“Darya Oblonskaya” by Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy didn’t write the novel Darya Oblonskaya. But he could have done. For Darya Oblonskaya – Dolly in Anna Karenina – is, in her own way, just as tragic a figure as is Anna.

I’ve heard it said that Tolstoy didn’t take Dolly’s predicament very seriously. That while he punished Anna’s sexual transgression, the various sexual transgressions of Dolly’s husband Stiva are taken more lightly. I have even heard this excused on the grounds that Tolstoy was, after all, a man of his times, and that he was but reflecting the patriarchal values of his times. So, as a consequence, Anna is punished, but Stiva isn’t.

Quite apart from confusing the values of the author with the values of the society that author is depicting; and, further, seeing quite needlessly in the fates of fictional characters the author’s own judgement on his creations; such views seem to me to the views of people who haven’t read the novel with adequate care. For Dolly, right from the start, is a tragic character.

At the very start of the novel, Stiva is in an awkward situation. His wife has found out about his harmless little affair, and he is forced to sleep on the settee in the library. But what to Stiva is but an awkward situation – and one he quite easily puts out of mind when he goes in to work – is, to Dolly, nothing short of a disaster. Still only in her thirties, she is burdened with all the household responsibilities that her husband finds too uninteresting to bother with; she is worn out with constant childbearing and nursing; and she has lost her youthful good looks, and knows – as indeed, does her husband, honest in this respect if not in all others – that she is no longer loved. And on top of all this is the insult – the sheer humiliation of it all. And yet, what can she do? She has to stay, to continue with this humiliating situation, because, quite literally, she has nowhere else to go to. If this is not tragic, I don’t know what is: if Anna’s tragedy is that of a woman who leaves her family, Dolly’s tragedy is of a woman who doesn’t.

Much later in the novel, when Anna, as a “fallen woman”, is beyond the pale of respectable society, Dolly makes the brave decision to visit her. And on the way there, she daydreams of doing what Anna has done – to leave her family, to relinquish all the worries and troubles that have so devastated her life. Anna, when Dolly sees her, seems at first happy and carefree. But later, Dolly is shocked to see the real mental state of her friend. Anna is what we would now describe as “clinically depressed”: she has to take opium to rid herself, at least momentarily, of those thoughts that torment her so. Dolly returns from her visit thinking that her fate isn’t so bad after all. But she is perhaps mistaken in this. Anna’s tragic fate we all know about: Dolly has to continue with her unloved, humiliating existence, without remission, for the rest of her life, while her husband continues, quite unembarrassed, with a string of further affairs. And Dolly has to accept because, once again, she has literally nowhere else to go.

Tolstoy does not pass judgement, either on Dolly, or on Stiva, or even on Anna or Vronsky or Karenin. Indeed, he made a point of not passing judgement on anyone. He depicted, with utmost honesty, and leaving nothing out – merely trying to understand why people think and act as they do, and to what extent people are morally responsible. Any judgement we form is our own.

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8 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Carolyn on September 24, 2012 at 8:42 am

    I thought that chapter, where Dolly envies Anna and then ends up rushing home, is one of the best in the book. Along with the one you mention on your next post about Anna just before she throws herself in front of the train. Both wonderful and realistic (I do like things that strike me as true to life) studies of people in agitated states with stirred-up minds.

    I think perhaps, though, that Tolstoy does pass some judgement on Stiva. It might be rather subtle but it is there, in the way he gets the reader to think about Stiva, who could, after all, have just seemed a rather naive innocent sort of man, enjoying life. And part of his portrayal is that, but behind it there is a man who doesn’t care about others and how they feel, whose tiny pricks of conscience or of concern are almost immediately ignored while he gets on with the next dinner or outing or bit of fun with his friends. Stiva just reminded me of people I know, fun to be with, on-the-service caring, but very shallow. (I do think, that though Dolly will have a painful time of it for a number of years to come, she and Stiva will settle into a sort of accommodating middle age and enjoy their later years reasonably well (I suppose that is a silly sort of projection beyond the novel, but hard not to do in a very good novel where the people come to life – though mostly Anna didn’t for me.)) We don’t think any man who has an affiar is necessarily shallow and uncaring, but the way Stiva is written about here invites that response without quite saying it.

