Sunday, March 25, 2012

What could have been

I've already expressed my confusion at the fact that the two main characters only actually cross paths once in the novel via discussion questions. But since it was an event that made me think  a lot about the course the novel would and could take, I felt the need to emphasize it more.

None of the relationships in the novel seem to work out to well. Kitty and Levin does to an extent, but it still feels like there's something wrong. The novel just seems to be based on various stages of bad relationships.

The meeting between Anna and Levin made me think they could have made it work. They both seem to want the same thing – love, and they both seem fairly similar in their core character traits. They’re both intelligent, (moderately) sincere and each in their own way a pariah of society. I feel that if they had met sooner the novel would have had a much more content, and possibly boring, conclusion.

And in the light of Levin being modeled on the author himself, it made me wonder if perhaps Tolstoy was caught up in a similar situation. And if so, did he develop the plot line as it actually was or did he try to gauge what could have been? What do you think?

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Tolstoy and The Pre-Raphaelites

I know I already mentioned this in class but I would like to show a few images of Pre-Raphaelite paintings that especially reminded me of Anna Karenina. The Pre-Raphaelites started in 1848 in England and are mentioned in the novel several times, even scoffed at. The group started with archaic subject matters and then moved on to landscapes and realist images of social happenings. Many of the scenes in Anna Karenina center around unhappy women, tragic love and displays of wealth—all topics that this art movement portrayed in their context of Victorian England. In the 1860s, Daniel Gabriel Rossetti, one of the founding members, focused on Elizabeth Siddall, a model friend, and much of his work focused on women. Much of his work portrays Siddall as a helpless, passive and sad woman and reminds me of Anna's relationship with Vronsky.
The similarities between Pre-Raphaelitism and Tolstoy seemed so related that I searched online and actually found some helpful pages. John Ruskin, an English art critic and painter himself who worked with and influenced the original three member Pre-Raphaelite group, was a figure that influenced Tolstoy as well. The author thought of Ruskin as a hugely significant figure and even followed his work and writings on modern technology and developments—a big theme of the Pre-Raphaelites. So they are connected!
Institutionalized moral and Anna Karenina

Moral can be individualized or social and as such institutionalized. Once moral is institutionalized, it has a tendency to limit individual behavior in an implicit but powerful way. Outside legal system, institutionalized moral is the only thing left to the “audience or public” to base their judgment about one’s actions. Can we today, from this temporal and ideological distance, even pretend to understand the actions of Anna Karenina?
We can think of the commonly used classification of institutionalized moral such as ethical minimum and ethical maximum. Most people are not willing to go any further than the ethical minimum, while ethical maximum may be seen as an ideal. Did Anna exit from the sphere of ethical minimum? Based on the prevailing ethical norms of the 19th century Russia, the answer seems to be yes. While her flirting with Vronsky initially may be seen as acceptable or even stylish by Russian aristocracy at the time, her divorce and leaving her son may not be (even if it is legal). The question truly is: Why is flirting of a married woman within the boundaries of ethical minimum but divorcing is not? Institutionalized moral indeed is difficult to grasp at times.
Living in a society and at a time where and when two thirds of marriages are divorced, the institution of marriage seems to be a very “fluid” category. And, true passion and love are rarely the reasons for the divorce. Can we then really appreciate the level of emotion and passion, sacrifice and self-distraction exhibited by both Anna Karenina and Alexei Vronsky? I beg the answer is no. But for sure we can pass judgments from our armchairs based on the unachievable ethical maximum while living our lives based on ever declining ethical minimum of today and here.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Oprah's Anna

