Tuesday, December 28, 2010
Tolstoy Vs Austen
I am a great fan of the classics. I search every book store to get vintage copies of some of my favourites and while I am not very possessive about the books I collect, I guard my collection of classics with my life and don’t allow anyone to touch them, not even my husband. Jane Austen has been a personal favourite of mine ever since I read Pride and Prejudice as a part of my coursework in High School. I have read all her works, even the not so popular ones like Persuasions and Mansfield Park and appreciated the witty and satirical style she used in her writing which is not evident at first glance. When I read about her personal life in her biography, I realized how difficult it may have been for her to express her thoughts through her writing in England of the late 18th century. Many would say that she was preoccupied with the efforts of Victorian women to get married and seldom swerved from this subject in all her books. But, I always felt that she understood the inner struggles and helplessness these women faced with a keen insight and a deep empathy which is evident in her books and expressed this in a style and perspective wholly her own.
Though Pride and Prejudice remains her most popular book and Elizabeth Benet and Mark Darcy the most romanticised couple, my favourite female protagonist from all her books is Lady Elinor Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility. I felt for this character, who with the passing of her father quietly takes up the responsibility of her mother and sisters on herself. She manages their accounts, steers their lives and tries to be there for them through their trials and tribulations, keeping her own heartbreak at bay. There was something incredibly brave, yet melancholic about her that always drew me to her. Her quiet ambition to do more but helplessness of the age and society in which she lived is evident in her conversation with her gentleman friend Edward Ferrars. When Ferrars expresses his search for a career in life and laments his joblessness, in her own inimitable manner she tells him, his joblessness is a matter of choice whereas hers is a matter of birth and gender that she cannot change. We as women of the 21st century may question as to why she did not do more with all the skill she had, but if we understand the context of the late 18th century she lived in, we will realize how remarkable it is to have a woman of her means even think on those lines. However, my only complaint with Austen regarding the character of Elinor is that she like all other Austen heroines, pines for marriage and settling down with the man she loves and undermines her own ability in the process. I always wished that some of these strong characters rebelled against the bounds of society, though only in fiction, the way Austen had done in her own life. But I guess there were some boundaries in her writing that Austen never wanted to cross. So I had to make do with characters such as Elinor as representing some real feelings and real women in literature.
It was only when I was introduced to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina that I realized what the portrayal of a real woman in literature meant. Anna’s story beings where Einor’s ends and it is ironic, that the most layered, complex and yet truly human characterization of a woman that I have read so far came from a man such as Tolstoy, who forsake his own wife and children towards the end of his life. Anna Karenina is a book that truly symbolized the life that higher echelons of Russian society lived in the late 17th to mid-18th century and created a scandal when it was released, so much so that it was banned from distribution for a number of years. It is mainly the story of the beautiful and vivacious Anna Karenina, wife of a high ranking Russian statesman, trapped in a dull and loveless marriage, who breaks the shackles of society and decides to choose her love for the rich, magnetic, handsome but confused Count Vronsky over the duty of a wife and even a mother. She is a woman who makes unapologetic choices even when her husband wants to take her back, in spite of her infidelity to give into love and lives a life of her own desire. She is cognizant of the sacrifices she has to make of her love for her son and her standing in society to follow her heart, and makes it in her own enigmatic and unique way.
What touches me about Anna is not just her strength in following her heart, but also her vulnerability and guilt that finally leads to her downfall and death. Her struggle to live a normal life with her lover and their child whom she is never able to love as much as the son she left behind and her insurmountable insecurity about losing the lover for whom she forsake everything make her truly real and draw on my sympathy for her. She does everything in her power to keep Vronsky interested in her as she realizes, without a legally binding marriage, all she has to tie him to her is their mutual love and passion for each other. She becomes a master of farming, architecture, labour rights, Russian politics and several other subjects so that Vronsky is always dependant on her good advice in all his matters. She is truly a multi skilled and multi-faceted character with several shades of grey in her personality that is riveting, fascinating and also strangely repulsive at times. I always felt that had she lived in a different day and age, she would have had a flourishing career and a life other than the one tied to her lover which may have redeemed her spiralling descent into addiction and death.
As Tolstoy weaves the intrigues of the society in which Anna lived and creates characters that contrast with the choices that Anna made, you know that Anna’s end is an accomplished fact. Yet, as a reader I could not stop praying that this fascinating woman, somehow finds the strength to pull herself away from her debilitating suspicion and dependence on her lover and comes into her own once again. Though I didn’t always agree with the choices she made, I empathised with the life she led and wished that there was a better end for her. However, I guess Tolstoy could not show a fallen woman having a happy ending, which resulted in her throwing herself in front of a train in a fatal fit of rage to end her misery while drowning Vronsky in a lifetime of grief and guilt. In a way Anna wins at the end because that is what she always wanted, for Vronsky to never forget her though she achieves it in the most vindictive way possible.
Anna Karenina was the first time in literature that I felt an author had shown a woman in all her glory. He threw a light on not just her mystique, loveliness, accomplishments and love but also on the ugly parts of her nature. Jealousy, pride, ego, selfishness, rage and anger were as much a part of Anna as her fierce loyalty, keen intelligence and ethereal beauty. She is a character that I will not forget in a hurry. As Anna replaced Elinor as my favourite woman character and Tolstoy finds place along with Austen in the list of my favourite authors, I can’t help but be a sucker for happy endings. I wish Anna had found a happy ending like Elinor. But we cannot have everything we want I guess. However, it is characters like Anna that hold a light for us on what to do while following our heart and what not to do once our goals have been achieved.
There are only two tragedies in life. One is not getting what ones wants. The other is getting it.