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He felt what a murderer must feel when he looks at the body he has deprived at life

I’m liking Anna Karenina a lot more now than I did when I first started reading it, but Anna continues to confuse me.  I want to like her, but I can’t—and why is it important that I like fictional characters?  It really isn’t, as long as they are good characters (and not so annoying that, like with Oblonsky, I have to yell whenever I read them because they are so annoying).  I was reading Dolly and Anna’s conversation in Part Six, Chapters XXIII and XXIV, two days ago, and it bordered on confusing, how many different directions my thoughts went.  If Anna were real and I had to spend time around her, I would dislike her.  But as a reader I see just enough of her private moments and her intense pain to pity her.  I don’t like her relationship with Vronsky, and this truly isn’t a love story (is it thought of as one?); they don’t strike me as people in love so much as people who ran into each other by accident, got stuck together somewhat by accident, and now cannot be separated.  Without Vronsky, Anna would have nothing, so she is desperate to keep him, even though she is unhappy.  And Vronsky… well, I suppose he’s given up a lot as well, though obviously not as much; he seems stuck to her out of some combination of stubborness, inertia, pity, and something else, which I would not call love, but which I think I understand just the same.  Maybe.

There are two things I often think about, and especially during the Anna sections.  The first, the place of women, and to what extent this is a book about women (not a great extent; the other main character is a man, and he probably gets more space in the text than Anna, the titular character but the most enigmatic; though is the reader drawn to think about her more because she is such an Unknown?).  The second, this I was just thinking about recently though perhaps I’ve run into the idea in other forms, the degree of the characters’ agency in their own lives.

The woman question is one I constantly go back and forth on.  It’s very difficult for me, because it is so tied to the time and place of the novel, one I can understand in theory but cannot identify with, and this lack of identification is putting up a wall that I’ve never encountered before in my reading, though I think I’ve read a fair variety of things.  Perhaps I was just naïve before.  At first, I thought that the initial instance of infidelity was there to compare with Anna and Vronsky.  As of the conversation at the dinner where Kitty and Levin get engaged, I came to see that it is there to contrast.  Two siblings both have affairs, but one of them, the man, gets away with it entirely, and the other, the woman, has her life all but ruined.  I suppose it could be worse, but she’s incredibly unhappy: that’s clear.  I guess one could say that the other difference between the two is that Anna had an affair with just one person that she loved, whereas Oblonsky had affairs with many people, just for sex, but I don’t know; I don’t think Anna and Vronsky’s love affair is very deep, and I also think that every aspect of it is affected by her gender.  Around here is where I hit walls.  It’s so hard for me to imagine a world in which divorce ruins a woman, in which children always go to the man, in which living with a man to whom one is not married causes such a rejection by society, and in which that rejection by society is so meaningful.  The section of Vronsky and Anna’s time in Petersburg, and in particular Anna’s rejection at the opera, is pretty much the prime example of a place where I understood in theory what I was reading, but could not /feel/ it.

Then the question of agency.  This is the one that seems to relate to my life, and my fears, that I’m not really making choices, I’m just letting life lead me along.  I think that is largely what the characters in this novel do.  Everyone seems bound by one or two choices or, occasionally, by some sort of destiny.  I add in the destiny part because of Kitty and Levin, who really do seem made for each other.  Their love story contrasts for me with Anna and Vronsky’s, and makes me feel more confident in saying that A and V are not really in love.  In all other cases, though, people seem to make non-decisions more often than they make decisions.  One decision, retroactively important, puts a character on a certain path, and from there s/he cannot deviate, despite occasional pathetic efforts to do so.  Anna and Vronsky, I still think, are just two random people who saw each other and found each other attractive, and then started flirting with each other.  There is a sense of inevitability with them right from the start.  But I’ve experienced that myself, that sense of taking small and insignificant steps toward something, knowing where it will lead, knowing that place is a bad place but believing it too far away or too unbelievable to be a real threat, and continuing on the path anyway, pretending it is inevitable—not my fault.  I think that’s what and A and V do.  Anna in particular seems reluctant, yet unable to stop.  I don’t think there’s anything pre-destined about them, though I suppose I might be convinced otherwise by proper evidence.  Then they have sex, and from then on, they don’t have any choices.  Anna’s already had an affair, so she’s ruined, by their standards, and she knows it.  That scene is so anticlimactic, really, perhaps because /the/ decision was made at some indeterminate point before hand, but it’s also quite tragic, quite sad.  It’s one of those moments that convinces me this is no love story:

