Reading The Goldfinch

Donna Tartt Image via BBC

Donna Tartt Image via BBC

With her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt captivates, charms and mesmerizes with potent characters, richly textured settings, and turns-of-plot: from New York City to the strange, alien-like, suburbs of Las Vegas and its star-filled, drug addled nights, then back again. Tartt begins at the end – in an Amsterdam hotel room during Christmastime when Theo Decker is twenty-seven,

It was Christmas, lights twinkling on the canal bridges at night; red-cheeked dames en heren, scarves flying in the icy wind, clattered down the cobblestones with Christmas trees lashed to the backs of their bicycles.

then swings the story back around to the beginning, to Theo at thirteen, at the turning point just before the explosion in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A dying elderly man pushes a priceless, seventeenth-century Dutch painting, The Goldfinch, into Theo’s hands, the very painting by Carel Fabritius that Theo’s mom had been softly lecturing about, moments before the explosion,

“He was Rembrandt’s pupil, Vermeer’s teacher,” my mother said. “And this one little painting is really the missing link between the two of them – that clear pure daylight, you can see where Vermeer got his quality of light from,”

Feeling horrifically sorry for the dying man, Theo takes the painting out of a sense of duty – in dazed obedience – and the painting of the tethered bird follows Theo like an albatross, or a good luck charm, for the remainder of the story. For the truth is: the dying old man, Welty, pointed Theo in the direction of his future.

Published in 2013, the book takes place in our present day, post-911 world of home-grown terrorists, high security, iPhones and texting as the preferred mode of communication. The ethereal scenes where Theo exits the ruined, white-dust and ash-covered museum read like a movie; thus, movie proposals were in the offing as the presses were still churning. Theo climbs through the blinding debris, as if ascending certain realms of Purgatorio, into a rebirth – into chaos.

Counselors, teachers, and even the eccentric, Park Avenue Barbour family fails to get to the core of Theo. Enter Hobie: the one stabilizing, unlikely anchor of Theo’s life. As if coming home to a loving grandparent, a bit musty and given to “maunder on” – wistful yet eloquent, somehow refined, Hobie becomes the only person who can coax Theo into eating some food, for example, and to have a “normal conversation.” The initial meeting of Theo and Hobie in Hobie’s curiosity shop in the Village, like so much of Tartt’s prose, transfixes the reader with anticipation and resonates with such an underlying sadness – then swings around with a mirthful quip or observation.

The Las Vegas chapters are suffused with Boris, one of the most interesting and likable characters in the book. A boy who has traveled, Boris speaks Russian with an oddly incongruous, Australian accent. He is the Artful Dodger to Theo’s Oliver Twist. Boris, not surprisingly, admires Theo’s flashy yet untrustworthy dad, but anyone’s dad would be better than Boris’. Both Mr. Decker and his little firecracker, waitress girlfriend, Xandra, topple in and out of the house like an itinerant circus act – absent-minded, vacant, yet always entertaining. Still, Theo is often alone in the house when he is not ravaging himself on drugs with Boris.

I sat downstairs rigidly for an hour or so with War of The Worlds on but the sound off, listening to the crash of the icemaker and the rattle of wind in the patio umbrella.

Theo retains an habitual love of classic movies – another endearing thread that keeps him connected with his mother. He reads Poe and a lot of Russian literature, including The Idiot, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Boris, still somewhat naive to American culture, echoes Theo’s obsession as if all American teenagers should love watching old movies and reading Russian novels.

The adolescent bond has been established and made genuine by a female writer who seems to have lived as a teenage boy in some other life. The terse dialogue, the philosophical rants, companionable silences, flashes of insight, fraternal punch-outs, sexual blurriness, they seem to love each other most when spitting the words fuck you!

When Theo returns to New York City, the streets are more Dickensian than ever, especially in the chapter where Theo glimpses Mr. Barbour ranting to himself in the gloaming, rush-hour mayhem near Central Park. Tartt’s cast-of-characters emerge and reappear out of the past. The grown-up Theo, in his twenties, replaces the teenage boy. If he carries a burden of self-absorption, as he carries the explosion “in his body,” then learning of the Barbours’ family tragedy brings Theo out of himself. He cares about Mrs. Barbour, though something of an ice-queen, she is at least steadfast, reliably cultured and ultimately human.

