‘There is a breadth of vision in the free man which in the lover we vainly seek.’ –Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd

In making this statement Boldwood’s voice revealed only too clearly a consciousness of the weakness of his position, his aims, and his method. His manner had lapsed quite from that of the firm and dignified Boldwood of former times; and such a scheme as he had now engaged in he would have condemned as childishly imbecile only a few months ago. We discern a grand force in the lover which he lacks whilst a free man; but there is a breadth of vision in the free man which in the lover we vainly seek. Where there is much bias there must be some narrowness, and love, though added emotion, is subtracted capacity. Boldwood exemplified this to an abnormal degree: he knew nothing of Fanny Robin’s circumstances or whereabouts, he knew nothing of Troy’s possibilities, yet that was what he said.

—Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd, Chapter XXXIV

Consider the power of the novel, that in the space of half a thousand pages, it can bless us readers with characters to ponder over half a hundred years, or longer. Anna Karenina, from her eponymous novel, is endlessly fascinating! Consider, too, the power of reams of text to launch simpler characters toward ruin, then provide a kind of forensic meteorology on the gusting winds of their fate. In this book, Boldwood’s ship is about to splinter on the rocks of Troy’s cunning, a sad end with which we readers will soon be intimately familiar.

Farmer Boldwood is perhaps the most broadly drawn of the main characters in Far from the Madding Crowd, but the tragedy of his love for Bathsheba Everdene is the most keenly illustrated. This passage, which comes from Boldwood’s useless interview with Troy in order to get Troy to marry Fanny Robin and leave him the open road to Bathsheba’s heart, shows just how desperation, even desperate love, can be the saddest emotion of them all.

The contrast between the grand force of love and its all-too-narrow focus is something that also comes up (viewed from the other end of the telescope) in one of my favorite lines of modern poetry, from “Why Regret?” by Galway Kinnell.

Or when Casanova threw the linguine in squid ink
out the window, telling his startled companion,
“The perfected lover does not eat”?

‘the cool granary, still fragrant with the leaves of the hazel branches interlaced on the freshly peeled aspen beams of the new thatch roof’—Anna Karenina

He was standing in the cool granary, still fragrant with the leaves of the hazel branches interlaced on the freshly peeled aspen beams of the new thatch roof. He gazed through the open door in which the dry bitter dust of the thrashing whirled and played, at the grass of the thrashing floor in the sunlight and the fresh straw that had been brought in from the barn, then at the speckly-headed, white-breasted swallows that flew chirping in under the roof and, fluttering their wings, settled in the crevices of the doorway, then at the peasants bustling in the dark, dusty barn, and he thought strange thoughts.

Anna Karenina, Part Eight, Chapter 11

In part eight, the last part of the book, Tolstoy through Levin’s eyes, takes the opportunity to reflect on belief. After hundreds of pages, Tolstoy pulls out a new trick, the environmental description which is beautifully written (and translated into English), and sets the stage for the interior monologue on morals and belief in God that Levin is about to carry forth.

‘the sickly wife considered herself misunderstood, and the husband deceived her and encouraged her in that idea of herself’ —Anna Karenina

‘That’s what reason is given man for, to escape from what worries him,’ said the lady in French, lisping affectedly and obviously pleased with her phrase.


The words seemed an answer to Anna’s thoughts.


“ ‘To escape from what worries him,’ repeated Anna. And glancing at the red-checked husband and the thin wife, she saw that the sickly wife considered herself misunderstood, and the husband deceived her and encouraged her in that idea of herself. Anna seemed to see all their history and all the crannies of their souls, as it were turning a light upon them. But there was nothing interesting in them, and she pursued her thought.”

—Anna Karenina, Part Seven, Chapter 31

A ton of semantic bricks transported in a single sentence. Anna, by now so experienced at scrutinizing every aspect of her relationship with Vronsky, can immediately perceive this walk-on couple for the unsatisfied, “repulsive” pair that they are. How exquisitely described their relationship is: “the sickly wife considered herself misunderstood, and the husband deceived her and encouraged her in that idea of herself.” Once again, there is more freight, more wisdom, and more understanding in a single sentence than in many other novels entire.

