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Imagery of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenin


By Vladimir Nabokov

Imagery may be defined as the evocation, by means of words, of something that is meant to appeal to the reader’s sense of color, or sense of outline, or sense of sound, or sense of movement, or any other sense of perception, in such a way as to impress upon his mind a picture of fictitious life that becomes to him as living as any personal recollection. For producing these vivid images the writer has a wide range of devices from the brief expressive epithet to elaborate word pictures and complex metaphors.

1) Epithets. Among these to be noted and admired are the “limply plopping” and “scabrous” as applied so magnificently to the slippery insides and rough outsides of the choice oysters Oblonski enjoys during his restaurant meal with Lyovin. Mrs. Garnett omitted to translate these beautiful shlyupayushchie and sbershavye; we must restore them. Adjectives used in the scene of the ball to express Kitty’s adolescent loveliness and Anna’s dangerous charm should also be collected by the reader. Of special interest is the fantastic compound adjective, literally meaning “gauzily-ribbonly-lacily-iridescent” (tyulevo-lento-kruzhevno-tsvetnoy), used to describe the feminine throng at the ball. The old Prince Shcherbatski calls a flabby type of elderly clubman, shlyupik, pulpy thing, a child’s word for a hardboiled egg that has become quite pulpy and spongy from too much rolling in a Russian Easter game where eggs are rolled and knocked at each other.

2) Gestures. Oblonski, while his upper lip is being shaved, answering his valet’s question (Is Anna coming with her husband or alone) by lifting one finger; or Anna, in her talk with Dolly, illustrating Steve’s spells of moral oblivion by making a charming blurred gesture of obliteration before her brow.

* VN interlines but deletes a remark to the class, “You remember what we called the ‘sifting agent.’ “The reference is to his Dickens lecture the preceding semester where he analyzed the structural function of characters whom he called “perries,” used chiefly to bring characters together or to provide information by conversing with them. See the first volume, Lectures on Literature, p. 98. Elsewhere he calls Oblonski a kind of “perry.”—Ed.

3) Details Of Irrational Perception. Many examples in the account of Anna’s half dream on the train.

4) Colorful Comedy Traits. As when the old Prince thinks he is mimicking his wife as he grotesquely simpers and curtseys when speaking of matchmaking.

5) Word Pictures. These are innumerable: Dolly miserably sitting at her dressing table and the rapid deep-chested voice in which, disguising her distress, she asks her husband what he wants; Grinevich’s convexedly-tipped fingernails; the old sleepy blissful hound’s sticky lips—are all delightful and unforgettable images.

6) Poetical Comparisons. Seldom used by Tolstoy, appealing to the senses, such as the charming allusions to diffuse sunlight and a butterfly, when Kitty is described on the skating rink and at the ball.

7) Utilitarian Comparisons. Appealing to the mind rather than to the eye, to the ethical sense rather than to the esthetical one. When Kitty’s feelings before the ball are compared to those of a young man before a battle, it would be ridiculous to visualize Kitty in a lieutenant’s uniform; but as a rational black-and-white verbal scheme the comparison works nicely and has the parable note that Tolstoy cultivates so assiduously in certain later chapters.

Not all is direct imagery in Tolstoy’s text. The parable comparison grades insensibly into the didactic intonations with their meaningful repetitions that characterize Tolstoy’s accounts of situations and states of mind. In this respect, the direct statements of chapter openings should be especially marked: “Oblonski had learned easily at school” or “Vronski had never had any real home life.”

8) Similes And Metaphors. The old curly birches of the gardens, with all their branches weighed down by snow, seemed decked in new festive vestments (Part one, chapter 9).

But for Lyovin she was as easy to find in that crowd as a wild rose among nettles. Everything was made bright by her. She was the smile that shed light on all around her. The place where she stood seemed to him a holy shrine. . . . He walked down, for a long while avoiding looking at her as at the sun, but seeing her, as one does the sun, without looking (Chapter

9). He felt as though the sun were coming near him (Chapter 9). like the sun going behind a cloud, her face lost all its friendliness (Chapter 9).

The Tatar . . . instantly, as though worked by springs, laying down one bound bill of fare, he took up another, the list of wines (Chapter 10). she was unable to believe it, just as she would have been unable to believe that, at any time whatever, the most suitable playthings for children five years old ought to be loaded pistols (Chapter 12).

Kitty experienced a sensation akin to the sensation of a young man before battle (Chapter 13).