    I do think that Tolstoy, like everyone else who has ever lived, was a man of his time. I specially noticed it when he was talking about education. I don’t expect that he shared the views he was giving at all, but the fact that he could write them like that was because of when he lived. A modern writer just couldn’t, without some irony or justification, put into a sympathetic character’s voice ideas that education for the ordinary person is dangerous and wrong. And I think the parts about Levin’s thoughts on his workers and his farming could only come from someone living at not too great a distance from the time.

    Cheers, Caro. (Would anyone have noticed you had ‘liked’ your own post if you hadn’t said so? Not me, anyway.)

    Reply

    • Hello Caro, good to see you here again.

      Although there is, I suppose, no point in trying to speculate what happens “after the end”, as it were, there are certain novels – and this is amongst them – that does indeed invite this speculation. This is because we have seen these characters develop through the course of the narrative, and so, it is natural to wonder how they are going to develop further. You’re probably right that Dolly and Oblonsky may come to some sort of mutual understanding eventually, but Dolly remains, I think, a tragic character: no amount of comproise could undo the hurts she has received.

      I think I am a bit cautious about seeing views expressed by characters – even sympathetic characters – as the author’s own views. In “War and Peace”, Pierre and Andrei, both sympathetic characters, disagree profoundly with each other on all sorts of things: surely Tolstoy couldn’t have agreed with both! I think Tolstoy gives his characters opinions because he was attempting to convey an impression of reality, and, in reality, people do have and do express opinions. The opinions expressed by Levin add to his characterisation, and that, I think, is how we should take them.

      And furthermore, we needn’t even assume that these are necessarily Levin’s true opinions. When he first meets with Oblonsky, Levin says that he cannot understand how a “fallen woman” can be forgiven. And yet, just a few chapters later, Levin is kind and understanding to his brother Nikolai’s mistress, who is an ex-prostitute. Levin expresses very illiberal to Koznyshev, but this is at least in part because Levin is irritated by Koznyshev’s brand of liberalism that does not take into account the realities of rural life; and also partly because he wants to shock Koznyshev. He is also on the defensive about his own lack of activity in the local council, and is punching a bit harder than he normally would. In short, all of this tells us much about Levin as a character, but possibly not much about what Levin really things, and certainly even less about what Tolstoy thinks.

      Oblonsky is everything you say he is: he is shallow and uncaring, and, quite clearly, his behaviour is most reprehensible. But he doesn’t mean to hurt his wife: he is not cruel or sadistic. He remains, right to the end of the novel, not a heartless blackguard, but actually a pleasant, charming, well-meaning chap, who gets on with everyone – even with the prickly Levin.

      There has been much discussion about writers passing judgement on their creations, and, in a sense, this is unavoidable: it is not possible to depict everything, and so, the writer has to choose what to depict and what not to depict; and in that very choice, the author can direct the reader’s moral sympathies. So although Tolstoy does not pass judgement explicitly, he may well do so implicitly. But Tolstoy presents us with characters so very complex – yes, even the shallow Oblonsky! – that judgement becomes difficult. Near the start of the novel, Oblonsky says to himself that it’s not his fault. We may laugh at this, as, clearly, it is his fault that he has been having an extra-marital affair. But a few chapters later, we see Anna deliberately lead on Vronsky at the ball, thus dashing kitty’s hopes, and the next morning, feeling guilty about what she has done but not understanding why she has done this, she too says to herself “It’s not my fault”. And because Anna is such a serious character, we believe her. But if it isn’t her fault because she couldn’t help it, can we not apply the same principle to Oblonsky? These are the questions Tolstoy poses throughout the novel – to what extent can people help being what they are? To what extent can people help doing what they do? Tolstoy explores these issues to considerable depth, but these questions remain open-ended, and, consequently, moral judgement becomes difficult.

