Wednesday, April 9, 2014

What Defines Romance? Love? Pleasure?

This is my second time reading Anna Karenina. Like Professor Herold, I viewed Anna's tryst with Vronsky as highly romantic in my first reading. However, this time, I am coming to despise this affair and romanticizing Levin's courtship with Kitty. I don't know if Tolstoy planned this, but I am sensing a reader's naivete during their first reading (especially -- and only? -- if they don't know the book's ending) changes abruptly upon finishing the novel. In other words, Tolstoy seems to brilliantly carry along young and innnocent readers in the romance of Vronsky and Anna before awaking them to the cruel reality of such an affair in late 19th century Russia. Once this innocence has been stripped, the second reading looks for the signs the innocent reader had overlooked in the first reading: signs of trouble, and other relationships to take solace in. To a large extent, and which I have rarely -- if ever -- encountered in another work, Tolstoy wrote this work to be read multiple times.
The above paragraph regarding romance could also be applied to the reader's view of Stepan Oblonksy. However, this man is much more difficult to hate or love wholeheartedly: he is neither tragically naive (as Pierre was in War and Peace?) nor absolutely loathsome (as Anatole or Karenin are?). Interestingly, I see more nuance in Stepan's character than in any of the romantic relations. For me, nuance signals humanity in its essence: does Stepan represent the reality of humanity? Are Levin and Karenin too diametrically opposed to be realistic men? Now I wonder if Stepan, as the man whose thoughts we get the least of in Anna Karenina, is the ideal: the other men's thoughts are not especially enviable or even interesting. The same pattern was arguably seen in War and Peace: Nicholas ended up as the protagonist, and he was the man whose thoughts we read the least.   


  1. Although I am not a fan of the Anna/Vronsky affair, I also find fault with Kitty and Levin, especially now that they are married. Levin is stymied by his inferiority complex; it prevented him from speaking to Kitty for years after she refused him, and now even in their marriage he cannot be happy because he believes he is unworthy of her. Kitty reminds me more and more of Natasha in her insistence to travel with Levin to see Nikolai despite Levin clearly not wanting her to go. Her way of dealing with death (to pretend that Nikolai will get better) seems very naive to me, although I suppose her youthful naievete is part of the reason Levin is attracted to her; she is everything he is not. I do not think that they can realistically expect perfect family tranquility when they are both very different.

    As for Stiva, I think that though he is far from ideal,he is probably one of the most realistic and likeable characters. He loves his wife and children, but is unable to contain his wandering eye. He is clearly imperfect, but in a way, I think the reader likes him more because of his infidelities.

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  3. That is a very interesting take on Kitty and Levin's marriage. Where you believed Kitty was too insistent I believe she was asserting her role as Levin's wife. I don't want to play the devil's advocate here, but I don't think Tolstoy believed in perfect family tranquility. However, I don't believe Kitty and Levin are quite so disparate; it is hard to compare them when they've had very different life paths. Kitty does seem naive, but she doesn't seem to behave particularly poorly (i.e. she doesn't make bad decisions). I'm intrigued by your opinion of Stiva: if the novel were set in a later time period, would you condone his infidelities? Perhaps our society is too unrealistically polygamist, but there's something unfair in Anna and Stiva getting away with their pleasures and passions while Dolly and Karenin, the faithful ones, are left to suffer.