Anna speaking: “I know that blue haze like the mist on the mountains in Switzerland. That mist which covers everything in that blissful time when childhood is just ending, and out of that vast circle, happy and gay [there is a path growing narrower and narrower]” (Chapter 20).

the rustle of movement like an even humming stir as from a hive (Chapter 22).

this air she had of a butterfly clinging to a grass blade, and just about to flutter up again with iridescent wings spread (Chapter 23).

And on Vronski’s face . . . she [Kitty] saw that look that had struck her . . . like the expression of an intelligent dog when it has done wrong (Chapter 23).

But immediately as though slipping his feet into old slippers, he [Vronski] dropped back into the light-hearted, pleasant world he had always lived in (Chapter 24).

Comparisons may be similes or metaphors, or a mixture of both. Here are some models of comparison:

The simile model:

Between land and sea the mist was like a veil

This is a simile. Such links as “like” or “as” are typical of the simile: one object is like another object.

If you go on to say the mist was like the veil of a bride, this is a sustained simile with elements of mild poetry; but if you say, the mist was like the veil of a fat bride whose father was even fatter and wore a wig, this is a rambling simile, marred by an illogical continuation, of the kind Homer used for purposes of epic narration and Gogol used for grotesque dream-effects.

Now the metaphor model:

The veil of the mist between land and sea.

The link “like” has gone; the comparison is integrated. A sustained metaphor would be:

The veil of the mist was torn in several places since the end of the phrase is a logical continuation. In a rambling metaphor there would be an illogical continuation.

The Functional Ethical Comparison.

A peculiar feature of Tolstoy’s style is that whatever comparisons, whatever similes, or metaphors, he uses, most of them are used not for an esthetical purpose but for an ethical one. In other words his comparisons are utilitarian, are functional.

They are employed not to enhance the imagery, to give a new slant to our artistic perception of this or that scene; they are employed to bring out a moral point. I call them, therefore, Tolstoy’s moral metaphors or similes—ethical ideas expressed by means of comparisons. These similes and metaphors are, I repeat, strictly functional, and thus rather stark, and constructed according to a recurrent pattern. The dummy, the formula, is: “He felt like a person who. …” A state of emotion—this is the first part of the formula—and then a comparison follows: “a person who . . .”etc. I shall give some examples.

(Lyovin thinking of married life.) At every step he experienced what a man would experience who, after admiring the smooth, happy course of a little boat on a lake, should enter that little boat himself. He discovered that it was not enough to sit still, keeping balance; that one had also to maintain, without a moment’s inattention, the right direction, that there was water underneath and one had to row, that one’s unaccustomed hands hurt; and that only looking at it had been easy; but that doing all this, though very delightful, was very difficult (Part five, chapter 14).

(During a tiff with his wife.) He was offended for the first instant, but the very same second he felt that he could not be offended by her, that she was himself. During that first instant he felt as a man feels when, having suddenly received a violent blow from behind, he turns round, angry and eager to avenge himself, to look for his antagonist, and finds that he has merely struck himself accidentally, and there is no one to be angry with, and he must endure and soothe the pain (ibid.).

To remain under such undeserved reproach was a wretched situation, but to make her suffer by justifying himself was worse still. Like a man half-awake in an agony of pain, he craved to tear out and fling away the aching part, and upon awaking, felt that the aching part was himself, (ibid.).

. . . the saintly image of Madame Stahl which she [Kitty] had carried for a whole month in her heart, vanished, never to return, just as a human figure seen in some clothing carelessly thrown on a chair vanishes the moment one’s eye unravels the pattern of its folds (Part two, chapter 34).

He [Karenin] experienced a feeling like a man who, after calmly crossing a precipice by a bridge, should suddenly discover that the bridge was dismantled, and that there was an abyss below (Part two, chapter 8).

He experienced a feeling such as a man might have, returning home and finding his own house locked up (Part two, chapter 9).

Like an ox with head bent, submissively he awaited the blow [of the obukh] which he felt was lifted over him (Part two, chapter 10).

He [Vronski] very quickly perceived that though society was open to him personally, it was closed to Anna. Just as in the parlor game of cat and mouse [with one person in a circle of players and the other outside], the linked hands raised for him were lowered to bar the way for her (Part five, chapter 28).

He could not go anywhere without running into Anna’s husband. So at least it seemed to Vronski, just as it seems to a man with a sore finger continually, as though on purpose, grazing his sore finger on everything (ibid.).