Thursday, December 11, 2014

"Anna Karenina" KARENIN'S EARS

"Karenin." Illustration of the novel by K. Rudakov, 1940-1945

(6) Karenin's Ears

Tolstoy's habit of viewing his characters through certain physical characteristics is best exemplified by his treatment of Aleksei Aleksandrovich Karenin, who is, in the literal sense, "all ears." Here is how Anna, his wife, sees him upon her return from Moscow:

"At Petersburg, as soon as the train stopped and she got out, the first person who attracted her attention was her husband. "Oh, my God, why do his ears look like that?" she thought, looking at his frigid and distinguished figure, and especially at the cartilage that struck her at the moment as propping up the brim of his round hat. Catching sight of her, he came to meet her, his lips falling into their habitual mocking smile, and his big tired eyes looking straight at her. An unpleasant sensation gripped at her heart when she met his obstinate and weary glance, as though she had expected to see him different. She was especially struck by the feeling of dissatisfaction with herself that she experienced on meeting him. That feeling was an intimate, familiar feeling, like a consciousness of hypocrisy, which she experienced in her relations with her husband. But hitherto she had not taken note of that feeling, and now she was clearly and painfully aware of it" (Part I, Ch. 30, p. 110).

"Akh, Bozhe moi! otchego u nego stali takie ushi?" ("Why are his ears like that?") Why is this an especially appropriate thing for Anna to think at this particular point in the novel? Because she has returned from Moscow, where she met Vronsky, and is now a different person. As she is completely absorbed by her new passion for Vronsky, it is only natural for her to take notice of a rather discordant physical feature in her dry and passionless husband.

Karenin's ears have always stuck out the same way, but only after she falls in love with Vronsky do they really stand out that way for her! In reading the rest of this chapter, female readers often identify positively with Anna; they may even be prepared to condone her adultery. Note the way that Karenin receives his wife back home, after her absence. In his dry, lifeless way he is anticipating enjoyment of the conjugal bed. But duty calls, and first of all he is off to the ministry on business. Then, upon his return home, he signs papers, receives petitioners. He does not even deviate from his usual habit of reading before bed.

"Precisely at twelve o'clock," he comes to Anna and informs her that (in accord with his daily routine) it is now time for bed (and, presumably, conjugal pleasures)--p.119. Anna's revulsion at the thought of her duty is clearly implied, and most readers, at this juncture in the novel, would sympathize with her.

From this point on Anna views her husband no longer as a human being, but as a big pair of ears. Just before the famous steeplechase scene (p.216) Karenin drives up in his carriage, and Anna, glancing out the window, "caught sight of the carriage and the black hat of Aleksei Aleksandrovich, and the ears she knew so well, sticking up on each side of it." When you make a person into a thing, or a pair of ears, you dehumanize the person. Then it is easy to justify your acting in an unconscionable way toward that thing or those ears. When those ears say, "I am your husband and I love you," the natural reaction is "How can a pair of ears know what love is?"

The actual conversation goes a bit differently, but the point is the same. Anna thinks, "Love? Can he love? If he hadn't heard there was such a word as love, he would never have used the word. He doesn't even know what love is" (156).

Tuesday, December 9, 2014


Tolstoy House Museum in Moscow

(5) Tolstoy's Alter Ego Lyovin. Fascination with Physical Details

Konstantin Lyovin is the character in "Anna Karenina" who most resembles Tolstoy himself. Stiva Oblonsky is his old friend, and he enjoys watching Stiva eat oysters, but his staid, almost puritanical nature will not allow him to really enjoy oysters himself. Tolstoy the puritan frowns upon sensuality and would refute Stiva's idea that the aim of civilization is "to make everything a source of enjoyment" (p.40). Lyovin agrees with Tolstoy.

Lyovin represents Tolstoy's belief in good hard work in a rural environment, duty to wife and children, and condemnation of pleasure for its own sake. He prefers cabbage soup (schchi) and buckwheat kasha to oysters and is offended by what he sees as extravagance in the pampering of the body. He likes to get out and dirty his hands with the hard labor of agricultural work (as we shall see later when we treat the famous mowing scene).

Tolstoy, who is not known for writing comic scenes, is, for all that, quite good at describing the comic side of Lyovin. We get a good idea of this rather awkward country squire's personality at his first appearance in the book, when he gazes in horrified fascination at the long fingers of the effete Grinevich:

"Lyovin was silent, looking at the unknown faces of Oblonsky's two companions, and especially at the hand of the elegant Grinevich, which had such long white fingers, such long yellow nails curving at the ends, and such huge shining cuff links that apparently they absorbed his attention completely, leaving him no freedom of thought. Oblonsky noticed this at once, and smiled."

