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All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.     

The opening lines of the enormous Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy would draw in any reader despite the sheer size of the book. I mean who wouldn’t want to derive voyeuristic pleasures from the sorrows of others and feel good about yourselves right? And get some masala/drama in your life right? Isn’t that the principle which the Indian soaps thrive on? Who wouldn’t want to get away from their drab mundane lives to gorge greedily on the much more exciting conflicts of others?

But comparing an Indian soap to one of Tolstoy’s masterpieces is a grave sin in the world of literary canon hegemony but an analogy never harmed anyone now, did it?

Saying that, I will confess that Anna Karenina is a splendid look at the Russian upper class society through the microcosm of a few representative individuals. It really can never be compared to a soap because it has none of its crass vulgarisation of emotions and conflict and societal ills.

For those of you who don’t know, Leo Tolstoy is a Russian author, born in the 1800s into a upper class estate owning family much like the ones depicted in the novel. He is known for this novel and another huge book, War and Peace. Despite the size that can put off many novella, quick read obsessed readers of today, Anna Karenina is a brilliant, beautiful novel that is gripping and engaging as it ploughs it way through a range of characters and stories and covers within its range a sweeping yet scathing look at the hollowness of upper class Russian society. For more on the writer and his works..well don’t click anywhere, go find out on your own!

Now to the plot:

WARNING: Spoilers ahead:

Anna Karenina is told from the viewpoint of an omniscient narrator. The narrator shifts the attention to several characters and namely the stories of Anna and Levin are often paralleled with the other characters’ mixed in.

The eponymous heroine, Anna, is apparently happily married to a well off bureaucrat,Alexei Karenin, but on the railway station(not sure but I think it was in Saint Petersburg), where she decides to take a train to see her brother-Oblonsky (Stiva) to save his marriage after his affair has created fissures between him and Dolly(Stiva’s wife), she stumbles upon Vronksy and she immediately has seeds of something uneasy moving in her which later blooms into a full blown love affair with the man.

Meanwhile, Levin, Stiva’s friend from the country, has come to propose to Dolly’s young sister, Kitty, on her debutante. However, it seems like she is smitten by this Vronksy fellow as well. Things don’t exactly go as planned for any of them at the debutante. Both Kitty and Levin have their hearts broken as one they love is in love with someone else.

Tolstoy quickly in the first part introduces you to all the characters and sets all the plot lines in action for the story to move forward and we get slowly enmeshed in their troubled, unhappy lives. Anna and Vronksy carry on their affair discreetly at first and then too much in love they decide to defy everyone and live off on their own while Karenin files for divorce. Levin on the other hand gradually recovers from his heart break through work on his farm/estate where he is continually trying to better the farm yields and the lives of his tenant farmers. The clandestine affair quickly spirals downwards as both face the bitter consequences of society’s disapproval (which for Anna is more pronounced than for Vronksy because well since Russian society like most patriarchal societies is quick to blame the woman rather than see it as an affair involving two people).

The novel proffers multiple viewpoints and at first there is no character that is given the privilege of being the right one. Yet somewhere, Levin and his lifestyle and his eventual settling into happiness through a family of his own seems to suggest that he was the author’s voice. In fact, many critics have speculated that Levin is a semi-autobiographical character. Tolstoy’s own wife, Sophia, after reading the first part of the novel commented, “Levin is you, minus the talent.” There are undoubtedly similarities between the two and by the end of the novel, we can be sure that it is Levin and all that he stands for that Tolstoy privileges from among the plethora of his characters.

The book has been called flawless by several modern authors such as Dostoyevsky and Nabakov. What however, I personally feel that Tolstoy falls short of is that he left his defiance incomplete. It was quite uncommon to write about women having affairs and that too so blatantly in his time and in the initial parts he succeeds, through his careful underlining of Anna’s marriage breaking up or being just another societal charade and his skill in outlining the confining conventions of society that reek of hypocrisy, to present a balanced, if not glorified, picture of a woman who is trying to break away from constraints of being a woman. Tolstoy in the end makes her nothing more than a Hardyesque tragic herione who was bound to fall given the sin she committed. This in my opinion just basically goes to show how he left his great defiant novel to be nothing more than a comfortable cosying into the norms and conventions.

To read the novel, click here.

Moliere is a 17th century French writer known for his satiric comedy plays. His plays-be it Tartuffe, The Misanthrope or The School for

Husbands-predominantly look at the French society of the time with a satiric lens.  In his Preface to the play Tartuffe, Moliere has specifically outlined that the function of comedy is to correct men and society’s faults. This was the prevailing view of comedy’s function among Western writers of the time.

The Misanthrope is also a much layered play which brings into question the hypocrisies of the artificial upper classes of 17th century French society. The play is about Alceste, who detests contemporary society and its ways and manners, and his love for the beautiful widowed Celimene. Alceste does not wish to follow any superficial manners and believes them to be a waste of time and anyone who blindly follows them always elicit bursts of anger and hatred from Alceste. Celimene, on the other hand, believes that it is important to follow the social conventions for one’s own gain. This creates a lot of tension between the two extraordinary lovers who are as different as fire and ice. Alceste’s friend, Philinte, tries his best to diffuse the tension and to make Alceste understand that being in constant argument with the social world and with mankind is detrimental. With this main plot, Moliere explores several questions-whether Alceste is really a misanthrope or is it someone else and if he is the former, then it is rather paradoxical that a misanthrope is in love with Celimene; whether it is worth to struggle with social norms and not accept them at all and several others. There are several sub plots as well such as the nascent love between Philinte and Eliante; the simmering relationship between Celimene and Arsinoe; Oronte’s sonnets and his suit against Alceste who insulted the former’s writing abilities etc.. Within these several layers are revealed the minute workings of the aristocratic class, their hypocrisies regarding human relations, their vanity, the position and status of women etc.

The Misanthrope is a fun play to read as it provides an acute analysis of the malaise of the times, which Alceste detested, in a light, comic manner. All the characters are colourful and rounded with their unique viewpoints. Their dialogues and mannerisms give the reader a glimpse into their personalities and ways of thinking.  Moliere is a master of satiric comedy and he invests The Misanthrope with several lines of thought and meaning which the reader can ponder over. Many critics have pointed out that Alceste’s character is based on Moliere himself and that his deteriorating relationship with Armande Bejart was the basis for Alceste’s relationship with Celimene. We can never know the truth, but only speculate. And while you speculate, do try and relate the play to our own contemporary hypocrisies as well. Happy reading!

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