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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Vronsky's Torment

Mors Janua Vitae (1866) by Joseph Paton
He listened--and heard, repeated in a strange, mad whisper, the words:  'Unable to value, unable to enjoy; unable to value, unable to enjoy' (Part 4, Ch. 18).

Anna gives birth to a girl but nearly dies in the process.  Vronsky is with her while she is dying of what doctors characterize as puerperal fever, but Anna summons Alexei to her bedside to beg for his forgiveness.  Anna seems ready to renounce her liaison with Vronsky on her deathbed when her husband shows up.  He pities her and forgives her, a forgiveness made easier by the fact that he expects her soon to die.  Nevertheless, the ordeal casts Alexei as magnanimous while Vronsky questions himself and his love for Anna.  He is tormented by his thoughts, unable to sleep, and haunted by the quote above:  "Unable to value, unable to enjoy."

Vronsky comes to realize that his passion for Anna is subject to fading and reappearing.  At best, he is inconsistent in his feelings toward her.  He also fails to understand Anna's position, which will become evident as the story progresses.  This failure is the cause of the conflict that arises in their relationship.  He does not realize the sacrifice Anna has been willing to make in being with him, i.e. forsaking her son.  Though Anna still holds out hope that she will eventually enjoy custody of Seryozha, but she realizes that the odds are not in favor of that happening.  Vronsky, for his part, has not had to endure the public shame or make the sacrifices that Anna faces.  In an earlier scene, Pestsov comments that the public as well as legal judgment is not the same on both sexes in cases of infidelity:

Connected with the conversation that had sprung up on the rights of women there were certain questions as to the inequality of rights in marriage improper to discuss before the ladies. Pestsov had several times during dinner touched upon these questions, but Sergei Ivanovitch and Stepan Arkadyevitch carefully drew him off them.

When they rose from the table and the ladies had gone out, Pestsov did not follow them, but addressing Alexei Alexandrovitch, began to expound the chief ground of inequality. The inequality in marriage, in his opinion, lay in the fact that the infidelity of the wife and the infidelity of the husband are punished unequally, both by the law and by public opinion. Stepan Arkadyevitch went hurriedly up to Alexei Alexandrovitch and offered him a cigar (Part 4, Ch. 12).

Vronsky cannot understand the struggle to which Anna must submit herself which causes a rift between the two.

Vronsky is "unable to enjoy" Anna because he knows that he prevents her from being with her son.  Despite Anna's love for Vronsky, the latter knows that Anna's love for her son is irreplaceable.

Furthermore, Vronsky sees that though he is with Anna at her bedside, she desperately desires Alexei to visit her.  Vronsky may feel that though Anna loves him, she will never be able to separate herself completely from Alexei.

Lastly, Vronsky covers his eyes while standing at her bedside with Alexei, refusing to look at either of them.  He does not want to face the possibility that 1) Anna could die or that 2) She could end up back with Alexei if she lives.  As mentioned earlier, he sees himself as the "victor" and does not want to relinquish his victory.  For the first time, he may be forced to make a sacrifice for Anna's sake.

The above quote could also refer to Vronsky himself.  Finding himself "unable to value, unable to enjoy" life, Vronsky unsuccessfully attempts suicide.  Death plays a prominent as well as recurring role in the novel.  All three characters in this scene see death as an escape but all must face their situation instead.  There is no easy escape.

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