In the process of being whisked away to Amsterdam by Boris and drawn into the underworld of stolen, precious art, Theo has what he calls his Conversion. Much is resolved in Tartt’s generous, riveting prose, even though both Theo and Boris have been rendered colossal drug addicts.

Pippa, the girl who represents a connection to life when it had some semblance of normalcy, remains undeniably, the love of Theo’s life. What has been labeled obsessive and not possible is love: Theo’s pure love for Pippa. This is the wonderful force upon which all hope hinges. Because, though life is short and mostly a miserable chaos, more Of Human Bondage than The Catcher in the Rye, love and art have sustained this protagonist in strange and mystifying ways.

A Goldfinch Illustration

Image via New York TimesImage via Vanity Fair

Faces in Literature

donna tartt times photo
Donna Tartt won the Pulitzer Prize for her book, The Goldfinch, in 2013. A Southern writer, she is originally from Greenwood Mississippi. The Goldfinch takes place, not in the American South, but in NYC, Las Vegas and Amsterdam ~ and it is an amazing story!

(Book review to follow.)

Photo via The Times UK

Elizabeth Bowen’s Collected Short Stories Should Be Required Reading

Elizabeth Bowen is the kind of writer who teaches us how to write short stories. Born and raised in Ireland, when Bowen married, she moved to London where she lived and wrote before, during and after the Blitz. Her settings of half-bombed out homes of the aristocracy, small London flats and families getting by in their survivalist modes, still taking tea at four o’clock, in the suburbs and in the countryside merely indicate what has happened and what may take place at any tense moment around the clock. Her beautiful landscapes hardly evoke war but rather burst forth in light and color, nature, flowers, trees and life.

Bowen’s characters are very English. Their thoughts and dialogues rollick along in quick, cheeky cadences. These are often ordinary settings made rich with Bowen’s sumptuous depictions. Sunday Afternoon takes place in the Irish countryside outside Dublin. Henry is from London on a short visit after having lost his flat and everything in it to the Blitz. His aristocratic friends living in Ireland do not know quite how to feel about the bombings. In one of Bowen’s many Jamesian moments, out on some green, sloping lawn, one of the picnickers says, “Henry’s not sure… he looks pontifical.” The writer adds to the unsettling atmosphere by creating a beautifully turbulent milieu out of the landscape.

Another cold puff came through the lilac, soundlessly knocking the blooms together…
a breath of coldness fretted the edge of things.

Henry, slow to voice his quick thoughts, ruminates to himself: With nothing left but our brute courage, we will be nothing but brutes.

He seems duty-bound on returning to London. Bowen is a romantic; the strain of little romances electrifies nearly every story. Love does not stop for war. Hardly in an amorous frame of mind, will Henry be paired with Mrs. Vesey, who is older, or with the very pretty and spirited Maria, who is much younger and inexperienced? Maria thinks that London will be an adventure with heroes.
She looked secretively at her wristwatch. Henry wondered what the importance of time could be.
Mysterious Kor is said to be among Bowen’s very best short stories. Something of the supernatural enchants this tale, with its moon and its Mysterious Kor, a forsaken, possibly imaginary place, alluring the three main characters. On this night, the blackout is ineffectual, as there is a full, bright moon shining down on all of London.

London looked like the moon’s capital … from the sky, presumably, you could see every slate in the roofs, every whitened kerb, every contour of the naked winter flowerbeds in the park; and the lake, with its shining twists and tree-darkened islands would be a landmark for miles, yes, miles, overhead.

From the Underground, a young couple emerges into the shadowed, moonlit streets, arm-in-arm. Arthur is a soldier and Pepita is his diminutive yet headstrong girlfriend. They seemed to have no other destination but each other.

The atmosphere of the quiet, illuminated night is heightened by small, singular acts, like a woman peeking out and calling her cat timidly, a clock striking midnight and resounding in the dazzling distance.

