Wednesday, June 23, 2010

What Would Jane Eyre Do?

I'm a good chunk of the way through Anna Karenina. On the one hand, I'm finding it delightful, like getting back to my grad school self. On the other hand, 19th century fiction is frustrating to me these days. I now know more than I ever really wanted to know about nineteenth century wedding customs, and illnesses, and high society, and farming (and the list could go on and on). Of course, I tend to skim through those passages--one of the benefits of not being in grad school!

I used to have more patience with these loose, baggy monsters (as Henry James called 19th century novels). The melodrama was not such a turn off. Now I read about Anna K/ and her complete inability to control her emotions and her sex life, and I feel the utter frustration and annoyance that I feel with modern middle class girls who don't want to get birth control because then they'd have to admit they're sexually active. Give me a break!

I find myself wishing that Anna would just throw herself under that train already.

I yearn for the sturdy pluck of a 19th century heroine like Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. She wouldn't have sacrificed everything for a man. In fact, when she had that chance, she walked away, into a life of utter poverty. There's a heroine who is secure in her selfhood.

Maybe we should adopt this motto: what would Jane Eyre do?

In my between reading times yesterday, I found myself running through 19th century heroines in my head, trying to figure out any admirable ones. Could it only be Jane Eyre that I like?

O.K., I'll give grudging admiration to Jane Austen's characters. At least when the ones who lack sense are hurtling through their plotlines, there's a lesson for us all. I like them, I root for them. Why can't I do the same for Anna?

Of course, I like Kitty and Levin. Those two characters are the only ones who redeem this epic novel. Even when Kitty is having her 200 page nervous breakdown across Europe, I like her. She's not quite as self-reliant as Jane Eyre, but she'll do.

I realize that many of these 19th century novels were trying to show how constrained the lives of 19th century women were. If I paint them in the best light, these novels argue that women have the need for meaningful work, just as men do.

I no longer believe as fervently that all the 19th century male writers really had that agenda. I suspect that some of them just didn't care for women, and that's why their female characters are as unlikable as they are.

Last night I announced, "This will be the last 19th century novel I ever read." Well, now I've dared the gods, haven't I? At least I will now no longer have to feel embarrassed at not having read any of the great Russian authors. But I'm not about to slog through War and Peace, either.


Supervillainess said...

I have a theory that Anna, like Oblonsky, was Toltoy's doppleganger - his way of inserting himself into the novel. Though Tolstoy claimed to love his wife dearly, he was a famous philanderer, sleeping with friends, farm women on his land, etc, etc. Anna can't control her urges because Oblonsky/Tolstoy can't control his - but Oblonsky/Tolstoy gets away with it as Anna cannot.
I read his editor demanded that Anna come to a bad end as a moral lesson to the masses, that Tolstoy wanted her to have a different ending. I would have enjoyed the book more if her end had been different.
The descriptions of married life between Levin and Kitty are some of my favorites in literature - before Levin gets all self-righteous and communist.

Kristin said...

Thanks for taking time to comment. I'm seeing Anna in a whole new way now. I was having trouble making what I knew to be her ending as a character square with the way she has been acting throughout the book. Glad to have your insight.

Dale said...

Oh. Oh. Not read War and Peace? It's my very favorite novel! I read it every couple years. You can skip the historical theorizing, if you like.

Nobody should read both Tolstoy's monsters in a row, but I hope you read War and Peace sometime!

Sherry O'Keefe said...

i'm liking your suggestion of WWJED. a few days ago i caught myself about to whine about the state of own selfdom. this post has picked me up and shown me a new perspective (i don't want to be anna).


Kristin said...

All right, Dale, I won't rule out "War and Peace" forever. Mainly because you recommend it. I'm about to turn my attention to another book you recommended, "The Age of Wonder"--I can hardly wait!

Sherry, you've come up with another motto! Let me not be Anna.

Thanks again, to everyone who is keeping me company on my Russian reading adventure.