Blog #159: Anna Karenina and To the Lighthouse (blog 2 of several)

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The dinner was as choice as the china, in which Stepan Arkadyevitch was a connoisseur. The soupe Marie–Louise was a splendid success; the tiny pies eaten with it melted in the mouth and were irreproachable. The two footmen and Matvey, in white cravats, did their duty with the dishes and wines unobtrusively, quietly, and swiftly. On the material side the dinner was a success; it was no less so on the immaterial. The conversation, at times general and at times between individuals, never paused, and towards the end the company was so lively that the men rose from the table, without stopping speaking, and even Alexey Alexandrovitch thawed.

Anna Karenina

Oh frabjus day! I’ve just found another branch to the Tolstoy tunnel, and I can hardly contain my excitement. To the Lighthouse keeps being reborn. Soupe Marie-Louise has swum into my ken. Prior to this latest discovery, I had interpreted Mrs. Ramsay’s Boeuf en Daube solely as Virginia’s tribute to Proust’s “daube de boeuf où la gelée ne sent pas la colle, et où le boeuf ait pris parfum des carottes.” Now, I also see it as a playful and productive wave of the ladle in the direction of Anna Karenina. With the triumph of the boeuf en daube, Virginia evokes, extends, and brilliantly alters “the splendid success” of the soupe Marie-Louise.

There are so many interesting points of comparison between the dining scenes, and material for more than one thesis in analysis and discussion of hosts, guests, conversations and dishes. Take, for instance, the hosts. In Anna Karenina, the dinner and triumph is all the work of Stepan Arkadyevitch, even if, significantly, his hospitality is only made possible by the money he has received from the sale of his wife’s forest. Buoyed by forest cash, it is Stepan who chooses the guests, plans the menu, purchases the ingredients, and, when his wife Darya Alexandrenova is “not equal to the task of making the party mix,” orchestrates the whole event. Though he arrives late to his own party and finds “a chill benumbing all the guests” because his Darya is “not equal to the task of making the party mix,” he quickly sets everyone at ease. “In a moment” we are told, “he had so kneaded together the social dough that the drawing room became very lively, and there was a merry buzz of voices.”

In To the Lighthouse, it is Mrs. Ramsay who is responsible for the “merging and flowing and creating” which makes a social success of the dinner. Just as Stepan succeeds in harmonizing individuals as disparate and as difficult as Sergey Ivanovitch, Alexey Alexandrovitch, Pestsov, and Koznishev, so too Mrs. Ramsay triumphs by soothing and upholding the childish–sometimes petty, sometimes crotchety, often vulnerable–male egos of Mr. Ramsay, William Bankes, Augustus Carmichael, Charles Tansley and Paul Rayley. However, whereas Stepan Oblonsky’s harmonizing is casually and breezily accomplished, Mrs. Ramsay’s task is lengthy and arduous. We are made to see and feel the art and effort required to establish a communality of feeling. We also made to see Mrs. Ramsay’s accomplishment as a gendered one. She is Darya or Dolly rewritten on a heroic scale. Burdened with as many children and as many domestic responsibilities and with, in addition, a needy husband, she still finds the energy and the nurturing reserves to marshal her forces (Lily, Minta, Rose and Prue are enlisted) to overcome the barren sterility of male egoism.

The presentation of the Boeuf en Daube versus that of the soupe Marie-Louise reveals the scale of Mrs. Ramsay’s achievement. In Tolstoy, the soupe appears only fleetingly, as a triumphant flourish used to mark the success of Stepan Oblonsky’s dinner. In To the Lighthouse, the Boeuf en Daube, while occupying a similar role, is also emblematic of creative energy, artistic expression, and high culture. Mrs. Ramsay is the artist (through the agency of Mildred), and the Boeuf en Daube is a masterpiece equal to anything produced by Michel Angelo. In magnifying the importance of the principal dish and in lingering upon its preparation and presentation, Virginia initiates an important conversation about domesticity and culture. She suggests that the preparation of dishes and the hosting of dinners is as socially significant and culturally valuable as artistic, political or military endeavours. Mrs. Ramsay’s dinner is both a work of art and a political triumph. Civilization without Boeuf en Daube and Mrs. Ramsay’s social skills would be as impoverished as civilization without Scott or Shakespeare.