Pepita’s roommate, Callie, has not yet met Arthur and she anticipates him as if she were in love. She goes to bed, tired of waiting up for them, and the moonlight takes on a new significance. Diverse and brilliant light pervades Callie’s room. Searchlights protecting the city move across the spaces and crevices not covered by the blackout curtains, and moonlight shines-on invincible and powerful.

Before sunrise, Callie hears Arthur lighting a cigarette. She steps out of her room, still glowing, it seemed, from the moonlight that infused her as she slept. They have a quiet, friendly chat in the otherworldly shadows of her living room, and Arthur tells her about Mysterious Kor. Callie asks, “the core of what?” She has never heard of it. Arthur construes that Kor is where Pepita goes when she sleeps so soundly. When Callie tells him that Pepita does not always sleep so soundly, he remarks, “then she doesn’t always make it”. Their conversation eventually trails off, and Arthur asks Callie, “So, how’s your moon?” She marvels over the familiarity, ‘her moon.’

“Not so strong,” she says.

Yet, Callie’s naïve question to Arthur, “The core of what?” is meaningful. This mysterious place, Mysterious Kor, seems to be at the core of something large… as large as the human spirit or humanity. One interpretation suggests that Elizabeth Bowen’s three characters are actually in Purgatory working out the unfinished business of their previous lives when they were killed in the Blitz.

Other stories, not part of the War Years, are among my favorites: the precision of Ann Lee’s, the fearlessness of The Parrot, and The Storm, which is a bit of a ghost story about an English couple who travel to Rome. The story begins with some harsh bickering, a startling lover’s quarrel:

“Don’t come near me,” she said, turning sharply. “I hate you! Why do you keep on following me about?”

The husband takes this in stride. He is used to her minor explosions. However, their histrionics have been overheard by three Danish girls who sit by the fountain taking pictures of each other. Here the writer switches perspectives, first from the wife’s point of view, then the husband’s and finally from the perspective of the Danish travelers. “The English lady seemed to be finished scolding her husband.”

The couple is exploring a villa, and as they argue a wind seems to be following them through the many rooms, terraces and the chapel. She has become so annoyed by her husband that she tries to lose him, but then this wind harasses her. She is convinced that the wind is the ghosts of nuns. Then she panics when she realizes her husband is nowhere to be seen. It is a story of emotions, of power-struggles – who can win-over whom? And finally, of people who need each other despite resentments great and small.

Bowen uses powerful personification of windows, the sky, the air and rooms, not only to create a beautiful, spellbinding landscape but also to heighten suspense and intrigue.

The air was warm and tense, stretched so taut that it quivered… forms assumed a menacing distinctness, blade-like against the architecture of the clouds… the insistence of the fountains… the dark room within was attentive… little bald, square windows, lashless eyes staring out on to the darkening sky.

The writer’s best stories portray her connection with nature and landscapes, and her brilliance at conveying dialogue and the feelings of adults as well as of children. The stories about children, for example, Charity, The Jungle and The Visitor present extraordinary perception for both the inner and outer dramas that children experience along with their childish and also very mature responses.

The happiness that she had been waiting for all day seemed to have something to do with light behind the trees, the rooks, and the dry chintzy smell of the curtains when she leant back her head against them into the room. Also, there is something very heroic about dangling one’s legs at a height.

– from Charity

Comparing Notes on the Centennial of Joyce’s “Dubliners”

In reading Paul Theroux’s short story, Action, which appeared in
The New Yorker, (August 4th, 2014), one can’t help but draw parallels to James Joyce’s Araby from the beloved short story collection, Dubliners, (1914). Both Action and Araby comprise a boy’s coming-of-age in a working class neighborhood with very little money and a mother who has died.

Theroux’s Albert lives in Boston with his father, a shoe salesman, who uses gruff-love and over-protectiveness – a father who relies on not only his sense of smell but a keen, sixth parental sense to deftly sniff-out where his son, Albert, has been and what he has been up to.

