Tuesday 29 June 2021

Rereading Anna Karenina: Part 3

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: 

This is a blog post about the subject of free will vs determinism, from War and Peace to 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)

Just wonderful. 

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. 

Friday 25 June 2021

Rereading Anna Karenina: Parts 1 and 2

1/ I have been rereading Anna Karenina but not written a word, because of writer’s block. 

8 years since I first read the novel, 8 years since I was introduced to Tolstoy, I still think he’s the greatest of novelists. As I reread Anna Karenina, I can’t help thinking that apart from Tolstoy, Cao Xueqin is the only novelist who creates that kind of seamless and natural flow, as the story moves from one scene to the next, from one group of characters to another—there seems to be no plot and each character seems to have a life of their own, independent of the author. When reading other authors, you may notice a structure, a pattern, a plot, and you may see that character and action serve the plot—not so with Tolstoy and Cao Xueqin—even the most minor characters seem to have a life of their own. However, Cao Xueqin is mostly comparable to Tolstoy in his scope, wide range of characters, and compassionate view of humanity; Hong lou meng doesn’t have the same psychological depth and complexity. 

With Tolstoy, nothing escapes his eyes, he notices the slightest movements and subtlest changes in expression. He’s better than anyone at depicting a character’s conflicted feelings and self-contradictions. Just follow Anna’s conflicted thoughts as she’s on the train returning to St Petersburg after she has fallen for Vronsky in Moscow, and the changed way she now sees her husband; or watch the scene where Kitty and Dolly are arguing and Kitty, in a fit of temper, says something that would wound her sister the most and she immediately regrets it; or read the scene of Karenin battling with himself after he notices for the first time that there’s something indecorous about Anna and Vronsky, and knows that he needs to talk to his wife but doesn’t know what to say. 

It is wonderful.

As I reread the novel, I’ve also realised that complaints about his didacticism and his opinionated narrator are very much exaggerated. Tolstoy is no George Eliot. He is much subtler. One example is the conversation between Oblonsky and Levin somewhere at the beginning of the novel: Tolstoy depicts 2 very different people, 2 opposite points of view, and presents them as they are. Throughout Anna Karenina, Tolstoy shows different perspectives and depicts his characters with compassion and sympathy—I don’t deny that once in a while, the author takes an unnecessary dig at something, but it is rare—Tolstoy depicts conflicting perspectives, almost like voices and counter-voices in Shakespeare, and shows so many different sides and aspects to each character that they are, in a sense, beyond his control and judgment. A useful comparison is with George Eliot: you can see who she approves or disapproves of, and can roughly divide her characters into 2 groups (selfless or selfish); it is much harder to do so with Tolstoy’s characters. 

2/ This is an interesting passage: 

“Levin felt that in his soul, in the very depths of his soul, his brother Nikolay was no more in the wrong than those people who despised him, despite all the depravity of his life. It was not his fault that he had been born with his unruly character and a mind that was constrained by something.” (P.1, ch.24)

The translation is by Rosamund Bartlett (last time was the translation by Aylmer and Louise Maude). 

Here’s another great passage, about Karenin:

“Alexey Alexandrovich was standing face to face with life, with the possibility of his wife loving someone other than himself, and this seemed to him very nonsensical and incomprehensible because it was life itself. Alexey Alexandrovich had spent his entire life living and working in official spheres which had to do with the reflections of life. And every time he had bumped into life itself he had shied away from it. He was now experiencing a feeling similar to that which would be felt by someone who, calmly crossing a bridge over a precipice, suddenly discovers that this bridge has been taken down, revealing an abyss. This abyss was life itself, while the bridge was the artificial life Alexey Alexandrovich had been leading. For the first time conjectures occurred to him about the possibility of his wife falling in love with somebody, and he was horrified by the idea.” (P.2, ch.8) 


“Here, looking at her bureau, with the malachite blotter and a note she had begun sitting on top of it, his thoughts suddenly changed. He began to think about her, and about what she was thinking and feeling. For the first time he conjured up a vivid picture of her personal life, her thoughts and her desires, but the idea that she could and should have her own private life was so alarming to him that he hastened to drive it away. This was the abyss he was afraid of peering into. Putting himself into the thoughts and feelings of another person was a mental activity alien to Alexey Alexandrovich.” (ibid.) 

