Atwood and Tolstoy

When I was an undergraduate, at the end of the 80s, feminism was where it was all happening, as far as theory was concerned. After the sterile cleverness of the postmodernists, the feminists seemed to prove that you could harness complex concepts up to the problems and insufficiencies of real social conditions, and start dragging them in a whole new direction. We were taught that the personal is political; that a society can and should be judged on the way it treats its most vulnerable members, and that literary texts often showed the worst crimes of patriarchy by inscribing them on the bodies of their female heroines. All this has been brought vividly back to memory lately, whilst I’ve been reading Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina in tandem. You wouldn’t think the two had much in common, would you? A 19th century Russian novel about adultery, and a twentieth century feminist depiction of a chilling dystopia, but in both cases it’s all about the women. In both novels the reader is obliged to watch a woman struggling against the impossible constraints of a society that not only forces her take the blame for all desire, but makes her a criminal in her own eyes for her sexuality.

I’ve just finished The Handmaid’s Tale and what an extraordinary piece of writing it is. It’s the uncompromisingly painful and angry story of Offred, a woman caught in a terrifying period of transition in the Republic of Gilead. The world has been irredeemably damaged by disease, pollution and nuclear disaster, leading to a dangerous drop in fertility rates, and Gilead is a society ruthlessly determined to survive. Caught attempting to cross the border to safety, Offred’s husband has been captured and probably killed, her daughter taken away from her, and Offred has become a handmaid, assigned to one of the families of the totalitarian government as nothing more than a breeding mare, a coerced surrogate mother, to produce the babies the republic so desperately needs. Atwood shows brilliantly how a woman’s ability to reproduce, so essential to the continuation of society, has never been rewarded by the culture it serves, only used as a tool of subjugation for women. Offred’s essential role is buried under the weight of controlling regulations that determine her every move, and which seek to govern her every thought. From the winged headdress that limits her view of the world, to the constant surveillance she is placed under, to the severely restricted locations she is allowed to visit, Offred’s existence represents a nightmarish concentration of all the restrictions the world has ever dreamt up to curtail a woman’s freedom. We are not so very far away today from harems and veils, and women not being allowed to work or vote, or decide whether or not they have babies to feel in any way complacent. And Atwood’s tale ensures we do not. It reminds us that any serious threat to the continuation of society will place women and their reproductive capabilities back in chains.

Now, I’m only a couple of hundred pages through Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, but already the situation does not look good for the unhappily adulterous Anna. The consummation of her affair with Vronsky is described without joy or celebration, but as the result of a compulsion that is both criminal and fatal:

Looking at him, she physically felt her humiliation and could say nothing more. And he felt what a murderer must feel when he looks at the body he has deprived of life. This body deprived of life was their love, the first period of their love. There was something horrible and loathsome in his recollections of what had been paid for with this terrible price of shame.’

Any terrible price to be paid, will have to be settled by Anna, I fear. I’ve just passed the scene in which she tells Vronsky she is pregnant – women’s reproductive capabilities again being linked to a woman’s social visibility in negative and damaging ways. And this is succeeded by Vronsky’s disastrous participation in a horse race. Vronsky’s confidence in his own skill, and his adoration of his horse, cannot prevent a foolish, unfortunate accident from occurring, in which the horse’s back is broken. This incident seems to prefigure Anna’s fate. Vronsky’s calm determination to triumph over her will break her in the end, and Vronksy will only be able to stand by and watch helplessly, unable to comprehend what he has done.

In Tolstoy’s novel the criminalisation of the woman’s desire is very obvious. It’s plain to see that society will condemn Anna with every possible means at its disposal. It’s less obvious, but equally pervasive in The Handmaid’s Tale that what society wants to dispense with is a woman’s private, emotional life, her sexual desire, and her freedom to explore them. Near the end of Atwood’s novel, Offred puts herself in terrible danger in order to follow her desire, and her fate is profoundly ambiguous. And this link between a 19th century Russian male author and a modern day Canadian feminist troubled me. Why must women always be represented as needing to pay for their desires? Why are women always the ones represented as having the dangerous desires in the first place? Are there never any men in novels who lose their heads for love and suffer? Surely in reality men must love with the same intensity and scandalous vibrancy as women? I wracked my brains to think of famous novels in which men suffered for love and could only come up with Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, and Proust’s depiction of the relationship between Marcel and Albertine. Yet in both instances there is something narcissistic about the man’s role, something suggestive of his extraordinary capacity for feeling, something that ennobles him rather than disgraces him. His is not a shameful self-sacrifice to love. And it struck me also in both these books that the woman’s biological capacity to reproduce was entwined in confusingly dependent ways with this perilous and excessive capacity for passion. There are so many ways that biology and culture collide over the woman’s body as it lies prostrate in love, in childbirth, and in undignified submission. I think I find that the most chilling thought of all.

