Friday, January 23, 2015


(15) Eyes and Smiles

We've seen in our discussion that a perverse mushroom cannot distract Kitty in her love for Lyovin (see previous posting, "Love and Mushrooms"). Eyes and smiles say it all. And this brings us to the famous chalk-writing scene of the marriage proposal (Part Four, Ch. 13):

"She had completely guessed and expressed his badly expressed idea. Lyovin smiled joyfully. He was struck by this transition from the confused, verbose discussion with Pestsov and his brother to this laconic, clear, almost wordless communication of the most complex ideas.

Scherbatsky moved away from them, and Kitty, going up to a card table, sat down, and, picking up the chalk, began drawing spirals over the new green cloth.

They began again on the subject that had been started at dinner--the liberty and occupations of women. Lyovin was of the opinion of Darya Aleksandrovna [Dolly], that a girl who did not marry should find a woman's duties in a family. He supported this view by the fact that no family can get on without women to help;that in every family, poor or rich, there are and must be nurses, either relations or hired.

"No," said Kitty, blushing, but looking at him all the more boldly, with her truthful eyes; "a girl may be in such a situation that she cannot live in the family without humiliation, while she herself . . ."

At the hint he understood her.

"Oh, yes," he said. "Yes, yes, yes--you're right; you're right!"

And he saw that all that Pestsov had been maintaining at dinner about the freedom of woman, simply from getting a glimpse of the terror of an old maid's existence and its humiliation in Kitty's heart; and loving her, he felt that terror and humiliation, and at once gave up his arguments.

A silence followed. She was still drawing with the chalk on the table. Her eyes were shining with a soft light. Under the influence of her mood he felt in all his being a continually growing tension of happiness.

"Ah!" I've scribbled all over the table," she said, and laying down the chalk, she made a movement as though to get up.

"What! Shall I be left alone--without her?" he thought with horror, and he took the chalk. "Wait a minute," he said, sitting down to the table. "I've long wanted to ask you one thing."

He looked straight into her caressing, though frightened eyes.

"Please, ask it."

"Here," he said; and he wrote the initial letters w, y, t, m, i, c, n, b, d, t, m, n, o, t. These letters meant, "When you told me it could never be, did that mean never, or then?" There seemed no likelihood that she could make out this complicated sentence; but he looked at her as though his life depended on her understanding the words. She glanced at him seriously, then leaned her puckered brow on her hands and began to read. Once or twice she stole a look at him, as though asking him, "Is it what I think?"

"I understand," she said, flushing a little.

"What is this word?" he said, pointing to the n that stood for never.

"It means never," she said, "but that's not true!"

He quickly rubbed out what he had written, gave her the chalk, and stood up. She wrote t, i, c, n, a, d.

Dolly was completely relieved of the depression caused by her conversation with Aleksey Aleksandrovich when she caught sight of the two figures: Kitty with the chalk in her hand, with a shy and happy smile looking up at Lyovin, and his handsome figure, bending over the table with glowing eyes fastened one minute on the table and the next on her. He was suddenly radiant: he had understood it meant, "Then I could not answer differently."

He glanced at her questioningly, timidly.

"Only then?"

"Yes," her smile answered.

"And n . . . and now?" he asked.

"Well, read this. I'll tell you what I would like--would like so much." She wrote the initial letters i, y, c, f, a, f, w, h. This meant, "If you could forget and forgive what happened."

He snatched the chalk with nervous and trembling fingers, and breaking it, wrote the initial letters of the following phrase, "I have nothing to forget and forgive; I have never ceased to love you."

She glanced at him with a smile that did not waver.

"I understand," she said in a whisper (p. 416-419).

This scene goes on for some time longer, and at the end of the scene "everything had been said [without words]. It had been said that she loved him, and that she would tell her father and mother that he would come tomorrow morning."

Hard to believe that two souls could be so closely attuned? When I was teaching at Miami University I used to try this experiment. I would tell the students that the subject was romantic love and write these letters on the blackboard: i, l, y, m, t, l, i. A lot of the students would immediately figure it out: "I love you more than life itself." But then, I would say, what if the speaker were a recovering alcoholic and his estranged lover was called Inez? "I loathe you more than liquor, Inez." Next I would write, i, i, w, t, t, y, t, t, w, s, i, h, w, w, y, b, m? Nobody got that: "If I were to tell you that this whole scene is hogwash, would you believe me?"

In a way it IS hogwash; at least it is difficult to believe that the two characters could pull off this feat of mind-reading. It is always dangerous for an artist to use scenes directly from his own life's experience. Why? Because creative fiction is supposed to be believable, and life is often far from believable.

Tolstoy took this chalk-writing episode directly from his own life: his proposal to his wife. Or did he? In his biography of Tolstoy, A.N. Wilson describes this scene from the lives of Tolstoy and his wife-to-be Sonya. Then Wilson goes on to say that it was probably jointly invented by Tolstoy and Sonya and then believed by both of them. It became, if Wilson is correct, one of those family folklore things that get retold over and over, to the point where everyone is convinced that it had to have happened just like that (see A.N. Wilson, Tolstoy, p. 192-94). But who knows?

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