Anna Karenina effect


A few days back I saw a beautiful movie, Anna Karenina. It is based on Leo Tolstoy’s novel. The movie( and the book) describes Anna’s unhappy marriage and what she does to seek happiness and her ultimate disillusionment. While watching the movie I remembered a beautiful Emily Dickinson poem that I read a few years back. The movie used the word “honourable” many times when referring to Anna and other women and while making judgments about Anna’s character. This poem also uses the word “honorable”. In this MHFL we will first read the poem and then I will share my interpretation.

But before the poem let me tell you about the title of this mail: Anna Karenina Effect. There is actually an effect by this name. The effect is based on the opening line of Leo Tolstoy’s book, Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”. You can read about this effect on Wikipedia.

Here is the Emily Dickinson poem:

She rose to his requirement, dropped
The playthings of her life
To take the honorable work
Of woman and of wife.

If aught she missed in her new day
Of amplitude, or awe,
Or first prospective, or the gold
In using wore away.

It lay unmentioned, as the sea
Develops pearl and weed,
But only to himself is known
The fathoms they abide.

And now my interpretation: This poem describes Emily Dickinson’s views about the institution of marriage. There are three stanzas in this poem and each describes a different stage of what a woman feels in her marriage. Note that Emily Dickinson never married so this poem comes from an observation of society.

The first stanza is about a woman accepting the proposal of marriage. She feels elated and that is why the word “rose” is used. But the poet is quick to point out that the woman accepted the conditions of “his requirement”. So the institution of marriage is made by men and serves his requirements. Women feel happy when they get married even though they have to leave the “playthings of her life” and instead take up a role that man has created for them: of woman and wife. And a woman is required to feel that such work is honorable.

The second stanza describes the disillusionment that a woman feels after marriage. She misses certain things: “amplitude and awe”. So the woman becomes so busy in her life as a wife and woman that she forgets what it is to feel life’s greatness and to be awed by the beauty of the world around her. And then the poet says “or the gold In using wore away”. The gold is a symbol of marriage. The elation of accepting the marriage proposal no longer exists. Even love has faded away. It is like gold which has been worn out because it was “used” everyday. It has become common and lost its “shine”.

And now the last stanza. How does a woman react to this loss of happiness. The poet says that just like a sea hides the pearls and weeds that grow inside, the woman hides the happiness or dejection of marriage. So whether the marriage is like a pearl or like a weed, a “honourable” woman never reveals it to the outside world. Only her husband knows what she feels and the extent of her feelings:
“The fathoms they abide”. Another way to look at it is that a woman’s real talents/her real personality is only revealed to her husband and only he knows the extent of her personality. For the outside world she is “merely” a married woman.


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They say that “Time assuages” —
Time never did assuage —
An actual suffering strengthens
As Sinews do, with age —

Time is a Test of Trouble —
But not a Remedy —
If such it prove, it prove too
There was no Malady –
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Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea;
And love is a thing that can never go wrong;
And I am Marie of Romania.
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