Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Anna Karenina and La Broderie Anglaise

Why Anna Karenina

Vivian Leigh as Anna Karenina in the 1947 film, which was co-written by the French playwright Jean Anouilh

On Sunday I finally finished Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina after six (!) months of crawling through my 750-page edition. I read it in college but I wanted to read it anew because I wanted to read Gary Saul Morson's Anna Karenina in Our Time: Seeing More Wisely. I was interested in this book thanks to Alicia at Posie Gets Cozy, who related how Morson's essay "Prosaics: An Approach to the Humanities" (American Scholar 57, Autumn 88, 583) had changed her life. I was able to get a hold of Morson's essay through the journal database at my local library and it made me think a lot. When I found out about Morson's book on Anna Karenina, I wanted to read it but knew I wouldn't get much out of it unless I re-read Anna Karenina first. (This great novel was Oprah Winfrey's book selection for summer 2004. Straight off Oprah's blurb on the book describes it first as "sexy." Warning: Anyone who reads this book to find scintillating sex or any other kind of sex is going to be very disappointed.)

All I remembered from my first read of Anna Karenina decades ago was the story of Anna, her husband, and her lover Vronsky. In fact, as Morson points out, this story takes up only 40 percent of the book. Another 40 percent is dedicated to the landowner Levin, his wife Kitty, and her family. It is the counterpoint between these two story lines and their interweaving that Morson focuses on in his interpretation.

I haven't finished Morson's book yet but am rushing to share the following, because embroidery, or sewing, is also for me a symbol of the feminine desire to create beauty in the home and for the family and because Tolstoy's reference to broderie anglaise comes as the stretto in what is to me the most beautiful scene in Anna Karenina.

La Broderie Anglaise

Morson raises the issue of broderie anglaise (English white-on-white eyelet-like embroidery--see the example above) on page 70 of the proof copy of his book that I bought.

Morson writes:

Levin does not understand how Kitty could, instead of indulging intellectual interests, spend her time beautifying the house with her broderie anglaise. We may recall that when Stiva [Kitty's brother-in-law and Anna's brother] wakes up at the beginning of the novel, he drops his feet into slippers that, as a birthday present, Dolly [his wife and Kitty's sister] "has embroidered for him...on gold-colored morocco." Embroidery in this novel signifies the value of ordinary life through the effort to beautify it with one's work. Tolstoy's wife wrote in her diary:

L.N. was just saying to me how the ideas for his novel [Anna Karenina] came to him: "I was sitting downstairs in my study and observing a very beautiful silk line on the sleeve of my robe. I was thinking about how people get the idea in their heads to invent all these patterns and ornaments of embroidery, and that there exists a whole world of woman's work, fashions, ideas, by which women live... I understood that women could love this and occupy themselves with it. And, of course, at once my ideas moved to Anna... Anna is deprived of all these joys of occupying herself with the woman's side of life because she is all alone. All women have turned away from her, and she has nobody to talk with about all that which composes the everyday, purely feminine occupations."

[Morson then continues]: When Kitty insists on going with him [Levin, her husband] to his dying brother Nikolai, Levin imagines that she is simply afraid to be alone. But for her, sharing such an experience is so essential to the partnership of the marriage, which is not an alliance for amusement or pleasure. Precisely because she understands everything prosaically, she proves of great help to Levin and to Nikolai by attending to "the petty details":

[Morson then quotes Tolstoy in Anna Karenina]: It never entered his [Levin's] head to analyze the details of the sick man's situation, to consider how that body was lying under the blanket, how those emaciated legs and thighs and spine were lying huddled up, and whether they could not be made more comfortable... It made his blood run cold when he began to think of all those details... But Kitty thought, and felt, and acted quite differently. On seeing the sick man, she pitied him. And pity in her womanly heart did not arouse at all that feeling of horror and loathing that it aroused in her husband, but a desire to act, to find out the details of his condition, and to remedy them.... The very details, the mere thought of which reduced her husband to terror, immediately engaged her attention."

[Morson then writes:] The word "details" appears four times in this passage because the experience of death, no less than of life, is a matter of details. Kitty cares for, as she lives by, the smallest gestures in life. She improves the situation by making Nikolai's room cleaner and more orderly, by attending to every detail of his surroundings, until, at last, we see on the table her broderie anglaise. Levin acknowledges the correctness of her idea of love and marriage.

So ends Morson's discussion of the image of broderie anglaise in Anna Karenina. To me, Tolstoy's description of how Kitty transforms her brother-in-law's situation is incredibly moving and inspiring. You can read it online here. Read Chapters 16 through 20 of Part V.


Christina said...

Thank you once again for your lovely insights into "women's work" and its central role in human culture. Perhaps a wider appreciation of such truths can help in turning the tides of the so-called liberation movement that has cruelly swept three generations of women out of the homes that would doubtless be more tranquil, productive, beautiful, and healthy environments for their families had they not been forced into the commercial workplace. I am going to find my copy of Anna Karenina today!

wendybirde said...

That bottom image of the woman tucking in the child is just so lovely Linda. Do you happen to know the artist?

Peaceful day to you : ) Wendy