From Anna Karenina to To the Lighthouse: Virginia Woolf's Response to Tolstoy's Portrayal of Motherhood


Anna Karenina, Universal Pictures, 2012

by Andre Gerard

While writing To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf took time out to give a talk to a group of Hayes Court schoolgirls. In “How Should One Read a Book?” (1926), the first of three essay versions of this talk, Woolf suggests comparing Richardson’s Clarissa Harlowe to Anna Karenina. Among other things, she asks “And how does our emotion at different crises of the two books compare? And what must we attribute to the eighteenth century, and what to Russia and the translator?” In effect, what she is doing is asking readers to use their reading as an anthropological tool. Measuring books against each other, she suggests, is a way of questioning society and of recalibrating our standard of values.

In To the Lighthouse Woolf deliberately included elements of Anna Karenina, thereby putting into practice some of the ideas contained in her essay. For instance, the stillborn marriage proposal between Varenka and Sergei is a template for the suspended courtship between William Bankes and Lily, and the characterization of Mrs. Ramsay owes a lot to Dolly and Kitty. In both novels, also, a Brothers Grimms fairy tale is used to deepen characterization and to explore thematic concerns. Corresponding elements – such as the occasional social surliness of Levin and Mr Ramsay, Lily and Mihailov’s painting practices, the musings about the meaning of life which occur when Levin helps the beetle or Lily disturbs the ants, the way in which both Dolly and Mrs. Ramsay take middle-aged pleasure in the attentions of men, including younger men – also invite comparison. On the motherhood front, Woolf accepts, expands, and sometimes contradicts many of Tolstoy’s ideas. By probing parallels between the two novels, and by questioning how Woolf’s ideas about motherhood compare to Tolstoy’s, we can examine how Woolf used her novel as a vehicle to challenge ideas of motherhood in popular culture.

The question of motherhood is central to Anna Karenina, just as it was to Russian society at the time Tolstoy wrote his novel. As was true in Victorian England, women of marriageable age greatly outnumbered the number of available men. Also, with the freeing of the serfs in 1861, Russian intellectuals became much more interested in women’s position in society. In 1869, this interest was further fuelled by two Russian translations of J S Mill’s essay “The Subjection of Women.”. The so called “woman question” was hotly debated in educated Russian society and the references to women’s education and to women’s rights in Anna Karenina are representative of the heated conversations of the time.

Beyond his intellectual interest in the “woman question,” Tolstoy also had strong personal reasons for being interested in motherhood. Through his mother, his sister, and his wife Tolstoy was deeply aware of the costs and compromises of motherhood. He was only 18 months old when his mother died, just weeks after giving birth to his sister Marya. Tolstoy and his sister grew up close to each other and remained so throughout their lives. Of particular relevance to the composition of Anna Karenina, in the mid 1860s Tolstoy was deeply involved in trying to help his sister obtain a divorce from her husband. The negotiations were complicated by the fact that Marya, along with the couple’s three young children, was living with her lover in Algiers, and in 1863 gave birth to her lover’s daughter, a daughter she was forced to leave behind when her lover abandoned her and she returned to her husband in Russia.

As for understanding motherhood through his wife, when Anna Karenina was published in 1878, Tolstoy was already father of 9 children. He and his wife would eventually have thirteen in all. In an 1870 diary entry, some time after the birth of their 4th child, his wife Sofia wrote: “With each new child one sacrifices a little more of one’s life and accepts an even heavier burden of anxieties and illnesses” (Diaries, 38). In a later diary entry, she wrote:

“I was wondering today why there were no women writers, artists or
composers of genius. It’s because all the passion and abilities of an
energetic woman are consumed by her family, love, her husband – and
especially her children. Her other abilities are not developed, they remain
embryonic and atrophy. When she has finished bearing and educating her
children her artistic needs awaken, but by then it’s too late.” (Diaries, 234)

Tolstoy and Sofia shared their diaries with each other, and many of Sofia’s feelings and insights found their way into Anna Karenina. In this, Tolstoy created three strong, yet very different versions of motherhood. If insight into the lives of his mother, sister and wife helped him to create these versions, his characters are in no way programmatic. Tolstoy was not writing a roman a clef. Anna’s struggles may owe something to Marya’s, and Kitty’s to the young Sofia’s, yet for Tolstoy those biographical underpinnings are largely incidental. His primary interest is in understanding the complexities of motherhood. In Anna, you have a mother torn between self-realization, and love of her child. In Kitty, you have a young mother struggling to adapt to her changed identity and new responsibilities. Finally, in Dolly you have a mother overwhelmed by the demands of her role. Of the three, it is Dolly that I am going to focus on, if only because she is the one Virginia used as a template for Mrs. Ramsay.

