Thursday, 20 September 2012

Anna Karenina


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.

18 comments:

Clare said...

Of course, you could also legitimately question a social order that rests on dividing all women into "wife material," and "escaped brothel workers," and I think the novel acknowledges this problem too much to be a neat cautionary tale.

Clare said...

Also, I don't think Karenin is very good or dignified. His slide into a more spiritual set of gruesome vices mirrors Anna's--his totally unsustainable and eventually barren hyper-emotive religious conversion parallels Anna's ecstatic sexual awakening with Vronsky--which is itself a gorgeous way of asserting that marriage twines two fates, for good or ill.

Alyssa said...

I haven't seen the film yet but read the book this summer. I enjoyed hearing your thoughts and Clare's, and I am excited to gather some girl friends and watch the movie soon :)

Mustard Seed said...

I think maybe it would be worth telling people that there are some plot spoilers in this post. Anna Karenina is on my to-read list, so I had to stop reading this in the middle when some plot details appeared.

Seraphic said...

Clare: yes, you could. And we have.

Unfortunately what we have now is a system in which all women are treated as potential whores even if men would be surprised and hurt to hear that's how they are treating women.

When a magazine argues that it is okay to print topless pictures of a married woman who will be the Queen of England even though this would be clearly one of her (and her husband's, and her family's) worst nightmares, we really have to wonder if we have raised the level of respect for prostitutes as much as we have lowered the level of respect for all other women.

As for Karinen, the editor, editor and actor have chosen not to make him a nasty man or a religious maniac, but a heartbroken, decent, conventional and humourless man.

It is interesting to ponder why they have done this, and it might be to preserve how a 19th century audience would have received the book. A 19th century audience would have thought, "Well, marriage is marriage, although I do pity her as Karenin was a bastard." To get any kind of similar pro-marriage response from a 21st century audience, you'd have to give Anna fewer reasons to run and underscore Karenin's suffering.

Mustard Seed, sorry about that. I assumed everyone knew the basic story, like Hamlet.

Seraphic said...

Sorry, obviously I mean that the publication of such photos was among the Duchess's, the Duke's and their families' worst nightmares.

sciencegirl said...

Spoilers! I can't stand discussing books or movies if I can't talk about the important bits, so don't read my comment if you want suspense.

I remember reading Anna Karenina a few years ago, and it has stuck with me for a long time.

One of the major points of the book is that Anna and Vronsky's affair destroys MANY lives and ends up corrupting them both. Anna is destroyed by the corruption; Vronsky, being a man and more powerful, gets away with things, kind of. The book is actually fairly feminist, in the sense of showing the unjustness of society and the destruction that "little affairs" to which rich people and men in particular feel entitled.

I'm looking forward to seeing the movie.

When I saw the preview, I immediately thought of Steve Harvey's "Titanic" routine (expect extreme profanity if you look it up). All I can say is "We aaaall know what's going to happen! Bring on the train!!!"

Nzie (theRosyGardener) said...

SPOILERS probably below as well - I have also read the book.

I think what's interesting is that in your whole post, you mention Kitty once and Levin never. They are the clear foils to Anna and Vronsky and put forth Tolstoy's (unsustainable) ideology, as reflected in his first sentence, "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Kitty and Levin are that one path to happiness - and, at least in the book, it doesn't really work out. I wonder how much of his philosophy, and the its crumbling by the end of the book, show through the film.

Anna and Vronsky do basically destroy everything. I really want to see how much of Tolstoy's anti-industrialization goes through it as well. He really glorifies his vision of a non-industrial past, clear roles that play out (to his mind) in the same way, and how often the film associates Anna with trains (besides the end of the book; trains are industrial = bad).

One film on a related note that I found quite interesting was called The Last Station, and it is about Lev and Sophia Tolstoy in their older years, and the tempestuous nature of their relationship. I've heard also that her diaries are quite fascinating. But I would not say theirs is a marriage I would like to emulate.

~Nzie

Seraphic said...

No, that's the thing about Tolstoy. And after I read Andrea Dworkin on the man, I had a really hard time thinking of him as a Christian visionary or anything good, really.