This is brilliant, utterly brilliant. Reading Tolstoy makes me, upon putting down the book, notice things and see people differently. 

3/ Here is something I didn’t notice or didn’t remember last time—the scene where Karenin confronts Anna for the first time: 

“She looked at him so ingenuously and merrily that anyone who did not know her as her husband knew her would have been unable to notice anything unnatural, either in the sound or the meaning of her words. But it meant a great deal to him, knowing her as he did—knowing that she would always notice whenever he went to bed five minutes later than usual and ask the reason why, knowing that she would immediately share with him all her joys, amusements, and sorrows—to see now that she did not want to notice his state of mind, or say a single word about herself. He saw that the recesses of her soul, which had been open to him before, were now closed to him.” (P.2, ch.9) 

Does this mean that they have an “acceptable”, albeit passionless, marriage? Or is it merely Karenin’s illusion? 

4/ One of the things I’ve always loved in Tolstoy’s works is the joy of life: 

“…right on Thomas Sunday, in the evening, the fog lifted, the clouds dispersed into fleecy wisps, the sky cleared, and real spring arrived. The following morning a bright sun rose and quickly devoured the thin layer of ice coating the waters, and everywhere the warm air shimmered as it was suffused with the steam rising from the worn earth.” (P.2, ch.12) 


“If Levin was happy in the cattle-pens and in the farmyard, he became happier still in the open country. Swaying rhythmically along with the ambling pace of his trusty little horse, drinking in the warm, fresh scent of the snow and air as he rode through the wood, over soft, fast-disappearing snow that was covered with tracks, he rejoiced in every one of his trees, with their swelling buds and the moss reviving on their bark.” (P.2, ch.13) 

I love the way Tolstoy always conveys an exuberance, a sheer joy for life. I love that he loves life, in spite of everything. 

5/ A few times in the novel, when Anna’s on the train back to St Petersburg, or when Levin’s sitting at home reading a book about heat and getting distracted by other thoughts, Tolstoy uses a technique like stream of consciousness, as the characters’ thoughts get muddled and jump from one thing to another. War and Peace and Anna Karenina make most novels before them and around the same time as them feel old-fashioned and constrained by convention; so far I haven’t read anything modern that have that effect on Tolstoy’s novels, but perhaps we’ll see, I still have to read Joyce and Proust. 

It’s not only about techniques, however—Tolstoy’s greatness mainly lies in his understanding of human nature and human behaviour. At this, I think Shakespeare and Tolstoy are far ahead of everyone else. 

Take the sequence in Part 2 when Oblonsky comes to visit Levin in the country. Over the past months, Levin has been trying to bury his memories of Kitty after the rejection. Oblonsky, jovial and tactful, doesn’t mention her name; they eat and talk and go hunting together; Levin also doesn’t ask about her. At some point, they talk about country life and Oblonsky says Levin is a lucky man.

“‘Maybe it’s because I enjoy what I have, and don’t grieve over what I don’t have,’ said Levin, remembering Kitty.

Stepan Arkadyich understood and cast a glance at him, but said nothing.

Levin was grateful to Oblonsky for noticing with his usual tact that he was reluctant to talk about the Shcherbatskys, and for not saying anything about them; but Levin did now want to find out about the matter tormenting him, except he did not have the courage to raise the subject.” (P.2, ch.14)

Levin asks his friend how things are going, they talk about Oblonsky, then return to hunting and talking about birds. They have a great time together, catching a few woodcocks, it gradually gets dark and they start heading home.  

“They were now standing about fifteen paces from one another. ‘Stiva!’ said Levin suddenly out of the blue. ‘How come you won’t tell me whether your sister-in-law has got married yet, or when she will be?’

