Reading Matters: Anna Karenina

This week, I wanted to look at the beginning of Anna Karenina (Chapters 1-25), examining some of the obscure references I came across.

Dickens and Anna Karenina

In the eleventh chapter, there is a bizarre reference to Dickens. It comes up quite naturally in conversation, which means there is no page references, and the character who speaks doesn’t even recall what book he’s referring to: “It’s very well for you to talk like that; it’s very much like that gentleman in Dickens who used to fling all difficult questions over his right shoulder. But to deny the facts is no answer,” Stepan Arkadyevitch says.

I tracked it down in a footnote, and they say that Tolstoy is probably referring to Podsnap, and particularly to a paragraph about him in Chapter Eleven of Our Mutual Friend (I thought it was amusing that both happen in Chapter Elevens).

“Mr. Podsnap settled that whatever he put behind him he put out of existence. There was a dignified conclusiveness—not to add a grand convenience—in this way of getting rid of disagreeables which had done much towards establishing Mr. Podsnap in his lofty place in Mr. Podsnap’s satisfaction. ‘I don’t want to know about it; I don’t choose to discuss it; I don’t admit it!’ Mr. Podsnap had even acquired a peculiar flourish of his right arm in often clearing the world of its most difficult problems, by sweeping them behind him (and consequently sheer away) with those words and a flushed face.”

Anna’s Ball Dress

At the ball where Kitty’s fate is decided, Anna is wearing black, with Venetian guipure. Kitty had hoped she’d wear lilac, but she understands why Anna wears black, stating that the dress makes her stand out “against her attire…her dress could never be noticeable on her. And her black dress, with its sumptuous lace, was not noticeable on her; it was only the frame and all that was seen was she—simple, natural, elegant, and at the same time gay and eager.”

I had to look guipure up, and it turned out to be a lace formed into a repetitive pattern across a field, such as frequently appears in wedding dresses nowadays. It was originally made with thin wires wrapped around twisted silk, forming a network. Below is an example (according to Lace: It’s History and Origins, Venetian point is a kind of guipure).

realpointdeveniseI thought it interesting that Anna wears black, the color for widows, but also white lace like a bride. It made me wonder if she sees herself as caught between the two, trapped between her wedding and someone’s funeral, and it also could say something about how she views her husband. A bride is in the process of acquiring a husband (and thus doesn’t have one yet), and a widow has lost her husband. Thus, is she sending Vronsky a signal, even then, at this ball when she has just recently met him, telling him that she considers herself available?

Of course, Tolstoy may not have intended all this significance. I know brides wore lace in the 19th century (hence the comment in Emma about a shocking lack of it), but whether this included guipure lace at this time, and whether it was worn in 19th century Russia, I don’t know.

Anna’s Significance

In a way, the whole book is about Anna, because she seems to set things into motion: the reconciliation between her brother and her brother’s wife, Dolly, and the complication Anna creates between Vronsky and Kitty (though Tolstoy makes it quite clear that Vronsky wasn’t thinking of marrying Kitty, even before he met Anna). But at the same time, we don’t spend much time with Anna. Her effects are felt throughout the book, but she gets very little page-time.

If, as Kitty claims at the ball, “She was fascinating in her simple black dress, fascinating were her round arms with their bracelets, fascinating was her firm neck with its thread of pearls, fascinating the straying curls of her loose hair, fascinating the graceful, light movements of her little feet and hands, fascinating was that lovely face in its eagerness…” then the author has clearly not fallen under her spell, for he spends very little time with her. She doesn’t even arrive until Chapter Seventeen!

The Mazurka

This is the dance Kitty anticipated sharing with Vronsky, the dance during which everything was to be settled, and here is a link to a YouTube video, showing part of it performed by a couple in period costume. I can see why she hoped for this dance. It’s intimate, for the time, and slow. Not as slow as some waltzes, but slow enough to allow conversation, while permitting each partner to look away from the other.

It requires a sprightliness of action that would be ideal for a marriage proposal, when one’s emotions needed a dignified vent, but at the same time requires both parties to hold their partners close, by the waist, according to the video. For Kitty to watch Anna and Vronsky dance such a dance must have been awful, of itself, even if their expressions weren’t as telling.

Copyright 2014 Andrea Lundgren

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