Can you help me understand Anna Karenina?

1 августа

You mean understand the motivations and behavior of one of Leo Tolstoy’s most complex and passionate protagonists? That’s rather a tall ask. Pass. What we can help you with is navigating the often confusing world of the 19th century Russian novel. First off, why does everyone have so many names? Let’s take Kitty, the young debutante who becomes Levin’s wife, as an example. Formally known as Princess Yekaterina Alexandrovna Shcherbatskaya — try and say that in a hurry — Kitty can be alternately Princess Shcherbatskaya, Kitty, Katya or Yekaterina depending on who’s speaking where. It gets even more confusing when diminutives — used to express fondness — don’t seem to fit with their name at all. Prince Stepan Arkadyevich Oblonsky becomes “Stiva” while his wife Princess Darya Alexandrovna Oblonskaya becomes “Dolly” around friends and family. The rule is that in society, when characters are referring to one another in polite terms, they may either use a character’s title and surname — “Prince Vronsky” — or by their first name and patronymic — Darya Alexandrovna. Characters will use diminutives when friendly or family members. This dismembering and reassembling of names may be a total pain when you’re trying to work out who’s saying what to whom, but it provides a useful insight into character’s relations with one another and the outside world. So pay attention. Next off, why are there so many princes and princesses? This is actually an easy one. Reserving the title of prince or princess for the son or daughter of a king is a very British tradition. Across different world cultures it generally indicates a high rank of nobility, such as a duke/duchess or count/countess. Князь and the female equivalent кня- гиня are generally translated as prince and princess in Russian novels — the highest rank that can be held by a noble who is not a member of the imperial family. One can become a princess by marrying a prince, but if you’re not a prince and you marry a princess you’ll still be untitled. Got it? You may think you’ve got a handle on things until all of a sudden everyone starts speaking French. Confusion abounds. You double-check you’re reading Tolstoy and not Victor Hugo. You download a dictionary app and try to understand what on earth is going on. There’s a relatively straightforward explanation. French was the language of the Russian court, and many high-society families also used it as the language for their personal relations with one another. In fact some upper class Russians could barely speak their native language at all. While French demonstrated their nobility, it also allowed them to speak freely about personal matters in front of their domestic staff without the worry of being overheard. Did you notice that Vronsky is always talking to Anna in French? Partially because that was the norm but also because it was a useful way of planning a lovers’ tryst in front of the footman. Tolstoy’s use of French in Anna Karenina is interesting. Some of the more superficial characters like Countess Lidia Ivanovna and Countess Vronsky are shown to prefer speaking in French — a possible hint by Tolstoy at their vapid and frivolous natures. Tolstoy seems to insinuate that the more “morally loose” characters have become too westernized — hence their love of the Gallic tongue. Meanwhile, Levin feels using French is a rejection of the nobility’s Russian heritage and expresses confusion at Dolly talking to her children in the language. More confused than when you started reading this? Promise us you’ll stay away from train stations for the rest of the day.

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