The way my father worried about me made me think I was dangerous.

Albert’s father is overly suspicious as well as thrifty: as if he’d been through World War II and had to conserve everything including words.

“Where?,” meaning, “Where have you been?”

And, “No Eddie,” meaning Albert is prohibited from seeing the older Eddie, whom Albert’s father considers a bad influence.

The story takes place during a time when doughnuts cost a dime, yet, Albert’s father is hard pressed to dole out a little spending money for his son, just as the boy in Joyce’s Araby, does not receive a shilling for the bazaar from his uncle until it is almost too late to go.

In Araby, both parents are apparently dead, so that the boy lives with his aunt and uncle, and possibly for this reason, Joyce’s Dublin boy has more freedom than Albert has. The boy is allowed to go to the bazaar and take the train to Araby by himself late at night – not as an errand but, conceivably, to have fun.

Theroux’s Albert rides the Boston train specifically to run errands for his father, but these chores across the city into its shadowy corners become a catalyst for discovering himself and learning more about his father. For Albert has learned that both he and his father have two sides.

Albert encounters a number of nefarious characters along the way and starts to feel as if he’s been running or “escaping” the whole way. When he finally reaches the warehouse of his father’s vendor, the man behind the counter is unfriendly,

He didn’t greet me or even comment.

There is an intense feeling of alienation. In the process of blindly and innocently exploring the city, Albert has embarked upon a personal odyssey leading to some profound revelation. As well in Araby, the boy rides the train to Araby amidst a palpable sense of isolation as he sits alone, oppressed by the crunch of the city. Then, once inside the bazaar, he also encounters an unfriendly and “not encouraging” welcome. The milieu of the bazaar has become dark and hushed, its tables mostly bare, its broad catacombs empty yet open to the night sky, and this is where Joyce leads up to his epiphany.

I recognized a silence like that which pervades a church after a service. I walked into the center of the bazaar timidly.

Both boys linger at shops to look at or buy something and they both receive similar versions of indifference and contempt from the people there. Both say “No” when asked whether they want to buy anything from a selection of what now seems to be only meaningless objects. Still, amidst the harshness and shame, love or compassion seem to come exclusively from a parental figure or a neighborhood girl.

In Araby, and all of the Dubliners tales, Joyce is exquisite in a way that is rarely found in today’s literature. Yet, Theroux describes the provocative smells and anxt of the city more poetically as he treks deeper into the streets:

Now it was a summer afternoon of hot sidewalks and sharp smells and strangers, the air of the city thick with humidity under a heavy gray sky. It all stank pleasantly of wickedness, and if I’d known anything I would have recognized it as sensual.

This harkens to Araby and Joyce’s ash-pits of the back lanes that are “odorous” and damp and “filled with odours.” Joyce’s lyricism, alliteration and repetition have made every line of the Dubliners stories poetry, as with his alliteration in, “silent streets, dark, dripping gardens, and feeble lanterns,” and the sublime image of his love, the neighbor girl across the way: “The white curve of her neck,” is repeated twice in the tale and held in his mind as a holy image…

I was alone at the railings. She held one of the spikes, bowing her head towards me. The light from the lamp opposite our door caught the white curve of her neck, lit up her hair that rested there and, falling, lit up the hand upon the railing.

Joyce infuses the boy’s infatuation for the girl with poetic, holy enchantment. Just thinking of her image under the light and brooding over the events that will lead up to seeing her again throw the boy into an existential crisis. He wanders through the house and murmurs “O love! O love!” in a kind of prayer.

The syllables of the word Araby were called to me through the silence in which my soul luxuriated and cast an Eastern enchantment over me.

The boy’s passion is so thoroughly described – the way it interferes with his usual life, which seemed now “child’s play,” that it is hard to believe he is only a boy. He mourns, “my eyes were often full of tears,” and, “Her name was like a summons to all my foolish blood.” Indeed, he bares a chalice for his love, “safely through a throng of foes,” as he shops at the outdoor markets with his aunt.

