Posts tagged Anna Karenina
Virtue, and the Doctor's Wife, Revisited

Ancient, Medieval, Renaissance, Enlightenment, Romantic, Gothic, Victorian, and Decadent readings behind me, I'm just now diving into the Modernists. Over the next few days, I'll be thinking about Death In Venice, Swann's Way, Ulysses, Orlando, As I Lay Dying, Nightwood, and Ficciones; but because these texts mark such a huge shift from the thousands of pages of (French/Russian) realism and (Gothic/Decadent) psychological realism I've been lost in recently, I want to sort of gather my thoughts here with a post on where I've been and where I think I might be going.

(Also, having copied and pasted this entire blog into a Word doc earlier today, for fear of losing my only record of exam "notes," I horrifiedly share that I've written about 38,000 words, close to 200 double-spaced pages. Yikes, right? I know. Anyway. . . )

One of the most obvious lines of inquiry to develop over the course of my historical reading, from The Odyssey to Anna Karenina, has dealt with representations in literature of wives, mistresses, and whores. Conveniently, these correlate respectively to liminal, marginal, and inferior subject positions of female characters; and common to all three is the significance of their so-called "virtue." Thanks to Mary Wollstonecraft, who often noted that "virtue" comes from the Latin word for "strength," I offer that wives, mistresses, and whores are equally virtuous — equally strong — women: 

Penelope (un)weaves. 

Job's wife stays. 

Sappho rewrites (Homer). 

Nelly Dean orates. 

The Wife of Bath divorces but the Princess of Cleves does not. 

Griselda endures.

Pamela resists but Shamela cons the system. 

Minerva represents us all, especially Maria, Jemima, all three Madame Bovarys, and the Minyades.

Anne Carson eulogizes and Gertrude Stein makes objects subjects.

Tristram's mother labors, Grete joins the labor force.

Emma believes, and Anna leaves.

Emily Brontë punches. 

And the doctor's wife takes charge. In my earlier post, I worried that I'd fooled myself, that she wasn't the strong female figure I'd always thought her to be. I wondered if more than anything else she had resigned herself to 24/7 mothering her husband and a band of strangers. While I am not abandoning those concerns, I acknowledge here that she is an incredible woman. Recognizing that I read Blindness way out of order, and that there are still several decades of history and writers and female characters and speakers ahead of me before she actually appears, I consider her now a tower of a character, a Minerva endowed with the wisdom and strength of all the women in literature who precede her. I've always loved her. I love her still. And not least of all because, in what I am sure is one of the most graphic and disturbing scenes in any of my exam texts, she takes sewing shears and stabs a serial rapist in the throat, while he is raping another woman, after he and his crew have systematically raped every other woman, healthy or infirm — every young woman, every single woman, every sister, every mother, every wife, every widow — in the building. 

A few days ago, I said, we can't look away from the characters we don't like or whom we fear, for instance, rapists and murderers, because they are in the world and we shouldn't ignore (or encourage) evil by turning a blind eye. We shouldn't gawk, curiously, either (like God in the Book of Job). If we need a model for how to proceed, we might look no further than Saramago's Blindness, in which the doctor's wife becomes more than a rape victim and more than a witness; the doctor's wife becomes jury, judge, and executioner. Yes, she becomes a murderer, and whether or not she is acting in self defense and/or to protect the helpless, are her actions justified? Should anyone, ever, under any circumstances, take the law into her own hands? Where do we draw the line for premeditated exceptions? And how does Saramago utilize the third-person narrator's distance to portray the event? Like a defense lawyer's, is his version of events intended to sway us? If yes, how? If no, is he objective and how and why would he have chosen to remain so for this? The ambiguity and the nuances are up to us, the readers, to consider.

And, as writers, if we have any interest in furthering the tradition of those great big sweeping epic social novels of the past, and if we wish to write them for our time, then like them we cannot look away. As Saramago's epigraph commands (from the Book of Exhortations): "If you can see, look. If you can look, observe." We must — we writers — like the doctor's wife who is graced and cursed with sight in a country of blindness, see, look, observe, acknowledge, assist, and, when necessary, with our words, avenge. We must attend. And we would do well to remember, too, what Annie Dillard once said: "Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?"  

The Royal Ball: A Site of Female Protagonists' Psychosocial Development

Madame Lafayette's The Princess of Cleves, Flaubert's Madame Bovary, and Tolstoy's Anna Karenina each features a fairy tale-esque ball. I've been wanting to write something about them but haven't known where to begin. After watching the 2012 movie adaptation of Anna Karenina, though, that desire became a sort of compulsion. The entire movie is choreographed intricately, every single scene, but it's the ball that steals the literal show for me. (If for no other reason than because, at some point very soon, I'm going to have to turn to my slow-to-develop line of inquiry about bodies, embodiment, and movement and spatiality, as I've yet to really contemplate how my outside-the-English-department committee member, and DGS of the university's Modern Dance Department, fits into all these things. But Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's update of the historical waltz, while staying true to some things, like palms not touching, makes more use of the upper body for cinematic and dramatic effects. Again, Lance's question dies hard: "How do we write the contemporary and not just retell the stories of our past?") 