           As we wrap up the book, I’m curious what you all think about how the book has been advertised. The 2000 Penguin edition translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky has a very romantic cover (romantic is a kind word-- I've yet to see how hydrangeas and knees fit into the story). The 1981 Bantam Classic edition I brought from home has a more topical cover bearing a portrait of a sad rich lady (boo hoo) and describes the book as “A magnificent drama of vengeance, infidelity, and retribution” and “the moving story of people whose emotions conflict with the dominant social mores of the time.” For a truly bizarre (in my opinion) take on the book, skim the Oprah’s Book Club page, which describes Anna Karenina as “An extremely sexy and engrossing read, this book tells the tale of one of the most enthralling love affairs in the history of literature—it truly was the "Harlequin Romance" of its day.”
            I guess it’s just surprising to me that these descriptions of the book are so sympathetic to the emotional drama of the characters (particularly Anna), since for me at least, none of the characters are particularly likeable. In fact, I find myself especially disliking Anna, who the back of my book describes as “a woman who dares to transgress the strictures of a patriarchal world.” To me, the most compelling part of this book has not been the relationship drama, but rather the way that Tolstoy presents Russia on the cusp of European “progress,” posing questions about the monumental social changes that occurred between Pushkin’s time and the Russian Revolution. How would Russia fare in this transition—how much culture could it retain while responding to the changing world around it? Most importantly, what would it give up? This question is especially interesting when applied to the nobility we see in Anna Karenina, whose privilege in some ways may be coming to an end. 
            Is Oprah right? Is the book primarily a portrait of human passion and suffering? I haven’t read it that way, but the readers of the approximately 900,000 copies of Anna Karenina sold after Oprah's endorsement may have been led to think differently. In short, what do you think is valuable about the novel, and do you find descriptions like Bantam's and Oprah's as jarring as I did?
Razumihin versus Raskolnikov – Reason versus Split (Personality)
            In Crime and Punishment, a profound contrast in personality, life philosophy and ideology is presented through the characters of Razumihin and Raskolnikov. Razumihin’s name is based on word “razum,” which when translated to English suggests reason, unlike Raskolnikov whose name based on word ”raskol” suggests split (personality, in this case). In other words, Razumihin tries to reason, think and debate with both him and others about actions of others or state of the world. Raskolnikov, on the other hand, holds strong beliefs and acts accordingly only to be haunted later, after the fact, by his inner voices of reason or faith.
Razumihin is, just like Raskolnikov, in a difficult financial situation. However, he tries to work hard and make sacrifices to escape from that reality and so prove that, for a man, there is no hopeless situation. He also debates with the view of socialists, accepted by Raskolnikov that a crime is a protest against immorality of the social system and as such acceptable. Moreover, Razumihin is skeptical about the perfect social system, praised by Raskolnikov, designed by a genius mathematician who could create just and sinless humanity, oblivious to any living process or historical heritage.
            When the environment begins to have doubts about Raskolnikov being the killer, even then

Razumihin is trying to reason and find an argument to defend him. Indeed, passing quick judgment is not in

his nature even when facts are fairly obvious. Yet, he is able after some reflection to come to his own

conclusion that his consciousness cannot accept and allow human blood on his hands for some fantastic

idealistic reasons. That is also contrasted to Raskolnikov who defends such position rather fanatically.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Passion vs. Rationality

I want to talk about the aborted relationship between Varenka and Levin’s half-brother, Sergei Ivanovich. 

We’ve talked in class about how Anna and Levin suffer from being too passionate.  Anna’s romance with Vronsky is based purely on her desire for excitement and on physical attraction.  I don’t see much that resembles love there, especially now that she is so worried about staying young-looking in order to keep his attention.

Levin always acts on his emotions, which makes his attempts at rational debates with his brother somewhat incoherent and hard to follow.  As Sydney was saying in her post, he lets his emotions get out of control and exaggerate the situations he finds himself in, even when he knows that he’s wrong, as in the confrontation with Veslovsky.

But Anna and Levin both have passion, so they’ve both found romances.

With Varenka and Sergei Ivanovich, they both feel that they love each other, but to me it seemed that they lacked passion.  Both Varenka and Sergei Ivanovich, but I think particularly Segei Ivanovich, let their rational sides silence their passionate sides, so in their moment alone neither of them is able to make the leap that would allow their romance to blossom. 

