By Samantha English ‘19
I have marked my time at Wellesley in books. When I recall the people, lessons, and love I’ve experienced during my four years here, I always remember a novel I was reading or a paper I was writing alongside them, a character I was falling in love with or an image I was tracking. Jane Eyre undercuts my Wellesley experience, illuminating every image in every book I read until I found my senior thesis topic of birds and women in Victorian literature. Other books are scattered, left behind in past semesters with only memories to speak for them. My Antonia is mixed in with my sexual awakening. Beloved evokes a time of aching for my mother in a Freeman double. Middlemarch’s Dorothea Brooke looks like me junior year, an ambitious, silly dreamer about to study abroad in her own small town in England. So does Tess of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, standing on the top of the glorious Vale of the Great Dairies in Hardy’s Wessex. I was there too. I was her.
Maybe this is just what memory association means for an English major, but I can’t help but read some made-up poetry into my undergraduate career. I see the themes of the literature I was consuming in the text of my own life. Just as a young Jane Eyre notes about the History of British Birds, the book-within-a-book that is the centerpiece of my thesis, each novel “told a story” to me about myself and my world, “mysterious often to my undeveloped understanding and imperfect feelings, yet ever profoundly interesting.” I suppose that’s how you know you’re reading good literature, when it feels so lifelike that you can’t figure out where the book ends and you begin.
In the final weeks of senior year, I’m reading Anna Karenina, a novel about a woman altogether too consumed with her own narrative. For much of Lev Tolstoy’s masterpiece, Anna tries to read herself into one of her English novels, where the woman is passionate, the man is dashing, and love prevails. But Tolstoy’s protagonist is not this sort of heroine. She is a wife and mother in Imperial Russia, and any attempt to escape the roles prescribed to her can only result in ruin. Yet as she defies her husband, her family, her society, her story, and her God to forge her own grand romance with a cavalry officer, Anna repeatedly misreads her reality. She sees omens and patterns where there are none; she grows increasingly paranoid that her lover is having an affair; she continues to believe that she will obtain custody of her son without returning to her husband. Anna’s desire to control her narrative leads her to destroy herself, because, as Tolstoy knew, people aren’t archetypes. Life isn’t a novel. And Anna Karenina, as critic Matthew Arnold eloquently put, is not “a work of art” but “a piece of life” itself.
What frustrates me most about Anna Karenina is that I’m unable to determine what the author thought of the heroine he created. Time and time again, Tolstoy refuses to reveal his feelings about his protagonist, choosing instead to further complicate Anna. She’s lovable one moment and loathsome the next, cunning on one page and victimized on another. As a feminist critic, I want to think that Tolstoy intended us to empathize with Anna, but everything I know about him tells me that this cannot be the case. But I can’t find any proof that he fully condemned her either. Even Tolstoy’s self-insert character, Levin (as in “of Lev” in Russian), as righteous and good as he is, finds that, though he could pass judgment on Anna when she was only a disembodied name, he cannot label or disregard her in person. When he finally meets Anna, Levin cannot help but think of her “inner life,” leading him to “justify” and “pity” her. Most of all, he worries that Anna’s lover Vronsky does “not fully understand her,” because Levin himself is unable to get a grasp on her. He doesn’t know her mind, and he cannot make sense of her when she’s a living, breathing being standing beside him, rather than a character of an adulteress or an improper story or a work of art. He can only love Anna, and, as Tolstoy once said about his novel, be “carried away by” her sincere personhood. He cannot read her.
As I sit by my window in Pomeroy, reading the last novel of my undergraduate years and looking out at a Wellesley cherry blossom tree, I can’t help but commit the very sin that destroyed Tolstoy’s heroine. I can’t help but once again apply fiction to my life. This time is different, though, because the lesson I’ve learned is not Anna’s, but Levin’s.
Anna Karenina is a story of cancellation, a tale that I read here on Wellesley’s campus far too often. It’s a common practice in our community. If you know one person here who has been “cancelled,” or written off without hope of redemption, for making a mistake, or saying the wrong thing, or having an opinion that they aren’t allowed to explain, then you know the story of Anna Karenina. You know this fate. She’s someone who breaks the rules and is condemned for her mistakes. She’s ostracized from her society and abandoned by her friends. She becomes isolated and dependent on the love of one other person. But for me, the saddest part of Anna’s story—of all of these stories—is what Levin identifies when he sees Tolstoy’s heroine; it’s that nobody understands her, and nobody makes an effort to understand her. Anna never gets a chance to tell the story that she’s been writing in her mind. If she did, maybe then we could make sense of her; maybe Levin or his wife Kitty or Vronsky could save her, change her mind, show her where she goes wrong. But, as the story goes, she’s nonsensical by definition. She is never given the chance to speak and is therefore not truly knowable, or readable, by anyone. And yet everyone around her reads her anyway, defines her, makes her into a character. Only Tolstoy, who wrote this character, refuses to characterize her.
If I’ve learned anything from loving literature at Wellesley, it’s that communication leads to storytelling, and storytelling leads to understanding. “I love you,” Kitty tells Levin, “because I completely understand you.” But we cannot tell other people’s stories until we give them a chance to tell their own stories. What I adore about novels is that they allow me to read another person’s mind, but I can’t do that in real life, and perhaps I should stop trying. People aren’t characters in novels that are written definitively for us to read and reread and analyze and make sense of. Humans are full of contradictions, and unlike books, their text changes every time we come back to them. If I can ask my Wellesley community to do anything, it is to make the effort that the characters in Anna’s world never do. I ask you to give your Wellesley siblings the benefit of the doubt. I ask you to allow for second chances. I ask you to forgive. I ask you to have hope in your siblings, and I ask you to love them radically. “I love you,” I say to you, “because I don’t understand you, and I can’t hate you until I understand you.”
The irony, of course, is that it’s often harder to hate someone once you try to understand them. Levin cannot judge Anna once he talks to her. I wanted to dislike Tolstoy’s fiction because I know he wasn’t a feminist, but once I read his books, I couldn’t stop myself from becoming enamored with his characters. Every time I return to Jane Eyre, I recognize even more how disturbing Bertha’s fate is, how frustrating Jane is, how problematic Charlotte Brontë is—and yet, I fall deeper and deeper in love with them all. I notice how good Brontë’s writing is, how real her characters are, how much good Jane intends to do in the world, and therefore I become more and more entangled in the words and the birds and that defiant governess who gets the story she wants, even if it is not the story I want for her.
My favorite line in my senior thesis is not my main argument or my biggest discovery. It’s not even about birds. It’s the beginning of my final paragraph, when I list the fictional characters who have come to define my Wellesley career: “I have... found my idols, problematic as they are, not feminist as they may be.” Reading good literature at Wellesley has introduced me to people—in fiction and in real life—that I admire and love and try every day to understand. So Wellesley, problematic as you are, less feminist and inclusive than you believe yourself to be, as much as I’ve hated you and been frustrated with you, as much as I don’t understand you, I love you. Thank you for being a part of my story, no matter where it goes.
From the May 2019 issue.