Virginia’s interest in Tolstoy and Anna Karenina is not surprising. For Virginia, Tolstoy was “ a genius in the raw,” and in 1940, remembering her first reading of War and Peace, she thought of him as, “more disturbing, more ‘shocking’ more of a thunderclap, even on art, even on literature, than any other writer” (Diary 5: 273). In “The Russian Point of View” (1925), she wrote, “There remains the greatest of all novelists — for what else can we call the author of War and Peace?” Again, in 1940, she wrote, “War and Peace is the greatest novel in the world; and if I’m not bombed I shall read that and Anna Karenina this winter” (Letters 6: 361)

When Virginia wrote the first version of “How Should One Read a Book?” she was also busy working elements of Anna Karenina into To the Lighthouse. Indeed, part of the essay is written on the manuscript of the novel. In a sense, the essay is an external signpost inviting readers to read To the Lighthouse against Anna Karenina. Virginia first read Tolstoy’s novel somewhere between 1909 and 1911. She re-read it again in 1926, taking notes as she did so (Roberta Rubenstein, Virginia Woolf and the Russian Point of View), and, as previously mentioned, points of contact between her work and Tolstoy’s abound.

For starters, Virginia writes Anna Karenina directly into her novel when she has Paul Rayley remember Vronsky’s name, “because he always thought it such a good name for a villain.” Paul can’t quite remember the name of the book in which Vronsky appears, and it falls to Mrs. Ramsay to supply it. This reference to Anna Karenina is comical and seems casual, yet, there is nothing casual about its placement. Coming, as it does, during Mrs. Ramsay’s triumphant Boeuf en Daube dinner, it invites the reader to compare that dinner to the central dinner in Anna Karenina, the dinner crowned with potage Marie Louise.

In Anna Karenina, the dinner and triumph is all the work of Stepan Arkadyevitch, even if, significantly, his hospitality is only made possible by the money he has received from the sale of his wife’s forest. Buoyed by forest cash, it is Stepan who chooses the guests, plans the menu, purchases the ingredients, and, when his wife Darya Alexandrenova is “not equal to the task of making the party mix” (401), orchestrates the whole event. Though he arrives late to his own party and finds “a chill benumbing all the guests” (402), he quickly sets everyone at ease. “In a moment” we are told, “he had so kneaded together the social dough that the drawing room became very lively, and there was a merry buzz of voices” (402).

In To the Lighthouse, it is Mrs. Ramsay who is responsible for the “merging and flowing and creating” (69) which makes a social success of the dinner. Just as Stepan succeeds in harmonizing individuals as disparate and as difficult as Sergey Ivanovitch, Alexey Alexandrovitch, Pestsov, and Koznishev, so too Mrs. Ramsay triumphs by soothing and upholding the childish–sometimes petty, sometimes crotchety, often vulnerable–male egos of Mr. Ramsay, William Bankes, Augustus Carmichael, Charles Tansley and Paul Rayley. However, whereas Stepan Oblonsky’s harmonizing is casually and breezily accomplished, Mrs. Ramsay’s task is lengthy and arduous. We are made to see and feel the art and effort required to establish a communality of feeling. We are also made to see Mrs. Ramsay’s accomplishment as a gendered one. She is Darya or Dolly rewritten on a heroic scale.

The presentation of the Boeuf en Daube versus that of the potage Marie-Louise reveals the scale of Mrs. Ramsay’s achievement. In Tolstoy, the potage appears only fleetingly, as a triumphant flourish used to mark the success of Stepan Oblonsky’s dinner. In To the Lighthouse, the Boeuf en Daube, while occupying a similar role, is also emblematic of creative energy, artistic expression, and high culture. Mrs. Ramsay is the artist (through the agency of Mildred), and the Boeuf en Daube is a masterpiece equal to anything produced by Michel Angelo. In magnifying the importance of the principal dish and in lingering upon its preparation and presentation, Virginia initiates an important conversation about domesticity and culture. She suggests that the preparation of dishes and the hosting of dinners is as socially significant and culturally valuable as artistic, political or military endeavours. Mrs. Ramsay’s dinner is both a work of art and a political triumph. Civilization without Boeuf en Daube and Mrs. Ramsay’s social skills would be as impoverished as civilization without Scott or Shakespeare.

