“Death was Defiance”: Being, Suicide and the Threshold of Knowledge in Mrs. Dalloway and Anna Karenina

Nicholas K. Kupensky, Bucknell University

In Virginia Woolf’s criticism, she frequently returns to the Russian writers of the nineteenth century, Tolstoy in particular, as the touchstone for perceptiveness in the novel, claiming in the “The Russian Point of View” (1925) that Tolstoy is “the greatest of all novelists” (Woolf 180). Through her lifelong fascination with the Russians, Woolf ever possessed the desire to access Tolstoy’s texts with their original “manners, the idiosyncrasies of their characters” (Woolf 171) restored, unsatisfied as a reader who has to “depend, blindly and implicitly, upon the work of translators” (174). Recently, Woolf scholarship has shown interest in the ideological and aesthetic dialogue between her and Tolstoy (Reinhold, Dalgarno); however, the intertextual analysis of Mrs. Dalloway (published weeks after the above comments in the Common Reader) and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina has yet to be written.

My reading of these two novels will primarily focus on the potential character doubles and how one mode of being in one text can illuminate the same mode of being in the other. The double plot in both works provides for one method of parallelism, such as Anna’s and Septimus’ suicide or Levin’s and Clarissa’s enlightenment. In each of these examples, however, the gender roles are reversed, which also allows for a second level of readings that contrast phallogocentric, symbolic, and patriarchal structures with feminine agency. Freud’s psychoanalysis and Lacan’s “The Mirror Stage” also permit a third level of readings that link characters based on their sexual politics (Peter Walsh’s attraction to Clarissa and Levin’s early attraction to the Shcherbatsky family each suggest varying degrees of the anaclitic, Clarissa’s attraction to Richard and Anna’s and Vronsky’s attraction to each other suggest varying degrees of the narcissistic).

I will then attempt to locate my readings in relation to the ideological and aesthetic theories predicated upon the oeuvre of each writer. In particular, the threshold of human understanding and the role that sensory perception plays in constructing a knowable reality are issues with which each writer is quite consciously concerned. Consequently, I hope to prove that the intersection of Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina will offer a new reading in how each writer uses prose to advance a similar understanding of life, death, and existence in an ultimately unknowable world.

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Dalgarno, Emily. “A British War and Peace? Virginia Woolf Reads Tolstoy.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies. Volume 50. Number 1. Spring 2004, 130-150.
Gustafson, Richard F. Leo Tolstoy Resident and Stranger: A Study in Fiction and Theology. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1986.
Mandelker, Amy. Framing Anna Karenina: Tolstoy and the Woman Question, and the Victorian Novel. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1993.
Minow-Pinkey, Makiko. Virginia Woolf & The Problem of the Subject. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1987.
Reinhold, Natalya. Woolf Across Cultures. Ed. Natalya Reinhold. New York: Pace UP, 2004.