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Apr 26, 2024

Gilligan, Carol

In a Human Voice


During the podcast, Mary Gaitskill's piece on Anna Karenina, from Fassler, Joe. Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process (pp. 69-73). Penguin, excepted here: 

"I Don’t Know You Anymore"

I READ ANNA KARENINA for the first time about two years ago. It’s something I’d always meant to read, but for some reason I didn’t expect to like it as much as I did. ... I found one section in particular so beautiful and intelligent that I actually stood up as I was reading. I had to put the book down, I was so surprised by it—and it took the novel to a whole other level for me.

Anna’s told her husband, Karenin, that she’s in love with another man and has been sleeping with him. You’re set up to see Karenin as an overly dignified but somewhat pitiable figure: He’s a proud, stiff person. He’s older than Anna is, and he’s balding, and he has this embarrassing mannerism of a squeaky voice. He’s hardened himself against Anna. He’s utterly disgusted with her for having gotten pregnant by her lover, Vronsky. But you have the impression at first that his pride is hurt more than anything else—which makes him unsympathetic. 

Then he finds out Anna is dying, and he goes to visit her.]  He hears her babbling, in the height of her fever. And her words are unexpected: She’s saying how kind he is. That, of course, she knows he will forgive her. When Anna finally sees him, she looks at him with a kind of love he’s never seen before. ...

Throughout the book, he’s always hated the way he’s felt disturbed by other people’s tears or sadness. But as he struggles with this feeling while Anna’s talking, Karenin finally realizes that the compassion he feels for other people is not weakness: For the first time, he perceives this reaction as joyful, and becomes completely overwhelmed with love and forgiveness. He actually kneels down and begins to cry in her arms; Anna holds him and embraces his balding head. The quality he hated is completely who he is—and this realization gives him incredible peace. He even decides he wants to shelter the little girl that Anna’s had with Vronsky (who sits nearby, so completely shamed by what he’s witnessing that he covers his face with his hands). You believe this complete turnaround.

You believe it’s who these people really are. I find it strange that the moment these characters seem most like themselves is the moment when they’re behaving in ways we’ve never before seen. I don’t fully understand how this could be, but it’s wonderful that it works.

But then the moment passes. Anna never talks about the “other woman” inside of her again. At first, I was disappointed. But then I thought: No, that’s actually much more realistic. What Tolstoy does is actually much better, because it’s more truthful. We feel a greater sense of loss, knowing it will never happen again.

I very much saw that as the core of the book. Everyone says Anna Karenina is about individual desire going against society, but I think the opposite perspective is stronger: the way social forces actively go against the soft feelings of the individual.