      Reply

  2. Posted by Carolyn on September 27, 2012 at 3:25 am

    I don’t believe Anna! I thought it was every bit as much her fault as Stiva’s behaviour was his fault. You can walk away – and she didn’t.

    This comment of yours: “Oblonsky is everything you say he is: he is shallow and uncaring, and, quite clearly, his behaviour is most reprehensible. But he doesn’t mean to hurt his wife: he is not cruel or sadistic. He remains, right to the end of the novel, not a heartless blackguard, but actually a pleasant, charming, well-meaning chap, who gets on with everyone – even with the prickly Levin,” is exactly the description of some people (men) I know. Heart in the right place, pleasant, caring (if briefly), certainly protective of their wives – as long as it doesn’t take any effort.

    I don’t think Tolstoy necessarily agrees with Levin, but I still think a present-day writer wouldn’t present him or the others around him quite like that. Some of their attitudes are just too far away from present-day ones to be able to be portrayed the way he does. I don’t mean he shares them, but he shared the times they were in, in a way we don’t and can’t. I was amazed at some statement by, who? Anna’s husband? someone about how damaging educating everyone was. But it wasn’t written (as it would be now) as particularly surprising, just one opinion among the many being offered up at the time. And I liked the way Levin changed his mind about things, though occasionally I felt this was becoming a little too close to how Dostoyevsky portrayed his characters, chopping and changing every second, which isn’t quite how people operate. However Levin was uncertain in many of his opinions and keen to do the right thing, which means you do have to consider different ideas before coming down on a particular side. As you know, I found Levin a very appealing person and also a very realistic one (like Stiva, and not quite like Anna).

    Cheers, Caro.

    Reply

    • Hello Caro, there are lots to discuss here.

      I don’t believe Anna! I thought it was every bit as much her fault as Stiva’s behaviour was his fault. You can walk away – and she didn’t.

      Indeed. But this moral judgement is yours, and not necessarily Tolstoy’s. Throughout this novel, all moral judgements are the reader’s, not the author’s: Tolstoy withholds judgement.

      Some of their attitudes are just too far away from present-day ones to be able to be portrayed the way he does. I don’t mean he shares them, but he shared the times they were in, in a way we don’t and can’t. I was amazed at some statement by, who? Anna’s husband? someone about how damaging educating everyone was. But it wasn’t written (as it would be now) as particularly surprising, just one opinion among the many being offered up at the time.

      Well, of course the climate of opinion changes over time, and there is nothing very surprising about that. What we need to appreciate, I think, is not the merits or demerits of the opinion itself, but what expression of this opinion, and the form in which this opinion is expressed, reveal about the character who is expressing it.

      In any case, I doubt that doubts about the benefits of universal education have become entirely a thing of the past. When, for instance, I look around the net and observe so many people who, despite years of education paid for handsomely by the taxpayer, appear unable even to string together the simplest of sentences, then even I, who usually have a liberal frame of mind, can’t help wondering whether all the effort and expense spent on their education has been worthwhile.

      But I digress.

      And I liked the way Levin changed his mind about things, though occasionally I felt this was becoming a little too close to how Dostoyevsky portrayed his characters, chopping and changing every second, which isn’t quite how people operate.

      When you criticise the likes of Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky for not accurately depicting “how people operate”, I am, I must confess, pulled up short. Dostoyevsky, admittedly, tended to depict extreme psychologies, but we are talking here about writers who had very profound understanding of “how people operate”: to say that their depictions of “how people operate” are not accurate – i.e. that they did not have a good understanding of “how people operate” – is a bit like saying that Bach didn’t have a good understanding of counterpoint, or that Einstein didn’t have a good understanding the laws of physics. For, sometimes – with some people, often – we do chop and change very quickly. We should not, I think, go to writers of this stature expecting to be able to shoehorn their depictions of humanity into our preconceived notions of what we are: quite the contrary – we should go to these writers to expand our understanding of what it is to be human, and, indeed, “how humans operate”. For the obvious rejoinder to the criticism “this is not how people operate” is, of couurse, “How do you know?”

