“And such is the meaning of all existence!” Levin and Anna Karenina

annakIf Anna represents the futility of material striving–of seeking lasting happiness through pursuing her own immediate needs–perhaps Levin represents spiritual striving. At any rate, that’s the best I’ve come up with so far as I ponder the relationship between the two major plots of Anna Karenina. In Levin’s epiphanic musings towards the end of the novel, he repeats the words of the peasant Theodore:

To live not for one’s needs but for God! For what God? What could be more senseless than what he said? He said we must not live for our needs–that is, we must not live for what we understand and what attracts us, what we wish for, but must live for something incomprehensible, for God whom nobody can understand or define. Well? And did I not understand those senseless words of Theodore’s? And having understood them, did I doubt their justice? Did I find them stupid, vague, or inexact?

No, I understand him just as he understands them: understood completely and more clearly than I understand anything in life. . . .

Levin’s agnosticism has been a constant up to about this point in the novel. Does he “find” God here, then? It sounds like it:

But now I say that I know the meaning of my life: it is to live for God, for the soul. And that meaning, in spite of its clearness, is mystic and wonderful. And such is the meaning of all existence.

At the end of the chapter, he rejects not just doubt but reason:

Reason has discovered the struggle for existence and the law that I must throttle all those who hinder the satisfaction of my desires. That is the deduction reason makes. But the law of loving others could not be discovered by reason, because it is unreasonable.

Anna, perhaps, lives more according to reason, opposing those who hinder the satisfaction of her desires. Levin, in contrast, embraces here an ethos of love, but a different kind of love than the gratification of vanity and ego that defines Anna and Vronsky’s love. Levin’s is an ethical love, a love of the soul, a love of others. By the light of his love, we judge the moral failure of Anna’s; through his embrace of life, we condemn Anna’s choice of death.

And yet I’m not satisfied with this way of reading the contrast between them. For one thing, I can’t figure out how we are positioned relative to Levin’s revelatory statements here. Though he has often meditated on the meaning of life and the significance of death, he has never proffered a religious interpretation before. More, the sentiments he expresses here are so vague and ecstatic I find it hard to take them seriously as a response to the complicated world we’ve been living in with him. He declares that the “knowledge” he has acquired is “given to me as to everybody,” but we have hardly seen other people motivated by “the law of loving others.” Is the idea that Society–the same Society that crushed Anna’s more earthly desires–also crushes spiritual idealism, so that Levin’s story doubles up on the social criticism of Anna’s, while also holding out (as her story does not) a standard by which a better world could be established? Or is it possible (because Levin seems kind of an erratic, ineffectual figure for a heroic protagonist) that he’s modelling another kind of folly, rather than an ideal? What kind of noble life is truly possible without reason, after all? His final assertions of revelation depend on a resolute setting aside of hard intellectual problems (such as “the relation to the Deity of all the different beliefs of mankind”). Is this supposed to be right–never mind the details, just feel the truth in your heart? Or is it supposed to seem, as it does to me, a feel-good cop-out?

I’m sure that some of my confusion about Levin is rooted in my historical ignorance: much more than Anna, he is involved with social, political, economic, and, especially, agricultural questions specific to his time and place, and I don’t know the context well enough to understand what his particular efforts in these areas mean about his values. I’m not a trained historian of Victorian Britain, but when Caleb Garth confronts the farmers who oppose the building of the railway, or when Mr Brooke attempts to run for the Reform parliament as an Independent, I have some ideas about what it all means as part of the politics of Middlemarch. Here, though, I have no general background to prepare me, and my one complaint about the Oxford edition I was reading is that it is not really an annotated edition and so the many political and other references go unexplained. There are a small number of notes at the bottoms of pages (mostly translations of French phrases) but I would have appreciated a thicker layer of supporting information to help make the various councils and voting schemes and farming experiments a bit more … well, interesting.