Levin felt so secure and calm that he thought no answer could possibly upset him. But he certainly did not expect what Stepan Arkadyich said in reply.” (P.2, ch.15) 

Levin is shocked to learn that Kitty is very ill and sent abroad, and that everyone fears for her life. Another writer would probably continue with the conversation and let Oblonsky tell more about Kitty’s suffering, but Tolstoy doesn’t: the 2 men suddenly hear a shrill whistle and both seize their guns and shoot at the bird. Later on the way home, they talk more about Kitty:

“…although he would have been ashamed to admit it, he was pleased by what he found out. He was pleased that there was still hope, and even more pleased that the person who had made him suffer so much was suffering herself. But when Stepan Arkadyich began to discuss the causes of Kitty’s illness, and mentioned Vronsky’s name, Levin cut him short…” (P.2, ch.16) 

Tolstoy’s characters feel so real, so relatable because they have conflicted feelings and sometimes have ugly feelings, as we all do. They also feel so real because they do things they themselves don’t understand. Here Levin cuts Oblonsky short, saying that he has no interest, and starts asking about the wood that Oblonsky has come to the country to sell. The story now moves onto Oblonsky’s bad deal with Ryabinin about the wood, Levin’s argument and intervention, etc. Levin is in bad mood for a while because of the stupid sale, but underneath the surface, the news of Kitty is gradually having an effect on him. It all seems mundane and ordinary but the chapters are so wonderful because Tolstoy is writing about 2 things happening at the same time: the action on the surface, and the struggle in Levin’s mind. 

“‘It’s wonderful how they make this soap,’ he said, examining and unwrapping a fragrant bar of soap which Agafya Mikhailovna had put out for his guest, but which Oblonsky had not used. ‘Just look, it’s a real work of art.’

‘Yes, everything’s brought to such a state of perfection nowadays,’ said Stepan Arkadyich, with a moist-eyed and blissful yawn. ‘Theatres, for instance, and those entertainment … ah—ah—ah!’ he yawned. ‘Electric light everywhere* … ah—ah—ah!’

‘Yes, electric light,’ said Levin. ‘Yes. Well, where’s Vronsky these days?’ he asked suddenly, putting down the soap.” (P.2, ch.17) 

It’s just brilliant. And that’s where Tolstoy’s power lies: he lets the characters’ lives slowly unfold, and everything happens so naturally that it doesn’t seem to be serving a plot.

6/ The greatest scene in Part 1 is the ball—this is the scene that changes everything for Anna, Vronsky, and Kitty. Tolstoy focuses on Kitty’s perspective, and it is so wonderful that one cannot help wondering how Tolstoy could understand so well the excitement, the hopes, the disappointment, the heartbreak, the pain and humiliation of an 18-year-old girl. 

In Part 2, the greatest scene is the horse race. It is magnificent, Tolstoy’s writing is cinematic—like a montage. He first describes the scene all from Vronsky’s point of view, then switches to Karenin, goes back in time, describes Karenin’s meeting with Anna before the race, then moves to Anna at the race and switches between her watching Vronsky and Karenin watching her. Everything flows in a perfectly natural way. Why do we need film adaptations of Anna Karenina? Tolstoy can create montage and lively scenes like a film, but a film cannot give us access to the characters’ thoughts as Tolstoy does. 

7/ In the chapters of Kitty in Germany, Tolstoy seems to bring some of himself into her characterisation—like the author, Kitty aspires to be good, to forget pleasures and vanity, to do her duties and live for others, only to realise that she cannot do it, as it would only lead to hypocrisy and deceit. Tolstoy is a master because he shows that, through her meetings with Varenka, Kitty gets a glimpse of a very different life and becomes calmer and more mature, but she does not turn into a completely different person. She cannot change who she is. 

I have to continue to see what I think, but right now I seem to like Kitty more than I did last time.   

Sunday 13 June 2021

Othello(1981), ft. Anthony Hopkins

This is the third Othello production I’ve seen. See my reviews of the Stratford Festival one from 2019 and the Trevor Nunn one from 1990

This is a BBC film directed by Jonathan Miller, with Anthony Hopkins as Othello, Bob Hoskins as Iago, Penelope Wilton as Desdemona, Rosemary Leach as Emilia, and so on. 

The interesting thing about watching multiple Shakespeare productions is to see how differently directors and actors may approach the same text, and the BBC one is very different from the one by Trevor Nunn. I have said that Ian McKellen is to me the ultimate Iago, as he’s just like the Iago I had in my head whilst reading Shakespeare’s play: he is soft-spoken and adopts a self-effacing persona; in front of others, he always cleans up or fixes people’s clothes, listens attentively and sympathetically, and appears trustworthy; alone, he is cold and calculating, consumed with inexplicable hatred for Othello.