One important feature shared by the two dinners is the attendance of young lovers flushed and giddy with love. If the two dinners are both the physical and emotional centers of their respective novels, it is partly because they are epithalamium dinners of a sort. In Anna Karenina, Kitty and Levin are noticeably aglow with their mutual love, so much so that Sergey Ivanovich wonders at his brother’s transformation, and Dolly is comforted by seeing them radiant together. The dinner is what brings them together, and it is at the dinner that they, spiritually attuned, propose to each other by chalking the initial letters of words on the tablecloth. [1] In To the Lighthouse, in contrast, Paul and Minta are already engaged when they come into dinner, yet they too burn so intensely with “the emotion, the vibration of love” that those around them are affected. Watching them, Lily feels scorched by “the heat of love, its horror, its cruelty, its unscrupulosity;” and thinking of Lily and Charles Tansley, Mrs. Ramsay feels that “[b]oth suffered from the glow of the other two.” To measure Paul and Minta against Levin and Kitty is to forcibly feel how much darker and more disturbing than Tolstoy’s is Virginia’s conception of passionate, romantic love. Much to think about.

Comparing the dinner conversations in the two books also generates a lot of food for thought. Conversation at the two dinners is both general and personal, wide ranging and intense. Some of the conversation is typical of time, place and class, while some is broader and more universal. What I find interesting therefore is that Virginia has her characters stay well away from two of the major conversational themes in Anna Karenina. Although the two subjects are presented indirectly throughout the novel, neither the education and the rights of women, nor the advantages and disadvantages of classical and scientific education is discussed at the Ramsay dinner table. Reading To the Lighthouse against Anna Karenina casts a strong light on some of Virginia’s narrative choices and on her subtle indirect methods. Thinking about the conversations in the two novels also shows how strongly Virginia foregrounded literary conversation. While Oblonsky’s guests are all literate, and elsewhere in the novel can be found quoting or referencing Goethe, Zola, Daudet, Pushkin, Heine, Dickens, Grimm and Gogol, to name only some, not one literary reference is made during their dinner. In contrast, during Mrs. Ramsay’s dinner not only is literature an important subject of thought and conversation (Walter Scott, George Eliot, Shakespeare and, of course, Tolstoy and Anna Karenina all figure), but the climax of the dinner comes with the recital of Charles Elton’s poem. Literature is given pride of place, and the conversation emphatically demonstrates the cultural importance of literature.

Before concluding this particular exploration, very briefly I want to point out two more comparative dinner crumbs. Bears first. In Framing Anna Karenina, Amy Mandelker points out how Levin’s dinner table account of his successful bear hunt gains in significance with the knowledge that “Kitty is ‘Tiny Bear,’ a nickname that in turn is meant to be a pun on Behrs, the maiden name of Tolstoy’s wife.” Whether or not Virginia caught Tolstoy’s playful pun, Mrs. Ramsay’s remark to William Bankes “How you must detest dining in this bear garden” is almost certainly an example of Virginia privately and playfully paying further homage to Tolstoy. Similarly, it is very likely that the immense emphasis which Tolstoy places on the use of French in Anna Karenina informs the narratorial comment about French which follows immediately upon the To the Lighthouse “bear garden” remark.

Oof. So much to digest, and my next three Anna Karenina blogs promise to be richer yet. First will come an examination of how the failed Lily Briscoe and William Bankes courtship derives from that of Varenka and Sergey Ivanovitch. Second will be an examination of motherhood and the way in which Virginia rewrote Dolly as Mrs. Ramsay. Third, as I have several times threatened to do, I will look at how Tolstoy’s use of a (supposed) Grimm story lurks behind Virginia’s methods, both with respect to the “Tale of the Fisherman and His Wife” and with respect to shadows. Those three Tolstoy blogs will require a lot of thought and time, particularly as I have committed to presenting a paper on motherhood in Anna Karenina and To the Lighthouse at the New Orleans Popular Culture Conference in early April.

[1] Does Lily’s use of the table cloth owe something to this exercise in cryptic communication?

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