Spoilers for Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina and Cousin Bazilio.
Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina has got me thinking about novels of adultery. This controversial topic led in the 19th century to a proliferation of such novels, beginning with template-setter Madame Bovary (1857), Anna Karenina (1877), Cousin Bazilio (1878), Effi Briest (1896), The Awakening (1899), and extending into the next century, with the infernal Ethan Frome (1911) and too many more to mention. But let us focus on the first three.
Madame Bovary is about an adulteress. Anna Karenina is about a cuckolded husband. And Cousin Bazilio is about a loathsome cad who seduces a married woman, and cousin to boot. I know that in principle Anna Karenina should be about Anna Karenina, but I defy anyone to say the first couple of hundreds of pages aren’t more interesting when they deal with Karenin’s tortured thoughts, feelings and actions. Anna dominates the final chapters of the novel, there’s no doubt about that, no preamble to a suicide has ever been better written than the fast impressions that cross Anna’s mind before she puts an end to her life.
The way each woman dies is interesting in its own different way. Gustave Flaubert gets Emma Bovary to drink poison out of despair after her mounting debts, which she contracted during her illicit affairs, threaten to expose her infidelity to her husband, Charles; alone, unable to obtain money from her former lover, Rodolphe, who disdainfully turns his back on her, she dies a slow, agonising death lying in bed. As she expires a blind beggar sings a dirty song outsider her bedroom window. It’s a tragic novel, allegedly. But this juxtaposition of the tragic and the profane say much about Flaubert’s intentions with this novel.
Anna Karenina dies because, after developing a severe depression, she develops a paranoid jealousy of her lover, Vronsky, and fear of becoming alone if he abandons her; this contributes to constant irritations at Vronksy and fights with him, which only increases her delusions that he’s planning to abandon her for another woman. An irrational urge to punish him incites her to kill herself. If realism were an important criterion, I would put Anna’s motivation below Emma’s. I don’t use the word irrational lightly for Anna for even Tolstoy has difficulty explaining what truly motivates her and eventually stops at a wall that doesn’t allow him to go any deeper into her thoughts. As a character says in All the Names, a José Saramago novel I’ve just finished re-reading, perhaps suicide can’t be explained. But I find Emma’s fear of social embarrassment, of losing face, more convincing.
Eça de Queiroz, whom I adore above the other two, takes the least artistic way out, the simplest one: he just has Luísa expire. Luísa is the victim of a terrifying blackmail by her maid, Juliana, who possesses letters involving her in an affair with her cousin, who hurriedly returns to France after his frolic. Overwhelmed by fear, shame and the mental anguish Juliana causes her, she falls into a lethargy that slowly consumes her health. Although a friend manages to recover the letters before they cause any harm, Luísa dies. Like Machado de Assis justly observed in a review of the novel, that’s not very believable. Luísa dies because she has to die, or rather, adulteresses have to die. The fact is these three novels follow moral conventions. The heroines must die punished for their social transgression. “Anna Akhmatova,” writes Isaiah Berlin in The Sense of Reality, “once complained that Tolstoy killed Anna Karenina to satisfy not his own moral code – for he knew better – but that of his Moscow aunts.” How true. The question, for me anyway, then becomes who pulls off the better death? For me it’s undoubtedly Flaubert – the impression he transmits of Emma’s final days is that she’s like a trapped wild animal, desperately gnawing its own paw to escape the hunters. A sense of urgency is in every action of hers.
Flaubert, nevertheless, wrote differently than Tolstoy. Flaubert was concerned with images, description, the famous mot juste, whereas Toltoy preferred the interiority of his characters. Flaubert doesn’t give us access into Emma’s mind, we can only interpret her from her actions. Tolstoy, on the contrary, doesn’t leave out the minute movements of Anna’s thoughts, he’s a master at converting impressions into convictions into decisions into actions. A typical passage describing Anna’s thoughts before her suicide:
In her soul there was another vague idea, which alone interested her, but of which she could not get hold. Again remembering Karenin, she also remembered her illness after her confinement, and the feeling that never left her at the time. She remembered her words, ‘Why did I not die?’ and her feelings then. And suddenly she understood what was in her soul. Yes, that was the thought which would solve everything.´
Emma Bovary is external, mildly chaotic, her descent into suicidal despair conveys primitive, instinctive reflexes. Anna Karenina is analytical and clinical, every nuance is meticulously registered, the whole chain of ideas is laid down before our eyes, organised, logical. Tolstoy was especially interested in understanding how people thought, in getting into their heads, and this he achieves with every character, but masterfully so with Anna in the chapters preceding her death.
