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What Is Most Important To Anna Karenina’s Varenka?

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In part two, chapter thirty-two of Tolstoy’s novel, minor character Varenka, the low-born adopted daughter of a well-to-do woman, tells Kitty that everything she (Kitty) is worried about in regards to Vronsky’s place in her life isn’t as important as something else. This ‘Vronsky episode’ as I call it, was the time during which Kitty was infatuated with the man whilst he in turn was in love with Anna; Kitty feels ashamed and guilty and has been sent off to a spa to recover from what the reader can determine is heartbreak. It is here she meets Varenka.

As it turns out, in chapter thirty-three, what Tolstoy was implying as more important is helping those less fortunate than oneself, becoming more godly. Varenka herself suffered in love and has found peace. She’s learned to be happy and comfortable by herself ever since her lover married someone else because his mother didn’t like Varenka. She seems indifferent to her attractiveness, her singing voice, anything that might get her noticed and potentially cause another man to court her. She lacks ‘what Kitty had in over-abundance… an awareness of her attractiveness’. It seems she no longer needs to be loved, so to speak, and has likely come to see the relative falsehood in societal love.

However throughout chapter thirty-two, before we’re shown Varenka’s life of charity, there’s a fair amount Tolstoy offers as the answer to what is more important than Kitty’s worries, and considering the knowledgeable way Tolstoy writes, it’s hard not to see some subtext. The author offers his concrete answer but the astute reader may see more and it’s all rather revolutionary as far as his era goes.

What is most important could be personal agency, female independence. We see Varenka planning to walk home by herself in the dead of night. “No, I always go alone and nothing ever happens to me,” she says. It’s reasonable to wonder if the subtext is two-fold, that Varenka isn’t just saying she likes to go by herself and is able but that it’s safe and, to boot, all the worries others might have are for nought. Tolstoy isn’t saying a woman would never be under attack, rather that one didn’t need to be so caught up in social norms – this one happening to be the idea that a man should escort her.

Similarly what’s most important could be letting go of what’s not to be. Varenka suggests Kitty forget the slight from Vronsky and that she shouldn’t be ashamed of feeling guilty because a man treated her badly. She tries to show Kitty that the relationship was one-sided.

“The point is whether you love him or not.” Is Vronsky worth pursuing? (Good luck, Kitty, if you say ‘yes’!)

Kitty likes Varenka because Varenka represents what Kitty, at that moment, wants to be. The grass is always greener. Varenka’s her opposite – her lack of care for social mores astounds Kitty because worth, in Kitty’s mind, is tied with beauty and men – Varenka wants neither, sees worth without them. Is Tolstoy saying that Varenka is better than Kitty? It may seem so but to go back to the note on Varenka’s attractiveness and look at the rest of the quotation, we have the following:

Besides that, she also could not be attractive to men because she lacked what Kitty had in over-abundance – the restrained fire of life and an awareness of her attractiveness.

The way it’s written (or, at least, translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky) suggests Tolstoy is objective, giving both girls credit. But he points out that perhaps Varenka is better in spirit whereas Kitty is all about appearances. The trip to the spa allows Tolstoy to experiment with change. Abundant is Kitty’s restraint for loving life – she is perhaps not as joyful or true to herself as she could be (if society was less restrained itself). In contrast to Kitty, Varenka is very modest, humble, and perhaps more visible for it.

Varenka might be a minor character as far as the amount of words expended on her are concerned, but the affect she has on Kitty, showing Kitty alternative views and a way out of her feelings, has a fair impact.

Your thoughts?


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