[Next Oblonsky introduces Lyovin to his friends]:

"I have the honor of knowing your brother, Sergei Ivanovich," said Grinevich, holding out his slender hand with its long nails.
Lyovin frowned, shook hands coldly, and at once turned to Oblonsky."

[a page later, still speaking to Oblonsky]:

"'Yes, later, but I wanted to see you,' said Lyovin, looking with hatred at Grinevich's hand. Stepan Arkadyevich gave a scarcely perceptible smile."
(p. 21-22)

Later in the novel (much later--p. 597) Lyovin is faced with another pampered aristocrat, the young dandy Vasenka Veslovsky, who comes to visit his estate. This time Lyovin is disconcerted by Vasenka's fat leg:

"'Please, let's go,' said Veslovsky, moving to another chair, where he sat down sideways, with one fat leg tucked under him.
'I shall be delighted, we will go. And have you had any shooting yet this year?' said Lyovin to Veslovsky, looking intently at his leg, but speaking with that forced amiability that Kitty knew so well in him. . . "

This scene goes on for some time, and, flustered over that leg, and over what he sees as Veslovsky's undue attention to his wife Kitty, Lyovin ends up throwing poor Vasenka off the estate.

As is one side of Tolstoy himself, Lyovin is embarrassed by the very physical nature of the human body. Throughout his whole life Tolstoy (his puritanical side) railed against human physicality and sensuality. As if to say, "Why do we human beings have to be such animals?" A special problem for him was sexuality. Late in life it became an obsession.

In another highly comic scene poor Lyovin gets himself into a real state when visiting the Sviazhsky family. Sviazhsky's sister-in-law is of marriageable age, and she comes out wearing a low-cut dress. Embarrassed and confused, Lyovin imagines that the decolletage has been effected precisely for his benefit, and he, "in an agony of embarrassment," cannot keep the conversation going (p.347-48).

With his fascination (and sometimes revulsion) for the human body, Tolstoy is especially good at describing physical details and characterizing people by repeatedly mentioning such details. As we have already seen, Stiva Oblonsky is always described jutting out his chest and smiling. Lyovin's brother Nikolai twitches his shoulder all the time. Already in his first work of fiction, "Childhood," Tolstoy was using this device. The prototype of Veslovsky's fat leg is already there in the German tutor, and the father of the story has the twitching shoulder.

And then, of course, the stodgy Karenin has the EARS.

Monday, December 8, 2014


Tolstoy with His Family, Yasnaya Polyana, 1892

(4) Stiva, Monogamy, and Oysters

"Anna Karenina" treats a wide variety of themes, but its central theme is Marriage and Family. Taken as a whole the novel represents a lengthy defense of the monogamous marriage, but Stiva Oblonsky, while he certainly believes in marriage, does not believe in monogamy.

In accord with liberal thinking of his time he sees marriage as an archaic institution. "Family life certainly afforded Stepan Arkadyevich little gratification, and it forced him into lying and hypocrisy, which were so repulsive to his nature" (p.9). As he tells his friend Lyovin, "A man must be independent; he has his masculine interests. A man has to be manly," and the family should not get in his way while he is, so to speak, "being manly": out eating well and pursuing servant girls, governesses, and ballet dancers (p. 617).

Late in the novel, in speaking of his attempts to secure a divorce from Karenin for his sister Anna, Stiva speaks of the marriage rite as that "stupid old ceremony," with its "walking round and round and singing Rejoice, O Isaiah! that no one believes in and that stands in the way of the happiness of people" (p. 723-4). This argument, this refutation of the institution of marriage is still around today. In fact, in many ways this nineteenth century novel is highly contemporaneous with our times, since it raises issues that have never been resolved.

In Stiva's final appearance in the novel he is in a train station, with all the characters in the novel, minus one, who were present in the first train-station scene (p. 63-71--much more on this later). His beloved sister Anna is dead, he has squandered a good deal more of his wife's assets, but he is still beaming with happiness.

We can look at the unchanged Stiva in one of two ways. First, his incorrigible personality, his inability to learn the error of his ways and change for the better demonstrates the perpetual continuity of human vulgarity and philistinism. After all, don't we know people like Stiva who are living around us today?