Whereas Joyce’s boy in Araby is filled with passion for the neighborhood girl, Theroux’s Albert seems not to have reached such levels of fervor. Upon meeting Paige, Albert admits to being, “out of my depth.” He stands in Paige’s doorway, but she can’t see his face, as he is backlit by the sun – a sort of reversal to Joyce’s light from the lamppost illuminating Mangan’s sister.

Paige is described with admiration and the kind of sensuality that doesn’t quite know where it is leading. Her face is framed by wisps of hair as she works at an ironing board, and there is a lingering reminder of Mangan’s sister in Araby by the way Paige “bowed her head and went on ironing.”

With many parallels in the two stories: not least of which is in their settings, as in Action depicting “houses that all look alike along the hill,” reflecting the houses in Araby which “gazed at one another with brown imperturbable faces,” Albert is actually more lonely than the boy in Araby. Albert has a rather dismal, secluded life living under the strictures of his father, while Joyce’s boy in Araby is not isolated until he falls in love. Before this he is part of a tribe of the neighborhood children. However, both reach a crisis point in which a crucial truth comes to light. Joyce seems to have invented it: the literary epiphany, where there is an unexpected, and often simple, sudden insight or revelation that ends the tale.


“Action” is included in Paul Theroux’s book of short stories, “Mr. Bones”


James Joyce’s “Dubliners” includes “Araby,” one of only three of the tales told in the first-person.

The Lady Vanishes on The Night Train to Darjeeling Limited Mashup


Over the weekend I watched Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes” plus “Night Train To Munich,” and both these classic movies seemed to lead to Wes Anderson’s “Darjeeling Limited”. Finding similarities was as fun as trying to spot Alfred Hitchcock’s cameos in his own films, as indeed there is near the end of “The Lady Vanishes”.

Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson are certainly Hitchcock fans and classic movie fans. Aside from the universal traveling-by-train theme, I was constantly delighted with a treasure trove of parallel vignettes. The beginning scenes in both “The Lady Vanishes” and “Darjeeling Limited” for example, take place in hotel rooms: Hitchcock’s zany, old world hotel scenes are a picturesque inkling to Anderson’s film-short, The Hotel Chevalier, the introduction to the main story of “Darjeeling Limited”: a man and woman ending up in the same room and the same bed. Of course, Anderson’s version is much more steamy and therefore quite a bit more exciting; although, Hitchcock’s classic mystery and suspense build up to plenty of thrills, once they’re all on the train,

Margaret Lockwood does resemble Natalie Portman, a bit, who plays Jason Schwartzman’s wild girlfriend in “Darjeelling Limited,” but Lockwood is distinctly British. She plays an alluring role in both of the older films. Lockwood was the quintessential, lovely, English brunette with soulful, penetrating eyes; a hidden weakness for romance and a biting wit. In “Night Train to Munich,” her leading man is Rex Harrison, a dashing and cheeky British Spy. I honestly did not realize that Rex Harrison was ever that young or handsome. The only other film in which I’ve ever seen him was “My Fair Lady,” where he is much older and rather curmudgeonly. But he has the same delightful, British cadences, which crackle like a schoolboy whose voice is changing.

I have yet to see Wes Anderson’s “Grand Budapest Hotel,” but I suspect this latest Anderson creation was also partly inspired by these two older films, with their snowy, foreign vistas and featured train motifs. Also, Anderson often presents us with his fondest actors and actresses time and again. As well, in these two older films, some of the same characters pop up, specifically the two British chaps, Charters and Caldicott. In “Night Train to Munich,” these two exceedingly English gents banter back and forth calling each other “old boy” as they travel together with an indifferent eye toward anything except cricket. They only want to get back to London and not be drawn into anything complicated, until… the Nazis start getting pushy.

The essential difference I see in these films lies in their thematic backdrop. Wes Anderson replaces the old World War tropes with his own signature touch, which is to say with his unique, loving portrayal of the story and its characters. Anderson does away with warfare hostilities and deals mainly in personal relationships, usually within a domestic, suburban setting, at least up to “The Darjeeling Limited,” where he begins to cross borders into ever more exotic lands but retains the essential feeling for the fragility in relationships while tenderly, and humorously, exposing the family dynamic.

