Crying For Anna Karenina

I’ve become a better, not worse, crier over the years. Growing up hasn’t made me cry less, now that I’m all ‘grown-up’ and a really big boy. Au contraire, I cry–roughly defined as ‘tears in the eyes’ or ‘lumps in the throat which leave me incapable of speech’ even if not ‘sobbing’–more. There is more to cry about now, more to get the tear glands working overtime: more memories, more days gone by, more nostalgia, more regrets, more friends gone, never to return, more evidence of this world’s implacable indifference to our hopes and desires–for ourselves and ours. I cry in company–sometimes, when I’m trying to tell a story and realize I cannot proceed; I cry when I’m alone; I cry on my couch when watching a movie. And just to make sure I’m a genuine New Yorker, I’ve cried on the subway. Once.

A dozen or so years ago, I was making my way through a long-postponed encounter with Anna Karenina. I knew what fate held in store for Anna; the novel could not provide me with novelty–far too many had written about Anna’s death. But even then, I pressed on; Tolstoy is a rich and rewarding read regardless of foreknowledge of plots. As I did so, and as I approached Anna’s terminus, I found myself, as I often do, on a train, tome in hand.

By now, Anna’s physical and mental decline had begun; her love with Vronsky is contaminated by anger and bitterness and jealousy and mutual recriminations. She is sleepless and anxious; she has lost home and has not found another. She is an exile, at home, in society; her precious child may no longer be hers. The walls have come down.

As Anna’s fate approaches at the station, as I realized I was finally in the presence of the denouement whose contour had revealed to me by busybodies like myself–chattering away about the novel’s presence in their lives–I felt myself overcome by a curious and complex mix of emotions. Perhaps I felt pity for Anna; perhaps I sensed I knew how she felt–torn between a home that could not be hers ever again and one that was promised her but could not be. Perhaps I was horrified by the thought of a human being taking their own life–the most devastating of its possible resolutions. Perhaps, suddenly, I was afraid for this woman, for what she was going to do to herself. Perhaps I sensed the desperation that was hers was ours too, that her actions were not mysterious aberrations but entirely explicable.

So as Anna falls, as she is consumed, as her life comes to an end at–where else?–a train station, tears sprang to my eyes. I closed the book–a chapter had come to an end–and leaned back in my seat. I closed my eyes for a second and looked up to see a man sitting across from me, gazing curiously at me. I stared back, blinked furiously, and put my book away. I would not, and could not, read for a while.

Mary McCarthy on Madame Bovary as Neurotic

Among the most famous descriptions of Emma Bovary are Mary McCarthy‘s cutting lines:

[She] is a very ordinary middle-class woman, with banal expectations of life and an urge to dominate her surroundings. Her character is remarkable only for an unusual deficiency of natural feeling.


But what follows these lines is a perhaps more interesting set of observations:

Emma is trite; what happens to her is trite.  Her story does not hold a single surprise for the reader, who can say at every stage, ‘I felt it coming.’ Her end is inevitable, but not as a classic doom, which is perceived as inexorable only when it is complete. It is inevitable because it is ordinary. Anyone could have prophesied what would become of Emma–her mother-in-law for instance. It did not need a Tiresias. If you compare her story with that of Anna Karenina, you are aware of the pathos of Emma’s. Anna is never pathetic; she is tragic, and what happens to her, up to the very end, is always surprising, for real passions and moral strivings are at work, which have the power of ‘making it new.’ In this her story is distinct from an ordinary society scandal of the period. Nor could any ordinary society prophet have forecast Anna’s fate. ‘He will get tired her and leave her,’ they would have said of Vronsky. He did not. But Rodolphe could have been counted on to drop Emma, and Leon to grow frightened of her and bored.

Where destiny is no more than average probability, it appears inescapable in a particularly depressing way. This is because any element in it can be replaced by a substitute without changing the outcome; e.g., if Rodolphe had not materialized, Emma would have found someone else. But if Anna had not met Vronsky on the train, she would still be married to Karenin. Vronsky is necessary, whereas Rodolphe and Leon are interchangeable parts in a machine that is engaged in mass production of human fates.

This is certainly an acute way to capture the contrast between a tragic fate and a merely pathetic one. It also, quite perspicuously, makes us cast Anna Karenina as the heroine of an existential drama, one not driven to her destiny, but one who remains in command till her tragic end. Societal compulsions may seem to have exerted inexorable pressure on her life, and made it hew to a precise trajectory, but as McCarthy notes, there remains a great deal of surprise to be found in each fork of the path she traveled. This sense of surprise ensures Anna Karenina works as a suspenseful novel; we are aware of tragedy looming, but still unclear about its exact contours. Of course, even in Emma’s case, her ‘end’ is not precisely determined, but that she would be forever condemned to her relentless, misery-making dissatisfaction seems preordained. In so doing, Emma resembles nothing as much as Freud‘s neurotics, destined to endlessly, helplessly, repeat a recurring pattern, and indeed, finding their only comfort in its reenactments.

Note: Excerpts from the 1964 Signet Classic edition of Madame Bovary featuring a translation by Mildred Marmur, a foreword by Mary McCarthy and excerpts from Gustave Flaubert‘s trial on obscenity charges in 1857.