But then, perhaps, we prefer the second way of viewing Stiva. He walks around beaming, jutting out his chest, wafting goodwill. He revels in life, enjoys it to the hilt. In some ways Stiva is a figure who arouses more optimism than any other character in the book. We condemn his amorality and his selfishness, but, simultaneously, we enjoy having him around. We enjoy watching people enjoy life. We take pleasure, as Lyovin does early in the novel, in the very act of watching Stiva eat oysters. Stiva is the kind of person people enjoy watching eating oysters:

"Stepan Arkadyevich crushed the starchy napkin, tucked it into his vest, and, settling his arms comfortably, started on the oysters.
'Not bad,' he said, stripping the oysters from the pearly shells with a silver fork and swallowing them, one after another.'"Not bad,' he repeated, turning his dewy, brilliant eyes from Lyovin to the Tartar [the waiter].
Lyovin ate the oysters, though white bread and cheese would have pleased him better. But he was admiring Oblonsky. Even the Tartar, uncorking the bottle and pouring the sparkling wine into the thin, wide glasses, glanced at Stepan Arkadyevich and settled his white cravat with a perceptible smile of satisfaction." (Part One, Ch. 9, p. 39)

Tolstoy is a master at depicting sensual pleasure. Yet, simultaneously, he frowns upon indulgence in the sensual. Ever the sensual anti-sensualist and the the anti-sensual sensualist, Tolstoy, as we shall see, goes round and round inside his mind.


(3) Stiva in the 1870s

Like nearly all of the great Russian realists, Tolstoy is intent on describing the Russia of his time in his novels. "Anna Karenina" is set in the 1870s, and Stiva is a typical member of the Russian landowning nobility of that time. One scene in particular, Stiva's sale of a tract of land to the merchant Ryabinin (p.178-81--Part Two, Ch. 16) illustrates how Russian landowners behaved, to the detriment of their own interests.

Stiva's sale of his wife's wooded property is typical of the way he squanders his resources in order to maintain his present life of luxury. Note that Ryabinin, who represents the rise of a new, shrewd and grasping merchant class in Russia of the last half of the nineteenth century, chisels Stiva out of this land--acquires it at a very low price.

Typical of the landed gentry, Stiva considers it beneath his dignity as a nobleman to concern himself with such vulgar matters as the proper price for a piece of land. Throughout the nineteen century, owing precisely to such attitudes, the Russian landed gentry was in decline. Stiva, and those like him, are destined to end up mortgaging their land and eventually losing their landed estates. This situation will later be the main theme of Chekhov's play, "The Cherry Orchard."

Long novels have one advantage over short stories. In long novels the author has the time and space to show the development of his characters--in short stories he does not. But over 800 pages the character of Stiva, nonetheless, never changes. The financial status of the character, however, does change. He manages perpetually not to worry about this, but his wife Dolly does. Luck seems always to be with Stiva. The final time he appears in the novel he is still his same happy-go-lucky self. It is always interesting to speculate about what will happen after the action of a novel is concluded.

If Stiva's luck holds (and it always seems to hold), he will probably drop dead of a heart attack at age 55-60, leaving huge debts for his son Grisha to deal with.

Tolstoy, Moscow, 1885

Sunday, December 7, 2014


Lev Tolstoy, Moscow, 1862, photo by M.B. Tulinov


Citations are from the Modern Library Edition, Constance Garnett translation, revised by Leonard Kent and Nina Berberova

Part One, Ch. One

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Everything was in confusion in the Oblonsky household. The wife had discovered that the husband was carrying on an affair with their former French governess, and she had announced to her husband that she could not go on living in the same house with him. The situation had now lasted three days, and not only the husband and wife, but also all the members of their family and household, were painfully conscious of it. Every person in the house felt that there was no sense in their living together, and that people who met by chance in any inn had more in common with one another than they did, the members of the Oblonsky family and household. The wife did not leave her own room; the husband had not been home for three days. The children ran wild all over the house; the English governess quarreled with the housekeeper, and wrote to a friend, asking her to look out for a new position for her; the chef had walked out the day before just at dinnertime; the servants' cook and the coachman had given notice.

Three days after the quarrel, Prince Stepan Arkadyevich Oblonsky--Stiva as he was called in society--woke up at his usual hour, that is, at eight o'clock in the morning, not in his wife's bedroom, but on the morocco leather sofa in his study. He turned his plump, pampered body on the springy sofa, as though he would sink into a long sleep again; he vigorously embraced the pillow on the other side and buried his face in it; but all at once he jumped up, sat up on the sofa, and opened his eyes.