The Darjeeling Limited

Night Train To Munich, cover illustration

Tolstoy’s Three Marriages

Grigory Grigorevich, 1890

Grigory Grigorevich, 1890

Leo Tolstoy’s original title for Anna Karenina was to be, Two Marriages, initially serialized between 1875 and 1877 in a Russian periodical. This first title, with its Shakespearean ring, might have been altered slightly to Three Marriages, for the story can be segmented into three key relationships.

The novel does not concentrate solely on Anna Karenina, as the title suggests, though Anna is unquestionably the most captivating character. Her marriage to Karenin, the marriage of Dolly and Oblonsky as well as the budding relationship between Levin and Kitty, which grows and matures with such beauty and sensitivity, are the three pivotal relationships that Tolstoy develops by weaving them together through interactions and near-associations that work in concert as an elaborate Russian dance.

The first chapter begins with the wearisome marriage of Oblonsky and Dolly, centering on the awkward and ridiculous, illicit affair carried out by Oblonsky, which Dolly, a strong woman, will not tolerate. She is not the kind of wife who will avert her eyes and look the other way, as many of the society women will do by compromising and finding lovers of their own. Next, Tolstoy introduces Levin. An idealistic man, he dreams of Kitty and wonders if he still has a chance with her. These are the beautiful scenes on ice with brightly rendered skaters circling as the couples meet within a dazzling milieu of sunshine and snow. Tolstoy gives Kitty and Levin deliciously restrained dialogue, and particular enchantment is given to Levin’s thoughts:

“Yes,” he thought, “now this is happiness! Together, she said let us skate together! Speak to her now? But that’s just why I’m afraid to speak – because I’m happy…”

Even at this early stage, Levin and Kitty strive to understand one another, and when Levin fears he has lost the thread in conversation, he panics inside:

“What’s wrong? I have offended her. Lord help me!”

With this stirring scene, the reader gains a kind of bond and trust in the two characters. We root for Levin and Kitty even through their lost hopes and their flaws.

Vronsky, on the other hand, never fully gains our trust. Right from the beginning, Tolstoy portrays him as questionable. Vronsky “had never had a real family life.” He did not love his mother. His mother was a wealthy society woman who later had “notorious” love affairs, while Vronsky was away being educated at a military school. He hardly remembered his father. Knowing this about Vronsky’s past, one naturally draws conclusions about his aversion to Anna’s son and complete, almost contemptuous denial of Anna’s marriage to Karenin and the sacredness of her family life. Vronsky pursues her and doggedly, almost fanatically, lures her away from the family lair.

Indeed, Tolstoy paints Vronsky as rather spoiled, privileged and vain:

“He had often before had this sense of physical joy in his own body, but he had never felt so fond of himself, of his own body, as at that moment.”

Yet, these sensations are brought about by Vronsky’s anticipation of seeing Anna.

“And as I go on, I love her more and more.”

Vronsky’s character is uniquely sensuous and not altogether wicked, but consistently surrounded by beauty – and beautiful himself:

“… the roofs of the houses shining in the rays of the setting sun, the sharp outlines of fences and angles of buildings, the figures of passers-by, the carriages that met him now and then, the motionless green of the trees and grass, the fields with evenly drawn furrows of potatoes, and the slanting shadows that fell from the houses, and trees … everything was bright like a pretty landscape just finished and freshly varnished.”

Vladimir Volosov, Russian Landscape, 2002

Vladimir Volosov, Russian Landscape, 2002

However, there is a vanity and an unnamable dread in the beauty of Vronsky. Froufrou, the name of Vronsky’s horse, is more than a little telling. In French, froufrou means swish, rustling, pomp, show. These meanings describe Anna, especially at the point when she and Vronsky meet: on the train and then at the magnificent Russian ball. Anna is beautifully dressed in a swishing, rustling gown surrounded by a show of pomp and aristocratic pageantry. What’s more, in English, froufrou implies something that is not taken very seriously, something ephemeral and not lasting. Vronsky himself shows signs of the latter meaning with regard to women. Originally, with Kitty when she feels so certain of his love for her, yet Vronsky, all the while, thinks nothing of Kitty once he leaves her side. For the reader, his reputation of fleeting romance stays, even as he appears to be devoted to Anna. We are never completely certain that his devotion is lasting.

