The genius of Tolstoy in Anna KareninaPosted in Articles
Prince Stepan Arkadyevitch Oblonsky (Stiva) has had an affair with a French governess. His wife, Dolly, has found a note which reveals that the affair has been going on. She is distraught and devastated. Anna Karenina (Oblonsky’s sister) travels fromPetersburgto visit the Oblonskys inMoscow, tells Dolly that she knows what has happened, and tries to comfort her sister-in-law.
In this extract from Constance Garnett’s translation of the Tolstoy’s novel – perhaps one of the greatest novels ever written – we see something of the writer’s genius. How well do you think Tolstoy has put himself into the minds of two women? Please tell me. Here is the extract:
When Anna went into the room, Dolly was sitting in the little drawing-room with a white-headed fat little boy, already like his father, giving him a lesson in French reading. As the boy read, he kept twisting and trying to tear off a button that was nearly off his jacket. His mother had several times taken his hand from it, but the fat little hand went back to the button again. His mother pulled the button off and put it in her pocket.
“Keep your hands still, Grisha,” she said, and she took up her work, a coverlet she had long been making. She always set to work on it at depressed moments, and now she knitted at it nervously, twitching her fingers and counting the stitches. Though she had sent word the day before to her husband that it was nothing to her whether his sister came or not, she had made everything ready for her arrival, and was expecting her sister-in-law with emotion.
Dolly was crushed by her sorrow, utterly swallowed up by it. Still she did not forget that Anna, her sister-in-law, was the wife of one of the most important personages in Petersburg, and was a Petersburggrande dame. And, thanks to this circumstance, she did not carry out her threat to her husband—that is to say, she remembered that her sister-in-law was coming. “And, after all, Anna is in no wise to blame,” thought Dolly. “I know nothing of her except the very best, and I have seen nothing but kindness and affection from her towards myself.” It was true that as far as she could recall her impressions atPetersburg at the Karenins’, she did not like their household itself; there was something artificial in the whole framework of their family life. “But why should I not receive her? If only she doesn’t take it into her head to console me!” thought Dolly. “All consolation and counsel and Christian forgiveness, all that I have thought over a thousand times, and it’s all no use.”
All these days Dolly had been alone with her children. She did not want to talk of her sorrow, but with that sorrow in her heart she could not talk of outside matters. She knew that in one way or another she would tell Anna everything, and she was alternately glad at the thought of speaking freely, and angry at the necessity of speaking of her humiliation with her, his sister, and of hearing her ready-made phrases of good advice and comfort. She had been on the lookout for her, glancing at her watch every minute, and, as so often happens, let slip just that minute when her visitor arrived, so that she did not hear the bell.
Catching a sound of skirts and light steps at the door, she looked round, and her care-worn face unconsciously expressed not gladness, but wonder. She got up and embraced her sister-in-law.
“What, here already!” she said as she kissed her.
“Dolly, how glad I am to see you!”
“I am glad, too,” said Dolly, faintly smiling, and trying by the expression of Anna’s face to find out whether she knew. “Most likely she knows,” she thought, noticing the sympathy in Anna’s face. “Well, come along, I’ll take you to your room,” she went on, trying to defer as long as possible the moment of confidences.
“Is this Grisha? Heavens, how he’s grown!” said Anna; and kissing him, never taking her eyes off Dolly, she stood still and flushed a little. “No, please, let us stay here.”
She took off her kerchief and her hat, and catching it in a lock of her black hair, which was a mass of curls, she tossed her head and shook her hair down.
“You are radiant with health and happiness!” said Dolly, almost with envy.
“I?…. Yes,” said Anna. “Merciful heavens, Tanya! You’re the same age as my Seryozha,” she added, addressing the little girl as she ran in. She took her in her arms and kissed her. “Delightful child, delightful! Show me them all.”
She mentioned them, not only remembering the names, but the years, months, characters, illnesses of all the children, and Dolly could not but appreciate that.
“Very well, we will go to them,” she said. “It’s a pity Vassya’s asleep.”
After seeing the children, they sat down, alone now, in the drawing room, to coffee. Anna took the tray, and then pushed it away from her.
“Dolly,” she said, “he has told me.”
Dolly looked coldly at Anna; she was waiting now for phrases of conventional sympathy, but Anna said nothing of the sort.
“Dolly, dear,” she said, “I don’t want to speak for him to you, nor to try to comfort you; that’s impossible. But, darling, I’m simply sorry, sorry from my heart for you!”
Under the thick lashes of her shining eyes tears suddenly glittered. She moved nearer to her sister-in-law and took her hand in her vigorous little hand. Dolly did not shrink away, but her face did not lose its frigid expression. She said:
“To comfort me’s impossible. Everything’s lost after what has happened, everything’s over!”
And directly she had said this, her face suddenly softened. Anna lifted the wasted, thin hand of Dolly, kissed it and said:
“But, Dolly, what’s to be done, what’s to be done? How is it best to act in this awful position—that’s what you must think of.”
“All’s over, and there’s nothing more,” said Dolly. “And the worst of all is, you see, that I can’t cast him off: there are the children, I am tied. And I can’t live with him! it’s a torture to me to see him.”
“Dolly, darling, he has spoken to me, but I want to hear it from you: tell me about it.”
Dolly looked at her inquiringly.
Sympathy and love unfeigned were visible on Anna’s face.