"Yes, yes, how was it now?" he thought, going over his dream. "Now, how was it? To be sure! Alabin was giving a dinner at Darmstadt; no, not Darmstadt, but something American. Yes, but then Darmstadt was in America. Yes, Alabin was giving a dinner on glass tables, and the tables sang Il mio tesoro--not Il mio tesoro, though, but something better, and there were some sort of little decanters on the table, and they were women, too," he remembered.

Stepan Arkadyevich's eyes twinkled gaily, and he pondered with a smile. "Yes, it was nice, very nice. There was a great deal more that was delightful, only there's no putting it into words, or even expressing it in one's thoughts once awake." And noticing a gleam of light peeping in beside one of the wool curtains, he cheerfully dropped his feet over the edge of the sofa and felt about for his slippers, a present on his last birthday, embroidered for him by his wife on gold-colored morocco. And, as he had done every day for the last nine years, he stretched out his hand, without getting up, toward the place where his dressing gown always hung in his bedroom. And thereupon he suddenly remembered that he was not sleeping in his wife's room but in his study, and why. The smile vanished from his face; he knitted his brows.

"Ah, ah, ah! Oo!" he groaned, recalling everything that had happened. And as he recalled every detail of his quarrel with his wife, he realized the hopelessness of his situation, and, most tormenting thought of all, that it was his own fault.

"Yes, she won't forgive me; she can't forgive me. And the most awful thing about it is that it's all my fault--all my fault, though I'm not to blame. That's the point of the whole situation," he reflected. "Oh, oh, oh!" he kept repeating in despair, as he remembered the acutely painful sensations caused him by this quarrel.

Most unpleasant of all was the first minute when, on coming, happy and good-humored, from the theater, with a huge pear in his hand for his wife, he had not found his wife in the drawing room, to his surprise had not found her in the study either, and saw her at last in her bedroom, holding the unfortunate letter that revealed everything.

She, his Dolly, forever fussing and worrying, whom he considered rather simple, was sitting perfectly still with the letter in her hand, looking at him with an expression of horror, despair, and indignation.

"What's this? This?" she asked, pointing to the letter.

And at this recollection, Stepan Arkadyevich, as is so often the case, was not so much annoyed at the fact itself as at the way in which he had reacted to his wife's words.

There happened to him at that instant what happens to people when they are unexpectantly caught in something very disgraceful. He did not succeed in assuming an expression suitable to the position in which he was placed by his wife's discovery of his guilt. Instead of acting hurt, denying, defending himself, begging forgiveness, instead of remaining indifferent (anything would have better than what he did), his face utterly involuntarily (reflex action of the brain, reflected Stepan Arkadyevich, who was fond of physiology)--utterly involuntarily assumed its habitual, good-humored, and therefore foolish smile.

This foolish smile he could not forgive himself. Catching sight of that smile, Dolly shuddered as though in physical pain, broke out with her characteristic passion into a flood of cruel words, and rushed out of the room. Since then she had refused to see her husband.

"It's that idiotic smile that's to blame for it all," thought Stepan Arkadyevich.

"But what's to be done? What's to be done?" he said to himself in despair, and found no answer.


I have cited the whole first chapter because it tells the reader, one who has never read Tolstoy, so much about Tolstoy's methods of characterization. Here too, there are so many nice little touches, all providing inside information on the character of Stiva: his amorality (the affair with the governess), his innate guiltlessness ("it's all my fault, though I'm not to blame"), his serene good humor and fondness for his wife (comes home bringing her a huge pear). The way he has, at any cost, a knack for rationalizing away his bad behavior ("it's the idiotic smile that's to blame").

Stiva will be with us for another 850 pages, but this first chapter already tells us almost everything we need to know about him. It presents a bon vivant whom everyone--reader and writer and all the other characters--should be censuring for his behavior, and whom no one, ultimately censures. Note, e.g., that everyone in the Oblonsky household will be on Stiva's side in this quarrel (see p.8), although they all realize that he is the culprit.

One of the main points here is that Tolstoy is incapable of drawing a totally one-sided character, and this is one of his strengths in everything that he writes. Despite his faults Stiva has a way with people; he makes people feel good. The fact that he is insincere seems not to matter in the least. In the first chapter his main leitmotif of character has not yet appeared: IT IS CHEST JUTTING AND SMILING. He walks about through the novel always jutting out his chest and smiling. When people see that chest and that smile coming at them they feel good.

The obvious contrast in characters is that of Karenin, who, as we later find out, radiates a chill that benumbs anyone in the immediate vicinity. Note the passage in Part 4, Ch. 9 (p.402), when Karenin's presence throws a pall over an entire social gathering. Then Stiva arrives, and within a matter of moments he has removed that pall and changed the whole social aura.