Anyway, here goes nothing:

In all three novels, the occasion of the ball instigates major evolutions in the psychosocial development of the female protagonists.

Lafayette's ball most closely resembles the royal balls of fairy tales, but in her novel the Princess of Cleves only meets the object of her affections; and, as we know, she will spend the entire novel not acting on her feelings, harboring them secretly at first but then not-so-secretly after confessing them to her husband. The princess's psychology is easy enough to read. Her mother's dying wish was that her daughter would not yield to temptation and become a fallen woman. Out of guilt, the princess dutifully honors her mother's memory. Likewise, her emotionally devastated and miserable husband's dying wish was that she would not yield to temptation and injure his memory. So even after his death, when she's free to love whomever she pleases, guilt and duty again keep her from marrying her prince (in this case a duke). Lafayette further dramatizes the princess's act of self-denial by including a scene in which her uncle makes clear he approves of their union, and goes out of his way to arrange a secret meeting place for them where they can do anything they like, wink wink. But no, in Lafayette's romantic court drama, the ball (as we expect it to) allows the romantic hero and heroine to fall in love at first sight; but Lafayette unexpectedly subverts the fairy tale and romance novel traditions by (not simply denying them their happy ending but) damning them to live miserably and unhappily ever after. 

Unlike the Princess of Cleves, Emma Bovary doesn't meet a fairy tale prince at the ball. Her desires, however, like the princess's, become clearer to her. She wants the fancy life. She doesn't want to be a country bumpkin. She wants to find a prince worth falling for. She doesn't want her boring, unambitious nonentity of a husband who doesn't mind being a country bumpkin and who thinks she's the cutest country bumpkin of all.  By bringing Emma so close to the romantic cliche, so close she touched it, ate and drank from it, danced without her husband in it, slept the night in it, Flaubert plays a cruel trick: now that Emma's had a taste of the finer life, she knows what she's missing. (Remember how she had wanted a romantic, lamp-lit wedding at midnight, and how her father dismissed the notion without even stopping to consider it. The ball delivers on that sentiment in a way that her provincial wedding didn't even come close to.) To my knowledge, no fairy tale ever stopped in the middle of the ball for the heroine to admire the tablecloths and subsequently fall in love with things. Flaubert's ball, like Lafayette's, subversively denies us our romantic love and happily-ever-after expectations. 

If Emma's life had been the Princess of Cleves', no doubt she would have screwed her dead mother's and husband's wishes and lived happily ever after with the man of her dreams. In a grand, secret gesture that Emma would have loved beyond compare, the duke even wears the princess's colors during a jousting tournament. This is the kind of stuff Emma died for. (Lafayette, it should be noted, also subverts this scene by making the tournament a historical reenactment, no more realistic to the jousters than a Renaissance Fair is to us. The participants are simply playing parts, and they are supposed to be enjoying themselves, both indulging in and poking fun at the old romantic tradition. And Lafayette surprises us again, by accidentally stabbing the king in the eye with the splinter of another jouster's lance. He dies.) 

Anna Karenina is more complicated — in basically every way. Tolstoy lets us into the minds of all the lead players in the drama. We see how actions aren't, for lack of a better word, linear. Instead, when Anna dances with Vronsky, we know why she does and how she feels about it. We know how Vronsky feels about it. We know how Kitty feels about it, how her mother feels about it, and how her father feels differently. We know how society members attending the ball feel about it. And we readers have no idea how we're supposed to feel about it because without a single character to follow or latch on to, our attentions and affections are divided and conflicted. We sympathize with Anna, who is acting on her desires, but we also sympathize with Kitty who has been devastated and whose entire worldview has been shattered. It is from Kitty's point of view, too, that we first saw Anna at the ball and, through her eyes, admired Anna's black velvet gown and her radiant beauty. Anna's betrayal and Vronsky's failure will haunt Kitty for much of the novel, and in those scenes where we continue to see the world from her point of view her pain is ours. We are also let into a secret that nobody knows. After the ball, the narrator reveals to us from a distance that the ambitious and career-minded Vronsky had never considered the idea of marrying anyone, so the thought of proposing to Kitty would have never even crossed his mind. (Later, when he turns down a promotion to stay in the city, near Anna, he becomes a much more complicated character, too.) Even without Anna stealing the show at the ball, Kitty would have ended up rejected and confused. So the ball is the site of Kitty's dashed expectations (which is not how a ball is supposed to go for any princess), and it is the site of Anna's first indulgence in forbidden love/passion (which is not how a ball is supposed to go for a married woman), and it is the site of Vronsky's first successful physical interaction with Anna (which is what balls were made for, probably, but in this case it is also the beginning of the downward spiral of his life and career).