      For human minds, and how they operate, are inexhaustibly complex – far too complex to be pinned down by any definitive statement. If, for instance, I observe myself – the person who, I suppose, I know best, though even here, there are huge gaps in my knowledge – I can see in myself a perplexing bundle of contradictions; and, if I take myself to be, perhaps, a not entirely unrepresentative specimen of humanity, then it seems reasonable to think that other people are, to lesser or to greater extents, also bundles of contradictions. There are times when I too have chopped and changed from moment to moment; so there is no reason to doubt that others too may do the same – some even more habitually, perhaps, than I do. In most middlebrow fiction, characters are given an identifiable set of characteristics, and are deemed to be acting “out of character” should they step outside this set; but when we are talking about such creations as Konstantin Levin or Ivan Karamazov – or Hamlet, or Achilles, or Hedda Gabler, or Isabel Archer, etc. etc. – we must be prepared to be challenged by far greater complexity and richness. And if some aspect of their character happens not to be consistent with our preconceptions of “how humans operate”, it is these preconceptions that we should, I think, examine before presuming to criticise the insight of authors of the stature of a Tolstoy or a Dostoyevsky. For the obvious rejoinder to the criticism “this is not how people operate” is, of course, “How do you know?”

      Reply

  3. Posted by Carolyn on September 27, 2012 at 11:19 pm

    I made the mistake of reading this last night before I went to bed, so spent half an hour arguing with you in my mind, Himadri! Now, of course, I don’t quite feel like bothering to respond properly. I notice, though, in your list of characters who are very complex and richly deliniated, you don’t actually mention the oldest Karamazou brother, who I was referring to. I think Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky were great writers, but that doesn’t automatically mean they know everything about people’s thoughts and behaviours. And I think even people with quite serious mental problems probably don’t change their thoughts quite as quickly as he did, going from great love to great anger in seconds, not minutes. It didn’t ring quite true. I don’t think he was a realistic portrayal – I don’t think he was meant to be.

    And I did wonder sometimes if Levin would have changed his opinions quite so quickly. (Not that he couldn’t have contradictory opinions that he hadn’t quite decided on, or that worked differently in different situations, but ones he seemed to hold firmly at one time, and then differently quite soon afterwards. I’m thinking of his ideas about his workers. Everything about his life with Kitty rang true, if at times he was a little silly about her.)

    But my problem with Anna Karenina is that I suppose I was expecting a sympathetic character and we didn’t get that. And that must be because Tolstoy didn’t want us to get that. I haven’t read it wrongly or put my perceptions on Anna when I see her as self-centred; Tolstoy has shown her this way, In Italy Vronsky doesn’t know how to deal with her, because she just completely sees everything from her perspective. She’s fallen in love with him, but she doesn’t seem to consider him much at all. (I understand self-centred people, because I am one myself, but that doesn’t make them more attractive as personalities.) And her own feelings are much more in the forefront of her mind than her children’s needs, for instance. And even early on, she has no qualms, or not enough to change her behaviour, about upstaging Kitty. (It’s a while since I read this, and I’ve only read it once, so don’t remember the details totally. But amazingly well, considering – a tribute to the writing no doubt, and perhaps to the slow speed that I read this.)

    I don’t think any writer or any person knows all there is to know about human behaviour – or anything that has great depth – and I therefore don’t think anyone will get it right all the time. But I don’t your reverence for these writers, I think. Maybe I should have. I did think his writing and his perception of people were wonderful, and as I said the thoughts that Dolly and Anna have in those moments of crisis were exactly right. (How do I know that? – I haven’t had great moments of crisis like that, but somehow I do. People must have these sort of thoughts on a lesser scale for their minor crises.)

