The Frou-Frou Diaries (and a Threesome!): Thoughts on Parts One and Two of Anna Karenina (by Bethany)

anna-karenina-tolstoy-leo-n-paperback-cover-art

I’ll start with the obvious: this novel is wonderful, truly one of the greatest novels ever written. It occurs to me as I write this that when I made a list of my fifteen favorite novels about a year and a half ago, Anna Karenina wasn’t on that list. I took a moment to consider going back and revising the list, but that didn’t feel right to me. As great as it is, Anna Karenina doesn’t speak to me on an intimate level the way East of Eden does, the way Song of Solomon, Franny and Zooey, and A Prayer for Owen Meany do. Anna Karenina may well be greater than all of these novels, and I can celebrate this greatness, but I don’t think I’ll be revising my list to include it. It’s entirely likely that this choice reflects my own limitations, not Tolstoy’s. That said, I’ve been thinking about how much fun it would be to teach a fiction writing course centered on Anna Karenina. I’m thinking of this as a beginning or intermediate class at the college level. We would read through the novel slowly over the course of the semester and then do a series of writing exercises modeled after passages of the novel. Someday…

As much as I’ve enjoyed this novel in the past, I think I remember feeling that the minor characters were not very well differentiated. I don’t think I came away from my earlier reads of this novel with any true sense of Oblonsky, or of Prince Shcherbatsky, or even of Karenin. Not so this time – all the characters, even those who appear only in one scene, are perfectly round and human. I wrote in the margin that the waiter with the big butt who appears in one chapter in Part 1 is better characterized than the protagonists of some recent novels I’ve read. The same is true for Oblonsky’s children, Mademoiselle Varenka, and the peasant laborers on Levin’s estate. There’s just characterization all over the place – this would be Lesson 1 in the course I described above – or no, correction, it would be Lesson 2. Lesson 1 would be How To Write the First Paragraph of a novel – and no, I would not recommend the use of a brief aphorism. My critique of the opening of the novel still stands.

I’m hearing the novel talking back and forth with other novels of its approximate era. In most cases, I think this is a sign that other writers – Edith Wharton, Kate Chopin, Henry James – are emulating Tolstoy. I do see a LOT of parallels between this novel and Middlemarch, which appeared in serial form two years earlier than Anna Karenina did. My margin notes in Book 1 are full of these connections: Levin as Lydgate, Koznyshev as Casaubon, the sense of the country as a pastoral retreat from city life, the undercurrent of politics and social change on almost every page, even in the most intimate of scenes. Anxiety, anxiety, anxiety. Both novels make me realize why Gilbert Seldes titled his book about the nineteenth century The Stammering Century, and why Thoreau used the words “this restless, bustling, trivial nineteenth century” in his book about a retreat to the country. There are signs in this novel that Tolstoy is thinking about Darwin (“[Levin] had never connected these scientific deductions as to man’s animal origin, as to reflex action, biology, and sociology, with questions concerning the meaning of life and death to himself…” [37]) and about Marx (“And so we are founding a locksmiths’ association in which all the production and profit and, the main point, the instruments of production will be common property” [102]).

How cool would this be – an interdisciplinary course on the nineteenth century as depicted in Les Miserables, Middlemarch, and Anna Karenina? Of course I’m tempted to add more novels to this list, but I think these three could be a perfectly solid jumping-off point to consider everything that mattered in Europe in the 19th century – well, except maybe colonialism. Maybe a fourth novel would be needed to cover that. Something by Kipling or Conrad?

When Levin’s brother Nikolai introduces his ex-prostitute girlfriend, he sounds almost exactly like Flannery O’Connor’s Julian in “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” when he fantasizes about bringing a black woman home to meet his mother. Nikolai says, “And this woman… is my life’s companion, Maria Nikolayevna. I took her out of a brothel… but I love and respect her, and anyone who wishes to know me… must love and respect her too. She is the same as a wife to me, exactly the same. And if you think you are lowering yourself, here’s the door” (101) Julian in O’Connor’s story thinks, “He imagined his mother lying desperately ill and his being able to secure only a Negro doctor for her… This was possible but he did not linger with it. Instead, he approached the ultimate horror. He brought home a beautiful suspiciously Negroid woman. Prepare yourself, he said. There is nothing you can do about it. This is the woman I’ve chosen. She’s intelligent, dignified, even good, and she’s suffered and she hasn’t thought it fun. Now persecute us, go ahead and persecute us. Drive her out of here, but remember, you’re driving me too.” I’ve never thought of O’Connor as an acolyte of Tolstoy’s, but maybe I’ll have to reconsider.

