Anna with her son, illustration by K. Rudakov
(29) Secondary characters and significant details in "Anna Karenina"
One of Tolstoy's greatest strengths as a writer is his ability to draw rounded characters. We could mention many examples of secondary characters in the novel who are fully delineated: Anna's son Seryozha, Dolly and Stiva, the animal characters Laska the dog and Pava the cow. But Tolstoy can also bring to life characters who step only briefly into the novel, sometimes for a page or two, sometimes for a paragraph, sometimes for only a sentence.
Take the director of the ballroom activities in Part One, Ch. 2: "the famous master of ceremonies, a married, handsome and stately man, Egorushka Korsunsky. Having just left Countess Banina, with who he had danced the first round of the waltz, surveying his realm, that is, the few pairs who had joined the dancing, he caught sight of Kitty entering and hurried up to her with that special, loose-jointed amble characteristic only of ball directors, bowed, and without even asking whether or not she wanted to, raised his arm in order to place it around her slender waist" (73, Schwartz trans.).
A page later another character, little more than a bald spot, but alive,pokes his nose into the novel: "There was the beauty Lydie, Korsunsky's wife, impossibly bared; there was the hostess; there was Krivin with the shiny bald spot who was always to be found wherever the cream of society was."
Two more examples:
(1) Lyovin and Kitty are staying in a provincial hotel, caring for Lyovin's dying brother. Embarrassed that Kitty is in the presence of his brother's companion, a prostitute, Lyovin speaks: "'Really, one can't discuss this in the hallway!' said Lyovin, looking around, vexed, at a gentleman who, with trembling legs, as if on business of his own, was just that moment walking down the hall" (Part V, Ch. 17). The gentleman limps his way down the corridor and out the door of Russian literature, never to return, and you wonder what his business was and why his legs were trembling.
(2) Part One, Ch. 31. Besotted with love for Anna, Vronsky is riding the train from Moscow to St. Petersburg. "Vronsky did not even attempt to sleep that night. He sat up, either looking straight ahead or glancing at the people coming in and out, and if before he had amazed and upset people who did not know him with his look of unshakable calm, then now he seemed even prouder and more self-possessed. He looked at people as if they were things. A nervous young man, a clerk in a district court who was sitting across from him, hated him for that look. The young man even kept asking him for a light, and trying to start up a conversation, and even pushed against him to make him feel he was a person, not an object, but Vronsky kept looking at him as he would at a street lamp, and the young man grimaced, sensing he was losing his composure under the pressure of this refusal to recognize him as a man, and because of this he was unable to fall asleep" (97). Look at me, acknowledge my existence, for I too am a man. You might imagine the young clerk the next morning, dazed and grumpy from a sleepless night, on his way to work and still hating that supercilious officer in the train. His attitude would, however, be much changed, were he aware that the officer had just got himself involved with a married woman, and that that adulterous love would make of his life a misery, would, ultimately, destroy him.
There are so many great, telling little details in the book that you could go on and on listing them:
Anna and Kitty speaking just before the ball, where Anna is to meet the man Kitty loves, Vronsky, where the quick destruction of her marriage will begin:
"'Will you go to this ball?' asked Kitty.
'I don't think I can avoid it. Here, take this,' she told Tanya, who was pulling the loose-fitting [wedding] ring off her white, tapered finger" (69). [Ring on the way off, marriage on the way out].
(1) "In the intervals of utter quiet he could hear the rustle of last year's leaves, stirring with the earth thawing and the grass growing.
"Imagine that! I can hear and see the grass growing! Lyovin told himself, having noticed a wet aspen leaf the color of slate shifting under a blade of young grass" (Part Two, Ch. 15).
(2) "The crowd of relatives and friends, buzzing with talk and rustling their trains, advanced behind them. Someone bent over and straightened the bride's train. It became so quiet in the church that they could hear drops of wax fall [from the candles]" (Part V, Ch. 4, the scene of the wedding of Kitty and Lyovin)
(3) At the train station in Petersburg Vronsky sees for the first time the husband of the woman he has just fallen in love with:
"Seeing Alexei Aleksandrovich with his Petersburg-fresh face and sternly self-assured figure, wearing his round hat, and with his slightly hunched back, Vronsky did now believe in him and experienced an unpleasant sensation, similar to that which a man would experience who was tormented by thirst and had reached a spring but had found in this spring a dog, sheep or pig that had drunk and muddied the water. Alexei Aleksandrovich's gait, the way he swung his entire pelvis, and his flat feet especially offended Vronsky" (Part One, Ch. 31).
Note also that Anna, who gets off that same train enamored of Vronsky, now sees her husband only as a pair of ears. She had never noticed before the odd way that his ears stand out. "Ах, Боже мой! отчего у него стали такие уши? (My God! How did his ears get like that?)." On this detail, see a previous post, # 6, "Karenin's Ears."