Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Cruel, Faithful Vronsky



This post is an expansion of the thoughts I wrote about Vronsky before. Vronsky is one of the finest characters in Anna Karenina, the young officer who falls in love with Anna, seduces her and for whom she leaves her husband. Vronsky is dashing, handsome, intelligent, high-spirited, and rich. So far that’s hardly remarkable, since these attributes are the stock and trade of his type of character, the charming seducer who sweeps the married woman’s feet off her ground. What is so remarkable about Vronsky and what elevates Anna Karenina above Madame Bovary and Cousin Bazilio is that he genuinely loves Anna. He’s not a rake or a Lothario who has a fling with Anna and then abandons her to her misfortunes. His love is sincere and to the best of his ability he tries to have an honourable life with her. This makes Anna Karenina all the more tragic because it’s a real love story rather than a cynical satire of romantic love.

It’s true that when we meet him, Vronskys is about to break Kitty’s heart by giving her false expectations of intending to marry her. His youth, beauty and joie de vivre make him careless and prevent him from seeing that he’s hurting anyone. In a way, he’s like Oblonsky, a married womanizer in the novel, too cheerful to care about anything:

He did not know that his behaviour toward Kitty had a name of its own, that it was decoying a girl with no intentions of marrying her, and is one of the evil actions common among brilliant young men like himself. He thought he was the first to discover this pleasure and he enjoyed his discovery.

He even has a sneering attitude for those ordinary people who build families, have mundane jobs and live boring lives:

In his Petersburg world people were divided into two quite opposite sorts. One – the inferior sort: the paltry, stupid, and, above all, all ridiculous people who believe that a husband should live with the one wife to whom he is married, that a maiden should be pure, a woman modest, and a man, manly, self-controlled and firm; that one should bring up one’s children to earn their living, should pay one’s debts, and other nonsense of that kind. These were the old-fashioned and ridiculous people. But there was another sort of people: the real people to which all his set belonged, who had above all to be well-bred, generous, bold, gay, and to abandon themselves unblushingly to all their passions and laugh at everything else.

But then he meets Anna and changes. He quits his military career to be with her. He once tries to commit suicide because of her. But he desperately wants to live with her, he wants Karenin to grant her a divorce so he can legally claim their daughter as his, and he wants to have a male child with Anna. In other words, with Anna he’s wiling to live the mundane, predictable life he censored others for living. Tolstoy masterfully captures Vronsky’s awareness of this change in himself:

He was angry with everybody for their interference, just because he felt in his soul that they were right. He felt that the love that united him with Anna was not momentary infatuation, which would pass, as Society intrigues do, without leaving any trace in the lives of the one or the other except pleasant or disagreeable memories. He felt all the torment of his and her position, all the difficulties they were surrounded by in consequence of their station in life, which exposed them to the eyes of the whole world, obliged them to hide their love, to lie and deceive, and again to lie and deceive, to scheme and constantly think about others while the passion that bound them was so strong that they both forgot everything but their love.

He’s aware this isn’t a mere fleeting love, coquetry. He wants to build his life with her, and to return with her into society as husband and wife. Of course he’s prey to the usual problems that affect all lovers: his love grows a bit weaker, he can’t abandon some of his past vices, his love for parties, entertaining friends and going out, a behaviour which upsets Anna as she grows more possessive of him. But for all their difficulties and Anna’s growing irritation and jealous paranoia that he’s cheating on her (he’s not), he’s a model husband, caring, affectionate, who continues to love her still after her death, and indeed finds her absence so unbearable he volunteers to serve in a war and hopes to die in it. At one point in the novel, Dolly, who almost left Oblonsky after he cheated on her, worries that Vronsky might get tired of Anna too, but he never does. Perhaps if their love had continued, they would have got tired of each other, that is always a possibility, but what we can glean from the text is that Anna’s death leaves Vronsky emotionally fractured, so heartbroken, that he has no alternative but to leave for war with the expectation of dying.

13 comments:

  1. I'm reading Anna Karenina - or have been reading it for a while - and one thought that crossed my mind occasionally and which I find implicitly echoed here is that I thought he could have called the novel "Vronsky". When I was reading it I thought that unlike in the other novels of adulterous women you mention in your last post, in Anna Karenina the woman isn't as center stage as in the others. Maybe it is precisely because he really loves her. I hadn't thought ot it like that.
    I'm not sure why he chose this title. Are his sympathies with the woman?

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    1. Caroline, I think Tolstoy's sympathies are with all his characters. He doesn't judge, he just exposes their lives and consciousnesses and lets the readers judge them. What I admire about him, though, is that he doesn't surrender to easy caricature - even a cad like Oblonsky has his many good points.

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    2. I read somewhere that Tolstoy had a negative outlook on women, but forgive me if I'm wrong.

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    3. Hello, Eggs.

      I only know Tolstoy from his novels; I never looked up his personal views on anything. In any event, his female characters are so rich and complex, I don't see how he didn't love them, like he obviously loved all things human.

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    4. Hi everyone,
      Russian major here. I just took a class all on Tolstoy (and half of it was Anna Karenina because, well, that book is long!) and can absolutely say that he did have a very negative outlook on women. I can't say whether it was really more than was to be expected at the time, but from his diaries, we do know that he thought women were meant to be mothers and bear children and that was it. To be fair, his thoughts of men's usefulness went as far as manual labor and working in the fields. And his views get progressively more...difficult as he ages and goes through his conversion, so naturally all his thoughts evolve.
      Here's one article talking about Tolstoy's view of women becoming evident in Anna Karenina: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3346113?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

      I don't agree that Tolstoy punishes Anna in the novel, but it can't really be debated that he had misogynistic views. He was certainly an enigmatic man, and all of these facts about him, as well as his personal writings, make the messages that come out of his novels (often seen as feminist, often as misogynistic) very, very interesting.