So, while Anna is clearly being punished for letting herself be ruled by passion, and Levin seems to suffer under his flurry of emotions, Tolstoy seems to be showing that a lack of passion won’t lead to happiness, either.
Do we see any characters walking the middle road in this novel?
I think Kitty might be one, but I’m not sure.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Burning Up the Miles

There are roughly 400 miles between Petersburg and Moscow. While that may not seem too impressive, many of our characters in Anna Karenina make the trip again and again, bouncing between the two. After just 3 round trips you have the equivalent of a San Francisco to New York, or 1/10th the circumference of the earth. Throw in an Italian adventure, a healing trip for Kitty, and frequent countryside vacations and you have a book full of motion. 

Except, in this particular case, I am not entirely sure that you do. As a fan of travel stories I have always felt that the act of being in motion changes how people think and interact. The simple act of moving together keeps you alert and provides a barrage of new views and shared experiences. It is different in every way from meeting one another in the study or over the daily tea. Unfortunately, I feel as though Tolstoy ignores what must nonetheless be important experiences for his characters. One particular example that comes to mind is Anna and Vronksy as they go abroad. At the end of Part 4 we are told that they are off. The next time Tolstoy brings us to them we hear "For three months Vronsky and Anna had been travelling together in Europe. They had visited Venice, Rome, Naples and had just arrived in a small Italian town..." (459). It seems unfair to see the characters only as they settle into this town at the end of their journey, and to miss out on the actual adventuring. But this is a recurring theme. Karenin will leave for Moscow or Petersburg at the end of one chapter and later we will see him in the other place. On the smaller scale, carriages will pluck up a character or two, only to have them reappear elsewhere. It's as though Tolstoy hates writing about people in motion.

This is a far cry from our previous novels. Hero of Our Time and Captain's Daughter are motion-fueled, and even Fathers and Sons builds up Arkady and Bazarov's relationship as they travel together. Crime and Punishment works on the small scale, where our hero staggers around the streets constantly. Which brings me to a second complaint. Beyond being vital to how people think and interact, it is easier to follow stories with a bit more motion. It gives just a bit of fuel for the imagination as you follow the story in your mind, and offers up a bit of variety that, at least for me, aids memory of when and where characters are in particular places. 

Given the widespread appreciation for Anna Karenina, am I far off base in thinking that we might understand the characters better if we were involved in their physical motions rather than only their social ones? I'm curious if this fact has colored anyone else's reading of the novel.

Levin: Unstable and Unreal

     Levin seems to be an incredibly bipolar character. He bounces from elation and pure bliss to despair and depression almost instantly, with the tiniest of conflicts tipping him one way or another. While reading about his emotional swings, on one hand I sympathize with his feelings--he usually seems to have a (at least partially) legitimate reason for being upset, but he always lets himself dramatize the situation in his head until he is no longer upset by a real event but rather an escalated, dramatized version of the event that he created in his head.

     Reading this, I wonder where this is going. Is he going to snap? Frankly, I was surprised that everyone made it through that hunting expedition alive. I was half expecting him to kill Veslovsky. Do you think that Levin will lose his temper and do something stupid? Or do you think he will gain control of his emotions and pull himself together eventually?

    Additionally, I wonder why Tolstoy makes Levin, the character that transparently represents Tolstoy himself, this crazy. So far, I think Levin is the only character in this book that is so utterly ridiculous that I can't picture his character as a real person. It seems strange that his character is so unbelievable when he is actually the character who is clearly modeled after a real person.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Superfluous superfluous superfluous

A theme consistent throughout the Russian literature we have read is the superfluous man. We have discussed this topic a lot in class, and pretty much beaten it to death. But I want to bring it up once again. This is going to be a summary type of post, maybe with some analysis thrown in.