    Cheers, Caro.

    Reply

    • Hello Caro, arguing is fine! This is what this blog is about (see title of blog!) Sadly, people tend to think of arguing as being rude to each other, which is a shame; and there are some, I know, who take expression of disagreement almost as a personal affront. But it was one of my intentions in setting up this blog that we could “disagree without being disagreeable” – i.e. that we could exchange our divergent views and opinions, and discuss the strengths and weaknesses of our views and opinions in a civil manner. So – as far as I’m concerned – let’s argue away! Bring it on! 🙂

      At the end of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, when it is revealed what Hedda has done, Judge Brack says as the curtain descends: “But people don’t do such things!” I wrote a post some time ago about the implications of this, and I’ll try not to repeat what I’d said there. Except to say that there really is no limit to what people do, and their reasons for doing it. The sheer variety of human behaviour is dazzling, and our personal experience exposes us to so small a section of the entire vast range, it really s not possible for any of us to declare with any certainty at all how people do or don’t behave.

      I remember, for instance, when I first came across Euripides’ Medea. I think I was in my early twenties at the time. I read it, and felt that “people don’t do such things”. It was inconceivable to me that a mother could, in cold blood, murder her own children. Yes, it is true that she had been deserted by the children’s father, and that she wanted her revenge on him: but to butcher your own children? Unthinkable! I put it down to one of those gratuitously violent myths of old that didn’t really have much bearing on real life. People really don’t do such things.

      Some thirty or more years later, I still don’t understand how anyone who is not utterly demented could, quite deliberately with pre-planned intent, murder their own children. But I do know it happens. I have seen many newspaper reports over the years of parents, in sound mind, murdering their own children in cold blood for precisely the reason that Medea murdered hers. It still defies my understanding, but I cannot now claim, as I used to, that “people don’t do such things”. Euripides’ understanding of human behaviour proved, not very surprisingly, somewhat greater than mine.

      The sheer range of human types is so vast (with no two individuals being exactly alike), and the nature of each individual mind so very intricate and elusive, it is simply not possible for any of us to be able to state with any certainty what lies within or without the range of possibilities. So this is why, when you say of Anna Karenina or Konstantin Levin or Dmitri Karamazov that people in real life don’t act as they do, the question inevitably comes to mind: “How do you know?”

      You accuse me of reverence. Guilty as charged, m’lud. It is neither surprising nor reprehensible to revere the greatest practitioners in some area of human activity that one loves with a passion. Those who love opera tend to revere Verdi and Wagner; those who love mathematics revere Euler and Gauss; those who love cricket revere Lara and Tendulkar; and so on. All quite natural, and all as it should be. But you appear to imply (and do excuse me if I have misread you) that reverence blinds my critical judgement. I don’t know that I’d entirely go along with that. The reverence I feel for writers such as Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy is not a cause, but an effect: it is not something that causes me to suspend my critical judgement, but, rather, an effect of my critical judgement – by which I mean that it was in exercising my critical judgement that I came to realise just how great these writers are. And, because I love literature with a passion, this awareness of greatness led inevitably to what you term “reverence”. (And it is not merely I who consider Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy “great writers”: this is the almost universal consensus, across generations and across cultures, of those who love literature, and are knowledgeable about it. Even so great a writer as Chekhov felt overawed by Tolstoy – and if even Chekhov could revere Tolstoy, I don’t think my own reverence is out of place.)