Tolstoy is also the most tragic writer of the three, in the classical sense of the word. His tone is solemn and grave, his characters full of dignity. Flaubert, and Eça even more, wallowed in the sordidness and coarseness of human relationships. They were both materialistic writers and were going for the scandal; one can almost imagine them rubbing their hands in anticipation of the shock their novels would cause on their readers. Tolstoy favours the spiritual, his novel is a serious study of the consequences of an adulterous affair. While Flaubert turns it into a grotesque farce, and Eça, true to his wonderful self, turns the volume of satire up to eleven, Tolstoy relinquishes easy comedy while addressing the important questions of love, honour, jealousy, fidelity, propriety, life and death. His refusal to add a touch of levity to the novel is present in almost every page. Flaubert and Eça wrote what we call piquant novels, they enjoy the sexual innuendos and try to shock with strong appeals to luridness: who can forget Emma and Léon’s cab ride after their tour of the Rouen Cathedral? And Eça doesn’t mince words when describing Luísa and Bazilio’s secret love nest and everything that goes on in there. There’s titillation galore in both. But in Tolstoy there’s no trace of sexuality. Every time we see Anna and Vronsky it’s in moments of conflict, or in someone else’s company, never sharing intimate moments. What happens in the bedroom is completely irrelevant to his purposes.
This seriousness of tone obviously sets apart Tolstoy’s characters from the other two’s. Vronsky, unlike Rodolphe or Bazilio, has true, pure feelings for Anna; his love for her lasts well after she kills herself – in the novel’s final book, Vronsky volunteers as a soldier in a war between Serbians and Turks, since he’s lost a reason to live. By contrast, Rodolphe is a despicable bastard who seduces Emma, has fun with her, abandons her and refuses to aid her when she asks for his help, being indirectly responsible for her suicide. Eça, who has been called better than Flaubert, indeed created a character even more repulsive. Bazilio’s reaction, after returning from France, on hearing that Luísa has died is unforgettable in its callousness: he laments he didn’t bring a French mistress with him because he doesn’t have a woman now.
Vronsky starts as a careless man, using his beauty and uniform to dazzle women; in this manner, without malice, he breaks Kitty’s heart; but when he falls in love with Anna he decides he really wants to live her forever, to help her arrange a divorce from Karenin and marry her and have a son with her. When she dies he just wants to die. He’s therefore a character who changes a lot in the novel. In comparison, Rodolphe and Bazilio are caricatures, off-springs of the Gothic rake who threatened the heroine’s sexual purity. Likewise Karenin isn’t the foolish buffoon that Charles and Jorge are. For one thing, Karenin finds out Anna’s infidelity immediately. This changes the dynamic of the character. Instead of Charles and Jorge, who only find out the betrayal after their wives’ deaths, and who are almost excrescencies in the novels, Karenin has an active role in shaping Anna’s actions, not to mention that it gives us a far richer insight into the mind of a man cheated on by his wife. His initial attempts at ignoring the affair, then containing it within the bounds of propriety, followed by his threatening her with divorce, and trying to forgive her, make him, as I’ve said, a character more interesting than Anna in several ways.
Tolstoy was obviously interested in writing a complex and vast treatise about human feelings. He had a tragic view of life. Flaubert and Eça had different aims. Flaubert was concerned in destroying a whole inherited tradition of Romantic love, true love, pure and honest, by making it as filthy and ignoble as possible. Flaubert, I think, didn’t believe in the tragic dimension of human existence. Often he writes scenes that ordinarily would be solemn and imbued with dignity but that in his hands are juxtaposed with touches of sordidness that deflate all their tragedy and seriousness. Flaubert’s novel exists in the tension between the sacred and the profane, the tragic and the comic, lofty feelings and vulgar reality. When Rodolphe feigns a confession of love to Emma, they’re both attending an agricultural fair; as he declaims his love to her, in exalted forms, people around them discuss chickens and manure. His writing of a very heartfelt letter to her, complete with tears, is accompanied by his cynical thoughts that show that every line lacks any spontaneous feeling. My favourite example is the Rouen Cathedral tour: Emma and Léon, a young man she’s fallen in love with, are trying to discuss their feelings, but a guide constantly interrupts them in order to show them the cathedral. It’s a hilarious use of an ordinary incident to disrupt what should otherwise be a serious scene. In Flaubert’s world, real, serious conversations can’t exist. It’s the opposite world of Tolstoy’s. Eça, who was equally cynical, explores the unnoticed figure of the maid. If Emma is worried about being discovered, Eça shows what happens when a resentful maid gains power over her mistress. Eça creates a topsy-turvy world where Juliana is the de facto mistress of the house, turning Luísa into her slave. His novel is, more than the other two, about class. Although he’s labelled as a realist, Eça’s love for the bizarre denounces the limitations of that label when applied to him.
All have their strengths and weaknesses, all offer something novel and different insights. I’m not asking the reader to make any judgments on them. My own cynicism makes me sympathetic of Flaubert and Eça, even if Anna Karenina stands out as the most mature of the three. But I’d recommend reading all of them.