Friday, May 11, 2012

The Katerina Maslova in All of Us

In Tolstoy's Resurrection, the protagonist nobleman Dmitri Nekhludov reflects on a meeting with the imprisoned Katerina Maslova. As a servant girl, Maslova had once been Nekhludov's romantic love interest. However, Nekhludov had really seen her as one to be used for his own youthful pleasure and after getting Maslova pregnant, she loses her job and the child ends up dying unbaptized. From there, Maslova falls into a life of poverty and prostitution. Many years later, Nekhludov finds himself on a jury that wrongfully convicts Maslova on a murder charge. Conscience-stricken, he seeks to visit Maslova in prison and, to atone for his sins, means to promise marriage to her. But in that meeting, Nekhludov is struck by the way her heart has become weather-worn by life, really lacking any sort of feeling or conscience for the life she has chosen. In fact, "On the contrary, she seemed rather pleased with herself and proud of her position" (p. 150). Nekhludov had expected to find the heart of the young woman he had known as Katusha many years ago, instead he finds this hardened woman named Maslova. The narrator reflects on the encounter in this way:

No man can play an active role in the world unless he believes his activity is important and good. Therefore, whatever position a man may hold, he is certain to take that view of human life in general which will make his own activity seem important and good. It is generally supposed that a thief, a murderer, a spy or a prostitute, knowing their occupation to be evil, must be ashamed of it. In point of fact, the case is precisely the reverse. Men who have been placed by fate and their own mistakes (or sins) in certain position, however false, always adopt a view of life which makes their place in it good and appropriate. To maintain this idea, men instinctively mix only with those who accept their view of life and of their place in it. This surprises us when thieves boast of their adroitness, prostitutes flaunt their shame, murdered gloat over their cruelty. We are surprised, however, only because the circle, the sphere, of these men is limited, and principally because we are outside of it; but does not the same state of things exist among the rich- who boast of their wealth, i.e., of robbery; the generals- who boast of their victories, i.e., of murder; the rulers- who boast of their power, i.e., of violence? We do not recognize their ideas of life and of good and evil as perverted, only because the circle of men holding these perverted ideas is wider and because we belong to it ourselves.

Maslova held this view of life and of her own place in it. She was a prostitute, condemned to penal servitude, yet she had formed a conception of life which allowed her to think well of herself, and even to feel a pride in her position. . . .

During the last ten years, wherever she found herself, she saw men that needed her; they all needed her- from Nekhludov and the old police officer down to the warders in the prison. She took no notice of the men who did not need her, consequently, the whole world seemed to be made up of people driven by lust and trying to possess her by all possible means- by fraud and violence, by purchase and cunning.

This being Maslova’s conception of life, it was natural that she should consider herself an extremely important person. And she prized this conception of life above all things in the world- could not fail to prize it because, if she were to change her views, she would lose the importance which this conception gave her. And in order not to lose that pre-eminence in life, she instinctively ranged herself with the class of people who shared her views. Divining that Nekhludov wanted to draw her into a different world, she opposed him, foreseeing that in that world she would lose her place in life which gave her confidence and self-respect. . . .

Therefore the present Nekhludov was no longer, in her eyes, the man she once loved, but only a rich gentleman who could and should be made use of, and with whom she might have the same relations as with all other men” (pp. 150-51).

The narrator reflects on the deep self-focus and preoccupation of the human heart that seeks to justify its own existence regardless of the harm it may cause others, also that denies the ways in which that life might be implicated in the larger cosmos as it intersects with the global community. He speaks of not only this "way of seeing" (or "not seeing") in the lowly Maslova but in all of us.

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