Bob Hoskins is a very different Iago, and it also works very well: in front of others, he has a matey persona, friendly and familiar with everyone; alone, he is always smiling and chuckling to himself, he looks unhinged. The way he chuckles and mimics the trumpet, unmoved by the pain he has caused Desdemona, the way he laughs after he gets Cassio and Roderigo to fight and potentially kill each other, and especially the way he chuckles at the end, having seen the work he’s done, is terrifying. Bob Hoskins’s Iago is a sociopath. 

As Iago, Bob Hoskins is matey, but not loud and pushy like Gordon S. Miller in the Stratford Festival production. That Iago is a terrible failure and, in my opinion, destroys the entire production. Ian McKellen and Bob Hoskins have demonstrated that there are different ways of playing Iago, but what they have in common is that they both are subtle, slowly poisoning Othello’s mind and feeding him lies without making him suspicious. Gordon S. Miller is too aggressive and pushy.

Penelope Wilton is all right as Desdemona, but I think the character is meant to be younger, almost like a child. Imogen Stubbs is perfect in the role—she has the innocence, the naïveté, and the childlike quality of Desdemona.

David Yelland as Cassio is very different from Sean Baker in the Trevor Nunn production: Sean Baker plays the character as a ladies’ man, who does have a thing for Desdemona; David Yelland’s Cassio doesn’t do anything remotely inappropriate with Desdemona. 

But what about Othello? you ask. Anthony Hopkins, again, has a very different approach, compared to Willard White. He plays the role in a more naturalistic, less theatrical way. The interpretations are also very different: Willard White’s Othello is not easily moved, and at the beginning doesn’t seem to care much about Iago’s insinuations but is slowly poisoned by him; whereas Anthony Hopkins’s Othello is already insecure, and doesn’t have much nobility and grandeur. Readers may have different ways of looking at Shakespeare’s character: he may be seen as a noble character who falls from great heights, because of a man’s manipulation, and it is so tragic because of how far he has fallen through the course of the play; or he may be seen as a good general but an empty, insecure man in private life, who isn’t worthy of Desdemona.  

Some people might not like the lack of grandeur—Anthony Hopkins’s Othello becomes smaller and hollower—but his performance works well and the play doesn’t become any less tragic because of it. In a way, perhaps it works even better: the insecurities are already in him and Iago only has to lead him towards the wrong direction, but Iago also transforms him from a calm, steady, and respectable general at the beginning of the play into a beast—for Anthony Hopkins’s Othello does turn into a beast. 

Placing side by side the 2 productions, I think both are excellent, both Iagos are brilliant, and the Trevor Nunn one has a perfect Desdemona and a more interesting Cassio, but overall I may lean a bit towards the BBC one by Jonathan Miller. Firstly, it focuses on Othello whereas the other one seems to tilt towards Iago—much as I love Ian McKellen, Shakespeare’s play is about Othello.  

More importantly, as I wrote in the other blog post, the killing scene in the Trevor Nunn production doesn’t really work. The scene in Shakespeare’s text becomes more and more intense, and when it gets to the peak, Othello smothers Desdemona—there must not be any lingering, any pause, or any interruption. The lingering in the Trevor Nunn production ruins the scene and almost destroys the tragedy, if not for the following scene with Emilia. Anthony Hopkins’s Othello kills Desdemona at the peak of hysteria. 

The BBC film also handles the final scene better: Zoë Wanamaker is also good, but Rosemary Leach is brilliant and more effective as Emilia. In the Trevor Nunn production, perhaps because of Willard White’s mannered, theatrical delivery, the final moments after Othello has learnt the truth feel a bit too long, but in the BBC one, the last moments don’t seem at all to drag when the number of lines is exactly the same.

But then in the Trevor Nunn film, Ian McKellen’s face, as he says “What you know, you know”, is striking and unforgettable. Good as Bob Hoskins is in the role of Iago, his delivery of the same line wouldn’t stay with me like Ian McKellen’s does. 

What do you think? Which is your favourite Othello production? 

Saturday 12 June 2021

Hedda Gabler

The translation is by Una Ellis-Fermor. 