Communication and misunderstanding are a driving theme here in relationships. Anna and Vronsky, despite their grand passion, never fully understand each other. There are great lapses in interpretation between what is said and what is heard. While Kitty and Levin, on the other hand, understand each other, often with only a look but also via long, tirelessly wrought conversation. Theirs is the lasting, spiritual relationship of a true marriage. Vronsky may love Anna, but regrettably he fails to express his love for her and she fails to believe in anything he says. They do understand one another through their bodies. However, verbal exchanges only get in their way, disfiguring their love to utter confusion. As when Anna tells Vronsky about having confessed their affair to her husband, Karenin. Vronsky’s response is actually quite chivalrous.

“‘Yes, yes, that’s better, a thousand times better! I know how painful it was,’ he said. But she was not listening to his words, she was reading his thoughts from the expression on his face. She could not guess that that expression arose from the first idea that presented itself to Vronsky – that a duel was now inevitable. The idea of a duel had never crossed her mind, and so she put a different interpretation on this stern expression.”

Ilya Repin, 1899

Ilya Repin, 1899

Time and again, Vronsky tells Anna that he loves her and wants to devote his life to her, but she simply will not believe him. She feels certain that she can read his thoughts and that he could never love her now that she is in such a humiliating “position”. Yet, the writer builds upon small horizons of hope throughout the story.

Tolstoy illustrates many contradictions such as these. Anna yearns for Vronsky’s love, while rejecting it; her pompous husband, Karenin appears harsh, even severe, at times, yet he embodies the Christian virtues of compassion and mercy, even with Anna, up to a point. Levin, who constantly searches for spirituality and meaning, stumbles into murky territory even in the simplest of situations. The entire story reaches for clarity, with religious perseverance, yet Tolstoy’s central characters are habitually tangled up in confusion and ambiguity.

Indeed, it seems that Tolstoy has painted Anna into a corner. She is a remarkably intelligent woman; however, she remains so troubled that she cannot reason lucidly nor even turn to God. Consequently, Anna has little choice, and the one choice she truly desires eludes her, because she deeply believes that Vronsky can’t possibly love her. The words “shame,” “hopeless,” and “disgrace” repeat themselves in her mind, and she feels these things not only in society and in her own household but also in the eyes of Vronsky. It’s as if Vronsky represents society itself. Their only chance would be to somehow escape the era in which they live.

Dolly presents another character altogether. A matronly woman, the perfect example of a good mother and wife, ultimately, her choices are either to forgive her husband for being free and promiscuous or to leave him. Still, leaving him is not a real option. Dolly entertains the idea in fantasies, but in reality, it would be no life for her in 19th Century Russia.

Conversely, the highly circumspect Levin, tortured with his incessant soul-searching and philosophical labyrinths to find the meaning of life, finally reaches his answers, first, through a mere peasant and this peasant’s uncomplicated answer; “To live for God and for the Soul” and secondly, through a higher Divinity while gazing up at the stars, which appear to be moving across the sky. The celestial illusion suddenly puts to rest all of Levin’s questions about religion. And a clear understanding is shared when Levin looks into the bright, incomparable eyes of his wife.

Anna Karenina is a brilliant, expansive novel with too many small, beautiful scenes and nuances to include in a blog post… or a film, for that matter. I have seen two film adaptations and both were not able to represent the tale fully, although, the 2012 version is spectacular. Keira Knightley portrays Anna wonderfully, and it was interesting to hear Knightley describe Anna as an “anti-heroine” rather than the heroine of the tale. Perhaps Anna could have changed her fate; however, the writer chose to make a statement about a woman and her position in relationships and in the world.

Keira Knightley as Anna Karenina

Keira Knightley as Anna Karenina