When People—and Characters—Surprise You

Mary Gaitskill, author of The Mare, explains how a single moment in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina reveals its characters’ hidden selves.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Karl Ove Knausgaard, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug McLean

We talk about people—friends, lovers, public figures—as though they have consistent, defined personalities.  “She’d never do that,” we say, or, “No, that’s not his style.” But Mary Gaitskill, the author of The Mare, is interested in the moments when behavior becomes incompatible with one’s broad sense of who a person seems to be, for better or worse. In a conversation for this series, we discussed a passage from Anna Karenina where both Anna and her husband surprise readers with uncharacteristic generosity and depth of spirit—though, when the moment passes, we’re left to wonder what was real. We discussed why fictional characters convince readers most when they behave unrealistically, and the way that hidden selves take shelter behind each public face.

In Mary Gaitskill’s fiction, characters often live emotional and sexual double lives. In stories like “Secretary,” which was adapted into a film with James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal, and “A Romantic Weekend,” strait-laced characters try out sadomasochistic roles behind closed doors; in thrillers like “The Other Place” and “The Girl on the Plane,” normal-seeming men confide their brutal sexual urges. The Mare explores a different kind of private place. It features a foster mother who’s reckoning with her decision to take in an impoverished Brooklyn child, Velvet, for the summer, and explores the unexpected force with which she starts to feel like a “real” mother, even though the outside world feels otherwise.  Meanwhile, Velvet’s classes with an abuse-scarred horse unlock something hidden in her, too. “Being on the mare happened on another planet, someplace beautiful but with outer space all around it,” she says. “I couldn’t even tell it to anybody.”

Gaitskill has been a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award and the National Book Award. She’s the author of the story collections Bad Behavior and Don’t Cry, and the novels Veronica and Two Girls, Fat and Thin. Her stories have appeared in venues like The New Yorker, Harper’s, Esquire, and The Best American Short Stories. She spoke to me by phone.

Mary Gaitskill: I read Anna Karenina for the first time about two years ago. It’s something I’d always meant to read, but for some reason I didn’t expect to like it as much as I did. When I finally settled down to read it, I loved it. What strikes me about the book is how precisely rendered the characters are, how recognizable they are as people. It was written so many years ago, and yet the characters are descriptions of people I know and see.

I found one section in particular so beautiful and intelligent that I actually stood up as I was reading. I had to put the book down, I was so surprised by it—and it took the novel to a whole other level for me.

Anna’s told her husband, Karenin, that that she’s in love with another man and has been sleeping with him. You’re set up to see Karenin as an overly dignified but somewhat pitiable figure: He’s a proud, stiff person. He’s older than Anna is, and he’s balding, and he has this embarrassing mannerism of a squeaky voice. He’s hardened himself against Anna. He’s utterly disgusted with her for having gotten pregnant by her lover, Vronsky. But you have the impression at first that his pride is hurt more than anything else—which makes him unsympathetic.

Then he receives a telegram from Anna that says: Please come, I’m dying, I need you to forgive me.

At first, he thinks it’s a deception. He wants to refuse to go. But then he realizes that it would be too cruel, and that everyone would condemn him—he has to go. So he does.

As he walks into the house where Anna’s dying, in the highest point of her fever, he thinks to himself:

He drew a resolution in the far corner of his brain and consulted it. It read: If it is a deception, then calm contempt and depart. If true, observe propriety.

He comes off as very rigid, even in this moment. We think nothing could shake this man’s stolidity. And when he finds out Anna’s still alive, he suddenly senses how much he was hoping for her to be dead—though this realization shocks him.

Then he hears her babbling, in the height of her fever. And her words are unexpected: She’s saying how kind he is. That, of course, she knows he will forgive her. When Anna finally sees him, she looks at him with a kind of love he’s never seen before, she says:

There’s another woman in me. I’m scared to death of her. It’s her that fell in love with that man. I wanted to hate you and I couldn’t. I’m real now, I’m whole.

Anna’s speaking about the decisions she’s made in the third person—as if the person who betrayed Karenin was a stranger. And she does seem to be transformed here, as though she’s become a different person. I was so surprised by that. I think of it as a very modern insight, Tolstoy’s idea that there may be two, or more, different people inside of us.

And it’s not just Anna. As his wife tells him she loves him, begging his forgiveness, Karenin transforms, too. The man we’d thought could never be anything but stiff and dull turns out to have this entirely different side to him.