1/ At the centre of the play is the marriage between Jørgen Tesman and Hedda (née Gabler).

Jørgen is dull—respectable and learned but dull, and not particularly perceptive. He is reminiscent of both Charles Bovary and Mr Casaubon. Ibsen shows from the start that Jørgen can be simple and naïve, failing to get his aunt’s meaning, and we can quickly see the contrast between him and his new wife in the scene with Thea Elvsted: he notices nothing whereas Hedda quickly sees through her old friend’s little lies. 

Hedda Gabler Tesman however is not Emma Bovary, and definitely not Dorothea Brooke. Dorothea marries Mr Casaubon because of her naïve idealism and misjudgement of his character, Hedda has no delusion. Hedda shares with Emma ennui and contempt for her husband and her marriage, but unlike Emma, she is neither sentimental nor sensual. She doesn’t seem to like sex. 

In some ways, she is more like Undine Spragg in The Custom of the Country: both like money and luxury, both seem indifferent to sex, and both are manipulative. The main difference, I think, is that Edith Wharton’s character manipulates in order to gain money and social status, whereas Hedda manipulates in order to—what? 

2/ In The Wild Duck, Gregers interferes in Hjalmar’s life partly because of his ideals, and partly because he wants to get back at his own father. At the beginning, he gets all the skeletons out of the Ekdal family, to set Hjalmar’s marriage on a new foundation of truth, but he doesn’t stop there. He goes further, and in a way wants Hjalmar’s family to be worse off and little Hedwig not to get help, just so he can be proven right and his father wrong—like it’s all a contest, a game. 

Now let’s look at Hedda: 

“MRS ELVSTED There’s something behind all this, Hedda. 

HEDDA True; there is. I want, for once in my life, to have power over a human being’s fate.” 

(Act 2) 

Similarly, Hedda wants to interfere in people’s lives, and she does so only because she wants to have power over a human being’s fate. She wants to manipulate and corrupt and even ruin Ejlert Løvborg only because the idea that he has been reformed by the simple Thea offends her sensibilities. 

But why? 

3/ It is difficult to read Hedda Gabler, especially Act 3, without strong feeling of contempt and loathing for the titular character—she is despicable. Compared to other trapped wives in literature such as Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, Effi Briest, Dorothea Brooke, etc., Hedda is not very sympathetic—I would even say that she hardly has any redeeming quality. Self-awareness, perhaps.  

I’ve seen from the start that she is cold and callous about small things such as Jørgen’s old slippers or his aunt’s hat, humiliating the old woman for no reason, but it’s in Act 3 where it becomes clear that Hedda is indifferent about everything, even in matters of life and death. Nothing moves her, nothing matters, and it is terrifying. Her irrational, inexplicable hatred, if it may be called hatred, gets to the peak at the end of Act 3. In a way, Hedda is reminiscent of Iago in her “motiveless malignity” (to use Coleridge’s words).

However, unlike Iago, Hedda also hates herself: she hates people and society and her marriage; she also hates herself for being a coward. As she says, she has accepted and walked into this marriage herself, which she despises. She can’t help feeling contempt for the Tesman family, who is socially beneath her. But she lacks the courage to walk out. 

Hedda hates Thea also because Thea has the courage to leave her husband, the courage she herself doesn’t have.  

4/ In a way, the characters in Hedda Gabler can be put into 2 groups: the good-natured, kind, “simple” Jørgen, Thea, Aunt Juliane, and even Ejlert belong together; in the other group with Hedda is Brack. Ibsen creates Hedda, and creates Brack, the judge and family friend, who is cold and ruthless and calculating in his own way—he sees through her and knows her fears, and near the end of the play, destroys her illusion, holds some power over her, and inadvertently pushes her to the inevitable. 

Ibsen ends Act 3 with such terror that one wonders how he keeps the dramatic tension afterwards, but he does. And see what he does in Act 4, especially the ending!  

5/ So far I have been vague. Those of you who haven’t read/seen the play and don’t want to know important plot details may want to stop here.  

A Doll’s House, Ghosts, and Hedda Gabler may be seen as connected, because A Doll’s House is about a woman who walks out and leaves her husband, Ghosts is about a woman who runs away then returns to her husband and suffers 19 years of misery and other consequences, and Hedda Gabler on the surface is about a woman who gets into a marriage she despises and has no courage to walk out. But they don’t have much in common: each play is a study of a different situation, a different kind of woman. 

