1/ Perhaps I sound like a fangirl but one of the things I’ve noticed, rereading Anna Karenina, is that Tolstoy is not as preachy and didactic as some people say. I often come across the complaint that Tolstoy is very sure and confident of his own beliefs, and imposes them upon the reader, but I don’t think that’s the case. Just look at the discussion between Konstantin Levin and his half-brother Sergey Ivanovich in Part 3 for example: even though Tolstoy writes more of Levin’s thoughts because that’s the main character, he presents 2 opposing points of view and their arguments, he lets us see why each character thinks the way he does and how he views the other’s reasoning, and he (the author) raises more questions than provides answers. Levin questions everything throughout the novel. So does Tolstoy.
(I’m thinking that I should check out his nonfiction).
Himadri of Argumentative Old Git blog has similar thoughts:
“Tolstoy, despite his reputation for didacticism, does not judge: Tolstoy once said that fiction is most effective when the author is not seen to take sides. This may seem strange coming from an author renowned for his didacticism, but he lives up to his principle: here, instead of judging, he explores. He questions incessantly the extent to which these characters are responsible for what they do, for being who they are. As he enters the mind of each of his characters, it appears that they cannot act otherwise: and yet, each is morally responsible for their own actions, and this remains, right to the end of the novel and beyond, a terrible unsolved paradox. Each of these characters is trapped within their own selves: they cannot even begin to understand their own complex psyches, and, to their terror, appear to rush headlong towards a doom they can vaguely sense, but cannot avoid. The sense of the tragic is intense: never has the terror in our everyday lives been expressed with such disconcerting power.”
The full blog post should be read: https://argumentativeoldgit.wordpress.com/2012/09/02/all-happy-families-are-alike-some-thoughts-half-way-through-anna-karenina/
This is a blog post about the subject of free will vs determinism, from War and Peace to Anna Karenina: https://argumentativeoldgit.wordpress.com/2012/06/23/on-re-reading-anna-karenina/
2/ Whenever I hear someone condemn Tolstoy as a misogynist because of “what he does to Anna”, I can’t help wondering if they’ve forgotten about Kitty and Dolly (not to mention Natasha, Marya, Sonya, etc. in War and Peace).
Note how Tolstoy writes the ball scene almost entirely from Kitty’s point of view: Anna and Vronsky have fallen in love at first sight at the train station, but the ball scene is a crucial moment, a significant moment when they dance together before others and in a way cross the line for the first time—Tolstoy doesn’t describe it from Anna’s or Vronsky’s perspective, but instead focuses almost entirely on Kitty’s. He depicts the heartbreak of a young girl who comes to a ball full of hopes and excitement and finds herself jilted, humiliated.
Dolly is another woman in the novel who suffers because of the callousness of a man. Here is a tragic figure, not any less tragic than Anna though in a different way. Here is a sympathetic portrayal of a woman who is worn out by life and her 6 children, who is no longer beautiful and no longer loved by her husband. Here is a moving depiction of a woman who suffers terribly because of her husband’s affairs and wants to leave but cannot leave, as she has nowhere to go.
Anna Karenina has 2 main strands of story—Anna’s strand and Levin’s strand—but the story of the Oblonsky family is also significant and can also be seen as some sort of counterpoint to the story of the Karenins. In the Karenin marriage, the wife cheats and becomes a social outcast; in the Oblonsky marriage, the man cheats and it’s socially accepted. Anna’s story is the tragedy of a woman who leaves her husband; Dolly’s story is the tragedy of a woman who doesn’t.
3/ See this passage about Dolly:
“Rare indeed were the brief periods of tranquillity. But these concerns and worries were the only possible happiness for Darya Alexandrovna. Without them, she would have been left alone to brood about her husband who did not love her. Besides, however difficult it was for a mother to deal with the fear of illnesses, the illnesses themselves, and the pain of seeing signs of bad tendencies in her children, the children themselves were now rewarding her pains with small joys. These joys were so small that they were as unnoticeable as specks of gold in sand, and during the bad moments she could see only the pain and only the sand, but there were also good moments when she could see only the joy and only the gold.
Now, in the solitude of the country, she began to become more and more aware of those joys. Often, as she looked at them, she would make every possible effort to persuade herself that she was mistaken, that she was partial to her children since she was their mother; nevertheless, she could not help telling herself that she had delightful children, all six of them, each in their own way, each one of a kind, and she was happy with them and proud of them.” (P.3, ch.7)
(Translated by Rosamund Bartlett)
That is what’s so magical about Tolstoy: he can enter the mind of everybody, including a mother.
The chapters about Dolly are wonderful.
4/ Tolstoy might have to set out to write a novel to condemn adultery, but he’s a great artist, not a simple-minded moralist. Tolstoy lets us see why Anna isn’t happy in her marriage and falls in love with someone else: Karenin is a cold man, having neither passion nor affection, and only talks about duties and honour and public opinion. I have always thought so, but in this rereading, I see more clearly the way Tolstoy writes about the different reactions of Karenin and Dolly upon discovering the truth. They both suffer, in different ways, but Dolly appears more tragic and helpless, and more sympathetic, whereas Karenin still seems cold, stiff, and incapable of love, in his suffering.
