Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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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.”


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