I saw that some people called Hedda Gabler a feminist play, which I found laughable. Hedda is too cold, manipulative, and full of self-loathing to be a strong woman or a feminist figure. Hers is not simply the predicament of a woman strapped in an unhappy marriage and bound in a patriarchal society—it is a lot more complex, and to see the play in mere feminist terms is to reduce it, to strip it of complexity and ambiguity. It also fails to answer lots of questions about the play: why does Hedda hate that Ejlert is now reformed and has great potential for success? Why does she goad him back into drinking? If she wants to retain her hold and influence over him, offended that he has been tamed by Thea, why? Why does she give him a gun afterwards? Why does she destroy the manuscript? She has some illusion about a free and beautiful action, but why? 

The constraints of a patriarchal society alone cannot explain her actions. Hedda is not a victim. Hedda Gabler is fascinating because she is complex and her motivations are complex.  

Feminist criticism is often offensive as it reduces men and women to simple categories, and doesn’t see the individual. 

Sunday 6 June 2021

The Wild Duck

1/ In many ways, The Wild Duck is more complex than Ghosts. Ghosts has 5 characters: Mrs Alving, her son Oswald, Manders (the sanctimonious pastor), Engstrand (the carpenter), and Regina (his daughter). The Wild Duck has 15 characters that have a name or nickname, plus 6 other guests at the party and several servants. 

Ghosts has 3 acts. The Wild Duck has 5 acts. 

(The translation is by R. Farquharson Sharp). 

2/ At the party, Gregers says to Hjalmar “Why should I not invite my best and only friend?”. A few sentences later, we’re told that they haven’t met for 16-17 years. Strange, that.  

3/ When we read Ibsen, it’s important to be aware of chronology because the plays, I’ve been told, are in dialogue with each other. After Ghosts, he wrote An Enemy of the People, and then The Wild Duck

At the most basic level, if Ghosts is about the danger of living for years with a lie, The Wild Duck is about the danger of pursuing the absolute truth. At the beginning of the play, the Ekdal family are living in illusion: old Ekdal, who has gone to jail because of someone else’s guilt and lost everything, clings to his past as a lieutenant and a hunter, and uses the attic as a forest; Hjalmar lives with the illusion that he is an inventor, who can restore good name to his father; both are ignorant of old Werle’s role in the downfall, and grateful for his support after the arrest. Hjalmar also doesn’t know about old Werle’s violation of his wife Gina before their marriage. 

The troubles begin when Gregers, after being away for a long time, returns and enters their house and takes it upon himself to reveal the truth and destroy all illusions. 

Interestingly, Ibsen skips that moment altogether and jumps to its aftermath, but what a scene that follows it! Gregers destroys two illusions, about old Werle (his father) and about the marriage between Hjalmar and Gina, and Hjalmar’s conversation with her reveals another painful truth—that they live not on his earnings as a photographer but mostly on old Werle’s payment for old Ekdal’s copying. 

4/ Why does Gregers do so? I don’t think it’s because of some ideal as he says, at least it’s not the only reason. I think it’s also his way of fighting against his father and dealing with, or perhaps compensating for, the web of lies in his own family. 

He is cold and brutal. The worst part is that he’s absolutely convinced he’s doing the right thing. 

It’s when Hedwig (Gina’s daughter) receives a present from old Werle that I see his true nature: 

 “GREGERS Yes, Hjalmar—now we shall see who is right, he or I.” 

(Act 4) 

It’s being proven right and getting back at the father that Gregers is interested in. He doesn’t seem to think about the fact that for a long time old Werle has tried to pay back for his actions by providing for the Ekdal family when he’s not expected to do so. 

Just as Ghosts gets grimmer and grimmer, The Wild Duck becomes more and more extreme. The Ekdal family have too many skeletons and suddenly they’re all out, one by one. Readers may have different thoughts about Gregers’s revelations to Hjalmar, but there’s no justification for what he says to the 14-year-old Hedwig. 

