Observing (a) Leo Tolstoy’s Karenin Watching Anna Watching Vronsky and (b) Anna Watching Karenin Thinking of Her

Non-fiction By Bob Blaisdell

In Anna Karenina, when Karenin watches his wife Anna watching Captain Vronsky at the horse race, it’s one of the greatest of observations of observation in literature:

His glance stopped on Anna.

Her face was white and strained. She, apparently, nothing and no one saw but one. Her hand convulsively pressed her fan, and she did not breathe. He looked at her and hurriedly turned, glancing at other faces.

“So here that woman and others also are very agitated; it’s very natural,” Aleksei Aleksandrovich [that is, Karenin] said to himself. He wanted to not look at her, but his glance involuntarily was attracted to her. He again glanced at her face, trying not to read that which was so clearly read on it, and against his will with terror read on it what he did not want to know. [This is my deliberately literal translation from Part 2, Chapter 28; almost all the published translations you can find on your bookshelves or on-line are good and less clunky.]

Everyone in the book has trouble reading! The characters in the most compelling novel I’ve ever read are continually distracted readers. And they aren’t checking their phones; they’re distracted by their agitated thoughts. But nobody in the novel has trouble reading, against their will, the faces of others.

The race continues:

The first fall of Kuzovlev in the river alarmed everyone, but Aleksei Aleksandrovich saw clearly on the white triumphant face of Anna that the one at whom she was looking did not fall. When, just after Maxotin [Vronsky’s horse] and Vronsky passed over the big barrier, the following officer fell right on his head and was nearly killed and a rumble of terror passed through all the public, Aleksei Aleksandrovich saw that Anna did not even notice this and with difficulty understood what they were saying around her. But he more and more often and greater persistence looked at her. She, completely watching the spectacle of the racing Vronsky, felt from the side the directed gaze at her from the cold eyes of her husband.

She decides, “What the hell” (that is, “Ах, мне все равно”: “Ahk! It’s all the same to me”), and keeps watching her lover.


By the time of our next close observation, Anna has had her affair with Vronsky; it has resulted in her pregnancy and, with the delivery of the baby, her seeming impending death from an infection; on her deathbed she has repented and asked her husband’s forgiveness. To everyone’s surprise, she survives. She and her stodgy but forgiving husband have resumed a superficial life together. But she can’t stand it. She still loves Vronsky.

Is breaking someone’s heart harder the first or the second time?

In Part 3, Chapter 23, Anna has arrived at her and Karenin’s house and is anxiously awaiting his return. But he doesn’t come back, he doesn’t come back. And when he does finally come back from his government office, he’s got his chief secretary with him. When she hears him, the secretary, leave, she knows it’s almost time for Karenin to go out again, and so she heads to his study:

When she went into his study, he in his official uniform, obviously ready to go out, he was seated at the small table at which he lay his arms, and despondently looked before him. She saw him before he her, and she understood that he was thinking about her.

This is most touching moment in the long disintegration of their marriage. I have sympathy for and understanding of both of them—and so does Anna! This breaks my heart.

And so do the following two paragraphs:

Seeing her, he wanted to stand, thought against it, then his face flushed, which Anna had never before seen, and he quickly stood up and went to greet her, looking not at her eyes but above, at her forehead and hair. He reached her, took her hand and asked her to sit.

Everything’s the same, and everything’s changed. The light has changed, but the objects are the same.

“I am very happy that you have come,” he said, sitting before her, and obviously desiring to say something, he stammered. A few times he wanted to begin speaking, but he stopped. Despite being ready for this meeting, and that she had taught herself to despise and blame him, she did not know what to say to him, and she was sorry for him. And so the silence continued, quite long. “Is Serozha [their son] well?” he said and, not waiting for an answer, added, “I will not be home tonight, and right now I need to go.”

The tension is thick; our sympathy continues for both of them. Something has to happen–or, as in real life, nothing! But something happens:

“I want to go to Moscow,” she said.

That is, Karenin understands, to Vronsky. No one in the book is hit so squarely between the eyes as Karenin. All the hits that the other romantic partners take are not so heavy and blunt as what he gets. Anna feels for him, for the first time in a long while—but, but … but she has to tell him that she has to leave him again for Vronsky!

I realize that any touching moment I ever successfully described in my own stories has derived from this or other moments in the novel.

Could I have described those moments if I had not read Anna Karenina?

The real question is: Could I have understood those moments in my life had it not been for Anna Karenina?

Bob Blaisdell is writing a biography of Tolstoy writing Anna Karenina.

One thought on “Observing (a) Leo Tolstoy’s Karenin Watching Anna Watching Vronsky and (b) Anna Watching Karenin Thinking of Her

  1. Pingback: Observing (a) Leo Tolstoy’s Karenin Watching Anna Watching Vronsky and (b) Anna Watching Karenin Thinking of Her | DrLearnALot's House of Edumacation

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