We first saw the superfluous man in The Captain's Daughter with Pyotr. He's a wealthy, ignorant (to begin with) officer in the military whose goal is simply to be with the girl he loves. He manages to avoid properly fighting for his own army while maintaining neutrality with the enemy. He doesn't produce anything for the greater good of society, except maybe his memoirs. Pyotr is superfluous, but he is in a position as an officer where he could be of distinct use to his country if he was so inclined.

Next we meet Pechorin, the anti-hero superfluous man. He is a military officer as well, but he doesn't seem to really have any true responsibilities. Unlike Pyotr, most of his time is spent not being in love with people and telling the reader just how much he doesn't love people. He contributes absolutely nothing to the greater good, except maybe his journals.

In Fathers and Children we have more than one superfluous man. The prime example is Pavel. The majority of his life was spent in pursuit of a woman who didn't even love him back. The men in Fathers and Children illustrate the path the Russian novel has taken from the adventure of military life to a focus on domesticity.

At this point, it seems that all of the authors are writing for the nobility of Russia (the only people who were truly literate) about topics that they could relate to. This trend doesn't disappear after this, but we see a change with Dostoevsky' Crime and Punishment. Despite the shift away from adventure and the military, the Russian novel still refuses to break from the theme of the superfluous man.

Raskolnikov is different from the previously observed types of superfluous men. He isn't part of the nobility, he hasn't ever had any real job, and he lives in poverty. He is interesting because he doesn't think that he is superfluous (hence his theory of exceptional men), but he doesn't do anything for society except think about it. At leas Pechorin seems to understand that he is superfluous, but Raskolnikov is blind to it.

Lastly we see Vronsky, who starts off as a very classical military officer superfluous man to a artistic/romantic superfluous man. As a military officer his duties seem to be keeping everyone entertained. As a romantic, his time is spent avoiding getting bored. Vronsky's character seems to be the best amalgamation (I'm pretty sure that's the right word) of all the different superfluous men we have seen. He has the military bearing and wealth of Pyotr, the boredom of Pechorin, the throwing-it-all-away-for-love of Pavel, and he has the total uselessness of Raskolnikov. It seems that Russian novels are written by taking the idea of the superfluous man and putting him in different situations to see what happens.

Both the readers and the authors of these books (for the most part) could relate to superfluous men, so it makes sense that it is an important theme. Also, stories about people who have to work all day everyday are boring, so it is simply more interesting to read about than other types of characters.

Now I hope you guys are as tired of reading the word 'superfluous' as I am of writing it...

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Tears and Jam

Even in translation, Tolstoy's sentences leave those of the writers we've read so far--and probably those of any writer anyone will read--seeming crippled, anemic, asthmatic. It took me until part 2 to really notice the incredible motion, the athleticism, of his sentences: they are almost scenes unto themselves. A few examples:

" 'Well, bonne chance,' she added, giving Vronsky a free finger of the hand holding her fan, and lowering the slightly ridden-up bodice of her dress with a movement of her shoulders, so as to be well and properly naked when she stepped out to the foot of the stage under the gaslight's and everyone's eyes"(131).

"The dairymaids, hitching up their skirts, their bare, white, as yet untanned legs splashing in the mud, ran with switches after the calves and drove them, lowing and crazed with spring joy, into the yard"(153).

"Seeing their mother, they were frightened, but peering into her face, they understood that they were doing a good thing, laughed, and their mouths full of cake, began wiping their smiling lips with their hands smearing tears and jam all over their beaming faces"(264).

The ridden-up dress, the untanned legs, the tears and jam--these details are lively by themselves, but Tolstoy doesn't simply present them to us: he moves them around, changes them, makes them part of a mini-scene. That is: Betsy's shoulders lower her dress; the white legs splash and run (we can picture, too, the dark mud on the white legs); and the children smear the tears and jam across their faces. These sentences--along with many, many others in the novel--begin in one place and end in another. They do this on the level of the images they describe but also, in the case of the last one, on the level of the character's perception. At the start of the sentence, the children are scared; then they have a little epiphany; then they laugh and smile, their faces still wet with tears. And all while chewing.

