Thursday, 20 September 2012
Update: If you don't know the story already, there are plot spoilers ahead.
Yesterday I went with three Single girlfriends to see the new Anna Karenina, starring Keira Knightley, on the big screen.
I am so glad I did not see Anna Karenina with any male friend. So glad. Soooooooo glaaaad! I would have died of embarrassment forty-five times, each death more painful than the last.
I have not read the book, so all my remarks are confined to what Tom Stoppard left of it for this film which, I should say, was a fantastic adaptation. It was deliciously classic--the clothes!---and sharply contemporary and original at the same time. It was enthralling and devastating. My writer-painter buddy and looked at each other afterwards in the Ladies' with dazed, stricken eyes.
"If that doesn't teach us to be good, nothing will," I said.
And looking just at the film, I say that it is a film about marriage and married people. So it can be embarrassing for a married woman to watch with Single friends, rather in the way it is embarrassing to watch Sex and the City with innocent 19 year olds. This may be because married women can see Anna Karenina from the inside, so to speak, and know what the problems with the Karenin marriage were, and know why Anna would behave so stupidly, and also--shock, horror--why society had to ostracize Anna.
Somewhere or other online I came across one of you freaking out because someone suggested that married people know more about marriage than Single people, but this is in fact true, in the same way that an Olympian knows more about the Olympics than you do, even if your parents were Olympians and you watch them every four years. It is a big, life-changing, psychologically serious deal, quite apart from whether you love your spouse or not.
Love does not make your husband your husband. What makes your husband your husband is two acts (yours and his) of free will, a public declaration and the recognition of society that your husband is your husband. It is more than a personal, private arrangement, and this is not me saying what I think marriage should be, but what marriage actually is. So when Anna tells Karenin, her husband, that "Vronsky is my husband now", she is simply not rooted in reality.
It is really such a devastating story because [in the film] none of the principal characters are wicked or even that annoying. Karenin is a very good, very dignified man. Anna is a loving mother who wants to be good, but after her fatal decision, discovers that she increasingly can't be. (Her passions slip more and more out of her control, as the film brilliantly depicts.) Vronsky, to my great surprise, actually loves Anna. Anna's philandering brother is funny and full of life.
If there is a baddie, it is Vronksy's mother, who thinks it a delightful thing to have affairs as long as they aren't too obvious or taken too seriously. How angry she is when her son takes his affair with Anna seriously. Hypocrisy may be the tribute vice pays to virtue, but virtue is infinitely superior.
Hypocrisy, though, is better than total social meltdown, and that is what Anna seems to want. Anna doesn't just want to love Vronsky; she wants to rub everyone's nose in it. (Everyone's, that is, except her son's.) Anna thinks making plain her passionate love is more important than her husband's peace, her husband's standing in the community, the feelings of her community--which, incidentally, accords her infinitely more privilege than it does, say, the serfs, and her relationship with God.
"I'm damned anyway," says Anna, and yet is wounded when people treat her like the damned. After all, who is she hurting? Oh, yes. Her husband. To a certain extent her son. The feelings of her society. And you.
I don't want to chuck stones at Anna. She married at 18 to someone she didn't love but presumably found impressive, as Minister Karenin is quite obviously impressive, and must have been a terribly good catch. It is unlikely either Anna or her husband had any idea of the importance of eros in the married life when they entered into it, or Anna would not have had her head turned by Vronsky. So I feel awfully bad for Anna.
But I think you can draw a straight line from Anna's behaviour to current Western society, where my readers note that Yes, we now can vote now, yes, we now are equal to men in law, but we now wonder if we can get married if we don't put out first. Sex is no longer for marriage, but something to be indulged for its own sake, either in the throes of romantic passion, or for fun.
And if we don't go along with this, if we want to be as virtuous and cherished as Ekaterina Alexandrovna Shcherbatskaya (Kitty), we are thought of as anti-sex and mean or crazy. Outside conservative religious circles, there no longer seems to be a distinction, sexually speaking, between wife-material (like Kitty) and escaped brothel-workers (like Masha).
All those women being nasty to Anna in the film were trying to keep the social order at a time when even aristocratic women had very few rights at all. If married women felt it okay to leave their husbands and children, and run about Russia openly with their lovers, and respectable people opened their doors to them (thereby siding with them against the innocent husband) where would it end?
Unfortunately, I think we have all experienced where it has ended--for the moment. I don't think we have yet hit bottom, although Western civilization--inextricably dependent upon keeping the passions under the guidance of reason--seems ever closer to throwing itself under a train.