5/ In the play, Ibsen sets up a dilemma—we have Gregers on one side, with his uncompromising insistence on the truth, and the neighbour Relling on the other side, who thinks people should live in delusion and avoid the truth. There is no simple answer. I think everyone would agree that Gregers is a fanatic, tearing apart a family because he thinks he’s setting it on a new foundation of truth, but in Ghosts, Ibsen has depicted the consequences of living for years in deceit and self-deception, and in The Wild Duck itself, Mrs Sørby hides nothing and her new marriage with old Werle would be the true marriage that Hjalmar doesn’t have with Gina.

Interestingly, Gregers, the one who wants to strip his friend of all delusion, has one himself: he is greatly mistaken about his friend. If his action is a kind of test, Hjalmar fails it because he doesn’t have the character, the strength to overcome it, to forgive everyone and start afresh. The Wild Duck is largely a tragedy, but part of the comedy is because Hjalmar is essentially weak and doesn’t have the ideals his friend wants: in front of Gregers, he bravely tears in half the deed from old Werle, only to paste the pieces back together afterwards; he makes a scene of leaving his wife, having learnt of her past, so Gina makes him a meal and packs his case, but after they eat some time in silence:  

“HJALMAR If I decided to do so, could I—without being exposed to intrusion on anyone’s part—put up for a day or two in the sitting-room there?

GINA Of course you could, if only you would.

HJALMAR Because I don’t see there is any possibility of getting all father’s things out in a moment.” 

(Act 5) 

So he tells himself. 

6/ I won’t write about symbols and poetic elements in The Wild Duck because Himadri (Argumentative Old Git) has written a brilliant blog post about it, including the wild duck:

Himadri also writes about the characters, and raises the interesting point that old Werle, far from being immorally pure, may not be the monster that his son thinks he is. 

7/ If you’ve got this far, perhaps you’re acquainted with the play or indifferent to spoilers, but here I’m going to write a bit about the ending so those of you who haven’t read the play, be warned.

In the ending, after the devastating moment, Ibsen presents two opposing visions: are you with Relling, or are you with Gregers? Is Gregers too naïve and idealistic? Or is Relling too cynical? 

That is something to think about—I’ll probably need to consider it for some time. One thing is clear, however: 

“GREGERS Hedwig has not died in vain. You saw how his grief called out all the best that was in him.” 


I don’t doubt that Hjalmar’s grief is deep and genuine, especially when he realises his own cruelty, but I’d say that Hedwig dies a meaningless death. That’s why it’s so painfully tragic.  

Thursday 3 June 2021

Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen

So that I don’t get shouted for having lived in Norway and not knowing Ibsen, I picked up Ghosts, translated by R. Farquharson Sharp. I had read A Doll’s House, but it was years ago and needs a revisit. 

The two plays are related: at the most basic level, A Doll’s House is about a woman leaving her husband, Ghosts is about the consequence of a woman not leaving her terrible husband. The two situations are however totally different: Mrs Alving is not Nora and Mr Alving is not Torvald.  

1/ This is how Ghosts begins: Engstrand, a carpenter, is talking to a young woman called Regina and he seems to be harassing her (not in the sexual sense), but quickly we realise that she’s his daughter, though they don’t really sound like father and daughter. Then Engstrand leaves, and a pastor named Manders arrives to see Mrs Alving, the mistress of the house. Manders gives some unsolicited advice to Regina, as people do, so Regina leaves the room and soon afterwards Mrs Alving enters, to discuss the orphanage business with Manders. 

Quite soon Manders turns out to be an insufferable, sanctimonious prick, chastising Mrs Alving and her son Oswald, who has just returned from France, for neglecting their duties and having immoral views. Manders especially condemns her as a bad wife and a bad mother, for having once tried to leave her husband and later sent her son away. Then it’s Mrs Alving’s turn to speak and she reveals the truth that has been hidden from everyone for decades: because of Manders, she returned to her incorrigible, profligate husband and suffered a miserable marriage for 19 years. She sent Oswald away so he wouldn’t be corrupted by his father. 

The revelation changes the entire tone and dynamics. By the end of Act 1, everything has been completely shattered for Manders.

Then comes this bit: 

“MANDERS [softly, and with emotion] Is that all I accomplished by the hardest struggle of my life? 

MRS ALVING Call it rather the most ignominious defeat of your life.