‘the consciousness of a new sphere of liability to pain’ —Anna Karenina

‘Smiling, hardly able to restrain his tears, Levin kissed his wife and went out of the dark room. What he felt towards this little creature was utterly unlike what he had expected. There was nothing cheerful and joyous in the feeling; on the contrary, it was a new torture of apprehension. It was the consciousness of a new sphere of liability to pain. And this sense was so painful at first, the apprehension lest this helpless creature should suffer was so intense, that it prevented him from noticing the strange thrill of senseless joy and even pride that he had felt when the baby sneezed.’

Anna Karenina, Part Seven, Chapter 16

This paragraph could stand by itself, like the sentence that deserves its own novel. It is wound so tightly and encompasses so many different emotional reference points. This rhetorical technique of bracketing emotional resonance as if it were artillery fire serves the situation so perfectly that the reader hardly notices what Tolstoy has achieved in a single paragraph: he has said something fresh about the joy of new parenthood.

That glance means a great deal,’ she thought. ‘That glance shows the beginning of indifference.’ —Anna Karenina

“On the day before there had been almost a quarrel between Vronsky and
Anna over this proposed expedition [to the district elections]. It was
the very dullest autumn weather, which is so dreary in the country,
and so, preparing himself for a struggle, Vronsky, with a hard and
cold expression, informed Anna of his departure as he had never spoken
to her before. But, to his surprise, Anna accepted the information
with great composure, and merely asked when he would be back. He
looked intently at her, at a loss to explain this composure. She
smiled at his look. He knew that way she had of withdrawing into
herself, and knew that it only happened when she had determined upon
something without letting him know her plans. He was afraid of this;
but he was so anxious to avoid a scene that he kept up appearances,
and half sincerely believed in what he longed to believe in—her
“ ‘I hope you won’t be dull?’
“ ‘I hope not,’ said Anna. ‘I got a box of books yesterday from
Gautier’s. No, I shan’t be dull.’
“ ‘She’s trying to take that tone, and so much the better,’ he
thought, ‘or else it would be the same thing over and over again.’
“ ‘And he set off for the elections without appealing to her for a
candid explanation. It was the first time since the beginning of their
intimacy that he had parted from her without a full explanation. From
one point of view this troubled him, but on the other side he felt
that it was better so. ‘At first there will be, as this time,
something undefined kept back, and then she will get used to it. In
any case I can give up anything for her, but not my masculine
independence,’ he thought.”

Anna Karenina, Part Six, Chapter 25

“In solitude afterwards, thinking over that glance which had expressed
his right to freedom, she came, as she always did, to the same
point—the sense of her own humiliation.[…]’What has he done, though?…
He looked at me with a cold, severe expression. Of course that is
something indefinable, impalpable, but it has never been so before,
and that glance means a great deal,’ she thought. ‘That glance shows
the beginning of indifference.’

Anna Karenina, Part Six, Chapter 32
It’s an argument! It’s not an argument! No matter which side of this
meta-argument you take, it is hard to imagine a better rendering of
the way that misunderstandings can escalate into conflicts within the
context of a relationship. There’s Vronsky’s desire for masculine
independence (whatever that might be defined as), there’s Vronsky’s
perception of Anna’s smile as bullheaded concealment, there’s Anna’s
sense of being trapped in a unfulfilling relationship with Vronsky
(because of her inability to get a divorce from her husband), and
there’s Anna’s perception of Vronsky’s glance as fraught with
indifference. For a couple that began with such a direct, intimate
connection, they have come to a point where they are complete
strangers to each other.
The patient iteration of their relationship through the hundreds of
pages that it takes for Tolstoy to arrive at this point is what makes
the book into literature. Everyone has had a futile, unfulfilling
relationship; everyone has had a relationship that was a minefield of
misunderstanding. Back to the Chapter 32 quote: everyone, especially
in the relationship-saturated world of today, can understand how a
single glance can convey the “beginning of indifference.”


