Friday, September 19, 2014

Anna Karenina: Vronsky

This is a continuation from last time focusing in on the character of Vronsky in Anna Karenina. This post could be a spoiler for the book. So if you want to find out what happens for yourself stop before the last paragraph.

Vronsky is an interesting and important character in the novel. He is the unabashed hedonist, living life for all the enjoyment and pleasure that he can get out of it. Tolstoy's portrayal of Vronsky is certainly a critique of this way of living. At one point Tolstoy puts these thoughts in Vronsky's mind...
In his Petersburg world all people were divided into utterly opposed classes. One, the lower class, vulgar, stupid, and, above all, ridiculous people, who believe that one husband ought to live with the one wife whom he has lawfully married; that a girl should be innocent, a woman modest, and a man manly, self-controlled, and strong; that one ought to bring up one's children, earn one's bread, and pay one's debts; and various similar absurdities. This was the class of old-fashioned and ridiculous people. But there was another class of people, the real people. To this class they all belonged, and in it the great thing was to be elegant, generous, plucky, gay, to abandon oneself without a blush to every passion, and to laugh at everything else.
This telling passage demonstrates the world-view out of which Vronsky lives as it clearly lays out the two different paths followed by Anna (and himself) versus Levin. Vronsky thinks it laughable to marry, have children, and remain faithful to one woman, but good to pursue one's own prestige, power, and pleasure without recourse to morality or accountability. One of the strengths of Tolstoy's writing is that nowhere does he pass judgment on Vronsky's character in an overt way for his immoral view and lifestyle. Instead, it seems that he attempts to portray Vronsky as a man enslaved to his own passions and desires, a thoroughly Biblical understanding of a person without a relationship with Christ.

In one of the most important thrusts of the book, both Anna and Vronsky begin the book with the greatest promise, the most social standing, and probably the most fun out of all the other characters. However, by the end of the book one of them is in a coffin and the other is a shell of their former self. The message from Tolstoy is as emphatic as it is clear, the road down which Vronsky and Anna embarked led them to destruction. From the beginning it looked exciting and full of life, but it was a classic bait and switch in which death and ruin were substituted for life. 

Tolstoy masterfully weaves in allusions and commentary which evoke strong emotions in the reader.One of my favorite was in the horse-race. Vronsky, as well as being a playboy, is a horseman of the first rate who spends large amounts of money on buying and racing horses. In one important scene, Vronsky is astride his favorite mare Frou-Frou. He is in the lead of the race, coming up to the end where he would claim the victory prize. With the finish in sight however, there is a tragic accident in which his lapse in judgment maims the mare. Tolstoy records the scene...
At that moment he (Vronsky) knew only that Mahotin (another race horse) had flown swiftly by, while he stood staggering alone on the muddy, motionless ground, and Frou-Frou lay gasping before him, bending her head back and gazing at him with her exquisite eyes. Still unable to realize what had happened, Vronsky tugged at his mare's reins. Again she struggled all over like a fish, and her shoulders setting the saddle heaving, she rose on her front legs but unable to lift her back, she quivered all over and again fell on her side. With a face hideous with passion, his lower jaw trembling, and his cheeks white, Vronsky kicked her with his heel in the stomach and again fell to tugging at the rein.
In this scene the reader experiences the consequences of Vronsky's pursuit of his pleasure (in winning the race) at the cost of the life of his favorite mare. Vronsky's callous response is a clear allusion to his behavior towards Anna as the novel progresses. Frou-Frou and Anna share much in common. Both are Vronsky's favorites. Both have beautiful eyes. Both are used by Vronsky to bring himself pleasure. And both end up dead because of it.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Anna Karenina: Intro

Not everyone knows this about me, but I love to read. In the past couple years I've started reading some of the "greats" of literature. Most recently I finished Anna Karenina. In the next several posts I share my thoughts on the book and the overall point Tolstoy is trying to make. I'm sure much of this has been written on before, and much better, but these were my impressions.

In Anna Karenina Leo Tolstoy vividly and thoroughly asserts that living for oneself instead of for God leads down the path of destruction. The novel touches on many topics, jealousy, infidelity, rejection, death, faith, and politics as it realistically portrays the intertwined lives of two contemporaries, Anna and Levin. At the beginning Anna Karenina is a well-married fairly young socialite whose marriage is less than satisfying. At the same time, Levin is a well-to-do, if somewhat backwards, bachelor with romantic intentions towards the woman of his dreams. The novel traces the story of their lives as Anna unwittingly does Levin a favor by attracting his love's leading suitor, the playboy Vronsky.

Vronsky upon meeting Anna is infatuated with her at a feverish level. He pursues her even though she is married, and finally succeeds in seducing her. For a brief moment Anna tries to resist Vronsky's advances, but ends up falling into a passionate love affair with him despite her original intentions. One of the most arresting scenes is immediately following the consummation of their affair. Tolstoy's description conveys the guilt and shame Anna feels because of her betrayal of her wedding vows. (Also it should be noted that this novel steers clear of portraying this scene in a graphic way.)
"She felt so sinful, so guilty, that nothing was left her but to humiliate herself and beg forgiveness; and as now there was no one in her life but him, to him she addressed her prayer for forgiveness. Looking at him, she had a physical sense of her humiliation, and she could say nothing more...Shame at their spiritual nakedness crushed her and infected him."
This chapter delves into the guilt and shame felt by Anna, and to a point Vronsky, because of their affair. Though they had satisfied a deep down longing, they did not find satisfaction. In spite of this, Anna and Vronsky continue down the passionate path of their love affair mostly unconcerned for the consequences to themselves or to others. By the end of the book Tolstoy has made a strong argument about the danger inherent in such an unfettered pursuit of passion fulfillment and the lack of fulfillment which it brings.

In the next four posts I will explore how Tolstoy uses the characters of Vronsky, Anna, and Levin to make his point of where the two ways of living: living for oneself versus living for God ultimately lead.