Blog #164: Grimm readings of Anna Karenina and To the Lighthouse (Blog 4 of several plus 1)

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“The great change is that she brought back with her the shadow of Alexey Vronsky,” said the ambassador’s wife.
“Well, what of it? There’s a fable of Grimm’s about a man without a shadow, a man who’s lost his shadow. And that’s his punishment for something. I never could understand how it was a punishment. But a woman must dislike being without a shadow.”
“Yes, but women with a shadow usually come to a bad end,” said Anna’s friend.

Anna Karenina

Sonnet 98

From you have I been absent in the spring,
When proud-pied April, dressed in all his trim,
Hath put a spirit of youth in everything,
That heavy Saturn laughed and leaped with him.
Yet nor the lays of birds, nor the sweet smell
Of different flowers in odour and in hue,
Could make me any summer’s story tell,
Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew:
Nor did I wonder at the lily’s white,
Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose;
They were but sweet, but figures of delight
Drawn after you, – you pattern of all those.
Yet seem’d it winter still, and, you away,
As with your shadow I with these did play.


There are so many ways to approach this Grimm exploration. The easiest, if not the best, is perhaps chronological. First came my thinking about the reasons why Virginia might have included “The Fisherman and his Wife” story in her novel. I wrote about some of that thinking in blogs 117, 122 and 133. Now, rereading those blogs, nowhere do I see mention of Anna Karenina. Not surprising, since when I wrote those blogs Anna Karenina was over thirty years back in my reading history, and I remembered little of Tolstoy’s novel, other than that it was a story of adultery told with sympathy for the plight of the adulteress. I also vividly remembered the suicide. What I did not remember was the reference to Grimm, a reference which leapt out at me when I then went on to reread Anna against To the Lighthouse.

When I reread Anna and came across “There’s a fable of Grimm’s about a man without a shadow, a man who’s lost his shadow,” I immediately wondered if I hadn’t found another possible reason for Virginia’s use of a Grimm story. Tolstoy’s use of Grimm seemed relatively casual and brief, no part of the tale was quoted, yet the reference was memorable and strongly coloured any response to Anna and Vronsky’s relationship. Virginia, thoughtful and careful reader that she was, would have noted this passage. Further, shadows–from the shadow of Mr. Carmichael on the page, to the purple shadow of mother and child, to the shadow in Shakespeare’s sonnet, to Mrs. Ramsay’s shadow on the step—are everywhere visible in To the Lighthouse. Did some of those shadows connect to Grimm and to Tolstoy? Had anyone ever noted the possibility of such connection?

Googling of “Grimm, Woolf and Tolstoy” yielded nothing. Nor did I find anything when I googled “‘To the Lighthouse’ ‘Anna Karenina.” Googling “Grimm and Anna Karenina,” however, yielded Framing Anna Karenina by Amy Mandelker. Eureka! Mandelker’s book, once I got it from the library, was full of insights about how to read Anna Karenina, and among those insights was a rich and rewarding chapter about Tolstoy’s use of the supposed Grimm story. In chapter 7, “The Woman with a Shadow; Fables of Demon and Psyche,” Mandelker points out that “man without a shadow” fable is not by Grimm. The two most likely sources for the “man without a shadow” story are literary kunstmarchen—Adelbert von Chamisso’s Peter Schlemihl and Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Shadow.” In thinking about these works, Mandelker finds Tolstoy’s misattribution of the fable puzzling, “unless the evocation of the English denotation of the name Grimm was intentional.” “Alternately,” she says, “the citation of Grimm may have been intended to legitimize a literary work by attributing it to a genuine folk source.”

Mandelker summarizes and analyzes both Chamisso and Anderson’s shadow stories, reading Chamisso’s tale as about demonic possession and the problem of good and evil in the world, and Anderson’s story as a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde like account of psychic conflict. Mandelker then goes on to use the two narratives as interpretive tools to examine Anna’s predicament. Among the semiotic possibilities that she explores are Anna’s transformation from Victorian Angel in the House to demonic siren or femme fatal, Anna as passive agent or as active agent in her relationship with Vronsky, and Anna’s psychic dissociation. Shadow imagery is everywhere in Anna Karenina, and while Mandelker may occasionally over-interpret or over-elaborate she makes a convincing case for Tolstoy’s deliberate use of symbolic shadow imagery.

A similar case could be made for Virginia’s use of such imagery in To the Lighthouse. Whatever Virginia’s reasons for using the “Fisherman’s Tale” in To the Lighthouse, a Tolstoy echo as one of those reasons becomes more likely on looking into shadows. Shadows are everywhere in To the Lighthouse; the words “shadow,” “shadows,” or “shadowing” occur at least twenty-four times. In addition, variations of the word shade appear ten times. Significantly, too, Virginia deliberately calls attention to the importance of shadows by use of Tolstoy’s allusive technique. Where Tolstoy invokes Grimm to bring out his shadows, Virginia uses Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 98″ to call attention to hers. “Sonnet 98″ may be important for other reasons as well, yet of the three line quoted “As with your shadow I did play” is the only line to be repeated.

Virginia’s shadow play goes in many directions. In some respects, her use of shadows is similar to Tolstoy’s. Like Tolstoy’s, sometimes her shadows are Manichean, sometimes they are psychological. For instance, when Mr. Carmichael’s shadow falls upon the page of the Grimm’s fairy story which Mrs. Ramsay is reading, we are told about “some demon in her.” Like Anna, Mrs. Ramsay flickers between Angel in the House and demon. Elsewhere, shadows are associated with psychological pressure, as when Mrs. Ramsay feels the shadow beginning “to close round her again,” and then feels Mr. Ramsay’s mind “like a raised hand shadowing her mind.” Despite “the crepuscular walls of their intimacy,” the constant need to comfort and assure Mr. Ramsay is intensely exhausting. The moment echoes an earlier one, when, having assured Mr. Ramsay “beyond a shadow of a doubt,” Mrs. Ramsay is left with “only strength enough to move her finger, in exquisite abandonment to exhaustion, across the page of Grimm’s fairy story.”

As important as Anna Karenina is to To the Lighthouse, Montaigne’s scepticism regarding the senses also informs Virginia’s shadow imagery. Absolute truth, suggests Montaigne, is unattainable, “for nothing comes to us except falsified and altered by our senses.” In “Montaigne,” an essay published in the TLS on January 31st, 1924, Virginia wrote: “Observe how the soul is always casting her own lights and shadows, makes the substantial hollow and the frail substantial; fills broad daylight with dreams; is as much excited by phantoms as by reality; and in the moment of death sports with a trifle.” Even if “light and shade so chequer each other that all shape is distorted,” both contribute to the realities we construct. Nothing is “simply one thing,” and to make sense of the world “a light here require[s] a shadow there.” Perception is always equivocal, uncertain. Wherever light is put, “there [is] always a shadow somewhere.” What matters is the relationship between light and shadow. To play with shadows is to make sense of self. To play with shadows is to make sense of life. Play is what matters.

Playful Postscript

Almost certainly, even if too destabilizing to be directly referenced by Virginia, another strong Macbeth presence in To the Lighthouse is “Life’s but a walking shadow.”

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