One important feature common to the two dinners is the attendance of young lovers flushed and giddy with love. If the two dinners are both the physical and emotional centers of their respective novels, it is partly because they are epithalamium dinners of a sort. In Anna Karenina, Kitty and Levin are noticeably aglow with their mutual love, so much so that Sergey Ivanovich wonders at his brother’s transformation, and Dolly is comforted by seeing them together, radiant. The dinner is what brings them together, and it is at the dinner that they, spiritually attuned, propose to each other by chalking the initial letters of words on the tablecloth. In To the Lighthouse, in contrast, Paul and Minta are already engaged when they come into dinner, yet they too burn so intensely with “the emotion, the vibration of love” that those around them are affected. Watching them, Lily feels scorched by “the heat of love, its horror, its cruelty, its unscrupulosity” (83); and thinking of Lily and Charles Tansley, Mrs. Ramsay feels that “[b]oth suffered from the glow of the other two” (84). To measure Paul and Minta against Levin and Kitty is to forcibly feel how much darker and more disturbing than Tolstoy’s is Virginia’s conception of passionate, romantic love.

Comparing the dinner conversations in the two books also generates food for thought. Conversations at the two dinners are general and personal, wide ranging and intense. Some of the conversation is typical of time, place and class, while some is broader and more universal. What I find interesting therefore is that Virginia has her characters stay well away from two of the major conversational themes in Anna Karenina. Although the two subjects are presented indirectly throughout the novel, neither the education and the rights of women, nor the advantages and disadvantages of classical and scientific education is discussed at the Ramsay dinner table. Reading To the Lighthouse against Anna Karenina casts a strong light on some of Virginia’s narrative choices and on her subtle indirect methods.

Thinking about the conversations in the two novels also shows how strongly Virginia foregrounded literary conversation. While Oblonsky’s guests are all literate, and elsewhere in the novel can be found quoting or referencing Goethe, Zola, Daudet, Pushkin, Heine, Dickens, Grimm and Gogol, to name only some, not one literary reference is made during their dinner. In contrast, during Mrs. Ramsay’s dinner not only is literature an important subject of thought and conversation (Walter Scott, George Eliot, Shakespeare and, of course, Tolstoy and Anna Karenina all figure), but the climax of the dinner comes with the recital of Charles Elton’s poem. Literature is given pride of place, and the conversation emphatically demonstrates the cultural importance of literature.

When Vanessa Bell, Virginia’s sister, first read To the Lighthouse, she wrote a letter to Virginia, which said, in part:

It seemed to me that in the first part of the book you have given a portrait of
mother which is more like her to me than anything I could ever have conceived
of as possible. It is almost painful to have her so raised from the dead. (Bell, Vol 2: 128)

Always remembering Mrs. Ramsay`s other avatars, always remembering that “fifty pairs of eyes were not enough to get round that one woman with,” always remembering that for Virginia and Vanessa Mrs. Ramsay was also their mother, I want to continue thinking about Mrs. Ramsay as a version of Darya Alexandrenova. In comparing the Beauf en Daube dinner to the potage Marie Louise one, I said that Darya or Dolly is Mrs. Ramsay rewritten on a heroic scale. What I should have said is that she is an inversion of Dolly. Where Dolly is passive, Mrs. Ramsay is active. Where Dolly is weak and pathetic, Mrs. Ramsay is strong and heroic. Where Dolly is hesitant and uncertain, Mrs. Ramsay is firm and decisive. Where Dolly is overwhelmed by her responsibilities as wife, mother and angel of the house, Mrs. Ramsay is calm and imperial. Again and again, Virginia shapes and presents Mrs. Ramsay as the deliberate antithesis of Dolly.

Tolstoy`s picture of Dolly is an empathetic, even sympathetic one. We are made to feel the difficulty of her situation, and we see the unfairness of it. Stepan Oblonsky dumps all the hard work of parenting and domestic management onto her. He cares about his wife, but he is too self-centered, too much of a lazy egoist to actually help her in any meaningful way. He trades on his charm and light-heartedness and freely indulges in a hedonistic lifestyle at Dolly`s expense. She, meanwhile, is exhausted and nearly crushed multiple burdens of her roles as wife, mother and household manager.