Throughout the book, he’s always hated the way he’s felt disturbed by other people’s tears or sadness. But as he struggles with this feeling while Anna’s talking, Karenin finally realizes that the compassion he feels for other people is not weakness: For the first time, he perceives this reaction as joyful, and becomes completely overwhelmed with love and forgiveness. He actually kneels down and begins to cry in her arms; Anna holds him and embraces his balding head. The quality he hated is completely who he is—and this realization gives him incredible peace. He even decides he wants to shelter the little girl that Anna’s had with Vronsky (who sits nearby, so completely shamed by what he’s witnessing that he covers his face with his hands).

You believe this complete turnaround. You believe it’s who these people really are. I find it strange that the moment these characters seem most like themselves are the moments when they’re behaving in ways we’ve never before seen. I don’t fully understand how this could be, but it’s wonderful that it works.

But then the moment passes. Anna never talks about the “other woman” inside of her again. At first, I was disappointed. But then I thought: No, that’s actually much more realistic. What Tolstoy does is actually much better, because it's more truthful. We feel a greater sense of loss, knowing it will never happen again.

I very much saw that as the core of the book. Everyone says Anna Karenina is about individual desire going against society, but I actually think the opposite is stronger: the way societal forces limit the expression of the individual.

Karenin, for instance, talks himself down from his most generous moment, knowing that the feeling can’t endure the judgment that would be aimed his way:

The more time that passed, the more clearly he saw that, natural as his situation was for him now, he would not be allowed to remain in it. He felt that, besides the good spiritual force that guided his soul, there was another force, crude and equally powerful, if not more so, that guided his life, and that this force would not give him the humble peace he desired.

As powerful as these emotions are, basic social expectations are “crude and equally powerful.” He knows everyone will utterly look down on him if he does what he wants to do. Actually, I feel that he would do it anyway—except that Anna doesn’t stay with him, either. When she comes out of the fever she no longer remembers what she felt, and she looks at him with fear. She feels guilty, and she simply can’t be the way she had been. Perhaps she doesn’t even remember—as if the other woman has taken over again. And that’s what destroys him.

But which is the real Anna, and which is the real Karenin: the people they are at the tender bedside moment, or the people they become afterwards, when the fever subsides?  I don’t think you’re given a clear answer—that’s part of what I like about it. The person Anna reveals when she really believes she’s going to die may be in fact the truer part of herself. As in real life, you can’t know.

I believe that the truest parts of people can be buried, and for many different reasons. It’s very mysterious and strange, and though I don’t think about it consciously while I’m writing, I do believe this about people—so it probably does show up in my work.

People sometimes turn out to be almost the opposite of how they present. It isn’t because they’re trying to fool you, or because they’re hypocrites. It’s because they badly want to be that thing, and so they’ll try to be it. It’s not even like they’re deliberately pulling the wool over people’s eyes. That’s their ideal, and that’s what they try for. But it’s not who they are.

Fictional characters are different. I wouldn’t go so far as to quote Nabokov and say they’re galley slaves, but they are your creations—so they’ll do whatever you want them to do and be whatever you want them to be. Still, you don’t always know exactly what that is when you first conceive of them. And sometimes they do change. I wouldn’t say they surprise you, but your idea of them certainly changes as you go along.

In the book I just wrote, I think that one of the characters behaves in a way that seemed out of character and it was really hard for me. I suppose some people could say it’s unbelievable. But I think that people in real life do unbelievable things all the time.

At the same time, in fiction, the things that are realistic or literally true don’t always feel true. It happens in my writing classes over and over and again: the thing that everyone, including me, picks out as unbelievable sometimes is exactly the thing the writer will say, “but it really happened!” And it probably did. But it means they haven’t done enough to make that incident enter the world of the story, which becomes a reality with its own logic. When something genuinely surprising happens in a work of fiction, you have to be very in the story, and very in the moment, to make the reader accept it.

I don’t know if I can say exactly what I seek in books, but one of them would be to deepen and expand my understanding of the world. And that can happen through characters. Karenin, the husband, is a character that you probably would never get to know in real life. I could know a person like him, and we wouldn’t have anything to say to each other. But through a book like Anna Karenina, we can be enticed to go beyond the uninteresting, day-to-day appearance—and find the parts of a person that are there, unseen, beneath the surface.