In this story, as in Shakespeare and as in life, everybody’s in love with somebody else. Laptev’s in love with Yulia. Polina’s in love with Laptev. Yartsev, the old scholar, whom Laptev admires, is in love with Polina. And we get to see Yulia in love for the first and only time when she and Laptev have a child. She’s at peace with the lack of sexual passion in her life:
"Tell me, by the way," asked Yartsev: "which do you love most—your husband or your baby?"
Yulia shrugged her shoulders.
"I don't know," she said. "I never was so very fond of my husband, and Olga is in reality my first love. You know that I did not marry Alexey for love. In old days I was foolish and miserable, and thought that I had ruined my life and his, and now I see that love is not necessary—that it is all nonsense."
"But if it is not love, what feeling is it that binds you to your husband? Why do you go on living with him?"
"I don't know. . . . I suppose it must be habit. I respect him, I miss him when he's away for long, but that's -- not love. He is a clever, honest man, and that's enough to make me happy. He is very kind and good-hearted. . . ."
Her child seems to make all everything else worth it, and she’s at peace. To her own credit, short of passionately loving him, Yulia keeps the terms of her promise to Laptev. “I promise you I'll be a faithful, devoted wife,” she told him before their marriage—itself not the most romantic declaration of love—but she was honest about her feelings, and she keeps her promise. But when their child dies of diphtheria, she’s utterly inconsolable. In their shared grief, we begin to see their love deepen, even as their lack of chemistry endures. Laptev defends his wife, when Polina mocks her grief. “Don’t speak of her that way, don’t reduce her, she’s just lost a child.” We can see he’s moved beyond his early infatuation. It’s now an adult, measured love, nuanced by loss.
Yulia doesn’t fall in love with anyone else or have affairs, even though her new friends in Moscow take lovers. She initially thinks the marriage is a complete mistake and misfortune, but she’s consoled by Moscow—and there’s this lovely passage where Laptev tells her about his father beating him and what his childhood was like. You gradually see them talking to each other more. Their lack of chemistry is never completely solved, but little by little, he’s beginning to talk about his life. After all, this deepening, this ability to share a context and a sense of history, is so much of what we consider love to be, in a way.
Though neither story ends with a “happily ever after” gesture, “Lady with Lapdog” and “Three Years” end with totally different senses of what the coming challenges will be. “Lady with Lapdog” ends with its famous admission of imminent obstacles: “They both realized that the end was still far, far away, and that the hardest, the most complicated part was only just beginning.” These two, if they continue the pattern of their love, will probably have a baby (in that pre-birth control era), and then endure disgrace an a painful sundering from their positions of respectability. The end of “Three Years” suggests a softer, less dramatic sense of threat. The story closes with Yulia’s surprising declaration of affection, after Laptev returns home from a business trip.
“Why is it you haven't been for so long?" she said, keeping his hand in hers. "I have been sitting here for days watching for you to come. I miss you so when you are away!"
She stood up and passed her hand over his hair, and scanned his face, his shoulders, his hat, with interest.
"You know I love you," she said, and flushed crimson. "You are precious to me. Here you've come. I see you, and I'm so happy I can't tell you. Well, let us talk. Tell me something."
She had told him she loved him, and he could only feel as though he had been married to her for ten years, and that he was hungry for his lunch.
Now the tables have turned—Yulia seems aware of the “precious” nature of their relationship, as mild and reserved as her emotions remain. It’s as though their home, the time passing, their shared experience of love for their child and loss have finally accomplished what Laptev hoped in the beginning: that, “with time, Yulia would get to know him better and might come to love him.” She seems to, here, in her own way. But time has affected Laptev differently—here, in this moment he’s hoped for their whole relationship, he feels a variety of indifference towards his wife. He says he feels like he’s been married to her for 10 years, not three, and can only think about lunch.