“She felt herself so criminal and guilty that the only thing left for her was to humble herself and beg forgiveness; but as she had no one else in her life now except him, it was also to him that she addressed her plea for forgiveness.”

“…He felt what a murderer must feel when he looks at the body he has deprived at life.”

“‘Everything is finished,’ she said.  ‘I have nothing but you.  Remember that.’” [pages 150-151, Pevear/Volokhonsky translation)

So from here, she has nothing but him, and that is still true hundreds of pages later.  There are attempts at change, but generally, A, and V, and Karenin, seem borne ahead by this decision, which moves them in fits and starts.  So many attempts at large decisions, at change, are abortive.  Anna tells Karnin about her affair, which should break up her marriage.  It doesn’t, because he chooses to live in denial.  Anna considers leaving with her son and the nanny, but decides against this decision, possibly momentous, after a simple garden party, because she just can’t do something so drastic to her life.  Everyone is positive she’ll die in childbirth.  She doesn’t, and afterward, everyone is confused as to what to do, because this big event didn’t happen, and now they’re stuck as awkward as before.  Vronsky tries to kill himself, but misses.  Finally, Anna and Vronsky do leave, but she doesn’t get her divorce.  It’s a pretty big step, and yet, what does it lead to?  It’s anticlimactic for Vronsky, and even Anna is still tied to her husband, because he has her son, and because they aren’t divorced. Vronsky wants Dolly to convince Anna to get that divorce; she makes a weak attempt to talk to her, abandons it, and life goes on as before.

(There are examples of this sort of thing with Levin too, but I’m on an Anna-roll.)  Anna has so little agency in her life, and that’s what makes her so sad for me.  Other people are inert as well, but she is the most unhappy, and while Levin’s inertia, for example, leads him to what he wants, there is no path that Anna could take that could make her happy.  That’s what is so upsetting about her, for me.  She is so hopeless.  When she was young, her marriage was arranged by her aunt; she was never happy with her husband, but she is a woman, so unlike Oblonsky—who easily justifies any number of affairs by telling himself, eh, his wife’s old and ugly and his happiness is more important than anyting else, his happiness is something he deserves, and who cheats with impunity, has his cake and eats it too—she must remain faithful, or give up even more of her power to her husband, who can choose to ruin her in society, who can choose, worst of all, to take her children from her.  She does try to take her life in her own hands (kind of, Vronsky is running that affair as far as I could see), but that does not lead to happiness either, because then she has to face all of these above mentioned consequences, the worst of which is the loss of her son, and she cannot undo that decision because she is just as tied to Vronsky as she ever was to her husband.  She is stuck here, too.  If he choses to leave her, because she is not good enough, pretty enough, smart enough, interesting enough, she will have nothing at all.  Where in her life could she have done something differently, and been happy?

“What wife, what slave, can be so much a slave as I am, in my situation?” (p. 637)

“I love only these two beings [Vronsky and her son Seryozha], and the one excludes the other.  I can’t unite them, yet I need only that.  And if there isn’t that, the rest makes no difference.  It all makes no difference.  And it will end somehow, and so I can’t, I don’t like talking about it.  Don’t reproach me, then, don’t judge me for anything.” (p. 640)

Here she gives up all agency, because she recognizes that nothing will truly make her happy, and that’s the saddest of all for me.  Maybe it’s pathetic to always strive to find something to fill that lingering void, as Levin did with his work and theories, but at least if one does that, there are moments of hope.  Anna doesn’t have that.  She’s a shell.