“Even porridge for the children’s breakfast does not come of itself,”—Anna Karenina

The dinner, the dining room, the service, the waiting at table, the
wine, and the food, were not simply in keeping with the general tone
of modern luxury throughout the house, but seemed even more sumptuous
and modern. Darya Alexandrovna watched this luxury which was novel to
her, and as a good housekeeper used to managing a household—although
she never dreamed of adapting anything she saw to her own household,
as it was all in a style of luxury far above her own manner of
living—she could not help scrutinizing every detail and wondering how
and by whom it was done. Vassenka Veslovsky, her husband, and even
Sviazhsky, and many other people she knew, would never have considered
this question, and would have readily believed what every well-bred
host tries to make his guests feel, that is, that all that is
well-ordered in his house has cost him, the host, no trouble
whatsoever, but comes of itself. Darya Alexandrovna was well aware
that even porridge for the children’s breakfast does not come of
itself, and that therefore, where so complicated and magnificent a
style of luxury was maintained, someone must give earnest attention to
its organization. And from the glance with which Alexey Kirillovitch
[Vronsky] scanned the table, ftrom the way he nodded to the butler,
and offered Darya Alexandrovna her choice between cold soup and hot
soup, she saw that it was all organized and maintained by the care of
the master of the house himself.

Anna Karenina, Part Five, Chapter 22
This quote, taken from the episode where Darya Alexandrovna, Stiva’s
wife and Kitty’s sister, visits Anna and Vronsky at his estate, is
linked to two other episodes that I haven’t quoted, one where Levin
and Kitty have a fight over her apparent indolence, which Tolstoy
explains in an end-of-chapter coda is because she is getting ready for
the effort necessary to maintain a household with children, and one
later on, where Anna explains to Darya Alexandrovna that she has had
her tubes tied (in more oblique language, of course) and will have no
more children.
Vronsky’s efforts to maintain this palace of luxury in the Russian
countryside seem cheapened and artificial when they are compared with
the happy jumble of summer visitors at the Levins’. Tolstoy points out
that there is a price to this kind of glamor: it is an adults-only
environment. Everything seems counterfeit, even the intentions behind
it: Vronsky wants to lure friends of Anna’s there in order for her to
be accepted into society after leaving her husband.

“What is the difference between the ‘birch’ mushroom and the ‘white’ mushroom?” —Anna Karenina

Now or never it must be said—that Sergey Ivanovitch felt too.
Everything in the expression, the flushed cheeks and the downcast eyes
of Varenka betrayed a painful suspense. Sergey Ivanovitch saw it and
felt sorry for her. He felt that to say nothing now would be a slight
to her. Rapidly in his own mind he ran over all the arguments in
support of his decision. He even said over to himself the words in
which he meant to put his offer, but instead of those words, some
utterly unexpected reflection that occurred to him made him ask:

 “What is the difference between the ‘birch’ mushroom and the ‘white’ mushroom?”

 Varenka’s lips quivered with emotion as she answered:

 “In the top part there is scarcely any difference, it’s in the stalk.”

Anna Karenina, Part Five, Chapter 5

 While at the Levins’ country estate, Sergey Ivanovitch, Levin’s
brother, falls in love with Varenka, Kitty’s friend from her European
trip. He, much older than she, is about to ask her to marry him. They
go mushroom hunting and repair to a glade, away from the others, where
he intends to propose.

 Sometimes the serendipitous occasion comes from not asking. We
can only wonder what would have come if he had proposed, but the book
is long, and maybe, as Kitty later on accepted Levin’s proposal, this
pair too will become a couple.

Unity of the impression: ‘I cannot paint a Christ that is not in my heart,’ —Anna Karenina

‘ “One thing might be said, if you will allow me to make the remark…” observed Golenishtchev.

‘ “Oh, I shall be delighted, I beg you,” said Mihailov [the artist] with a forced smile.

‘ “That is, that you make Him the man-god, and not the God-man. But I know that was what you meant to do.”

‘ “I cannot paint a Christ that is not in my heart,” said Mihailov gloomily.

“Yes; but in that case, if you will allow me to say what I think.…Your picture is so fine that my observation cannot detract from it, and, besides, it is only my personal opinion. With you it is different. Your very motive is different.…I imagine that if Christ is brought down to the level of an historical character, it would have been better for Ivanov [this other painter] to select some other historical subject, fresh, untouched.”

‘ “But if this is the greatest subject presented to art?”

‘ “If one looked one would find others. But the point is that art cannot suffer doubt and discussion. And before the picture of Ivanov the question arises for the believer and the unbeliever alike. ‘Is it God, or is it not God?’ and the unity of the impression is destroyed.”

