Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Tuesday, February 07, 2017

TOLSTOY: Anna Karenina (Part 3)

One of the themes running through this novel is the relationship between city life and country life.  The main characters in the story are wealthy enough to alternate between urban and rural society.  This way readers get to see how both sides live.  But we also get to view city and country life through the eyes of the characters; what they think and how they feel.  Here’s a good example from the beginning of part 3: “To Konstantin Levin the country was the background of life, that is of pleasures, endeavors, labor.  To Sergey Ivanovitch the country meant on one hand rest from work, on the other a valuable antidote to the corrupt influences of town.”  What are “the corrupt influences of town” that Sergey is talking about?  For one thing, money.  It takes money, lots of money, to live comfortably in Moscow or Petersburg. 

How can people afford to live in style in cities like Moscow and Petersburg?  One strategy is to cut expenses.  Dolly would take her children and spend summers in the country at the old family farm in Ergushovo, where the cost of living was cheaper.  Dolly “used to stay in the country as a child, and the impression she had retained of it was that the country was a refuge from all the unpleasantness of town, that life there, though not luxurious, was cheap and comfortable; that there was plenty of everything, everything could be got, and children were happy.”  This was also Sergey’s view of country life.  The problem is, it’s not true.  Dolly’s childhood memories are pleasant because as a small girl her parents had the responsibility of providing for the needs and comfort of the family.  “But now coming to the country as the head of a family herself, she perceived that it was all utterly unlike what she had fancied.”  Living comfortably in the country takes work; hard work.  This was Levin’s view of country life, and probably Tolstoy’s too.

Another strategy for living luxuriously in the city is this; borrow money.  That was Vronsky’s strategy.  In calculating his financial affairs he “found that his debts amounted to a little over 17,000 rubles.  Reckoning up his money and his bank-book, he found that he had left 1800 rubles, and nothing coming in before the New Year… He needed at least 6000 rubles for current expenses, and he only had 1800.”  To fully participate in cosmopolitan culture Vronsky had been living beyond his means.  And he wasn’t the only one.  Oblonsky had “taken all the available cash from home… meanwhile Dolly and the children had moved into the country to cut down expenses as much as possible.”  Even people with plenty of money don’t seem to find happiness in cosmopolitan culture.  Liza Merkalova has lots of money and enjoys all the amenities of the highest Petersburg social set.  But she’s still bored.  Anna can’t believe it.  “How can you be bored?  Why, you live in the liveliest set in Petersburg.”  Liza is not impressed.  “Possibly the people who are not of our set are even more bored; but we (I certainly) are not happy, but awfully, awfully bored.”  This is all part of the “corruption” Sergey wanted to get away from.

However, Tolstoy is not proposing that living in the country will cure all of life’s problems.  City life bad, country life good is not Tolstoy’s point.  Folks living in the country have their own problems and have to work out their own solutions.  Many of these problems revolve around, get this, money.  Life in the country may be cheaper but people still have to live.  The simple peasants have simple needs and want just enough money to satisfy those needs.  So they work just enough for wages to cover their expenses; preferably easy work and in ways they’ve always been accustomed to do it.  The landowners who hire these peasants have to come up with enough money to pay them wages.  And there’s much debate amongst the landowners about the best way to do this.  Maybe like the English do it?  What works in England won’t work in Russia.  We’re Russians.  We think like Russians and work like Russians.  That’s closer to Tolstoy’s theme.