We do not think of Tolstoy as a comic writer, but his genius permits him to write farce when it suits him. There is a wickedly funny scene in Anna Karenina that directly precedes the painful scenes leading to Anna’s suicide. It takes place in the drawing room of the Countess Lydia Ivanovna, who, almost alone among the novel’s characters, has no good, or even pretty good, qualities. She embodies the kind of hysterical and coldhearted religious piety that Tolstoy was especially allergic to. “As a very young and rhapsodical girl,” he writes, she
had been married to a wealthy man of high rank, a very good-natured, jovial, and extremely dissipated rake. Two months after marriage her husband abandoned her, and her impassioned protestations of affection he met with a sarcasm and even hostility that people knowing the count’s good heart, and seeing no defects in the ecstatic Lydia, were at a loss to explain. Though they were not divorced, they lived apart, and whenever the husband met the wife, he invariably behaved to her with the same venomous irony, the cause of which was incomprehensible.
Tolstoy, with his own venomous irony, makes the cause entirely comprehensible to the reader of Anna Karenina, as he shows Lydia Ivanovna fasten herself on Karenin after Anna leaves his house to go abroad with Vronsky, and preside over his degeneration into his worst self. She is an ugly and malevolent creature who coats her spite in a thick ooze of platitudes about Christian love and forgiveness. When Anna was on the verge of death after giving birth to Vronsky’s daughter, Karenin experienced an electrifying spiritual transformation: his feelings of hatred and vengefulness toward Anna and Vronsky abruptly changed into feelings of love and forgiveness, and under the spell of this new “blissful spiritual condition” he offered Anna a divorce and the custody of her son—neither of which she chose to accept. Now, a year later, she wants the divorce, but Karenin is no longer of a mind to give it to her. The blissful spiritual condition has faded away like a rainbow, and Karenin, in thrall to the malignant Lydia Ivanovna, has reassumed his old, supinely rigid, and unfeeling self.
Anna’s brother, Stepan Arkadyevich (Stiva) Oblonsky, has gone to Karenin to intercede for Anna, and Karenin has said he would think the matter over and give his answer in two days’ time, but when the two days pass, instead of an answer, Oblonsky receives an evening invitation to the house of Lydia Ivanovna, where he finds her and Karenin and a French clairvoyant named Landau, who is to be somehow instrumental in Karenin’s decision. The comic scene that follows is filtered through Oblonsky’s consciousness.
By now we know Oblonsky very well. Tolstoy has portrayed him as a person whom it is necessary to condemn—he is another dissipated rake—but impossible to dislike. He radiates affability; when he comes into a room people immediately cheer up. And when he appears on the page, the reader feels a similar delight. In the novel’s moral hierarchy, Lydia Ivanovna and Karenin occupy the lowest rung; they sin against the human spirit, while Stiva only sins against his wife and children and creditors. Through his geniality, Oblonsky has been able to maintain a job in government for which he is in no way qualified, but now, because he needs more money, he is trying to get himself appointed to a higher-paying position in the civil service. Lydia Ivanovna has influence among the appointers, and Oblonsky figures he might as well use the occasion to charm her into helping him. Thus, while listening to Lydia Ivanovna and Karenin’s odious religious palaver, he cravenly—but, he hopes, not too cravenly—hides his atheism:
“Ah, if you knew the happiness we know, feeling His presence ever in our hearts!” said Countess Lydia Ivanovna with a rapturous smile.
“But a man may feel himself unworthy sometimes to rise to that height,” said Stepan Arkadyevich, conscious of hypocrisy in admitting this religious height, but at the same time unable to bring himself to acknowledge his freethinking views before a person who, by a single word to Pomorsky, might procure him the coveted appointment.
During all this Landau, “a short, thinnish man, very pale and handsome, with feminine hips, knock-kneed, with fine brilliant eyes and long hair” and a “moist, lifeless” handshake, is sitting apart at a window. Karenin and Lydia Ivanovna look at each other and make cryptic remarks about him. A footman keeps coming into the room with letters for Lydia Ivanovna, to which she rapidly scribbles answers or gives brief spoken answers (“Tomorrow at the Grand Duchess’s, say”), before resuming her pieties, to which Karenin adds pieties of his own. Stiva feels increasingly baffled. Lydia Ivanovna suddenly asks him, “Vous comprenez l’anglais?” and when he says yes, she goes to her bookcase and takes down a tract called Safe and Happy, from which she proposes to read aloud. Stiva feels safe and happy at the chance to collect himself and not have to worry about putting a foot wrong. Lydia Ivanovna prefaces her reading with a story about a woman named Marie Sanina who lost her only child, but found God, and now thanks Him for the death of her child—“such is the happiness faith brings!” As he listens to Lydia Ivanovna read Safe and Happy,
aware of the beautiful, artless—or perhaps artful, he could not decide which—eyes of Landau fixed upon him, Stepan Arkadyevich [begins] to be conscious of a peculiar heaviness in his head.
The most incongruous ideas were running through his mind. “Marie Sanina is glad her child’s dead…How good a smoke would be now!… To be saved, one need only believe, and the monks don’t know how the thing’s to be done, but Countess Lydia Ivanovna does know…And why is my head so heavy? Is it the cognac, or all this being so strange? Anyway, I think I’ve done nothing objectionable so far. But, even so, it won’t do to ask her now. They say they make one say one’s prayers. I only hope they won’t make me! That’ll be too absurd. And what nonsense she’s reading! But she has a good accent….”
Stiva fights the drowsiness that is overcoming him, but begins to helplessly succumb to it. On the point of snoring, he rouses himself, but too late. “He’s asleep,” he hears the countess saying. He has been caught out. The countess will never help him with the appointment. But no, the countess isn’t talking about him. She is talking about the clairvoyant. He is lying back in his chair with his eyes closed and his hand twitching. He is in the trance Lydia Ivanovna and Karenin have been waiting for him to fall into. She instructs Karenin to give Landau his hand and he obeys, trying to move carefully, but stumbling on a table. Stiva watches the scene, not sure he isn’t dreaming it. “It was all real,” he concludes.
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