Ruined by Reading (Romance Novels)

The first time I read Madame Bovary, a few summers ago, my reaction was basically: Oh! It's readable. (Meaning: it's not written in the archaic language I'd been expecting.) And I liked it. Which is about all I remember now of the experience. 

Earlier this summer, I reread it and felt some sort of sisterly affection for Emma. I sympathized with her. But I read her existence mostly as one of three Madame Bovarys, and I thought a lot about "fate" and how, for Emma, there weren't a whole lot of options for what a Madame Bovary could be. Then I met with Rachel and Ed and listened to them talk about the bourgeoise and provincial life and the balcony-and-manure scene. I pretty much always fail to see the humor in anything, so the comic element in their conversation was for the most part lost on me. Alas. After that discussion, though, I went home and reread Madame Bovary and tried to read it as if I, too, thought Emma an empty-hearted, empty-minded joke of a character at whose expense Flaubert had made ironic fun. Even still, I thought more of Emma than that. She's complicated, I believed, really she is! She's a fully realized female character! I left it at that but skimmed one last time, just to mark the passages detailing (those evil) romance novels that ruin her life.

Ever since Don Quixote, my historical list has been a veritable whirlwind of characters ruined by reading: Pamela is accused of having stuffed her head full of romantic novel foolishness, which is the cause of her hysterics; Francesca and Paolo end up in hell for reading about Lancelot and Guinevere; Tristram never lets us forget we're reading his book; Rousseau confesses everything about everything he's ever read, ever; Maria's books are a sort of balm to soothe a hurt, but only because what else is there to do when your husband's thrown you into an insane asylum?; Frankenstein's ruined by his education just as Doctor Faustus was ruined by his; Lockwood reads Cathy's diary and shrieks when her ghost appears, then goes back to Thrushcross Grange and writes in his diary, which in turn ruins us (can you keep it all together by the end?), not to mention Anne Carson; Moby-Dick's infected by about 80+ texts and a sub-sub library before we even get to "Call me Ishmael"; Esther's full of fairy tales she retells on the way to Bleak House; the Underground Man just can't even with Chernyshevsky's crystal palace — because really, what is to be done?; Dorian goes down thanks to the "yellow book," within which Des Essientes goes wild about the Satyricon; the governess's screwy story on those pages turning in hands we never see again is super creepy; young Marcel involuntarily remembers a whole childhood of reading. . . .

And now, also, Anna (Karenina), who wastes no time finding a train after that fateful ball and desperately rushes home (with her red bag! Honestly, Tolstoy leaves no detail to whimsy; even the figurative pistol in I.VII literally goes off in IV.XVIII). And we're told: "At first she could not read" — because she was distracted by all the activity around her. But later:

Anna read, and understood what she read; but the reading, that is, the necessity of entering into the lives of other people, became intolerable to her. She had too keen a desire to live for herself.

At this point, we might be thinking: Ah, she's rejecting books! But no:

She read how the heroine of her story took care of the sick: she would have liked to go with noiseless steps into the sick-room. She read how an M.P. made a speech: she would have liked to make that speech. She read how Lady Mary rode horseback, and astonished everyone by her boldness: she would have liked to do the same. 

Which, basically, she does from that point forward (astonish everyone by her boldness). And now that I've finished Anna Karenina, I can't help but think that Emma Bovary really is empty-hearted and empty-minded. Anna's so full of life. She saves, she reasons, she plays, she flirts, she dances, she runs, she reads, she thinks, she mothers, she lies, she loves, she confesses, she leaves, she lives, she fears, she struggles, she dreams, she dies, etc. And all around her all the characters in all the locales all over the country are all full of life and fully realized, too. Like Bleak HouseAnna Karenina is a sweeping panoramic view of a nation in a revolutionary time, a kaleidoscopic, epic in scope, weaving of the stories of the many lives ruled by blood, marriage, society, government, history, and protest, and the subsequent unweaving and re-weaving of those many lives with necessary births and deaths along the way. Madame Bovary is not. "Manure!" I understand now. 

So what are we to make of all our reading about characters reading and being ruined by reading mostly romance novels? To be honest, I don't really know. I guess, at this point, I just keep thinking: Isn't every novel a romance novel? If not, why do we insist upon asking students: What do your characters want? Desire, longing, yearning, wanting, needing — these aren't limited to "romantic" content or even content period. They're the structural scaffolding on which we build and layer our stories. Our characters either get what they want (comedy), or they don't (tragedy). And everything until the end is romance (a twenty-year journey home, a dance, a game, a nightmare, a dream) filled with obstacles — which is (isn't it?) to say: plot.