Monday, April 20, 2015

"Anna Karenina" THE DREAMS (1)

(21) The Dreams

The novel begins by introducing the reader to Stiva Oblonsky through a dream that he has, and this introduction of a dream in the first pages foreshadows the importance that dreams are to play throughout the book. Of course, Stiva's dream, light and airy as it is, so in tune with his frivolous character, is in direct contrast to the ominous dreams of Anna and Vronsky that are to come.

Immediately after she begins her affair with Vronsky Anna begins having a recurrent dream. "One dream haunted her almost every night. She dreamed that both were her husbands at once, that both [Aleksey Karenin and Aleksey Vronsky] were lavishing caresses on her. Aleksey Aleksandrovich was weeping, kissing her hands and saying, 'How good it is now!' Aleksey Vronsky was there too, and he too was her husband. And she was amazed that it had once seemed impossible to her, she was explaining to them, laughing, that this was so much simpler, and that now both of them were happy and contented. But this dream weighed on her like a nightmare, and she awoke from it in terror" (Part II, Ch. 11, p. 159-60).

Of course, this is dreaming as wish fulfillment, a working through of the problem, but it also has a lot to say about how the two men (both named Aleksey) are somehow equated deep in her psyche. Note also that in this dream her husband is weeping, kissing her hands, saying how good it all is now. Only much farther along in the book do we realize that this has been a kind of prevision, Anna's muddled reconstruction in reverse time order of the bedside "dying" scene that is to come hundreds of pages later (Part IV, Ch. 17). During that scene, when Anna is thought to be dying in childbirth, Karenin weeps, forgives her, and comes to a condition of spiritual bliss. She recovers instead of dying, and although Karenin feeds off that spiritual bliss for some time, it is not really very good for him. In fact, he feels a sense of disappointment when she does not die (p. 432).

This early dream is a premonition of what is to come much later: the even more uncanny and ominous twin nightmares dreamed by both Anna and Vronsky. The dreams are described midway in the book (p. 375 and 381), but Tolstoy masterfully connects them to events and details much earlier. In addition, they anticipate events much later. In particular, they prepare the reader for Anna's suicide.

There is a strong element of predestination in "Anna Karenina." From the very moment that she first meets Vronsky at the train station, Anna seems doomed; the dreams only prepare her for the inevitable: her death beneath a train. In the early scene, as the train bearing Anna and Vronsky's mother pulls into the station Tolstoy describes the engine, "with the lever of the middle wheel rhythmically moving up and down, and the stooped, muffled figure of the engine driver covered with frost [my emphasis URB]. Then who gets off the train when it stops? "an officer of the guards, holding himself erect and looking severely about him; a nimble little merchant with a satchel, smiling gaily; a peasant with a sack over his shoulder" (p.66 [my emphasis]).

So here, for the first time, that peasant who is later to so torment Anna in her dreams walks into the novel. You can only assume that Anna absentmindedly takes note of that figure (if not the muffled engine driver). Later on it is as if her mind has stored up certain significant detail from the time of an important, even fateful meeting in her life (her first introduction to Vronsky). The dream producers in her mind later use this detail repeatedly in her nightmares. We keep getting the muffled figures and we keep getting disheveled peasants in those nightmares.

Most ominous of all at this first fateful meeting is the episode of the guard, "either drunk or too muffled up in the bitter frost," who is crushed by the backing train. Oblonsky and Vronsky both see the mutilated corpse, just as Vronsky is to see the corpse of Anna at the train station 700 pages later. This episode, once again, sets the tone for the whole rest of Anna's life. "It's an evil omen," she says to her brother Stiva, and it certainly is that.

To return to the ominous dream theme, we next get these leitmotifs (muffled figures and peasants) as Anna is back on the same train, returning to Petersburg--after she has fallen in love with Vronsky at the ball. At this time she is in a semi-delirium that is indicative of the incredibly swift and utter change in her life. On the train she goes into a kind of half dream that combines her recollection of the events of the station where she first met Vronsky with an eerie anticipation of her own death:

"That peasant with the long waist seemed to be gnawing at something on the wall, the old lady began stretching her legs the whole length of the carriage and filling it like a black cloud; then there was a fearful shrieking and banging, as though someone was being torn to pieces; then there was a blinding dazzle of red fire before her eyes and a wall seemed to rise up and hide everything. Anna felt as if she were collapsing downward. But it was not terrible; it was blissful. The voice of a man muffled up and covered with snow shouted something in her ear" [and she wakes up] (p. 108).

Note the detail about the bliss. It is as if she takes a feral kind of joy in committing herself (by falling in love with Vronksy) to her self-destruction. This scene, one of the most famous in the novel, continues when the train stops at a station, Anna steps out into a snowstorm, meets Vronsky, who has followed her, and seals her fate. Their affair is inevitable, and as "the hoarse whistle of the engine roared. . . . plaintively and gloomily, all the horror of the storm seemed to her still more splendid now" (109).

And once again, as Anna stands out in the storm, almost as if waiting for the inevitable appearance of Vronsky, "muffled figures covered with snow" run by. And "the bent shadow of a man flashed by at her feet, and she heard sounds of a hammer upon iron" (109).

Now, in an accumulation of incidental detail gathered subconsciously during her two fateful meetings with Vronsky at railway stations, Anna has all the ingredients for her recurrent dreams later on, in particular the muffled figure of a peasant beating with a hammer on iron. This is all extremely well done, but giving Vronsky essentially the same nightmare too (much later in the book) seems almost too much in the way of predestination.

The dream producers, of course, have taken slightly different details and situations from the waking lives of the characters as ingredients for their dreams. But, most importantly, the disheveled peasant, stooping down and muttering in French appears in both dreams (p.375, 381). Vronsky cannot make out what he is saying, but Anna hears the words, which begin with part of a French proverb and end with pounding and beating. The entire proverb (mangled in the dream) says, "Il faut battre le fer, tandis qu'il est chaud," which is common to most European languages. In Russian: Куй железо пока горячо. In English: Strike while the iron is hot.

The passage in the novel goes like this: "Il faut le battre, le fer, le broyer, le petrir" (381), "It must be beaten, the iron, must be pounded, molded." Anna also dreams that one of the servants, Korney, interprets this dream as an omen of her death in childbirth (382). As it turns out she does not die in childbirth, but the French words conjure up a muddled image (fire and iron) of the train that she throws herself under.

This coincidental double nightmare shared by Anna and Vronsky, what Nabokov, in his Lectures on Russian Literature, calls "this monogrammatic interconnection of two individual brain patterns," is an analogue of the telepathic experience of Kitty and Lyovin--as they read each others' thoughts in the marriage-proposal scene (Nabokov again, p. 175). But what a difference in mood and in future implications in these two scenes!

From this point one can trace the patterns in Anna's recurrent nightmares throughout the rest of the novel.


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