19 thoughts on “Atwood and Tolstoy

  1. I read both of these novels a few years ago and remember enjoying them, though I seem to recall feeling vaguely suicidal for a few days after finishing the Atwood. I agree that it’s difficult (or impossible for me, at least) to come up with a title in which a man suffered for love with such intensity as the women in these novels, but this situation may exist in some novels with gay themes.

  2. Litlove, I think you should cross-post this at whatwesaid – it’s perfect.

    I had to put Anna Karenina aside for a while (I’m about 1/2 through)because I simply wasn’t getting anywhere, but I found the scene where she and Vronsky finally begin conducting their affair so utterly heartbreaking, so full of desperation – it made me very sad. I think Anna Karenina is very readable and a wonderful story but it’s complexity and storylines were overwhelming me – I need to return in the summer when things are a bit quieter.

    You’ve captured Atwood’s tale extremely well, too – I can’t imagine reading both books together! Both have such overwhelming feelings of desperation, although to be sure Atwood gives us some hope at the end of hers. This write-up was wonderful!

  3. It’s a long time since I read either of these novels but they both affected me very deeply. Most recently Marge Piercy’s ‘Sex Wars’ excited similar feelings. What does upset me is how little the students of today know about feminism and the struggles of the 70s and 80s. They take their position for granted and neglect to build on the rights so hard fought for by their forerunners.

  4. Wonderful post Litlove. I have read the Atwood maybe three times now and it remains one of my favorites novels (though it is dark and despairing). I want to read Anna K–and am now very curious about it from your’s and other’s comments. I had never really thought about novels and men suffering in love. You are right–it doesn’t seem to ever occur (certainly not in the same way it effects women)–men always seem to come out of the whole equation very unscathed and the women usually kill themselves. And if it did happen to a man it would probably seem wimpish and terribly unmasculine.

  5. Just last night, two friends and I watched Unfaithful (on the Oxygen women’s network, no less!), the movie in which Diane Lane pays a very heavy price for her dalliance with a handsome french guy. Although you’re supposed to think that Richard Gere also pays a similarly high price, the whole thing leaves you with the distinct impression that not much has changed since Ana Karenina had to pay a lot more for that affair than Vronsky did. As for your question about books in which men love and suffer for their passion, I’ll give that some thought. Romeo & Juliet maybe? And then there’s the question of where the books are where women’s sexuality plays a different role than simply functioning as the catalyst for utter disaster. Moll Flanders? (Give me time. I’m thinking about this.)

  6. Lovely post! I’ve just finished reading Anna Karenina and enjoyed its broad sweep and accessibility (I thought it would be impossibly difficult to read and was surprised when it wasn’t). So many people let Anna down – her husband, her lover, her brother, her so-called friends, and yet she had to pay with her body and her life. What I found tragic was the way society loved her while she was respectable, speculated licentiously about her when she was having her affair, and then chewed her up and spat her out once she was disgraced. The affair was acceptable but leaving her husband without a divorce was not. Once she transgressed that rule, she had to die. However, it was perfectly acceptable for her delightful and charming brother to have as many affairs as he wanted to!

    I shall also have to think of any men in literature who have been punished for having grand passions, affairs or transgressing society’s unwritten rules. None springing to mind right now.

  7. I’m not coming up with any famous novels where the man suffers for love. Actually, this happens in Krauss’s The History of Love, but I imagine this plot line is much more common in contemporary writing. I’ve never read Atwood, and I simply must!

  8. Del -you’re right that the Atwood is a very disturbing read. I’d never thought of gay fiction, and haven’t read much of it myself, but it’s a very good idea. Courtney – I will cross-post! You know, stupid as it sounds, I hadn’t thought much about how desperate both those books are. Your comment explained to me why I’ve found my reading hard going lately. I think it’s wise to take a break in AK – it will wait for you. Ann – I know just what you mean. My female students are all: feminism? but that’s all done now we’re equal, isn’t it? And I don’t know where to begin. Danielle – you’re quite right. Werther and Marcel both look a bit feeble in the grip of their romantic love. Actually, for some reason, Aragon’s Aurelien has just sprung to mind as a more equal love story, but it’s such a nuisance it isn’t available in translation! Dear BL – Romeo and Juliet is a brilliant thought, and I must get to watch Unfaithful. I’m looking forward very much to what else you’ll come up with. Charlotte – it’s the inability of others to hold and protect Anna that makes me most enraged. Karenin, particularly, is hopeless, preferring not to see what will upset his world. I wondered how you were getting on with the book! Dorothy – you’ve just given me one more reason to read the Krauss – as if I needed another!

