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It's been a long time since I've read literary fiction, let alone a classic. So, as I began to read this famous masterpiece of Russian literature, I found myself having to shift gears. The prose in literary fiction has a different rhythm, which thus creates a somewhat different state of mind as one reads, as compared to the prose in what is known as 'popular fiction'. Not only is the pace slower, but there are subtle undercurrents of psychological depth in nearly every sentence. In other words, literary fiction is more thought-provoking, which makes for a slower read. The emphasis is not so much on 'what happens next', as on the complex interactions of all the characters, the psychologiccal implications of these interactions, and the larger message of the whole work, which is usually universal in scope. In short, literary fiction usually presents characters caught in an archetypal drama. As this drama plays out, the reader experiences a cathartic effect.
I had a general idea of the subject matter of this book before I started reading it, which is why I didn't jump on the bandwagon right away. Reading about extramarital affairs makes me uneasy, since I know, from personal experience, exactly what it feels like to be cheated on. However, I finally decided to participate because I was curious about this particular book. It's my first Tolstoy novel, too.
The novel's first sentence is by now an iconic one: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." That is, perhaps, the central theme of this novel. Tolstoy seems intent on exploring the various ways in which unhappy families play out their unhappiness.
The author presents the rather complicated, intertwined lives of his characters in a very calm, elegant prose style that ties all the various threads together, while giving the reader some very interesting insights into what makes these characters tick. He mimics life perfectly, for life itself is full of such complex interactions. However, the author raises these situations to the level of art through his own observations on the characters' motivations and personalities. At the same time, he presents the scientific, political, and artistic views of the day, through those very same characters.
Here is a plot overview for Part I so far. (I have been unable to read Part II because my book didn't arrive in time. This is partly my fault, though. I didn't order the book as soon as I should have...)
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!
The novel opens with a very unhappy situation; Princess Darya (known as 'Dolly') Alexandrovna, wife of Prince Stepan Arkadyich Oblonsky (known as Stiva), has just discovered that her husband has been unfaithful. His lover is their former French governess. Dolly is understandably distraught, and can't stand to be around Stiva. She wants to leave him, but feels trapped because of their children.
Later on, Stepan is approached by a friend, Konstantin Levin, who wants his advice on a very important matter: he is madly in love with Princess Ekaterina Alexandrovna (known as Kitty), who is Stiva's younger sister. Levin wants to propose to her, and isn't sure he will be accepted. Subsequent events bring his fear to reality; Kitty is in love with Count Vronsky, an acquaintance of the family, and therefore rejects Levin, although she wonders, as she does so, whether she's doing the right thing, for she does feel some affection for Levin.
Meanwhile, Stiva has asked another of his sisters, Anna Karenina, who is married to Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin, a senior statesman, to travel from St. Petersburg to Moscow, where the Oblonskys live, for the purpose of consoling his wife, and possibly persuading her to forgive him for the affair.
Ironically, Anna meets Vronsky for the first time at the train station as she arrives to be picked up by her brother. To compound the irony, she has been traveling in the company of Vronsky's mother, a countess (her name is never given), who is visiting her son. There is an immediate attraction between Anna and Vronsky, although Anna does try to push thoughts of him away.
Anna's visit to the Oblonskys has the desired effect: they are reconciled. However, her own attraction to Vronsky, and his to her, grows, and this becomes apparent to Kitty when she sees them dancing together at a ball they all attend. Kitty had been expecting a proposal from Vronsky, and sees her hopes dashed right before her eyes.
Levin, having been rejected by Kitty, has gone to visit his erratic brother, Nikolai, who is an alcholic, and has a very troubled past that includes several crimes. After this visit, he returns to his country estate in order to attempt to get over Kitty's rejection.
I'd like to answer a few of the questions Steph asks in her own excellent post. (These questions refer only to Part I.)
1.) What version of the book are you reading?
I'm reading the Penguin Classics edition, pictured above.
2.) Who is the translator?
There are two of them: Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. They have been praised for having created what many are calling the definitive translation of this novel.
3.) What do you think of Stiva?
Quite honestly, I began the novel very ready to hate him. After all, I myself was once married to a cheater, one who felt absolutely no remorse whatsoever for his actions, to make matters worse. But Tolstoy gives us further insights into Stiva's personality, and he emerges as a rather honorable man, at least when he's at the ministry, where he workss, as well as when he gets together with his friends. This presents a paradox; how could a man who is honorable in his dealings with the outside world possibly cheat on his wife, with whom he supposedly shares emotional as well as sexual intimacy?
