“I want to love and to live”: More Anna Karenina

anna2I finished Anna Karenina yesterday–or, I should say, I finished Anna Karenina for the first time: it’s so large and complicated, and also so alien, so unfamiliar, to me that I hardly feel I’ve really read it yet. It was an odd, engrossing, and somewhat frustrating experience working my way through it. Despite its sprawl and its episodic character, it felt well built to me, with the two major plots running sometimes in parallel, sometimes intersecting, and always provoking questions about the significance of their juxtaposition. But I felt morally and thematically adrift much of the time, partly (presumably) because I’m new to the novel and there’s a lot of it to take in, and partly (perhaps) because the novel doesn’t work quite the way the big novels I know best work, which is to say, it sets out its characters and its problems without also providing a readerly guide in the form of, say, an intrusive narrator. There’s no friendly companion, no wry moralist, no philosophical or historical commentator–in other words, this is not a novel by Trollope, or Thackeray, or George Eliot. The unifying perspective–the set of ideas that make all the different parts of the novel into a whole–emerges only implicitly, and to me, so far, remains somewhat elusive.

I know there’s lots of accessible expert commentary out there to help me. After my earlier post on the novel, for instance, maryb linked to this piece at the New Yorker, which I’ve since skimmed and will return to read more slowly soon. A lot of other bloggers have written about Anna Karenina, too. But before I get too caught up in what other people have said, I’ll try to sort out some of my own impressions and ideas. I thought that for today, I’d start with Anna herself. It is, after all, nominally her novel.

In my last post I said that “I don’t understand her infidelity and thus can’t sympathize with it.” That remained true for me to the end. If anything, I became less sympathetic, in fact, as far as the supposed love affair between Anna and Vronsky was concerned. There’s something so self-absorbed about it, so petulantly self-indulgent. “For you and me,” Anna exclaims, “only one thing is important: whether we love each other. No other considerations exist.” Far from being a grand passion for which they heroically pit themselves against society, though, it’s a commonplace enough affair, as Anna herself seems to realize near the end:

‘What did he look for in me? Not so much love as the satisfaction of his vanity. . . . Yes, there was in him the triumph of successful vanity. Of course there was love too; but the greater part was pride in his success. He boasted of me. Now that is past.’

She describes her own love as growing “more and more passionate and egotistic,” but it seems very much that way from the first. Even when wracked with grief about being separated from her son, it’s her own painful choice she is fixated on, not Serezha’s loss: “I love those two beings only,” she tells Dolly, “and the one excludes the other! I cannot unite them, yet that is the one thing I desire.” At no point does she attain a broader vision of her actions, seeking to understand their meaning for other people the way that (yes, the inevitable comparison) Dorothea does after her ‘white night’ near the end of Middlemarch. “Was she alone in that scene? Was it her event only?” thinks Dorothea. For Anna, the answer to this question is surely “yes”: she has little concept of other people having an “equivalent center of self,” and her suffering, the product of a thwarted quest for selfish gratification (“Count Vronsky and I have also been unable to find that pleasure from which we expected so much”) leads her only deeper into her own neediness.

The more I read, though, and the more I gave up on my initial expectation that Anna Karenina was a transcendent love story, the less it mattered that Anna and Vronsky hardly seemed to deserve happiness–or sympathy. The commonplace, almost tediously conventional, nature of their relationship, for one thing, started to make its extraordinary consequences seem particularly absurd. Anna herself has no intention of being either a heroine or a martyr. “I don’t want you think that I wish to prove anything,” she tells Dolly; “I don’t want to prove anything: simply I wish to live, not hurting anyone but myself. I have a right to do that, have I not?” That’s a narrow idea of rights, to be sure, but at the same time, from the first page of the novel we know that adultery is commonplace in her world, and that many people (including, obviously, Dolly) learn to live with it. Of course, Stiva is a man, and the contrast between his cheerfully trivial infidelity and Anna’s catastrophic affair painfully exposes the sexual double-standard that is surely part of the novel’s larger moral calibration. Anna pays, and pays, and pays for her adultery, but it is not any more morally grievous than her brother’s, is it? And once we start asking that question–if anyone in Anna’s world really asked that question–the arbitrary and artificial rules of Society can hardly bear their own weight.

It’s not just the double-standard that works against Anna, though, and leads her to be, in effect, a prisoner in her own home as well as her own ego. For all her claim not to want to prove anything, she does want to live openly with Vronsky, to treat their relationship as a socially legitimate one precisely because it is not a furtive dalliance. I think this is part of the quality of sincerity which many characters admire in her. “In addition to her intelligence, grace, and beauty, she also possessed sincerity,” reflects Levin; “She did not wish to hide from him the hardships of her position.” What seems unnatural to Anna is hiding her feelings, hiding the truth of her situation. If everyone knows anyway, after all, what’s the point? “She has done what everybody, except myself, does secretly,” says Princess Myagkaya, “and she would not deceive, and has acted splendidly.” But it’s this “splendid” honesty (is it naïve? defiant?) that brings the judgment of Society down on her, as during the painful scene at the opera. Vronsky is “vexed” with her determination to expose herself in this way:

“To appear dressed as you are at the theatre, accompanied by the Princess, whom everybody knows, means not only to acknowledge your position as a fallen woman, but to throw down a challenge to Society–which means, to renounce it forever.”

