Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

TOLSTOY: Anna Karenina (Part 2)

In Part 2 of this novel Tolstoy shows readers why no man is an island.  The attraction between Anna and Vronsky is a hopeless affair from the outset but their passions soon overwhelm them.  Anna is a respectable wife and the mother of a young son.  Vronsky is a confirmed bachelor and in his social set the notion of deeply romantic love is laughable.  Yet even with the deck stacked so heavily against them (and maybe because the deck is stacked so heavily against them) Anna and Vronsky can’t resist their passions.  All they want is to be free to show their love for one another.  How can anything that feels so right be wrong?  Both characters try to justify their desires.  In Vronsky’s case his family is worried about him.  Not because he’s having an affair with a married woman.  That’s understandable in fashionable Russian society.   They’re concerned that he has fallen seriously in love.  Vronsky defends himself by this line of thought: “Why do they worry me so?  Just because they see that this is something they can’t understand.  If it were a common, vulgar, worldly intrigue, they would have left me alone.  They feel that this is something different, that this is not a mere pastime, that this woman is dearer to me than life.  And this is incomprehensible, and that’s why it annoys them.”  Anna has her own way of justifying adultery.  She projects her guilt upon her husband; specifically, she points to (in her mind) the worse vice of hypocritical ambition.  “All these ways of his she knew, and all were hateful to her.  Nothing but ambition, nothing but the desire to get on, that’s all there is in his soul, she thought: as for these lofty ideals, love of culture, religion, they are only so many tools for getting on.”  This was the way Anna eased her own conscience.  Adultery may be bad but her husband’s vulgar ambition is worse.  At least her affair with Vronsky had love as its foundation.  Her husband’s ambition had a foundation built on hypocrisy.  Very subtle reasoning.  This is the same kind of reasoning Satan used with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

But, alas, no man (or woman) is an island.  Anna and Vronsky had to live in a world with a web of interconnections and relations to other people.  This is an unpleasant truth for them.  We can see this when we read that Vronsky “suddenly remembered what he always forgot, and what caused the most torturing side of his relations with Anna, her son with his questioning (hostile, as he fancied) eyes.  This boy was more often than anyone else a check upon their freedom.”  Anna has a son and her son’s name is Seryozha.  He’s not an abstract concept but a living, breathing flesh and blood boy with thoughts of his own.  And this is what Seryozha thinks about Vronsky: “What does it mean?  Who is he?  How ought I to love him?  If I don’t know, it’s my fault; either I’m stupid or a naughty boy.”  Seryozha will be permanently scarred by the relationship between his mother and Vronsky.  Vronsky should have known this.  He himself had been scarred by his own mother’s relationships.  Anna did know it on some level because “Vronsky could not understand how she, with her strong and truthful nature, could endure this state of deceit, and not long to get out of it.  But he did not suspect that the chief cause of it was the word (son) which she could not bring herself to pronounce.  When she thought of her son, and his future attitude to his mother, who had abandoned his father, she felt such a terror at what she had done, that she could not face it.”  She couldn’t face it and neither could her husband.  Karenin “did not want to think at all about his wife’s behavior, and he actually succeeded in not thinking about it at all… He did not want to see, and did not see, that many people in society cast dubious glances on his wife… in the bottom of his heart he knew beyond all doubt that he was a deceived husband, and he was profoundly miserable about it.”  He was miserable.  Seryozha was miserable.  Anna was miserable.  And Vronsky was angry at the world.  “He was angry with all of them for their interference just because he felt in his soul that they, all these people, were right.”

Friday, January 13, 2017

Anna Karenina Reading Schedule 2017


January 3


1 to 17

1 to 60
January 10
18 to 34
61 to 115
January 17
1 to 19
117 to 177
January 24
20 to 35
177 to 236
January 31
1 to 16
237 to 294
February 7
17 to 32
294 to 352
February 14
1 to 19
353 to 423
February 21
20 to 23
424 to 435

1 to 16
437 to 489
February 28
17 to 33
489 to 549
March 7
1 to 20
551 to 624
March 14
21 to 32
625 to 669

1 to 8
671 to 694
March 21
9 to 31
694 to 768
March 28
1 to 19
769 to 817

Thursday, January 05, 2017

TOLSTOY: Anna Karenina (Part 1)

This novel begins with the famous line “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  That sounds good; but is it true?  Does it make just as much sense if we said: Unhappy families are all alike; every happy family is happy in its own way?  Maybe.  But not in Tolstoy’s novel.  It’s kind of like accepting one of the Postulates in Euclid’s Elements of geometry.  For example, Euclid starts off by asking the reader to accept (for the sake of argument) that we can “draw a straight line from any point to any point.”  Tolstoy asks the reader of Anna Karenina to accept as fact that happy families are alike but unhappy families are unhappy in their own unique ways.  From that starting point Tolstoy creates a work of art.    

The novel begins with an unhappy family.  A husband and wife are quarreling.  The wife (Dolly) has just found out that her husband (Stepan) has been having an affair with their governess.  “What’s this? this? she asked, pointing to the letter.”  Of course Stepan is upset because he’s made Dolly upset and wants to smooth things over.  Adultery is bad no doubt and having an affair with the governess is rather tacky but really, deep down, “All he repented of was that he had not succeeded better in hiding it from his wife.”  To make matters worse, Dolly has money and “the most unpleasant thing of all was that his pecuniary interests should in this way enter into the question of reconciliation with his wife.”  The Arkadyevitch family (Stepan, Dolly, their children and the servants) are one unhappy family.  Sex and money are classic problems for all married couples but in the Arkadyevitch family it produces its own unique brand of unhappiness.     

A little further on in the novel we meet Dolly’s parents.  They’re quarreling too but they’re unhappy for a different reason.  The old prince (Dolly’s father) hasn’t been unfaithful.  Their quarrel springs from a different source, the kids.  Dolly’s younger sister, Kitty, has come of marrying age.  Two young bachelors are vying for Kitty’s attentions; Levin and Count Vronsky.  “The prince was on Levin’s side and he wished for nothing better for Kitty.”  The old prince thinks Levin is unpretentious and would make a fine husband for his youngest daughter.  But “in the mother’s eyes there could be no comparison between Vronsky and Levin.  She disliked in Levin his strange and uncompromising opinions and his shyness in society, founded, as she supposed, on his pride and his queer sort of life, as she considered it, absorbed in cattle and peasants.”  On the other hand “Vronsky satisfied all the mother’s desires.  Very wealthy, clever, of aristocratic family, on the highroad to a brilliant career in the army and at court, and a fascinating man.  Nothing better could be wished for.”

Meanwhile this Vronsky fellow is emerging from an unhappy family life himself.  “Vronsky had never had a real home-life.  His mother had been in her youth a brilliant society woman who had had during her married life, and still more afterwards, many love-affairs notorious in the whole fashionable world.”  Of course all mom’s affairs left their mark on the young man.  He liked flirting with women but that was all.  “It never even entered his head that there could be any harm in his relations with Kitty.”  Kitty, and especially Kitty’s mom, think Vronsky intends to marry her.  They don’t realize the truth.  “Marriage had never presented itself to him as a possibility.  He not only disliked family life, but a family, and especially a husband was, in accordance with the views general in the bachelor world in which he lived, conceived as something alien, repellent, and, above all, ridiculous.”  So much for Vronsky. 

Tolstoy has proved his point.  In this novel families really are unhappy in their own unique ways.