"Ah," you may say, "but Stiva is an unprincipled man, a rake and adulterer. At least Karenin is an honest man, faithful to his moral principles and duties." Maybe, but which of the men do you LIKE better? [more on Karenin later]

Certainly anyone would be justified in condemning much of Stiva's behavior. He lacks not only any concern for his long-suffering wife. He is, in addition, so obsessed with living for his own personal pleasures that he ignores the problems in store for his children.

[Footnote: At one point in the novel Stiva demonstrates the typical Russian nobleman's condescending attitude toward Jews. See the episode where he is attempting to worm his way into a new sinecure, a job with the railways (p. 751-52). Modern readers might see Stiva as Anti-Semitic, but Tolstoy probably would had been surprised if readers of the time condemned Stiva for anti-semitism. The condescending attitude toward Jews here could very well be Tolstoy's own, and that of any Russian nobility of the late nineteenth century. If you accused Tolstoy of hating Jews he could remind you that he worked to help Jews when they were persecuted and came out strongly against government-sponsored pogroms.]

Saturday, December 6, 2014


Note: Back when I was teaching at Miami University I developed 125 pages of lecture text (handwritten) on the novel "Anna Karenina." I've decided to present all of this long lecture on my blog.



Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" is often considered the greatest novel ever written. It was Chekhov's favorite novel, Bunin's favorite novel, Nabokov's favorite novel (after his own). It is the second of Tolstoy's great novels and continues with many of the same themes and the same literary methods as his "War and Peace."

He conceived the idea for the story of an adulteress about 1870 but began writing it only three years later. Certain events in his own life influenced how he came to begin writing the novel; his early conception of the work changed in the process of writing.

On Jan. 4, 1872, at 7:00 p.m. a woman called Anna Stepanovna Pirogova, the mistress of Tolstoy's landowner-neighbor A.N. Bibikov, three herself under a train at a small station, Yasenki, in the vicinity of Tolstoy's estate of Yasnaja Poljana. He was present at the autopsy, conducted in a barracks near the station [see Norton Critical Ed. of "A.K.," p. 745, Troyat biog. of Tolstoy, p. 419].

In March, 1873, Tolstoy was working on a novel (never completed) about the age of Peter the Great. By chance he picked up a book of stories by Pushkin, "The Tales of Belkin," which he had read some five-six times previously. He was so enthralled by the book that he read it all the way through again. One fragment, beginning, "The guests were gathered in the summer house," seemed to ring a bell in his head. "Unwittingly, unexpectantly, without myself knowing why and how it would come out, I began inventing people and events."

Tolstoy later thanked "the divine Pushkin" for giving him the inspiration to begin writing [Norton Crit. Ed., p. 746-47]. This is quite a common experience with writers, who often derive their impetus to write from reading other writers, and whose creative inspiration is often set off by the music and rhythms of a single phrase.

But Tolstoy took the broad foundation for "A.K." from a different, more important, Pushkin work, his novel in verse "Eugene Onegin." This brilliant work ends with a woman exactly in the same situation in which Anna K. finds herself near the beginning of Tolstoy's novel. The Pushkin heroine, Tatyana, decides to remain faithful to her stodgy husband. Anna does not. Tolstoy's novel treats adultery and the consequences of passionate love.

Of course, Tolstoy does not limit himself to the issue of passionate love. While his portrayal of the adulterous relationship (Anna and Vronsky) is central, it is really part of a much broader look at marriage and family, especially love between men and women.

Tolstoy begins with his usual didactic, preaching tone, the thing that still irritates those who don't like Tolstoy. His early Anna is called Tatyana, who is to be depicted as a coarse, vulgar woman. She was to be painted all black, and her wronged husband Karenin all white. But the artist in Tolstoy trumped the moralist, and, as the novel progressed the whole issue of Anna's guilt and her husband's fault (or lack of fault) became more complex.

Most importantly of all, as he wrote on in the early drafts, Tolstoy added the character of Konstantin Lyovin, his own alter ego and the spokesman for his moral messages. So we get, in effect, two overlapping novels, the story of Lyovin and Kitty and the story of Anna-Vronsky-Karenin. The novel shows what appears to be Lyovin's progress toward contentment in a sort of ideal family life, and Anna's progress toward perdition after she repudiates the conventionally accepted family life. But is all much more complex than this, and in the end there are implications that Lyovin's "near ideal" family life in communion with wife, children, and Nature is far from ideal.