needs to fire it before the end of the play. Saunders’s “Ruthless Efficiency Principle” is a corollary of that craft advice, and it extends to prop work. That is, a character’s use of props can “rehearse” the story’s climactic moments.
Now, we don’t need that watermelon to literally reappear à la Chekhov’s Gun; that melon has been thoroughly digested (and then some) by the time Chekhov concludes the story. Instead, Gurov’s slicing of the watermelon should presage some future prop work, which in turn reveals how a character has—or has not—changed over the course of the story.
Like the watermelon scene, the story’s final encounter occurs in a hotel room—again, Anna’s, but in Moscow. (Though they had vowed to never see each other again, Gurov had traveled to Anna’s hometown, met her surreptitiously in the town’s theatre, and rekindled their affair.) After greeting him at the door, Anna wants to fill in Gurov about her life, but cannot speak through her tears. Rather than immediately search for a distraction, Gurov remains patient: he watches her dab the tears with her handkerchief, and he sits in the armchair—this time, he’s clearly intent on staying. What follows mirrors the prop work of the watermelon scene:
Then he rang and ordered tea; and then, while he drank tea, she went on standing with her face turned to the window . . . She was crying from anxiety, from a sorrowful awareness that their life had turned out so sadly; they only saw each other in secret, they hid from people like thieves! Was their life not broken?
“Well, stop now,” he said.
For him it was obvious that this love of theirs would not end soon, that there was no knowing when.
Gurov’s habits have not changed immensely: he still tends to his physical comfort first. He remains the Gurov we met in Yalta. And Chekhov stocks this hotel room with similar elements—food and drink, windows, furniture.
However, time has infused this Gurov with empathy, patience—something that Chekhov’s staging makes evident. Gurov has ordered tea, which takes time and requires (presumably) that someone from the hotel staff shall see him in Anna’s rooms. This isn’t a hurried (and potentially sticky) diversion like cutting a slab of watermelon. Like sitting in the armchair, the use of the tea service signals that Gurov wants to be in this space with Anna, and he’s willing to wait. Note, too, that he could share the tea with Anna, unlike a single slice of watermelon.
Chekhov also dispenses with the awkward half hour of silence. Gurov pays attention to Anna: he sips his tea, watches, and listens. The story reports Anna’s thoughts in a manner that suggests either indirect dialogue or Gurov’s memory of previous conversations. That is, Gurov has either trained his attention on any comments that Anna can make through her tears, or they’ve discussed this very topic before.
Either way, he’s at last attuned to Anna. While he remains unabashedly the Gurov who first ogled her on the promenades of Yalta, he has also altered, subtly, since those days. But Gurov has no track record of self-awareness: his interactions with the story’s props reveal these changes to the reader.
This final scene mirrors the incident with the watermelon and, in doing so, completes the development of Gurov’s character. Prop work may appear swift, effortless, and fleeting. But it’s not to be ignored. Those quick uses of props on the page allow the story to telegraph characters’ identities, perform their nuances and inconsistencies, and display their capacity for change.
Whenever I visit my office on campus, I see it on my desk—that wooden watermelon, which my students gave me in December of 2019. Of course, it’s just an object. Yet, as a prop, that wooden watermelon is infused with significance: it’s an apt metaphor for what Chekhov achieves with his own prop work in “The Lady with the Pet Dog.” Sometimes I just glance at the wooden watermelon and remember a flicker of a workshop with my students; sometimes I pick it up and feel just how light, how small, it is.
PATRICK THOMAS HENRY is the fiction and poetry editor for Modern Language Studies. His fiction and essays have recently appeared in West Branch online, LandLocked, Lake Effect, Essay Daily, and North Dakota Quarterly, among others. His work was also selected for inclusion in Best Microfiction 2020. He teaches creative writing at the University of North Dakota. You can find him on Twitter @Patrick_T_Henry.
Featured image by Inbal Cohen courtesy of Unsplash