      So now, let us examine at least some of the reasons why these writers are considered “great”. One of them, surely, is that they have a remarkable understanding of the virtually infinite variety and depths of how human minds work. When, for instance, Freud was attempting to formalise his ideas on the workings of the human mind, it was repeatedly to the fictional characters created by the great dramatists and novelists that he would turn: these writers, he felt, had an intuitive understanding of these matters that he was now attempting to lay out in more formal terms. Now, whether or not one wishes to accept Freud’s own ideas, his belief that these writers whom we tend to designate as “great” did indeed, have a profound understanding into this most profound of areas seems to me entirely sound. That the likes of Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky are considered great writers, whereas you or I wouldn’t be, even if we were to try our hands at writing plays or novels, is to a great extent because the insights that Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky had into the workings of the human mind far exceed our own. To say so openly is no more insulting than to say that Euler and Gauss had far greater insights into mathematics than we do. Such statements are no more than statements of fact. So this brings me back yet again to that question: when you criticise Tolstoy for depicting characters in a way that, in your view, is not realistic – “How do you know?”

      Let’s move on to Anna. You describe her as “self-centred”. But given the extraordinary complexity of the character, can such a bald summary of her person be anything other than a crude reduction? I first read this book almost 40 years ago, and this is my sixth reading, and only now, I think, am I beginning (only beginning) to get some understanding of the character of Anna: she is incredibly complex, and often quite inscrutable – not least to herself. The morning after the ball, for instance, she really cannot understand why she had behaved in the way she did. She is not faking her lack of comprehension: she really doesn’t understand, and this both upsets and worries her. (Of course, if she were merely self-centred and no more, she would be neither upset nor worried by this.) You take a very moralistic view of her: she could have walked away, but she didn’t, and that’s because she is self-centred. That is certainly a valid interpretation, but it doesn’t, I think, go very far in helping us understand the depths of this character. And, as I said, the moral judgement you make is yours, and not necessarily Tolstoy’s. For the question that Tolstoy poses throughout the novel – and not just regarding Anna – is the extent to which we are responsible. Throughout this novel, both in the “happy” strand as well as in the “tragic” strand, characters are puzzled by themselves: they cannot understand why they thought and acted as they did; they seem driven by their inner demons, by forces beyond their understanding and beyond their control. This question – “To what extent are we responsible?” – is one that moralists answer simply: we are completely responsible, and there’s an end to it. But the very fact that Tolstoy keeps re-iterating this question seems to indicate that he himself was not entirely sure of the answer: he keeps the issue open-ended, refusing to answer it even to the very end. And this imparts to the novel a tremendous tension – a tension that I think would be lacking if we refuse even to consider the validity of the question.

      Tolstoy was not the first person to feel that we are all bundles of contradictions. You speak of characters “changing” from one moment to the next, and feel this is unrealistic: well – maybe they aren’t “changing” at all: maybe they carry around with them immense contradictions, and when it appears they are changing, they are merely from one contradictory aspect of their psyche to another. We have seen this in Macbeth, for instance: Macbeth simultaneously desires, and is yet horrified by what he has to do to achieve his desire. And what’s more, his desire and his horror are of equal magnitude. Immediately after killing Duncan, the blood still dripping off his hands, he wishes he had not done it. Indeed, even while committing the deed, there is a huge part of himself that is horrified by what he is doing. Contradiction? Certainly. But we are contradictory beings.

      Hamlet, too, appears to be changing from moment to moment. But this is because his mind by its very nature moves quickly, leaping across gulfs. Raskolnikov, like Macbeth, also desires, and yet, at the same time, is horrified by what he desires: and both his desire and his horror are equally strong. He dreams of a donkey being brutally beaten to death by its peasant owner, and in his dream, and on waking, identifies with the donkey. But even as he does so, he asks himself whether he himself could beat a living creature to death: he identifies with the perpetrator and with the victim – at the same time. These are immensely deep waters.

      I agree with you fully that no writer could know everything about human behaviour: given the endless complexities of the subject, this is not to be expected. But the greatest of writers, in their greatest masterpieces, do get considerably further than either you or I could ever hope to do. This is one of the reasons to go to these works – to help expand the horizons of our own understanding. Abandon all preconceptions ye who enter here.

