In praise of Tolstoy

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We do not think of Tolstoy as a comic writer, but his genius permits him to write farce when it suits him. There is a wickedly funny scene in Anna Karenina that directly precedes the painful scenes leading to Anna’s suicide. It takes place in the drawing room of the Countess Lydia Ivanovna, who, almost alone among the novel’s characters, has no good, or even pretty good, qualities. She embodies the kind of hysterical and coldhearted religious piety that Tolstoy was especially allergic to. “As a very young and rhapsodical girl,” he writes, she

“had been married to a wealthy man of high rank, a very good-natured, jovial, and extremely dissipated rake. Two months after marriage her husband abandoned her, and her impassioned protestations of affection he met with a sarcasm and even hostility that people knowing the count’s good heart, and seeing no defects in the ecstatic Lydia, were at a loss to explain. Though they were not divorced, they lived apart, and whenever the husband met the wife, he invariably behaved to her with the same venomous irony, the cause of which was incomprehensible.”

Tolstoy, with his own venomous irony, makes the cause entirely comprehensible to the reader of Anna Karenina, as he shows Lydia Ivanovna fasten herself on Karenin after Anna leaves his house to go abroad with Vronsky, and preside over his degeneration into his worst self. She is an ugly and malevolent creature who coats her spite in a thick ooze of platitudes about Christian love and forgiveness.

When Anna was on the verge of death after giving birth to Vronsky’s daughter, Karenin experienced an electrifying spiritual transformation: his feelings of hatred and vengefulness toward Anna and Vronsky abruptly changed into feelings of love and forgiveness, and under the spell of this new “blissful spiritual condition” he offered Anna a divorce and the custody of her son—neither of which she chose to accept. Now, a year later, she wants the divorce, but Karenin is no longer of a mind to give it to her.

The blissful spiritual condition has faded away like a rainbow, and Karenin, in thrall to the malignant Lydia Ivanovna, has reassumed his old, supinely rigid, and unfeeling self.

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