Characters are always moving in the novel--even the smallest scenes are full of cracking knuckles, trembling hands, nervous fingers--but somehow this movement is most powerful when condensed into a sentence. And when Tolstoy condenses it, he is often doing so to convey a change in his characters' perceptions--those many mini epiphanies. This is because Tolstoy is interested in those moments when we see the world differently, when everything changes--or at least seems like it does. Even after that charming scene with the tears and jam, a little bad behavior from her children "suddenly destroyed for Darya Alexandrovna all that day's happiness and pride"(271). That is a trivial example compared to Anna's sudden perception of her husband's ugly ears, or Karenin's own brief change of heart. Levin is perhaps most susceptible to epiphany, and after his engagement to Kitty his perception of the world is transformed--"in particular it was him, Levin, that they all loved so much that night"(400). He becomes astoundingly self-absorbed.

Tolstoy's sentences are still themselves very dynamic--"a boy ran up to a pigeon and, smiling, looked at Levin; the pigeon flapped its wings and fluttered off, sparkling in the sun amidst the air trembling with snowdust, while the smell of baked bread wafted form the window as the rolls appeared in it"--but as a whole, in this section, they freeze time. They mirror Levin's self absorption by becoming haltingly absorbed in details. Is epiphany really so dynamic after all? Perhaps the sentence itself, like Tolstoy's characters, has its limits of perception and change.

Like-Minded Couples

While Kitty is away at the spa recovering from the heartbreak brought upon by Vronsky and coming to terms with her feelings concerning Levin, she comes across Varenka, who Kitty ends up loving for her modesty and simplicity.  I would like to point out the similarities between Varenka and Levin. Both Levin and Varenka are orphans, underestimate their potential value in terms of relationships, have both been rejected by those they were in love with, and both shy away from society and attention. Varenka and Levin can be seen as mirror characters, and it is symbolic that Kitty would come across and love a mirror of Levin during this time of heartbreak recovery.
Even more interesting, Kitty attempts to imitate Varenka, and therefore she is also imitating Levin. In class, we have touched on people in relationships being of “like minds” and this seems to cement Kitty and Levin as a pair. However, in the end, Kitty halts her attempts to be like Varenka. How does this fit into the idea of like-minded couples within the novel? Perhaps these couples are not as like-minded as we thought. The other couple whose relationship is based on love and mutual attraction, Anna and Vronsky, I see as very different in terms of personality and all the spouses of this generation are very different from each other and unhappy.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Women's Emancipation and Marriage

In chapter 10 of part 4, a group of male characters discusses the issue of women's rights and women's emancipation. Among them are Stepan Arkadyich and Alexei Alexandrovich. These characters each express opposing views on the subject. While Alexei Alexandrovich appears to believe that the question of women's emancipation is pernicious, Stepan Arkadyich expresses the contrasting opinion that women's emancipation might be a good thing and he suggests that women will most likely be very capable of doing many of the jobs that men typically do.

It is interesting these characters hold these competing views on women's emancipation when we consider each of their conduct with regard to their wives. Stepan Arkadyich, who cheated on his own wife, holds the more progressive view and Alexei Alexandrovich whose wife left him for another man holds a more conservative opinion about women's emancipation.

It seems as though each character's personal experience with their wives must somehow influence their opinion the issue of women's emancipation. In the case of Alexei Alexandrovich, the conservative position seems pretty natural. He feels deceived and quite possibly threatened by his wife and other women so he would want to maintain women's subjection.

How Stepan Arkadyich's experience with his wife has influenced his views on emancipation is less clear. His decision to have an affair with another woman doesn't really seem to bear at all on his idea that women would serve just as well in traditionally male roles. Maybe, then, these two character's difference in opinion lies not in their personal experience with women but in a generational difference. Stepan is supposed to be around 30 and is described as a liberal at numerous points throughout the book and Alexei is supposed to be around 50 (I believe). It is possible that this difference in age accounts for their difference in opinion. Regardless, I still think it it is interesting to relate their ideas on emancipation to their own actions...