On page 3, we get the following information about his inner feelings concerning the affair: "Stepan Arkadyich was a truthful man concerning his own self. He could not deceive himself into believing that he repented of his behaviour...He repented only that he had not managed to conceal things better from her." Totally despicable! Yet, this is what follows: "But he felf all the gravity of his situation, and pitied his wife, his children, and himself." Except for the part about pitying himself, which is totally ridiculous, I was amazed that he would feel any empathy for his wife and children. This is because I'm biased agaisnt male cheaters. I tend to think of them all as being very self-centered, and completely callous when it comes to the women they're cheating on. Reading further, I discovered that he was actually surprised by her very strong reaction to the news that he was having an affair. This was because he saw her as a rather simple, unremarkable woman. He even felt that, because of these qualities, she "ought in all fairness to be indulgent"!! Oh, when I read this, my hatred surged up strong and hot!! How dare he?!
Stiva's thoughts then wandered to the governess he had had the affair with, and he contrasted her with his wife: "But what a governess! Mlle Roland's dark, roguish eyes, and her smile.)" Stiva is one of those men -- and there are still many in this world, despite the feminist revolution -- who categorize women into two groups: those who are meant for husband and family, and those who are meant to be only sexual companions. Does Tolstoy himself share this view? I'm not quite sure, just from reading this far. I need to find out more about the author, as well as continue to read the novel. However, I wouldn't be at all surprised if Tolstoy did think this way, since this belief has persisted well past the 19th century, and was the prevailing opinion of the time.
The scene in the bedroom, where Stiva finally approached his wife, presented a surprisingly remorseful husband, and I couldn't help wondering if he genuinely felt sorry for his behavior. He even cried! I can't remember the last time I encountered a crying man in a novel, whether classic or modern. I don't know what to make of this. Was he acting? Was it sincere? Here's the quote: "'Dolly!' he said, sobbing now. For God's sake, think of the children, they're not guilty. I'm guilty, so punish me, tell me to atone for it. However I can, I'm ready for anything! I'm guilty, there are no words to say how guilty I am! But, Dolly, forgive me!'"
His wife didn't quite believe he was being sincere, and referred to his tears as 'just water'. When he attempted to take her hand, "she withdrew from him with loathing."
In short, I have mixed feelings about Stiva. Basically, however, I can't quite like him. He simply doesn't really understand how a woman feels when she finds out that the man she loves and trusts has betrayed her. There are men, even in today's world, who simply don't understand a woman's feelings. To such men, an affair, when it involves no love for the other woman (and many times, it doesn't) is no big deal. Since they feel no emotional involvement in such a liaison, they really believe that their wives or girlfriends should feel that these affairs are not important, and therefore, no threat to the relationship. Stiva is, it seems, a product of his times, although again, even in the twenty-first century there are men like Stiva.
4.) What do you think of his (Stiva's) relationship with Dolly?
They have obviously drifted apart. She is no longer attractive to him. He sees her mainly as the mother of his children. The following quote bears this out: "It even seemed to him that she, a worn-out, aged, no longer beautiful woman, not remarkable for anything, simple, merely a kind mother of a family..." This contrasts sharply with his own view of himself, and gives the reader some very important details about how he feels about the marriage: "He could not now be repentant that he, a thirty-four-year-old, handsome, amorous man, did not feel amorous with his wife, the mother of five living and two dead children, who was only a year younger than he." I couldn't believe what I was reading! A thirty-three-year-old woman is described by her husband as 'aged'?! She's only one year younger than he is, yet he describes himself as 'handsome' and 'amorous', while she is, in his eyes, 'worn-out', 'no longer beautiful', 'not remarkable for anything'!! Oh, the gall of this man!!
It seems that the only reason he wants Dolly's forgiveness is that she's the mother of his children, and he doesn't want the family to be separated. Dolly feels the same way, but she also loves him deeply. This is the reason she feels so hurt. Stiva knows that she loves their children, that she is constantly aware of their needs, and completely devoted to them. According to the quote above, he sees her only as a great mother, while she not only sees him as a father, but as her dearly beloved companion, as well.
(Please note: I will have to write a second post, which will deal with Part II of the novel. There are two reasons for this. First, when I ordered the book, it took a little too long to arrive, so I haven't had the time to get to Part II. As I explained above, this is because I didn't order the book right away. So I've only answered questions related to Part I. However, this post would have been too long anyway, had I answered any of the Part II questions. I tend to get carried away when I write! On the other hand, I love to write my thoughts about books, so I can't really stop myself...lol. Please stay tuned for the next post, which I will most likely be putting up either tomorrow or Monday.)
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