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Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina

Harvard Diary

By Robert Coles | April 1987

It is not hard to understand why Dorothy Day was so taken with Tolstoy. His moral passion was evident even in his early writing (as an observer of war in The Sebastopol Sketches, as an observer of himself and others nearby, in the partly fictional, partly autobiographical Childhood, Boyhood, Youth). She, of course, had read (and reread) War and Peace, Anna Karenina, not to mention the later Tolstoy of religious introspection and intense personal anguish (Resurrection, The Kingdom of God Is Within You, Confession). Like others before and after her, she struggled with Tolstoy, even as he never stopped struggling with himself – the various sides of his intellectual and ethical life which he wanted so hard to reconcile. “I have to be in a certain mood to read Tolstoy,” I remember her saying (1970). She was not thereby making empty talk; nor was she unaware of the relationship a novelist can have to one’s psychology. We choose whom to read in accordance with the particular subjectivity which happens to possess us at one or another moment – unless some professor is compelling us to cram a whole list of books down our nervous gullets.

Later during that discussion of Tolstoy, Dorothy Day concentrated her attention on Anna Karenina: “I hear people say it is their favorite novel, but I can’t say that, because I get too upset whenever I go back to it, and I do, from time to time. Once I told a young man – he had been a graduate student in literature, and knew Tolstoy quite well – that the person Anna Karenina (she’s always been that, to me, an entirely alive woman, not a character in a novel!) reminded me of myself in certain ways, to the point that I want to go to church, sometimes, as I’m reading about her, and get on my knees and pray to God, to keep helping me not become more and more like Anna Karenina! The man was shocked; he clearly didn’t believe me. He was beginning to tell me how different I was, when I decided I had to change the subject. I couldn’t bear to go into a long explanation of what I had in mind! Sometimes, when you’re discussing a certain subject, you assume that the most important part of the exchange has to be a silent understanding between you and somebody else! As in prayer – when you sit and say nothing, but everything is in your heart, and you hope the good Lord is taking notice. With some people, you can dare hope that what is tacit will remain so! It’s terrible, when someone wants to ‘draw out’ what is best left understood, but not spoken!”

She went on, not surprisingly, to compliment that young man in other respects; but she had made her point, and I wasn’t about to put to her a few questions on Anna Karenina which had come to mind. Indeed, I felt a bit loutish as we sat there – at a minimum, a casualty of a psychoanalytic culture, not to mention a career shaped by tenets developed in Vienna during the first three decades of this century. Later, though, suitably by myself and without the effort of putting words down, I remembered the Anna Karenina I had met when I first read that novel, as a college student, and then the Anna I had met the second time around, when I read the novel during my psychiatric residency. They had been, for me, two different women: in college, a victim of passion, during the training I was getting in psychiatry, a victim of a “troubled life” or, as we also kept saying, world without end, “a neurotic conflict.” I knew that when Dorothy Day thought about the Anna Karenina she knew, another mode of thinking and analysis was being summoned – even as recently, when I read Anna Karenina yet again, I found myself responding to a woman altogether different from the one whose measure I thought I’d taken rather carefully twice before.

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