I realized from the Kitty-Levin marriage that Levin was supposed to be Tolstoy, so once they were married, I took it all with a grain of salt. It's nice that Kitty (PLOT SPOILER) didn't go along with the conventional attitude towards her brother-in-law's "wife".

Jen D said...

Doesn't look like it comes out in the US until November, boo!!!

n.panchancha said...

I've been pumped about this movie for MONTHS! Oh, you lucky EU people and your advanced screenings...

No spoilers here, I think... I remember a prof in my undergrad university talking about how books change when you read them at different times of life. She mentioned how romantic and tragic and incredible Anna Karenina was to her at twenty, and how at fifty it made her writhe in her seat - because, she said, the subject matter was something so much more real, when she'd seen friends go through analogous situations (though - **SPOILER, oops** - hopefully not fatal ones). She said her gut reaction was, "Why would anyone WANT to write about this??"

I'm still closer to 20 than 50, and haven't been married, and I pray that my friends' marriages will be happy - but it is interesting how experiencing these things, in "real life," changes your perspective on them in literature.

n.panchancha said...

PS: Also enjoyed a fairly hilarious email exchange with my mother this week, re: Anna Karenina, which she has just started to read... When a train crushes a railway worker, early in the book, Anna says something along the lines of, "This is a bad omen" - which my dear mum (rightly) thought was a horrifying attitude: "What if I ended up crushed by a train? Would all of you be going, 'Oh my, I hope this isn't a sign of misfortunes to come...'??"

Truth! And perhaps an early sign that Anna needs to transcend a kind of solipsistic worldview (or of Tolstoy needing to transcend a classist one)? (Perhaps that's harsh - I remember the first time I read the novel, it seemed so impossible that there could be any way for things to work out for everyone. A sticky situation, to say the least.)

Charming Disarray said...

"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."

I've noticed that a lot of women now will be nasty towards other women about the idea of waiting for or respecting marriage. I suppose they, too, are trying to preserve their social order...if you can call it order.

Seraphic said...

Nah. They're just operating from guilty consciences. "Hey, I compromised my integrity; why shouldn't you?"

Domestic Diva said...

All of this is making me want to re-read the book, which I read several years ago, to see if my perspective has changed. At the time, I loved that (SPOILER) Anna fell from grace and Levin grew in it; the juxtaposition of the two characters/storylines fascinated me. Now that I've witnessed the marital struggles of some friends, I wonder if I'll see it differently.
I've been wondering if the movie would be any good. So glad to hear that, as far as it went, it seems to have been faithful to the story.

Seraphic said...

Oh dear. Sorry to hear about the marital struggles of friends. They must be bad indeed if they are talking about them with people outside the family, for discretion is the soul of marriage.

When married people say marriage is not easy, the correct response is not "My marriage will be!" but "Oh, I guess marriage is not easy. I will keep that in mind if I get married." That way you don't go into shock when you hit a bumpy patch or get a crush on the UPS man or whatever.

Sheila said...

I LOVED that book. One of my favorites of all time. I read it the month of my wedding, which I highly recommend.

Just mentioned it to my husband, though, and he says he didn't like it! Too many long chapters on reaping fields. Sigh, the reaping was my favorite part. ;)

I think it's part of human nature to shun those who buck the trend, because trend-bucking CAN be society-destroying. Yes, for Anna to abandon her husband harms the social order where marriage is for life. But for me to be faithful to my husband actually does harm those who would rather be perfectly "free" to sleep around -- because I'm creating the idea in men's minds that women MIGHT be faithful and that maybe these "free" women are NOT the ideal. I've noticed it a lot in parenting, too -- a lot of the "mommy wars" are just women trying to force other women to do things the same as them .... because society is shaped, for good or ill, by parenting, and they believe society really will collapse if you do it wrong.

Not to defend bullying, which is what it is. But it does appear to be part of human nature.

Naty said...

I highly recommend Anna Karenina! It's truly a great book. I even skimmed (ok, I skipped :) ) over the long chapters or parts that didn't interest me as much as the stories of the main characters, and I never felt like I missed something :) But I will definitely have to read it again one day. There is so much in the story to think about, and it's very enjoyable to read.