  9. I take it the ‘we’re all equal now’ comment is courteously offered with a bludgeon of irony. This is all very thought-provoking stuff. I think it’s developing as an essay in my head and I can’t type so fast. Maybe I’ll manage a fragment later. At risk of putting my head in a feminist noose how about Rochester in ‘Jane Eyre’? Must get back to the madwoman in the attic, where much of this began. He ends up psychologically scarred, disfigured and broken – and is this not a punishment at least symbolically linked to his desire to flout convention in his passion for Jane? This is a role reversal novel, I think, Jane becoming master (a male word!), and he the restricted figure.
    As far Tolstoy goes isn’t he investigating cultural norms set by the dominant group, the elite, as in British Victorian fiction? I have done some research into my family history in the mining areas where I live. On questioning a registrar on the birth of children often well before marriages (I was working on the assumption I would find the marriage prior to the first child’s birth), I soon discovered that Victorian propriety was an illusion outside the upper and middle classes. My poor pit-dwelling, cotton-spinning ancestors had neither time nor money for it. They frequently set up home, began a family and married once they had saved up enough to be able to afford it. The churches, at least the protestant, seem to have had no problem with this. It seems to be part of the cultural system’s set of barriers to demarcate the classes through sexual-relationship behaviour. Loose behaviour in the open at least is linked to the lower classes, hence the denigration of prostitution which was rife. Any link to such behaviour in the culture of the priviliged could not be tolerated – hence no female passion please we’re middle class. If you had to have it there, then it was the exalted version – the courtesan/mistress. I’d recommend the The History of Love, too. I began it because of the similarities of its starting point to Bellow’s Mr Sammler’s Planet, the aged holocaust survivor idea. The Atwood has been on the TBR pile for ages, wiii have to move it up. Have enjoyed her Oryx and Craik and The Robber Bride. Long time since I read Anna – before the time you were an undergraduate, sad to say. Oh for the joys of 38! Enjoy it while you may.

  10. As much as I love Atwood I have not read Handmaid’s Tale. I always imagine myself saving it for when Atwood is no longer writing so I have one more book to look forward to. I might have to stop waiting. I hope to read Anna K later this year and I will have my antennae up for the issues you discuss. I can’t think of any novels where men suffer for love either. But I wonder, until men are no longer the purveyors of social and economic power, if they won’t always be the ones who manage to avoid the bulk of suffering? Once power is truly shared, one hopes there will be no reason to suffer anymore.

  11. Bookboxed – Mr Rochester is a very good idea – only I have to confess to never having read to the end of Jane Eyre. I know! I really should. And I’m very interested by what you have to say about class. Rather like Freud’s Vienna, Tolstoy’s Moscow and Petersburg are highly particular locations from which general truths are drawn. Stefanie – extremely interesting comment on socio-economic power and male suffering. Reminds me of a line of argument that suggest woman is man’s other – the negative version onto which all despised qualities are projected. Quillhill – excellent thoughts. I was thinking about Danielle’s comment in relation to them. Are these heroes feminised in any way by passion? Heathcliff’s macho, and yet he’s kind of infantilised at times. Gatsby, however, I see as an extention of his house – a strange form of ornament, and in that sense, related to the feminine.

  12. I’m wracking my brain for a male who suffers for love. Maybe I’ll come up with one without having to go all the way back to Greek mythology, which is where I’m stuck right now. Wonderful post that makes me realize even more how I need to read A Handmaid’s Tale.

  13. Off the top of my head, what about Hemingway’s A Farewell To Arms? True, Catherine suffers far more (dying in childbirth), but I seem to recall the male character, Fred, genuinely suffering too.

    It’s more than a decade since I read the book, so please forgive me if I’ve mis-remembered it. And I know that bringing Hemingway up in a discussion on this subject is like poking a hornets’ nest!

  14. “Atwood shows brilliantly how a woman’s ability to reproduce, so essential to the continuation of society, has never been rewarded by the culture it serves, only used as a tool of subjugation for women.” – this really stood out for me. I would be interested to know if this is a Western thing -do other (perhaps more ‘primitive’)cultures treat their woman differently? I love A Handmaid’s Tale and have read it a few times. I have not yet read Anna Karenina but would like to… yet another one for the reading list.

  15. Emily – Greek mythology! Now there’s a thought. And do read The Handmaid’s Tale; I’d love to know what you think of it. Dominic – hello and welcome! I like your suggestion of Hemingway very much. I too often think of Hemingway as a gender dinosaur, so it’s good to be reminded that there is an alternative reading to his books that emphasises male sensibilities. Kate – what an interesting question, and I think the answer is yes and no; Western attitudes to childbirth are very different to those in other parts of the world, and yet I’m not sure I could put my hand on my heart and say that truly enlightened countries exist in which women’s reproductive capacities are in no way held against them. I’d have to do more research first! I’ll certainly be thinking more about that question.

  16. I think you’ll find as you continue in Anna Karenina that Vronsky begins to suffer for the affair, too–he’s even socially denigrated for it, i think it ruins his career too. Not because of the affair itself–but for going too far with it. Becoming too deeply, passionately, consumingly involved with Anna to the exclusion of everything else. Don’t forget about Levin when you talk about the book, though! Isn’t it a beautiful conjunction, the beautiful tragedy of Anna & Vronsky against the transcendently beautiful Levin & Kitty? I’ve read, i think from Tolstoy’s diaries, that Levin is a specific fictionalization of Tolstoy’s own experiences.

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