But he does not say these words out loud to her, partly because he too does not know why she is so determined: “But how can she fail to understand it? And what is happening to her?” he wonders. It’s this episode that shows Anna, I think, the folly of her own grandiose, romantic insistence that “no other considerations exist” besides their love: as she sits in her box pretending to be tranquil and composed, “she felt as though pilloried.” Vronsky hopes his sister-in-law, Varya, will help rehabilitate her, but Varya insists that she “cannot do it! I have daughters growing up, and I must move in Society, for my husband’s sake. . . . I am not able to raise her.” “I don’t consider that she has fallen lower than hundreds of people whom you do receive,” returns Vronsky, but by removing the veil of pretense, Anna has made it impossible for herself to move among those for whom the appearance of virtue is, if not everything, at least enough.* Anna loses both social and moral mobility, as a result, and her relationship with Vronsky becomes the totality of her options. Her jealousy, fretfulness, and eventual desperation arise from this, particularly as she is painfully aware that Vronsky’s situation is different: “He has the right to go when and where he pleases. Not only to go away, but to leave me. He has every right and I have none at all.”

Anna’s agony, under these pressures, might have had a different outcome if she herself had a different character–if she were heroic, noble, or aspirational. Dorothea is only able to turn her grief into sympathetic action, after all, because she is already a profoundly compassionate person. Suffering has no particularly benevolent effect on Rosamond, and our judgment of her damaging egotism is infinitely complicated by our awareness (cultivated across 800 pages) that she lacks the capacity to do or be otherwise. I ended up thinking that it’s the same qualities in Anna that made me find her an unsympathetic character that turn her, finally, into a tragic character. What else can she do, at the end, except put an end to her own problems? Solving other people’s problems is never what her life has been about.

*I was reminded, during these exchanges, less of George Eliot’s novels and more of George Eliot’s life, as she knew that her most radical choice was not getting sexually involved with a married man but doing so openly, as if she had a right to. “Light and easily broken ties are what I neither desire theoretically nor could live for practically,” she wrote to a close friend after her elopement with Lewes. “Women who are satisfied with such ties do not act as I have done–they obtain what they desire and are still invited to dinner.” She staked her future on Lewes’s steadfastness, and she (and not he) endured social ostracization on their return.

3 Comments to “I want to love and to live”: More Anna Karenina

  1. January 1, 2013 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    So now that you’re done, I can ask: from whence came the “transcendent love story” business? Readers of Wuthering Heights pick it up from film adaptations that omit most of the novel. Who or what led you astray?

    For many readers – me, I mean – the absence of Mr. Intrusive is a great boon, an advance in the art of the novel. I know how to read already – get outta my way! But of course those earlier intruders are themselves artistic constructs that do not dissipate but in many ways create the ambiguities in the novels you mention. Or that I think you mention – when you say Thackeray, do you mean Vanity Fair? That intrusive narrator is hardly a trustworthy guide.

    More ambiguity – yes, thank goodness.

  2. Rohan's Gravatar Rohan
    January 1, 2013 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

    Whence the ‘transcendent love story’ business? That’s a very good question, Tom: I’ve been wondering that myself. What kind of sentimental naivete led me to assume that Anna would only leave her husband, defy society, and kill herself (all of which, basically, I knew happened) for a grand passion? Honestly, I have no idea. It wasn’t a very strong or specific idea, just a vague but long-standing one. I’m glad it wasn’t true. It’s also mildly amusing to me that I made the same mistake as both Anna and (in her own way) Emma.

    As for Mr. Intrusive, you’re right that they can add to — I wouldn’t say the ambiguity, necessarily, but certainly the complexity of their books. Where they help us is in seeing what the problems are that they are messing around with: is that the right way to put it? And often they do model a kind of mindset for us. Thackeray’s narrator in Vanity Fair is not simple or didactic (or simply didactic) but he’s pretty clear about the way he looks at the world he’s showing us.

  3. January 2, 2013 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    “Thackeray” is clear but that does not mean that he is right! Not even within the world of his own novel. What is the intrusive narrator is a trickster?

    I think this is a fundamental Modernist doubt, actually. For whatever reason a lot of writers and readers came to distrust the authority of the Eliot-style narrator. Some writers went so far as to want to undermine it completely (see The Good Soldier). Others just tried to minimize its suspect presence (the Flaubert / Tolstoy solution).

    Not that the Modernists invented any of this, as we know from Tristram Shandy and Wuthering Heights and Tom Jones and Villette. The emphasis shifted.

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