My friends, family, coworkers, readers and probably everyone I’ve encountered on the subway in the past six weeks will be happy to know that I finally finished Anna Karenina. I started it because of impassioned recommendations from Katherine (years ago) and from Lindsay (at the beach this summer), because I was haunted by my failed attempt to read it when I last assigned it to myself during grad school, and because I couldn’t stop imagining a future job interview in which I’d have to admit to not having read it.
The first two hundred pages were rough going, despite the introduction of the evocative phrase ‘Things will shape themselves,’ which I quickly became obsessed with repeating in my head (Tolstoy 5). I was a little bored, though, and quite confused by the fact that each character had at least sixty-seven different names. That aspect of Russian literature is one that my father used to make fun of throughout my childhood, instilling in me an early bias against Russian writing. When he heard I was nearly done with the book a couple of weeks ago, he offered that I should be awarded a medal if I managed to finish. (Dad? Do I get to collect on that?)
My reading experience with Anna Karenina, though, was that the book improved exponentially with each hundred pages. I read the last six hundred or so in the time it took me to make it through the first two hundred, even with the slow-down of dog-earring passages, pausing to cry, re-reading scenes for maximum effect, etc.
Thematically and character-wise, there is so much to say and that I want to say about this book, but I am going to really restrict myself and concentrate only on a passage I encountered on pages 603-604 and how it relates to the rest of the novel.
Dolly (Princess Darya Alexandrovna Oblonskaya) is one of my favorite characters in the book. Her family situation sets the tone for the novel—her husband has cheated on her and the fall-out occupies the first section. We first get to know Anna Karenina when she comes to coerce Dolly not to leave her husband. Throughout the novel, Dolly is in the periphery—her story is not the focus of the book as is her sister Kitty’s and her sister-in-law Anna’s. Three quarters of the way though the novel, though, she is given an uninterrupted section in which to express her thoughts on motherhood—honest, unidealized, lonely, tragic:
‘At present I am teaching Grisha, but that is only because I am free now and not having a baby…But in case of another child…’ And it occurred to her how inaccurate it is to say that woman’s curse is the bringing forth of children. ‘Travail, that’s nothing—but pregnancy is torture,’ she thought, with her last pregnancy and the death of her infant in mind. And she recalled a talk she had had with a young woman at the halting-place. In answer to the question whether she had any children, the good-looking young peasant wife had cheerfully replied:
‘I had one girl, but God released me. I buried her in Lent.’
‘And are you very sorry?’ said Dolly.
‘What’s there to be sorry about? The old man has plenty of grand-children as it is. They’re nothing but worry. You can’t work or anything. They’re nothing but a tie…’
This answer had seemed horrible to Dolly, despite the good-natured sweetness of the young woman’s looks, but now she could not help recalling it. In those cynical words there was some truth.
Thus far, I was struck by the women’s view, despite their different economic situations, of children as a hindrance to their ability to work, as well as Dolly’s question to the peasant woman—I thought, no one would ask that today! But then I amended: in this part of the world at least.
‘Altogether,’ she thought, looking back at the whole of her life during those fifteen years of wedlock, ‘pregnancy, sickness, dullness of mind, indifference to everything, and above all disfigurement. Even Kitty—young, pretty Kitty—how much plainer she has become! And I when I am pregnant become hideous, I know. Travail, suffering, monstrous suffering, and that final moment…then nursing, sleepless nights, and that awful pain!’
What a list—dullness of mind? Indifference to everything? There are many depictions of physical illness in Anna Karenina—plenty of which are caused by childbirth (every birth in the book is accompanied by near-death sickness for the mother) but Tolstoy delves into mental illness, as well, from Dolly’s depression to Anna’s wild conjectures, desperation and suicide.
Dolly shuddered at the mere thought of the pain she had endured from sore nipples, from which she had suffered with almost every baby. ‘Then the children’s illness, that continued anxiety; then their education, nasty tendencies,’ (she recalled little Masha’s delinquency among the raspberry canes), ‘lessons, Latin…It is all so incomprehensible and difficult. And above all, the death of these children…’ And once more the cruel memory rose that always weighted on her mother-heart: the death of her last baby, a boy who died of croup; his funeral, the general indifference shown to the little pink coffin, and her own heartrending, lonely grief at the sight of that pale little forehead with the curly locks on the temples, and of the open, surprised little mouth visible in the coffin at the instant before they covered it with the pink lid ornamented with a gold lace cross.
