Saturday, January 3, 2015

"ANNA KARENINA" Sympathy for Karenin's 'Thuffering'

(7) Sympathy for Karenin

As previously discussed, after she falls in love with Vronsky, Anna views her husband largely in terms of his large ears. Portraying her husband as dry, conventional, lifeless, Tolstoy gives the reader good reason for agreeing with Anna and taking her side in the conjugal strife. But we must keep in mind that in anything he writes Tolstoy avoids one-sided portrayals of his characters. Aleksey Aleksandrovich Karenin is neither all good nor all bad, and at several points in the novel the reader should feel at least a modicum of sympathy for him.

See, e.g., the scene in which the distraught Anna reveals her love for Vronsky in the carriage returning from the steeplechase:

"Possibly I was mistaken," said he [Karenin]. "If so, I beg your pardon."

"No, you were not mistaken," she said deliberately, looking desperately into his cold face. "You were not mistaken. I was, and I could not help being in despair. I hear you, but I am thinking of him. I love him, I am his mistress; I can't bear you; I'm afraid of you and I hate you. . . You can do what you like to me."

And dropping back into the corner of the carriage, she broke into sobs, hiding her face in her hands. Aleksey Aleksandrovich did not stir, and kept looking straight before him. But his whole face suddenly bore the solemn rigidity of the dead, and his expression did not change during the whole time of the drive home [Part Two, Ch. 29, p.225].

Later, shortly after Anna has characterized her husband as "not a human being," but a "puppet" and "an official machine" (p. 380), comes another confrontation between the two, a scene that ends with Karenin's losing control of himself:

"Yes, you think only of yourself! But the sufferings of a man who was your husband have no interest for you. You don't care that his whole life is ruined, that he is thuff. . . thuff. . . ."

Aleksey Aleksandrovich was speaking so quickly that he stammered and simply could not articulate the word 'suffering.' In the end he pronounced it 'thuffering.' She felt like laughing and was immediately ashamed that anything could amuse her at such a moment. And for the first time, for an instant, she felt for him, put herself in his place, and was sorry for him. But what could she say or do? Her head sank and she sat silent. He too was silent for some time, and then he began speaking in a frigid, less shrill voice. . . .

She glanced at him. No, it was my imagination, she thought, recalling the expression on his face when he stumbled over the word 'suffering.' No. Can a man with those dull eyes, with that self-satisfied complacency, feel anything?" (p.384)

This breakdown into stammers on the part of Karenin is what a cynic might term "computer malfunction." Not only Anna feels like laughing at this point. The reader as well (at least this reader) cannot help feeling the humor in the scene. As Sylvester the Cat used to say, "Thuffering thuccotash." But the laughter in this scene prepares us for more laughter later in the novel, and there is where the sympathy for Karenin really comes to the fore.

What happens later is that Karenin's ludicrous position as cuckolded husband makes him a figure of fun in his society. Never a life-affirming character (as is Stiva Oblonsky), always a dry stick, ever unsympathetic, now he becomes a laughing stock. This mockery of the man is especially evident in the scene with the lawyer, to whom Karenin has gone in order to discuss a divorce:

"The lawyer's eyes tried not to laugh, but they were dancing with irrepressible glee, and Aleksey Aleksandrovich saw that it was not simply the delight of a man who has just got a profitable job. There was triumph and joy, there was a gleam like the malignant gleam he saw in his wife's eyes" (p. 387).

This all-too-human feeling, for some reason, has no word in English. In German it is Schadenfreude, in Russian zloradstvo: the taking of joy in the misfortunes of one's fellow human being. People around Karenin go on taking joy in his sufferings throughout the rest of the novel. There are times when I, as a reader, might feel the same. Mea culpa. Karenin's desperate situation is best expressed in Part Five, Ch. 21, by the following citation:

"He felt that he could not endure the weight of universal contempt and exasperation that he had distinctly seen in the face of the clerk, and of Korney, and of everyone without exception, whom he had met during those two days. He felt that he could not turn aside the hatred of men, because that hatred did not come from his being bad (in that case he could have tried to be better), but from his being shamefully and repulsively unhappy. He knew that for this, for the very fact that his heart was torn with grief, they would be merciless in their treatment of him. He felt that men would crush him as dogs rip the throat of a crippled dog yelping with pain. He knew that his sole means of security against people was to hide his wounds from them, and instinctively he had tried to do this for two days, but now he felt incapable of keeping up the unequal struggle.

His despair was intensified by the consciousness that he was utterly alone in his sorrow. . . ." (p. 532)

What a great psychologist Tolstoy is. How well he understands the darker side of the human soul. Avoid being "shamefully and repulsively unhappy," avoid limping on one leg and yelping with pain. They'll rip out your throat like a crippled dog. Could that consummate chronicler of the corruption in the human soul, Fyodor Dostoevsky, have put it any better?

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