The color grey is a recurring symbol that plays an integral role in Chekhov’s The Lady with the Pet Dog. Since the number of occurrences is so high, clearly Chekhov is emphasizing how important the color and symbol is to his story and its characters, particularly Dmitri Gurov. Simply put, the color grey is quite possibly the most important symbol in the story.
Authors often use grey to show things being unclear, ambiguous, uncertain, cloudy, vague, and unsure. All of these words perfectly describe Gurov. Throughout the story, his feelings towards women, his wants, and his thoughts are all uncertain, to say the least. Concerning women, his mind is especially muddied. He “always sp[eaks] ill of women, and when they were talked about in his presence, [calls] them ‘the lower race’ …and yet he could not get on for two days together without ‘the lower race’” (1-2).
From second to second, Gurov’s thoughts swirl about, never sure of anything. With Anna Sergeyevna, Gurov’s uncertainty is amplified. This is exemplified when he is at the opera, thinking about how madly in love he is with Anna. “He understood clearly that for him there was in the whole world no creature so near, so precious, and so important to him; she, this little woman, in no way remarkable…” (9). Gurov, supposedly deeply in love, still contradicts himself in his own thoughts about how he feels towards an “unremarkable” woman.
His shifting mind continues its indecisive thoughts in another scene early on. In one moment, he thinks about her “slender, delicate neck, her lovely grey eyes” and then in the next moment, he thinks “there’s something pathetic about her, anyway” (3).
The detail about Anna’s eyes being grey is important. One reason is because eyes are associated with being the windows to the soul. Anna, like Gurov, although to a much lesser extent, is unsure about love and life. In a sense, they are like peas in a pod and are perfect for each other – they are both married, yet each is unfaithful, neither cares nor understands much about their spouse. Anna does not know what her husband’s job is, even though he “has a post in a Crown Department or under the Provincial Council” (which is clearly a position of some importance with the government) (3). Gurov does not see that his wife is intelligent even though she clearly knows he is cheating on her, or as she says it best, “The part of a lady-killer does not suit you at all, Dimitri” (7). It is also interesting to note the contrast between Gurov and his wife. She sees things clearly, whereas he does not; he has grey hair, whereas she has black (a sharply defined color which likely coincides with her seeing things in black and white, opposed to Gurov seeing everything in grey).
It is fitting that Anna’s eyes are grey because, metaphorically speaking, all she sees is grey; all that she perceives is in a shade of grey. Furthermore, this is note-worthy because Chekhov has the related symbol of blindness running alongside the grey motif. These are closely interwoven because grey symbolizes lack of clarity, something unseen or murky. The first instance of the sightlessness metaphor we see in the story is when Anna uses a lorgnette at the harbor. Lorgnettes, although being a pairs of glasses, were not used for prescriptive eye correction, but were instead used for fashion. Perhaps Chekhov is saying that Anna needs to see things clearly, especially with all the ambiguousness of Gurov, but her glasses do nothing to help her. Anna again has her lorgnette at the opera later on in the story when Gurov goes to see her in S----. At the opera house, we see smoke (another manifestation of the color grey) appear when the schoolboys are smoking around Anna and Gurov, thus surrounding them both in smoke and ambiguity. Anna’s husband even goes out for a smoke, putting up a smokescreen (forgive the pun) between him and Anna, and further connecting the blindness metaphor with the color grey.
The sightlessness metaphor appears again when Anna gets a letter from her husband that says “there [is] something wrong with his eyes” (6). This further stresses the impact of clarity, or lack thereof.
At one point in the story, Anna is even clothed in the color grey when she is wearing a grey dress. It is not that she is just wearing a grey hat or has grey gloves or some other small article of clothing; she is sheathed in her dress. Clad in this dress, Anna is encased in grey. This also shows that Gurov sees Anna in shades of grey. She even looks ambiguous to his eyes.
Another scene that shows how vital grey is to the story is when Gurov goes to Anna’s house and sees the grey fence. Obviously, a fence is a barrier that separates things or keeps things away. It is absolutely fitting that the fence around Anna is grey. Anna is surrounded by a barrier of grey and uncertainty. According to Gurov, Anna “ha[s] nothing to look at from morning till night but that confounded fence” (8). Here, we get the impression again that Anna sees things as grey. Also, we see that Gurov utterly hates that fence. Perhaps he hates that he cannot make up his mind about anything. Perhaps that uncertainty is what keeps him from being truly happy with anything or anyone. His uncertainty is the fence or barrier within his mind. And perhaps Gurov vents his frustration into that fence because he hates that character trait of indecisiveness within himself.
After he is done fuming at the fence, he goes back to his hotel room. The color grey plays prominently in this hotel in S----. “The floor [is] covered with grey army cloth, and on the table [is] an inkstand, grey with dust” (8). “Grey with dust” is a fairly obvious metaphor for age (8). As I noted earlier, Gurov’s hair is grey from age. I believe that Chekhov is showing to us that Gurov has grown old while he cannot make up his mind on any decisions; life is passing him by as he ages.
However, the most important detail in the hotel room is the bed, which is undoubtedly in the scene since the bed is an image for sex and Gurov is a sex fiend. The bed “[is] covered by a cheap grey blanket…and he taunt[s] himself in his vexation: ‘So much for the lady with the dog…so much for the adventure’” (8). Notably, Gurov does not call Anna by her name, showing how, even though he has somewhat convinced himself he is in love with her, still does not show her the proper respect of even calling her by her name (which is generally not the best way to show how much you care about someone) and thus shows off more of his ambiguity. Furthermore, he even mourns his loss of “adventure” a few lines down from when he asked himself, “What shall I do in the night?” (8). Even this late in the story, he is unsure of whether or not he is feeling love or simply lust towards “the lady with the pet dog” (8).
When Gurov covers himself up with the grey blanket on the bed, he is figuratively and literally covering himself in grey, or uncertainty in corporeal form. What makes this particular image so powerful is because Gurov is being covered up by something grey when he is lying upon a bed, an object forever associated with sex. His throne and favorite place in the world, if you will, is enshrouded in cloudy grey; the very core of his being, character traits, and likes are all enveloped by a vague grey. Chekhov could not have found a more appropriate and paramount image for Gurov, the man who does not know with any certainty what he likes or wants, especially in matters of love and lust.
Everything surrounding Gurov is grey, from what is flitting about in his mind to what his eyes (and the eyes of the readers) perceive in the world around him. Chekhov’s association of grey with Gurov is fitting, to say the least.