MANDERS It was the greatest victory of my life, Helen; victory over myself.

MRS ALVING It was a wrong done to both of us.

MANDERS A wrong?—wrong for me to entreat you as a wife to go back to your lawful husband, when you came to me half distracted and crying “here I am, take me!” Was that a wrong?

MRS ALVING I think it was. 

MANDERS We two do not understand one another.

MRS ALVING Not now, at all events. 

MANDERS Never—even in my most secret thoughts—have I for a moment regarded you as anything but the wife of another. 

MRS ALVING Do you believe what you say?

MANDERS Helen—! 

MRS ALVING One so easily forgets one’s own feelings.

MANDERS Not I. I am the same as I always was.” 

(Act 2) 

This is a great scene: having learnt the horrible truth, Manders doesn’t change and doesn’t have a bad conscience. Instead, he clings to his so-called principles and continues to delude himself, to convince himself that he did right. 

2/ Living death. Loveless marriage. Masks. Deceit. I can see Ibsen’s influence on Ingmar Bergman. 

3/ In English the title is translated as Ghosts, but it cannot convey the full sense of the title in the original: gengangere (or gjengangere in Norwegian) mean “ghosts” and “things that recur or repeat themselves”. 

There seems to be a slightly different meaning in this passage:   

“MRS ALVING […] I am half inclined to think we are all ghosts, Mr Manders. It is not only what we have inherited from our fathers and mothers that exists against in us, but all sorts of old dead ideas and all kinds of old dead beliefs and things of that kind. They are not actually alive in us, but they are dormant, all the same, and we can never be rid of them.” 


Not only is Mr Alving a ghost that doesn’t go away, doesn’t stay in the past, but “we are all ghosts”. 

4/ Some readers may defend Manders by saying that he’s not a hypocrite, that he genuinely believes life is about doing your duty and not pursuing happiness, and lives accordingly. I do think he’s a hypocrite, however, because life to him is not only about duty. Manders has a great fear of people’s gossips and his own loss of reputation: after he made Mrs Alving return to her husband, for decades he never came back to the house till now, when she decides to open an orphanage; he convinces Mrs Alving not to insure the orphanage for fear of people’s talks; and at the end, when the building is burnt to the ground and it’s probably because of Manders’s carelessness, he says that “the spiteful attacks and accusations” are “almost the worst part of the whole thing”.

The revelation shocks him into some sort of understanding, but he remains himself, utterly himself in the end.  

5/ An interesting thing is that the truth doesn’t seem to shock Oswald. It changes nothing—his guilt and self-blame may go but the fear remains, and nothing can change his condition. He is too occupied with his terror to ask Mrs Alving why she has been lying to him his whole life. 

6/ Ibsen’s play is essentially about revisiting the past and understanding it differently: Oswald learns that the disease is inherited and not his fault; Regina learns something about her mother and realises that a relationship with Oswald is now impossible; Manders learns about his role in Mrs Alving’s long suffering; and even Mrs Alving, near the end of the play, realises that she’s partly to blame for Mr Alving’s dissipation: 

“MRS ALVING It gave me a holiday feeling only to look at him, full of irrepressible energy and exuberant spirits.

OSWALD What then?

MRS ALVING Well, then this boy, full of the joy of life—for he was just like a boy, then—had to make his home in a second rate town which had none of the joy of life to offer him, but only dissipations. He had to come out here and live an aimless life; he had only an official post. He had no work worth devoting his whole mind to; he had nothing more than official routine to attend to. He had not a single companion capable of appreciating what the joy of life meant; nothing but idlers and tipplers—


MRS ALVING Your poor father never found any outlet for the overmastering joy of life that was in him. And I brought no holiday spirit into his home, either.

OSWALD You didn’t, either? 

MRS ALVING I had been taught about duty, and the sort of thing that I believed in so long here. Everything seemed to turn upon duty—my duty, or his duty—and I am afraid I made your poor father’s home unbearable to him, Oswald.” 

(Act 3) 

The joy of life (livsglæde or livsglede) is a central theme in the play, and this is a magnificent moment. For a large part of the play, Mrs Alving speaks of her dead husband with only hatred and contempt, but now she recognises her own part in the failed marriage and sees her past in a startlingly different light. 

This is a great play.