John Bayley also says little about Levin in his introduction to my edition, but he does suggest one way in which Levin’s story is thematically related to Anna and Vronksy’s: “His apparently causeless depression … relates to something which is also present in the Anna-Vronsky ménage,some primal dissatisfaction with the fact that one has gone one’s own way and should be happy, and yet one is not.” In Levin’s case, he should be happy with Kitty, the tedious embodiment of ideal, nurturing, maternal femininity who is everything that Anna is not (“is Anna the pit and Kitty the pedestal?” reads one of my marginal jottings) — except that Kitty (for all her nesting) is not so perfect, and Levin, as Bayley says, does not subside into bliss on marrying her. As with Anna and Vronsky, we see with Kitty and Levin the close proximity of love and possessiveness, the neediness, the jealousy. When they are happy, they’re kind of boring, aren’t they? So it doesn’t seem as if they are the “ought’ to the other pair’s “is.” Maybe the most that can be said is that they are basically nicer people than Anna and Vronsky, more sincerely concerned with the well-being of others. Maybe Levin looks for transcendent meaning but we should not.

“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.

More Anna Karenina: What About Love?

Well, that was abrupt. Here I thought that this novel told a great love story, and instead we seem to have stumbled into a love affair with no good reason. Not that Anna and Vronsky don’t have their reasons, but we hardly know what they are or why we should care when all of a sudden we hear that it “had come to pass.” I’ve read about a hundred pages past this development and I still feel disoriented by it. We hardly know anything about these people, and we’ve barely seen them flirting, much less falling in love. Immediately upon the consummation of their passion–which seems little more than an infatuation–it’s shame, not love, that dominates the atmosphere: even as Vronsky showers kisses on her face and shoulders, all Anna can think about is that “These kisses were what had been bought by their shame!”

Maybe it isn’t a love story, then, at least not for these two. Though Anna is now declaring her love for Vronsky to her husband:

‘You were not mistaken. I was, and cannot help being, in despair. I listen to you but I am thinking of him. I love him, I am his mistress, I cannot endure you. I am afraid of you, and I hate you. . . .’

“I love him, I am his mistress, I cannot endure you”: the juxtaposition of these declarations makes Anna’s feelings and motives more obscure to me rather than less. Maybe they are obscure to her too. Is she his mistress because her love was too great to resist, or because her distaste for her husband made her restless? Is there more to her love for Vronsky than being his mistress? How is their love different from desire, or gratification? Is it worth the shame? Is it worth the 550 remaining pages of the novel? This situation–their affair, but also Karenin’s knowledge of it–came much sooner than I expected. It turns out barely any of the novel is about the gathering storm of their passion, or a desperate struggle to hide it. It can only be a novel about love’s consequences, then, but I wonder how we will navigate those consequences when we understand so little about that love. Also, I wonder how I will feel about those consequences when so far I feel so little for either Anna or Vronsky. I think I am not reading the novel right.

I peered at John Bayley’s introduction to my edition for help with my confusion and found that I am making a weak echo of a complaint made by Percy Lubbock in The Craft of Fiction, and by Matthew Arnold in an early review, that “we do not know enough about Anna, as Tolstoy sets her before us.” We are making, Bayley proposes, the mistake of a reader of other kind of novels, of European novels such as Madame Bovary or Emma or Middlemarch. In these novels “the author seeks to understand [the heroine], and to convey understanding to his [sic] reader, by means of analysis and the careful establishment of a social and moral context. . . . Tolstoy’s method is very different.” That method, Bayley says, is to have Anna “soar above the book, and above all its family details and social events, as if she were the vehicle through which the force of passion declares itself. . . . This vivid insubstantiality of Anna is one of the most remarkable things about her.” Is the implication here that the love that really matters is mine for Anna? If so, I’m in trouble, since at this point I am only mildly interested in her, and that interest is not of a wholly positive  kind, as I don’t understand her infidelity and thus can’t sympathize with it. If she is going to be the animated “force of passion” my sympathies are likely to remain muted, steeped as I am in a tradition that values the moral struggle with passion over someone who lives like “a gale of wind or a roaring fire.” Did Anna struggle? How did Vronsky win her over? Or was the seed of her betrayal in her own weakness, rather than his strength? Did she fall because she loves him, or or does she love him because she was already fallen?

Maybe the love story is not Anna and Vronsky but Kitty and Levin. At this point they are quite far from their consummation, but I know where things will end up for them as well as I know how things end up for Anna. They seem to be learning about love, or about life, and there is more explanation in their sections about character and motives and circumstances. Overall, though, I’m finding the novel episodic and disjointed, organized into set pieces (the ball, the race, the religious experiment) without a supporting web of ideas or attitudes. Maybe Tolstoy is just making me work harder to figure out his novel’s morality than George Eliot does.