Levin & Russia

In class we discussed how Levin's character reflects Tolstoy's because of his wildness and his determination to improve himself. I think we can draw another interesting parallel between Levin's character and the sentiment of the Russian nation during this time.

Compared to almost all of the other characters, Levin is portrayed as the most Russian because of his beard, his love of farming and his preference for the country. On page 350, he even becomes "disgusted with himself" for using non-Russian words.

Throughout the novel, we see Levin coming into contact with more Western ideas (like communism) and characters (like Oblonsky). As he tries to process these influences and situate them within his own personal philosophy, Levin fluctuates between experiencing overwhelming self-doubt and intense pride. Similarly, as new methods of transportation began to connect Russia to the west, the country became more self-conscious of its backwardness and equally aware of the uniqueness of its spread-out, agricultural society. I think the dichotomy between Russian self-doubt and self-confidence is particularly evident in the scenes at the European spa. While Kitty and her mother try to act more European and even feel shame for Nikolai when he acts as a sloppy representation of Russia, the Prince exaggerates his Russian qualities and rejects European behavior.

If we accept Levin as a symbol of Russia for his wildness and the moments he alternates between self-doubt and confidence, we are using the same justification that connects him to Tolstoy. This has interesting implications for Tolstoy's presentation of himself, since he's clearly proud of his Russian-ness. This could explain why he seems more sympathetic to the more Russian characters, like Levin and the Prince.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

“Vengeance is mine, I will repay.”

“Vengeance is mine, I will repay.” This line is the opening statement in the novel Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, who sets the mood right away. Interestingly, we as readers do not know whom “I” refers to in the statement, or to whom it was meant. However, it is clear that someone will pay for whatever the “act” has been committed. Thus far in the novel, we can see that there are many motifs that have emerged, which could lead “the speaker” or Tolstoy in this case to want vengeance. The most important of these is the motif of infidelity, or also adultery. From the very first chapter of the novel, the motif of adultery has been present to the reader. Right from the start, the reader finds out about Stiva, Anna’s brother was unfaithful to his wife Dolly. In this novel, unfaithfulness has caused families to be broken apart and lives to be ruined. It has been the cause of the downfall of many of the characters in the novel. However, this downfall has been caused by their actions and mistakes.

In this case the infidelity is predominantly evident in the love affair between Vronsky and Anna. From their very first encounter at the train station, it was clear to the reader that this relationship was destined for destruction. Their relationship takes on a very deceptive and superficial quality. Vronsky knew from the very beginning about Anna’s marital status, yet this did not dissuade his attraction to her, or his persuasion. It is important to note that it is Vronsky’s frivolous nature that is responsible for his inability to fully love Anna with the passion that she desperately needs from him. Vronsky initially believes that he loves Anna, but Tolstoy shows the reader that Vronsky’s love for her is noy absolute, not complete. His love is not based upon firm emotional commitment, and it is easily questioned and redefined through the novel. Eventually, Anna’s love becomes burdensome to him, mainly because he remains steeped in the pursuit of his own freedom and pleasures, without placing importance of Anna’s tormented existence. Vronsky begins a relationship that he is not ready for, and he is dishonest with himself with his true intentions. Throughout the novel, Vronsky believes that he can love Anna in the “right way,” yet he fails to find solution to their situation and in serious situation he dismisses the whole issue. This example is demonstrated when he found out for the first time that Anna is pregnant.

While reading this novel, I could not help but think that Tolstoy tries to suggest that Vronsky’s and Anna’s relationship will be destroyed not by outside party/forces but by their own hands. They will cause their own destruction. But also, to some extent, it seems that like Tolstoy wants them to pay for the betrayal and dishonesty.