To some extent, Woolf`s portrayal of Mrs. Ramsay is similar to Tolstoy`s of Dolly. Mrs. Ramsay, too, is overloaded with her multiple burdens. In fact, Woolf gives Mrs. Ramsay an even heavier burden than the one born by Dolly. Like Julia Stephen, Mrs. Ramsay has eight children instead of Dolly’s six. Like Julia Stephen in London and St. Ives, she also takes on the responsibility of social work. She looks after the poor and the sick. She makes house calls. She also looks after the halt and the lame in the family friendship circle. There are hints of this nurturing role in Dolly – her matchmaking with respect to Kitty and Dolly, and her efforts on Anna’s behalf, for instance–but Dolly’s activities are trivial compared to what Mrs. Ramsay does to look after Mr. Bankes, Mr. Carmichael, Paul, Charles Tansley and all the others. Again and again, Mrs. Ramsay is superhuman in her nurturing activities, a transcendent embodiment of ‘the angel in the house.’

Mrs. Ramsay, though, is more than Dolly on steroids. Virginia Woolf’s conception of Mrs. Ramsay is fundamentally, radically different than that of Tolstoy’s conception of Dolly. What Woolf brings to Mrs. Ramsay and particularly to Mrs. Ramsay’s role as mother is agency. Unlike Dolly, Mrs. Ramsay is not a passive victim overwhelmed by fate and a socially determined role. Mrs. Ramsay is a powerful creative force and, if her situation is, in many ways, similar to Dolly’s, it is not because of helplessness. Mrs. Ramsay’s situation is a product of near sightedness and an inability to properly question the past and her role as mother. Nurturing and self-sacrificing she may be, but she is more than strong enough to cope with most physical, mental and emotional demands. She may suffer moments of intense fatigue and exhaustion, yet she is not overwhelmed by the burdens of motherhood. There is nothing in To the Lighthouse comparable to the following Anna Karenina passage:

“Yes, altogether,” thought Darya Alexandrovna, looking back over her whole
existence during those fifteen years of her married life, “pregnancy, sickness,
mental incapacity, indifference to everything, and most of all—hideousness.
Kitty, young and pretty as she is, even Kitty has lost her looks; and I when I’m
with child become hideous, I know it. The birth, the agony, the hideous agonies,
that last moment … then the nursing, the sleepless nights, the fearful pains….”

Darya Alexandrovna shuddered at the mere recollection of the pain from
sore breasts which she had suffered with almost every child. “Then the children’s
illnesses, that everlasting apprehension; then bringing them up; evil
propensities” (she thought of little Masha’s crime among the raspberries),
“education, Latin—it’s all so incomprehensible and difficult. And on the top of
it all, the death of these children.” And there rose again before her imagination
the cruel memory, that always tore her mother’s heart, of the death of her last
little baby, who had died of croup; his funeral, the callous indifference of all at
the little pink coffin, and her own torn heart, and her lonely anguish at the sight
of the pale little brow with its projecting temples, and the open, wondering little
mouth seen in the coffin at the moment when it was being covered with the
little pink lid with a cross braided on it.

“And all this, what’s it for? What is to come of it all? That I’m wasting my
life, never having a moment’s peace, either with child, or nursing a child, forever
irritable, peevish, wretched myself and worrying others, repulsive to my
husband, while the children are growing up unhappy, badly educated, and
penniless. (634)

Unlike Dolly, Mrs. Ramsay never agonizes about her mothering. She may deplore the behaviour of her children, may question “strife, divisions, difference of opinion, prejudices, twisted into the very fibre of being” (11), but she is never at a loss in her parenting and she never doubts herself. Where Dolly has doubts about the efficacy of French instruction, and overreacts to the children’s squirting milk and cooking raspberries over candles, Mrs. Ramsay is always sure and confident about her parenting. Even in moments of crisis, as in the nursery when Cam and James are at odds over the skull, she quickly and capably soothes her children and maintains calm control over the situation. Her actions are always swift and decisive, measured and controlled, confident and infallible. Everything about her corresponds to Julia Stephen, as Virginia described her in her posthumously published biographical piece “Reminiscences”:

Her intellectual gifts had always been those that find their closest expression in
action; she had great clearness of insight, sound judgement, humour, and a
power of grasping very quickly the real nature of someone’s circumstances, and
so arranging that the matter, whatever it was, fell into its true proportions at
once. Sometimes with her natural impetuosity, she took in on herself to
despatch difficulties with a high hand, like some commanding Empress.
(“Reminiscences”: 34-35)

Mrs Ramsay shares Julia Stephen’s imperial qualities. Not for nothing do we see her “stand quite motionless for a moment against a picture of Queen Victoria wearing the blue ribbon of the Garter” (15). Not for nothing does Mr. Carmichael resist “her masterfulness, her positiveness, something matter-of-fact in her” (159). Lily remembers Mrs. Ramsay as a Canute-like figure saying “‘Life stand still here’; Mrs. Ramsay making of the moment something permanent” (133). Mrs. Ramsay’s imperial nature is manifest in the way in which she guides, directs and controls those around her. It is manifest in Lily’s memory of “the astonishing power she had over one” (144). Where Dolly is impotent, Mrs. Ramsay is omnipotent.