Getting Started with Anna Karenina

When I posted about Madame Bovary a few months ago, I remarked on the oddity of reading a very famous book for the first time–it is, I said, “intensely familiar and yet strange at the same time. . . it is no longer an idea of something but the thing itself.” My posts on Madame Bovary show me trying to come to terms with “the thing itself,” trying to see for myself just what kind of thing it is. What a foolish thing to attempt, after one reading. How presumptuous! And yet there it was, and there I was, reading it, and a blog post is not, after all, a pronouncement but an encounter. What a relief, for an academic, not to even pretend to be definitive! In that case, too, what a good conversation ensued. If one way to measure the worth of a book is by the quality of the conversations it inspires, Madame Bovary (for all that I didn’t actually like it) is way up there.

One of the many comments that stayed with me from those conversations is Tom’s observation that “I consider Anna Karenina to be a novel of comparable merit that works as a blend of the Eliot & Flaubert approaches, that wants to keep the meaning generated by the full, precise physical world while also finding ways to comment.” Anna Karenina is of course one of those novels I always meant to read, and yet, as with Madame Bovary, somehow I had always deferred actually reading it. You couldn’t make a better pitch for it than Tom did, though, and so I confessed my Anna-less state to my supplier and he set me up with the Louise and Aylmer Maude translation, which I am now about 100 pages into. But if it’s presumptuous to say anything on a first reading, what could I possibly dare to say after my first reading of just 100 pages?

Not much, actually. For one thing, I’m eager to read more tonight, so I don’t want to use up all my remaining energy here. For another, I hardly know what I think yet. I’m just observing a few things at this point, feeling my way along. My very first observation is that the novel is briskly paced — that surprises me. It is possible that only someone who reads a lot of 19th-century fiction, for work and for pleasure, would think this, but here’s a bit of very scientific evidence on my side. When I was trying to choose what book to read next, I took a stack of options in with me when I joined my daughter for our ritual reading time before her ‘lights out.’ I read her the first few sentences of each of them, and then she and I each scored them out of 10. Of all my options (and they included The MasterThe Line of BeautyA Time of Gifts, and Winter’s Tale), it was Anna Karenina that got the most points. (Mind you, the overall results were somewhat skewed by Maddie’s giving the opening of A Time of Gifts a scornful zero. She and I will take that up again another time!) With Anna Karenina, we knew right away what was happening and who was involved, and we were caught up in the buzz of activity and the stress of the domestic conflict. So far, at my modest 100 page distance, that first impression has held up. There is a light layer of exposition and commentary, but most of it is about the characters, rather than about context or abstractions, and the interpersonal complications just keep multiplying.

Of course, here too I can’t help but read knowing how it ends, and so the foreshadowing at every train station is a bit obvious (“She felt that there had been something in it relating personally to her that there should not have been”). But the other thing that’s obvious is that Anna is not Emma, and so I’m caught up in wondering how this very different woman will live out a plot that is in some ways so similar and yet that already feels so different. Keeping in mind that I don’t know Anna very well yet (we’ve only just had a few scenes told from her point of view, for instance), it’s striking that she enters the novel with a warmth and vitality that is totally missing from Emma – no nasty snaky tongue here! It’s true that she seems less benign and charming when she steals Vronsky’s attention away from Kitty (who then uses the unexpectedly harsh term “satanic” for her)–though it isn’t exactly her fault, she enjoys it all a bit too much. Still, the first active thing Anna does in the novel is to effect a reconciliation between Stiva and Dolly: she advocates forgiveness and love, and that seems like a good thing.

The other detail that stood out for me is that while we hear endlessly in Madame Bovary about Emma’s dangerous penchant for reading novels, Anna finds it “unpleasant to read, that is to say, to follow the reflection of other people’s lives. She was too eager to live herself.” As a devoted reader myself, I can hardly endorse or sympathize with her position … and yet, again, this seems like a sign of her vitality. When she does settle in to her reading, it prompts her to reflections on her own life: “‘What am I ashamed of?’ she asked herself with indignant surprise.” Imagine the doctor’s wife (actually, either doctors’ wife!) asking herself this question. Self-reflection — another good thing. Whether it will lead to self-understanding, or, more important, to moral understanding, remains to be seen.