‘ “Why so? I think that for educated people,” said Mihailov, “the question cannot exist.” ‘

This section of Anna Karenina (Part Five, Chapter 11) is a sort of interlude, where Anna and Vronsky are sojourning in Italy, away from her husband and her son. They’ve come across one of Vronsky’s old school pals, Golenishtchev, who has resigned his cavalry commission, moved to Italy, and become a cultural critic and intellectual. A kind of hipster. The couple have been invited to see Mihailov at his studio, where he shows off his masterwork, a picture of Christ before Pilate (reference Matthew, chapter 27).

I like the question about the unity of the impression. It’s easier to see in a Pietà, with the youthful Jesus, than in a picture of the adult Jesus. But if the Bible is the word of God, then any kind of artistic representation, even if it depicts Biblical events, is always going to be a kind of derivative work.

Unity of the impression is difficult to render when one is trying to depict an ineffable deity, but I am intrigued by the idea of how the same concept applies in the domain of secular art. These years I see so much art that seems to be purposefully vague and open to multiple interpretations. The idea of unity of impression privileges one particular view of the artwork over others, an old-fashioned idea.

The state of blissful absurdity, ‘Anna Karenina’

‘Then relations arrived, and there began that state of
blissful absurdity from which Levin did not emerge till the day after
his wedding. Levin was in a continual state of awkwardness and
discomfort, but the intensity of his happiness went on all the while
increasing. He felt continually that a great deal was being expected
of him—what, he did not know; and he did everything he was told, and
it all gave him happiness. He had thought his engagement would have
nothing about it like others, that the ordinary conditions of engaged
couples would spoil his special happiness, but it ended in his doing
exactly as other people did, and his happiness being only increased
thereby and becoming more and more special, more and more unlike
anything that had ever happened.…

 ‘What was extraordinary was that everyone not only liked him, but even
people previously unsympathetic, cold, and callous, were enthusiastic
over him, gave way to him in everything, treated his feeling with
tenderness and delicacy, and shared his conviction that he was the
happiest man in the world because his betrothed was beyond
Anna Karenina, Part IV, chapter 16.

 As I was reading this chapter sitting in my folding armchair in the
sunshine outside the tent yesterday morning, the oracular shuffle
feature brought up this Monty Alexander classic, which is on a
collection called “Strange Funky Games and Things,” right after Sam
Mangwana singing “Marie Kembo.” The songs seemed to match like lock to
key the delirious, yet organized nature of the happiness that Tolstoy
describes Levin as being in the throes of as he plans his marriage to

‘She loved him as a woman can love when love has outweighed for her all the good things of life’—‘Anna Karenina’

How often he [Vronsky] had told himself that her love was
happiness; and now she loved him as a woman can love when love has
outweighed for her all the good things of life—and he was much further
from happiness than when he had followed her from Moscow. Then he had
thought himself unhappy, but happiness was before him; now he felt
that the best happiness was already left behind. She was utterly
unlike what she had been when he first saw her. Both morally and
physically she had changed for the worse.…He looked at her as a man
looks at a faded flower he has gathered, with difficulty recognizing
in it the beauty for which he picked and ruined it. And in spite of
this he felt that then when his love was stronger, he could if he had
greatly wished it, have torn that love out of his heart; but now, when
as at that moment it seemed to him he felt no love for her, he knew
that what bound him to her could not be broken.

This quote, from Chapter 3 of Part IV of Anna Karenina, is set
as Vronsky and Anna are responding individually to her revelation of
her affair to her husband, Alexey Alexandrovitch.

 Vronsky’s has surrendered utterly: not to love, not to affection, but
to the unbreakable bonds of his human alliance in misfortune with
Anna. Calling this emotion ‘love,’ and this story a ‘love story’ is
completely understating the obvious, that love is just a short band of
the range of emotional frequencies on which human beings relate.
Tolstoy uses Anna and Vronsky’s terrifying and doomed love, as
contrasted with the paralleling sedate and constructive love of Levin
and Kitty, to explore human emotions at the point where they are
rubbed raw. It takes careful and deliberate writing to get the novel
to such a point, the point at which we know Anna and Vronsky’s tragedy
on many different levels and can see how it has affected their entire
society: a couple pages earlier Anna is even described as “a real
heroine of romance” in conversation with her friend Betsy Tverskaya.
If she could only know how true that epithet has proven to be.