“Very well,” she said all at once. “But I will tell you it from the beginning. You know how I was married. With the education mamma gave us I was more than innocent, I was stupid. I knew nothing. I know they say men tell their wives of their former lives, but Stiva”—she corrected herself—”Stepan Arkadyevitch told me nothing. You’ll hardly believe it, but till now I imagined that I was the only woman he had known. So I lived eight years. You must understand that I was so far from suspecting infidelity, I regarded it as impossible, and then—try to imagine it—with such ideas, to find out suddenly all the horror, all the loathsomeness…. You must try and understand me. To be fully convinced of one’s happiness, and all at once…” continued Dolly, holding back her sobs, “to get a letter…his letter to his mistress, my governess. No, it’s too awful!” She hastily pulled out her handkerchief and hid her face in it. “I can understand being carried away by feeling,” she went on after a brief silence, “but deliberately, slyly deceiving me…and with whom?… To go on being my husband together with her…it’s awful! You can’t understand…”
“Oh, yes, I understand! I understand! Dolly, dearest, I do understand,” said Anna, pressing her hand.
“And do you imagine he realizes all the awfulness of my position?” Dolly resumed. “Not the slightest! He’s happy and contented.”
“Oh, no!” Anna interposed quickly. “He’s to be pitied, he’s weighed down by remorse…”
“Is he capable of remorse?” Dolly interrupted, gazing intently into her sister-in-law’s face.
“Yes. I know him. I could not look at him without feeling sorry for him. We both know him. He’s good-hearted, but he’s proud, and now he’s so humiliated. What touched me most…” (and here Anna guessed what would touch Dolly most) “he’s tortured by two things: that he’s ashamed for the children’s sake, and that, loving you—yes, yes, loving you beyond everything on earth,” she hurriedly interrupted Dolly, who would have answered—”he has hurt you, pierced you to the heart. ‘No, no, she cannot forgive me,’ he keeps saying.”
Dolly looked dreamily away beyond her sister-in-law as she listened to her words.
“Yes, I can see that his position is awful; it’s worse for the guilty than the innocent,” she said, “if he feels that all the misery comes from his fault. But how am I to forgive him, how am I to be his wife again after her? For me to live with him now would be torture, just because I love my past love for him…”
And sobs cut short her words. But as though of set design, each time she was softened she began to speak again of what exasperated her.
“She’s young, you see, she’s pretty,” she went on. “Do you know, Anna, my youth and my beauty are gone, taken by whom? By him and his children. I have worked for him, and all I had has gone in his service, and now of course any fresh, vulgar creature has more charm for him. No doubt they talked of me together, or, worse still, they were silent. Do you understand?”
Again her eyes glowed with hatred.
“And after that he will tell me…. What! can I believe him? Never! No, everything is over, everything that once made my comfort, the reward of my work, and my sufferings…. Would you believe it, I was teaching Grisha just now: once this was a joy to me, now it is a torture. What have I to strive and toil for? Why are the children here? What’s so awful is that all at once my heart’s turned, and instead of love and tenderness, I have nothing but hatred for him; yes, hatred. I could kill him.”
“Darling Dolly, I understand, but don’t torture yourself. You are so distressed, so overwrought, that you look at many things mistakenly.”
Dolly grew calmer, and for two minutes both were silent.
“What’s to be done? Think for me, Anna, help me. I have thought over everything, and I see nothing.”
Anna could think of nothing, but her heart responded instantly to each word, to each change of expression of her sister-in-law.
“One thing I would say,” began Anna. “I am his sister, I know his character, that faculty of forgetting everything, everything” (she waved her hand before her forehead), “that faculty for being completely carried away, but for completely repenting too. He cannot believe it, he cannot comprehend now how he can have acted as he did.”
“No; he understands, he understood!” Dolly broke in. “But
I…you are forgetting me…does it make it easier for me?”
“Wait a minute. When he told me, I will own I did not realize all the awfulness of your position. I saw nothing but him, and that the family was broken up. I felt sorry for him, but after talking to you, I see it, as a woman, quite differently. I see your agony, and I can’t tell you how sorry I am for you! But, Dolly, darling, I fully realize your sufferings, only there is one thing I don’t know; I don’t know…I don’t know how much love there is still in your heart for him. That you know—whether there is enough for you to be able to forgive him. If there is, forgive him!”
“No,” Dolly was beginning, but Anna cut her short, kissing her hand once more.
“I know more of the world than you do,” she said. “I know how men like Stiva look at it. You speak of his talking of you with her. That never happened. Such men are unfaithful, but their home and wife are sacred to them. Somehow or other these women are still looked on with contempt by them, and do not touch on their feeling for their family. They draw a sort of line that can’t be crossed between them and their families. I don’t understand it, but it is so.”
“Yes, but he has kissed her…”
“Dolly, hush, darling. I saw Stiva when he was in love with you. I remember the time when he came to me and cried, talking of you, and all the poetry and loftiness of his feeling for you, and I know that the longer he has lived with you the loftier you have been in his eyes. You know we have sometimes laughed at him for putting in at every word: ‘Dolly’s a marvelous woman.’ You have always been a divinity for him, and you are that still, and this has not been an infidelity of the heart…”
“But if it is repeated?”
“It cannot be, as I understand it…”
“Yes, but could you forgive it?”
“I don’t know, I can’t judge…. Yes, I can,” said Anna, thinking a moment; and grasping the position in her thought and weighing it in her inner balance, she added: “Yes, I can, I can, I can. Yes, I could forgive it. I could not be the same, no; but I could forgive it, and forgive it as though it had never been, never been at all…”
“Oh, of course,” Dolly interposed quickly, as though saying what she had more than once thought, “else it would not be forgiveness. If one forgives, it must be completely, completely. Come, let us go; I’ll take you to your room,” she said, getting up, and on the way she embraced Anna. “My dear, how glad I am you came. It has made things better, ever so much better.”