Monday, December 8, 2014
"Anna Karenina": STIVA OBLONSKY AND THE RUSSIA OF THE 1870S
(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