I had forgotten how heavily – almost comically heavily – Tolstoy foreshadows Anna’s death. Anna and Vronsky meet for the first time at a train station, after Anna has come to Moscow to visit her brother Oblonsky and Vronksy has arrived at the station to pick up his mother, who was on the same train. Lines like “The whistle of an engine and the rustle of something heavy could be heard in the distance” (73) seem almost comically heavy-handed when one knows that Anna will later commit suicide by jumping in front of a train. Later, after Anna and Vronsky have met and begun their flirtation, they both end up on the same train on their return trip to Petersburg. Anna has a red bag with her, and I believe this is the same red bag that she has with her when she commits suicide (my memory is a little hazy on this, but I know that the color red is significant in that scene, and I’m pretty sure she has a red bag). Also, this train journey takes place during a snowstorm, and storms in literature tend to suggest violent emotions and sometimes a certain blindness to external reality.

While Frou-Frou the horse has always been a part of my memories of this novel, I’m not sure if I noticed that Frou-Frou is meant as a symbolic stand-in for Anna – but she definitely is. First of all, Tolstoy clearly states that Vronsky has two obsessions: horse racing and Anna. Vronsky’s rivalry with fellow-jockey Mahotin parallels his rivalry with Karenin for Anna’s affections, and the name of Mahotin’s horse – Gladiator – suggests a struggle to the death. Vronsky’s passion for Frou-Frou equals his passion for Anna and even makes him forget about her for a while, all wrapped up in his raptness with “the exquisite lines of his favorite mare, who was quivering all over, and [his need to tear] himself with an effort away from the sight of her” (201). Over and over again, Frou-Frou is described as a bird, and shortly after the horse-race scene ends, Anna is described as a bird as well (229). The horse race scene in general is fraught not only with drama but with a sense of moral importance – at stake is nothing short of the moral order on which society is built, at least in Vronksy’s mind. And of course Frou-Frou dies. Vronksy makes some kind of error in judgment, the nature of which I don’t quite understand precisely, not being a horse racer myself, but which seems to involve relaxing his own stance in the saddle at a time when he should have been tensed up, and Frou-Frou fell hard on one side and broke her back. “Frou-Frou lay breathing heavily before [Vronksy], bending her head back and gazing at him with her beautiful eyes. Still unable to realize what had happened, Vronsky tugged at the rein. Again, she writhed, like a fish [note: earlier in the same paragraph she is described as a ‘wounded bird’], creaking the flaps of the saddle… She did not stir and , her nose nuzzling the ground, gazed at her master through her eloquent eyes.” (218).

And finally – I had forgotten that Anna fantasizes about having a threesome. I didn’t know that the heroines of 19th century novels were allowed to fantasize about threesomes, and I was quite surprised and amused by this turn of events, which is made even more semi-comically poignant by the fact that both Karenin and Vronksy have the same first name: “Almost every night… She dreamed she was the wife of both of them, and that both lavished their caresses on her. Alexei Alexandrovich [Karenin] was weeping, kissing her hands, and saying, ‘How happy we are now!’ And Alexei Vronsky was there too, and he too was her husband. And she was marveling that this had once seemed impossible to her, and she would explain to them, laughing, that it was ever so much simpler this way and now that both of them were contented and happy” (166).

So there you go. More coming soon.

Advertisements
This entry was posted in AP English - 18 Years Later, Authors, Fiction - general, Fiction - literary, Leo Tolstoy, Reviews by Bethany. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Frou-Frou Diaries (and a Threesome!): Thoughts on Parts One and Two of Anna Karenina (by Bethany)

  1. badkitty1016 says:

    Yes! That threesome fantasy was a bit odd to me, too. I’m amazed no one noticed that in high school. It seems like teenage versions of ourselves would have found that amusing. Or maybe we weren’t comfortable with the notion of polyamorous relationships at that point. It’s been so long, I can’t remember.

    • bedstrom says:

      Or maybe we weren’t reading especially carefully? Especially since we read this book over the summer, I can imagine myself skimming over it, not entirely getting it, and then forgetting it in the 700 pages that followed.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s