Revisiting: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

I’m not done yet with writing about War & Peace, but I needed a bit of a break—and one is required in any case, because this weekend is all about The Savage Detectives (no, I’m not done yet; yes, I will be all over this readalong by Sunday at the latest).

So I thought to reinvigorate my Fridays Revisitings a little bit—with Tolstoy! I have re-read the very short first chapter of Anna Karenina, the first Tolstoy I read (long ago, in high school). I remember a few plot elements, a few characters, and liking the novel overall, which at the time at least I took basically as a Victorian novel.

Revisiting has not led me to change that opinion at all, because two or so pages is hardly enough to do that, but it does show a bit how much my own mindset and prior experience with the author affect what I notice when I read. Anna Karenina opens, as is well known, with the line about the happy and unhappy families, but by the third sentence we know why the Oblonskys in particular are unhappy (and soon after, in what manner): “The wife had discovered an intrigue between her husband and their former French governess.”*

Prince Steven Arkadyevich Oblonsky wakes up, shortly after this explanation, on a couch in his study, to which he’s been relegated since his wife caught him out. He automatically reaches out for his robe, realizing as he comes to that it is not in fact there—because he’s not in his bedroom, because he’s been kicked out, because…

‘Oh dear, dear, dear!’ he groaned recalling what had happened. And the details of his quarrel with his wife, his inextricable position, and, worst of all, his guilt, rose up in his imagination.

‘No, she will never forgive me; she can’t forgive me! And the worst thing about it is, that it’s all my own fault—my own fault; and yet I’m not guilty! That’s the tragedy of it!’ he thought.

I was struck immediately—guilt and responsibility coming up right on the second page! And Oblonsky feels both guilty and not guilty at once. It’s his fault, but it’s not his fault; he’s responsible, but not. My first reaction is annoyance that Tolstoyan characters have so little sense of accountability, but my second reaction is to put things in a somewhat different light. Perhaps Tolstoy is just really interested in guilt, that understanding guilt is part of his project.

So what is Oblonsky guilty of and not guilty of? His wife “discovered” “his guilt,” meaning his affair, but what he really blames himself for, and deems not his own fault, is his reaction to that discovery: “he involuntarily (‘reflex action of the brain,’ thought Oblonsky, who was fond of physiology) smiled his usual kindly and therefore silly smile.”

‘It’s all the fault of that stupid smile,’ thought Oblonsky. ‘But what am I to do? What can I do?’ he asked himself in despair, and could find no answer.

It makes no sense, for Oblonsky, to blame himself for his own smile. But blaming his smile for something is perfectly all right!

*Quotes taken from the Louise and Aylmer Maude translation.

3 comments to Revisiting: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

  • Nicole, sorry for being such an abysmal bibliographing Challenge W&P co-reader. I’ll try to make it up to you with a post someday…somehow. Until then, I’m relieved to hear you’re OK with more Tolstoy after what was such a grueling recent experience for you!

  • Oh Richard, Don’t be silly. Someday, somehow, you’ll make it to the end and post. And grueling != bad! You have helped me conquer one of The Greatest Dehumiliations. I just can’t wait to see what you thought of it too!

  • Al Delay

    I think that everything is fine with the first pages of Anna Karenina. Stepan Oblonsky is described by Tolstoy with a critical attitude. Stepan is an irresponsible guy who finds it acceptable to have affairs on the side. If it wasn’t of his smile then he and his wife would have come to compromise but he with his smile offended his wife to the extent that there is no hope for easy truce.