Don’t you want to reach back a hundred and forty years and grab her hand? “Heartrending” is right.
‘And what is it all for? What will come of it all? I myself, without having a moment’s peace, now pregnant, now nursing, always cross and grumbling, tormenting myself and others, repulsive to my husband—I shall live my life, and produce unfortunate, badly brought-up and beggared children. Even now, if we had not spent this summer with the Kostya and Kitty, I don’t know how we should have managed. Of course Kostya and Kitty are so considerate that we don’t feel it; but it can’t go on so. They will have children of their own and won’t be able to help us; as it is, they are put to inconvenience. Is Papa, who has kept scarcely anything for himself, to help us?…So I can’t even give the children a start myself, unless it’s with other people’s help and with humiliation. Well, supposing the best: that none of the other children die, and that I somehow succeed in bringing them up; at the very best they will only escape being ne’er-do-wells. That is all I can hope for. And for this, so much suffering and trouble…My whole life ruined!’ Again she remembered what the young woman had said. Again the recollection was repulsive to her, but she could not help admitting that there was a measure of crude truth in the words.
In this last passage, Dolly’s perceived powerlessness is made vivid. Without a happy partnership with her husband, she is left to rely on the kindness of others to provide for her family. Whether she has the ability to raise her children to her standards or not, she doesn’t believe she has it. Her whole life has been devoted to raising children who either die or who she believes will fail.
Other mothers in the novel do not fair much better, least of all Anna. She is forced to leave her beloved son, Serezha, when she takes up with her lover, Vronsky. And, when she has a baby girl with Vronsky, she is unable to love her as much as her first son. It is not often, even in literature, that a woman would admit to loving one of her children more than another—Anna is confused by her feelings, horrified by them even, but essentially unapologetic.
Tolstoy’s portrayals of motherhood reminded me, believe it or not, of Tillie Olsen’s. Reading Dolly’s passage, I immediately thought of the phenomenal classic story “I Stand Here Ironing” as well as the lesser known “O Yes” from the collection Tell Me a Riddle.
Dolly’s reluctant assertion that life would be easier should her children die made me think of the conclusion of “O Yes” —the passage that begins: “It is a long baptism into the seas of humankind, my daughter. Better immersion than to live untouched…Yet how will you sustain? Why is it like it is? Sheltering her daughter close, mourning the illusion of the embrace. And why do I have to care?” (Olsen 61-62).
And in “I Stand Here Ironing,” the mother examines the ways in which she failed her oldest child, having been too poor, inexperienced, unknowing to have done the job of raising her right. Each of her experiences with her subsequent children, each moment she lives, illuminates the irreparable ways in which she failed Emily: “I will never total it all. I will never come in to say: She was a child seldom smiled at. Her father left me before she was a year old. I had to work her first six years when there was work, or I sent her home to his relatives. There were years she had care she hated….She was a child of anxious, not proud, love…” (Olsen 12).
The very last paragraph of Tillie Olsen’s story is too good to reprint here (I’m sure you’ve all read it, anyway!) but it does end with a slightly more hopeful note than does Dolly’s passage—she wishes for her child to know that she can be more than her upbringing, more than an object onto which damage is done, that she has the will and power to become something more. Dolly’s dim view of motherhood dooms her children, too—seventy-five years later, the narrator of “I Stand Here Ironing,” grants them hope. But as for her, the narrator, the mother?
At one point she says, hearing her last, her youngest, cry: “That time of motherhood is almost behind me when the ear is not one’s own but must always be racked and listening for the child cry, the child call” (9). She has given herself over to motherhood—now that she almost has her ears back, what she has left are the guilt and memories of her mistakes.
So, clearly if you are looking for cheery reads, you should skip Anna Karenina and definitely Tillie Olsen’s Tell Me a Riddle. But, I would recommend both. You can read Ms. Olsen’s slim volume in an afternoon and Anna Karenina, well, you have to read that at your own pace. Perhaps if it has conquered you as it had me for so long, though, you might be heartened in your next attempt to know that by the end it is a fully absorbing, hard-to-put-down, tragic romance.
Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina. Translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Olsen, Tillie. Tell Me a Riddle. New York: Delta Publishing Co., Inc., 1956.