Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Thursday, March 02, 2017

TOLSTOY: Anna Karenina (Part 4)

Americans living in the 21st century believe we all inherit inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Did 19th century Russians believe that too?  In Tolstoy’s novel this question is a practical one.  How did people live in 19th century Russia?  How much freedom did they have?  Were they happy?  Tolstoy gives no easy answers.  Some Russians seem to have had freedom, while others did not.  Vronsky was free to choose his career, his friends, his lovers.  Varenka didn’t have much choice; she was bound to her duty by the conditions of her life.  Some Russians seemed happy, while others did not.  Stiva (Oblonsky) enjoyed life immensely in spite of its minor irritations (such as getting caught in adultery).  Levin’s brother Nikolay never found happiness in his own short and miserable life.  Sometimes the same character would be in despair at one point and experience ecstatic joy at another.  Levin thought he would never recover from Kitty’s refusal.  He pondered the problem of mortality and a cloud of gloom hovered over him for several months.  Here’s an example of what Levin was thinking in his gloomy period: “for us to suppose we can have something great (ideas, work) it’s all dust and ashes… When you understand that you will die tomorrow, if not today, and nothing will be left, then everything is so unimportant… but one goes on living, amusing oneself with hunting, with work; anything so as not to think of death.”  Then all of a sudden Kitty comes back into his life and voila!  “All that night and morning Levin lived perfectly unconsciously, and felt perfectly lifted out of the conditions of material life… He was convinced he could fly upwards or lift the corner of the house, if need be.”  In short, Levin was in love and all of a sudden the gloom was gone.  Obviously from this novel we can’t answer for sure if “Russians” were a free and happy people.  We can only say that this particular character was or was not free or happy, at this or at that particular point in the story.  But one thing we can say for sure is that 19th century “Russians” had much the same concerns as modern-day “Americans” do.  Take this example: “the Karenins, husband and wife, continued living in the same house, met every day, but were complete strangers to one another.”  Would this observation apply to any modern-day American marriages?  Or take another example: “Vronsky had that winter got his promotion, was now a colonel, had left the regimental quarters, and was living alone.”  Sounds like this handsome young upwardly-mobile 19th century Russian bachelor would fit right in at any exclusive downtown condo in any modern cosmopolitan American city.  Reading this novel we find that many of the pressing social issues in contemporary America were the same pressing social issues in 19th century Russia.  Listen in on this conversation taking place in Chapter 10.  Pestsov: “Woman is deprived of rights from lack of education, and the lack of education results from the absence of rights.”  Sergey: “meaning the right of sitting on juries, of voting, of presiding at official meetings, the right of entering the civil service, of sitting in parliament… but if women can occupy such positions, it seems to me you are wrong in using the expression ‘rights.’  It would be more correct to say duties.”  Pestsov: “Duties are bound up with rights: power, money, honor; those are what women are seeking.”  In other words, most women want the same things most men want: power, money and prestige.  Education is the best emancipation.  Tolstoy uses the character of Dolly for a counter-argument.  If men haven’t found happiness seeking power, money and prestige, why would women?  Dolly believes the emphasis should be on family, not on grasping for power, money and prestige.  Oblonsky asks “but what is a girl to do who has no family?”  Dolly answers: “If the story of such a girl was thoroughly sifted, you would find she had abandoned a family (her own or her sister’s) where she might have found a woman’s duties.”  Pestsov: “Woman desires to have rights, to be independent, educated.”  But Dolly thinks “Woman” desires a home; to love and to be loved is really what we all want.  Tolstoy agrees.    


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