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    5. Hi everyone,
      Russian major here. I just took a class all on Tolstoy (and half of it was Anna Karenina because, well, that book is long!) and can absolutely say that he did have a very negative outlook on women. I can't say whether it was really more than was to be expected at the time, but from his diaries, we do know that he thought women were meant to be mothers and bear children and that was it. To be fair, his thoughts of men's usefulness went as far as manual labor and working in the fields. And his views get progressively more...difficult as he ages and goes through his conversion, so naturally all his thoughts evolve.
      Here's one article talking about Tolstoy's view of women becoming evident in Anna Karenina: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3346113?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

      I don't agree that Tolstoy punishes Anna in the novel, but it can't really be debated that he had misogynistic views. He was certainly an enigmatic man, and all of these facts about him, as well as his personal writings, make the messages that come out of his novels (often seen as feminist, often as misogynistic) very, very interesting.

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  2. Sorry to be replying so late on this...

    Yes,I agree: Vronsky really does love Anna. His relationship with Anna ennobles him, and he develops from the pleasure-seeking shallow aristocrat to someone who invests his deepest emotions into his relationship. this doesn't mean she doesn't irritate him: towards the end, Anna is, I think, mentally unstable, and Vronsky, naturally, cannot understand this. And yes, she does irritate him. this is what makes his guilt all the sharper afterwards.

    One of the most tragic scenes I have read anywhere is where we see Vronsky for the last time, on a railway platform. he is going to war, not caring whether he survives. And he has toothache. One one level, this is a Flaubertian touch: even when one's soul is in agony, one is still subject to such mundane matters as toothache. On another level, Vronsky has had associated with him the leitmotif of sparkling, white teeth: that has been the image with which he is constantly identified. And now, it's his teeth that's causing him pain. At the end of the chapter, we see Vronsky stare with horror at the wheels of a passing train. he had, after all, seen the mangled body of the woman he had loved, and he must have brooded endlessly on her last moments. I find this scene almost too much to take.

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    1. That's a lovely interpretation of the final scene. You never cease to amaze me with your revelations about Tolstoy's works.

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  3. Love this exposition. Read this novel last month and enjoyed it immensely. Thanks for this.

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    1. Nana, my pleasure. It is a great novel, isn't it? And the characters are so well-delineated and reach. I'm missing Tolstoy, I have to stop being lazy and read Resurrection.

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  4. "I'm not sure why he chose this title. Are his sympathies with the woman?"

    I find Tolstoy's attitudes towards various women slightly patronizing, in spite of his often generous treatment of them, but I suppose that cannot be helped, especially given his milieu. He is also thought to have had a less than ideal marital life, with his wife caricatured as a nag by some biographers. But it is clear, through his writings, that he was not a misogynist. To the contrary, he was rather respectful of women and enjoyed fleshing them out as creatures as complex, varied, and as fascinating as men. And to be fair, it must be observed that he is rather patronizing to all humans.

    I have often wondered why he named the book after her and not Levin, through whom he speaks his own nebulous credo, and I think of the passages where Levin and Anna either cross path or where Levin is thinking of Anna. This is a woman, or more probably, women whom Tolstoy knew or knew of in his life, probably as peripherally as Anna was known to Levin, who was indeed struck with Anna and her fate. I think Tolstoy painted a portrait of a certain woman/women known to him in Society and staged his presentation of that Society with her as the focus, and juxtaposed that with his own life and views. So naturally he named the book after her, because she had given him so much food for thought.

    That is my conjecture at this point in time. I may change down the road, as I have changed my mind about this book a couple of time over decades.

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  5. I really enjoy your post on Vronsky and his analysis as an character! I think too often the relationship between Anna and him gets simplified and something so complex and nuanced gets lost when people look at it from purely something happening between the two of them rather than looking at all society influences and eats away at them both. Anna as I see it is someone who is so sick of living under pretense and shallowness that when she meets and falls in love with Vronksy, she cannot do anything except live life in the most honest way she knows how, even if it means going against everything in aristocratic society. Vronsky loves her deeply, but cannot endure such a violent break with society as Anna can. He still wants a spot with high society, especially after the trip to Italy where he gave up his illusionment of being a painter and realize how lonely they were. I think Vronksy cannot give Anna the type of love she wants not merely because of her fear of him falling in love with someone else, but rather how he cannot defy the society they live in as boldly and tragically as Anna has. She rejected everything that once made up her life in order to live an honest life and paid the price for it, including being separated from her son. Because sees with clarity how much she loathes pretentiousness, she can sense it so acutely from Vronksy when he makes excuses for himself, such as how he doesn't want her to go to the theatre so they don't offend the others in the upper circle. Anna is someone ahead of her time, and must feel alive through her actions. But this makes Vronksy hesitate and distance himself from Anna, which I think is what makes his character more human and full of depth and richness. It shows his fear and vulnerability, and I don't see it as taking away of his love for Anna, in the end they were both in incredible pain. I think Trotsky was a genius, in how he writes both about a love story between key characters, but also comment on the condition of the Russian society at the time and the various ways of resisting that spiritual corruption and emotional suffocation.

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  6. In one scene Vronsky thinks "she and her ornaments are beautiful... but I have seen them so many times"... Anna knew he was getting tired of her.... Being angry and menacing with finishing all was the only way to capture his attention... Dyeing was the ultimate and only way to tie his mind to her forever..... If she would have not done that, he would have stayed with her for painful loyalty... not for love. I guess this novel leaves me with a question I always have had: why men get tired? I know having him would have been enough to Anna,... why was she not good enough for him, just as it was at the beginning? Men change. Women don't.. It's so unfair.

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