      Finally, I’d suggest, seeing Anna merely as “self-centred” – though correct in itself: she is self-centred – does not really help us get anywhere near the very complex heart of the matter. Or, at best, this simple moral judgement should be but the starting point, and not the end, of our intellectual journey: why is she self-centred? how does her mind operate, and why? what are the contradictions and conflicts residing within this mind? how has it been moulded by her past? to what extent is it an inevitable consequence of what she had been born with, and therefore cannot help? in what way does it react to various external stimuli? how does she perceive, and what leads her to perceive certain things in a certain way? how does it alter with experience? And so on and so forth … there really is no end to the questions we may ask. And any question that we may ponder upon, we may rest assured that Tolstoy has pondered upon it as well.

      Cheers, Himadri

      Reply

  4. Posted by Caro on October 7, 2012 at 3:47 am

    I didn’t see this earlier, Himadri (your original posts come up on my email, but not responses). I am off tomorrow for a couple of days, so don’t want to prolong this really. I don’t think Anna was merely self-centred; you can be self-centred and hundreds of other things as well. But it seems to me that is (in this book) the overwhelming quality of her behaviour if not her being. She doesn’t seem ever to be able to act with others in mind. And although you say Tolstoy will have considered why, he doesn’t give us a lot of clues really. She has presumably been contented enough in her marriage; she’s not portrayed as promiscuous or even dissatisfied (from memory – I might be wrong about the latter). Then she rather suddenly changes because of love. Her husband seems a little cool and distant, but there’s no doubt he can feel deeply, and his personality doesn’t seem to have worried her before she meets Vronky (though I suppose you could say no good relationship breaks up over a love affair with another; I’m not sure I believe that.)

    I don’t think I have said (or at least I haven’t meant) that people can’t be contradictory or feel several emotions at once. Hamlet’s changes of mind don’t bother me (though it’s some time since I have read or seen Hamlet), but the older brother in Dostoyeksky goes from huge anger to a great peaceful feeling within seconds, not minutes. And I just don’t think sane people do that. There’s just once or twice a little of that in Levin. It’s more understandable there because Tolstoy explains it, but still a little bothering.

    By the way I have never read of any mother killing her children for revenge and not thought she was mentally deranged. It’s not in cold blood – it’s very hot blood. It’s odd – I differentiate by gender here and I shouldn’t. I suppose no men kill their children completely in cold blood either. Though some men do seem rather monetary-minded and more distant in relationships. Still, I don’t think you kill your children if you are feeling distant about anything.

    Cheers, Caro.

    Reply

    • Hello Caro, I realise you won’t be able to se ethis till you get back, but if I may offer a few observations:

      I think the characterisation of Anna is among the great triumphs of the art of fiction. I agree that it is elusive; it takes auite a few readings to begin to understand. it is also an extremely complex piece of characterisation: right from the start, I think, there are hint of mental instability. But the more I read it, the more I think about it, the more all the details seem to fall in place. One thing the characterisation isn’t is incomplete.

      … the older brother in Dostoyevsky goes from huge anger to a great peaceful feeling within seconds, not minutes. And I just don’t think sane people do that.

      But Dostoyevsky did tend to depict more extreme psychologies. Whether or not you’d describe Dmitri as “insane” depends rather on where you choose to draw the line between sanity and insanity. That line is at best vaguely defined, and I don’t think any other writer explored that borderland with greater insight than did Dostoyevsky. (Tolstoy occasionally approached that terrotory – notably in “The Kreutzer Sonata” – but generally, he preferred to keep his distance.)

      By the way I have never read of any mother killing her children for revenge and not thought she was mentally deranged. It’s not in cold blood – it’s very hot blood.

      Once again, it’s a question of how one defines insanity, or mental derangement. I have certainly read of horrific cases of infanticide that had been varefully premeditated: perhaps “in cold blood” was the wrong way of putting it – but these weren’t madness-of-the-moment actions. I agree with you that this sort of thing is – thankfully – on the fringes of human behaviour, and not the norm; but there is no reason why authors should not explore and depict these fringes.

      Reply

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