Some readers may say they only like the Anna strand, or the Levin strand, but the different strands of Anna Karenina cannot be separated—they’re part of a whole and have to be seen together.
5/ See this passage of Levin seeing Kitty before he proposes to her the first time:
“He could tell she was there from the joy and fear gripping his heart. She was standing talking to a lady at the other end of the rink. There did not seem to be anything special about either her clothes or the way she held herself, but it was as easy for Levin to recognize her in the crowd as a rose among nettles. Everything was lit up by her. She was a smile illuminating everything all around. […] He walked down, trying to avoid looking at her for too long, as if she were the sun, but like the sun, he could still see her even when he was not looking at her.” (P.1, ch.9)
Is that not so good? The part about the sun reminds me of Shakespeare:
“ROMEO […] But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her maid art far more fair than she…”
(Act 2 scene 2)
Let’s get back to Levin and Kitty:
“… The childlike expression of her face combined with the beauty of her slender figure constituted her particular charm, which he remembered well; but what was always so astonishing and unexpected about her was the expression of her gentle, calm, and truthful eyes, and in particular her smile, which always transported Levin into a magical world where he felt tender-hearted and soothed, as he could remember being on rare days in his early childhood.” (P.1, ch.9)
When Tolstoy describes Anna, he writes about the beauty of her whole figure, her neck, her arms, her hands, her black hair, the little locks of her curly hair, her movements, etc. When he describes Kitty, he mostly writes about her eyes and smile, and focuses more on the effect she has on Levin, the joy and happiness she gives him.
Everyone must notice the contrast between the 2 beautiful women: Anna has black hair and Kitty has blonde hair, like Ellen and May respectively in Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (the hair colour is switched in Martin Scorsese’s film). Both novels fit the idea I have read before that in 19th century literature, blonde hair is associated with purity, innocence, and goodness whereas dark/black hair often evokes something exotic, sensual, passionate, dark, dangerous, etc.
Now look at the moment when Levin sees Kitty, having just returned from abroad, at a time when Levin thinks he has got over her:
“At the very moment when this vision was about to disappear, the candid eyes came to rest on him. She recognized him, and an expression of joy and surprise lit up her face.
He could not have been mistaken. There was only one pair of eyes like that in the world. There was only one being in the world capable of concentrating the whole world and the meaning of life for him. It was her. It was Kitty.” (P.3, ch.12)
6/ Tolstoy often writes about things people want to say and leave unsaid. Henry James and Edith Wharton also do, for example, Jane Austen doesn’t. But I’ve noticed something even more interesting: Tolstoy writes about people not listening, such as when Sergey is discussing politics and Levin tries to make out what’s the black thing he sees in the distance, or when the governess tells Anna about Seryozha’s misdemeanour and she’s thinking about how to keep her son if Karenin kicks her out of the house.
Each person is caught up in their own world.
One of the joys of reading literature, especially Tolstoy, is that we get to know these fictional people in a way that we can never know another person in real life.
7/ This is a magnificent line, about Anna:
“Stopping to look at the top of an aspen tree swaying in the wind, its washed leaves sparkling brightly in the cold sunshine, she realized that they would not forgive, that everyone and everything would now treat her as pitilessly as this sky and this foliage.” (P.3, ch.15)
Much as I love Madame Bovary and think it’s stylistically perfect, Anna Karenina makes it feel hollow in comparison. Emma has no inner conflicts, and little interest in her own daughter, whereas Anna always struggles with herself, with guilt and shame, with her hatred of deceit, and feels torn between her love for Vronsky and her love for her son Seryozha. Anna has more depth of feeling.
8/ I still think Anna Karenina should have had a different title—I don’t know what, but the current title doesn’t convey the breadth of the novel. Anna Karenina has a smaller scope than War and Peace but also has hundreds of characters, and like War and Peace, it’s also about life and death, the meaning of life, the question of how to live; imperial Russia and current debates such as the woman question, the debate about farming and peasants, the question of minorities; and so on. Even the question of determinism vs free will from War and Peace is present in Anna Karenina, though Tolstoy doesn’t spell it out: to what extent are these characters responsible for what they do, and for being who they are? And yet, each of them is morally responsible for their own actions.
Now and then I hear some readers complain that it’s a drag or that it has superfluous detail, but that implies that some stuff is unnecessary and should be removed—that is a misunderstanding of Tolstoy’s purpose. Tolstoy’s novels are not only about the general plot.
I don’t think Tolstoy aims to lecture about the social and political issues either: if you look at the debate between Levin and some other characters at the house of Sviyazhsky about farming methods in Russia (Part 3), that’s what it is—a debate. Levin, who is seen as a stand-in for Tolstoy, doesn’t have the answers—he raises questions and looks for the answers.
9/ The chapters at the end of Part 3, of Levin and his dying brother Nikolay, are so poignant. I’ve never read anyone who writes about death and the fear of death as well as Tolstoy.