To measure Mrs. Ramsay against Dolly is to see how deeply critical Virginia is of her. Dolly is too weak to change anything. Mrs. Ramsay is not. Her imperial powers indict her. She may be a wonderfully capable mother, yet her power and agency also make her responsible for the state of society. Measured against Dolly, Mrs. Ramsay stands revealed as a version of the Victorian “Angel in the House,” the “Angel in the House” which in “Professions for Women,” a 1931 talk delivered to the National Society for Women’s Service, Virginia described as follows:

She was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly
unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed herself
daily. If there was chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught she sat in it–
in short she was so constituted that she never had a mind or a wish of her own, but
preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others. Above all–I
need not say it—she was pure. Her purity was supposed to be her chief beauty–
her blushes, her great grace. In those days–the last of Queen Victoria–every
house had its Angel. (“Professions for Women”)

In her talk, Virginia makes it quite clear that the “Angel in the House” is a monster, a psychological phantom responsible for the oppression of women. For society to change, the mythical angel has to be confronted and destroyed. With considerable humour, Virginia describes her struggle with the angel, describes flinging her inkpot at the angel, describes catching it by the throat and, eventually, managing to kill it.

To read To the Lighthouse against Anna Karenina is to glimpse part of Virginia’s struggle. To compare Mrs. Ramsay’s shape to Dolly’s is to recognize how subtly yet savagely Virginia Woolf indicts Mrs. Ramsay’s mothering. Dolly is a tragic victim; weak, overburdened and just barely able to cope with the demands of motherhood. Mrs. Ramsay, on the other hand, is strong, forceful and misguided. Her parenting and her educational methods serve to prop up the existing sexist order. For instance, she imagines six year old James as “all red and ermine on the Bench or directing a stern and momentous enterprise in some crisis of public affairs” (7), and the Grimm fairytale she reads to him is deeply misogynist. After all, the moral of “The Fisherman and his Wife” is that if men do not control their wives tragedy will ensue.

As for the girls, while James is taught patriarchal values and is trained for public life, Mrs Ramsay’s daughters are taught to be submissive to men. “Woe betide the girl — pray Heaven it was none of her daughters,” thinks Mrs. Ramsay, who does not, like her, take “the whole of the other sex under her protection.” It is only in silence that her daughters can “sport with infidel ideas which they had brewed for themselves of a life different from hers; in Paris, perhaps; a wilder life; not always taking care of some man or other” (9). In supporting men and masculine values, Mrs. Ramsay betrays her daughters, hers sons, and all of society. Where Dolly is a weak and passive victim of societal injustice, Mrs. Ramsay, though powerful, actively sustains and perpetuates an unjust society. Her mothering, triumphant as it seems, will eventually lead to the horrors of WWI; and to read To the Lighthouse against Anna Karenina, Mrs. Ramsay against Dolly, is to see how strongly Virginia Woolf questions and indicts prevailing models of motherhood.

Works Cited:

Bell, Quentin. Virginia Woolf: A Biography. New York: First Harvest Edition, 1972. Vol. 2: 128.

Rubinstein, Roberta. Virginia Woolf and the Russian Point of View. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina. 1878. Ed. Leonard J. Kent and Nina Berberova. Trans. Constance Garnett. New York: The Modern Library, 1965.

Tolstoy, Sofia. The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy. Trans. Cathy Parker. New York: HarperCollins, 2010.

Woolf, Virginia. “How Should One Read a Book?” The Essays of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Andrew McNeillie. New York: Harcourt, 1994. Vol.4: 388-400.

“Professions for Women.” The Essays of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Stuart N. Clarke. London: Hogarth, 2009. Vol. 5: 635-648.

“Reminiscences.” Moments of Being. Ed. Jeanne Schuylkind. 2nd ed. New York: Harcourt 1985.

“The Russian Point of View.” The Essays of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Andrew McNeillie. New York: Harcourt, 1994. Vol.4: 181-190

To the Lighthouse. 1927. Ed. David Bradshaw. New York: Oxford World’s Classics, 2008.

About the Author:

Andre Gerard (@PatremoirPress) is the winner of the 2015 Berfrois Poetry Prize. He lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.