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Books-Into-Movies: “Anna Karenina” (based on the novel ANNA KARENINA) January 21, 2013

Posted by rwf1954 in Anna Karenina, book synopsis, books, books compared to movies, books into movies, Leo Tolstoy, movie commentary, movies, movies based on books.
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(Richard Warren Field wrote the award-winning novel,
The Swords of Faith. Read why this book will make a great movie.)

Joe Wright’s “Anna Karenina” is largely faithful to the epic-length classic novel by Leo Tolstoy. The book is just short of 350,000 words so many choices had to be made. The choice to focus the majority of attention on the Anna Karenina storyline effectively trims a significant portion of the book that focuses on character Konstantin Levin. Wright also spends less time on details in the lives of peripheral characters, and leaves out entire characters. And out of necessity, he stays clear of Tolstoy’s long discussions of Russian contemporary issues and the inner spiritual reflections of the characters. (These aspects, of course, deepen the richness of the novel, but would be difficult to film without voiceovers or long-winded, on-camera discussions, both bound to be unpopular with contemporary movie audiences.) These choices allow Wright to keep most of the essential elements of the Anna Karenina storyline.

Another cinematic choice Wright makes is to use a stage-play framework that allows him to flip scenes quickly, with little exposition. This approach gives the story a sometimes surreal quality, allowing diversions into character interiors at choice moments. The stage-play framework also allows Wright to hint at Tolstoy’s satirical elements, like the robotic bureaucracy scene. And it also allows us to view the horse race with close-up, personal views of the characters and their reactions to events.

Some Tolstoy background is of interest before I get to specifics of the movie:

  • Tolstoy viewed the corpse of a woman named Anna Pirogova, the mistress of a neighbor of Tolstoy’s, who had thrown herself under a train after her lover ended their relationship. So not only does the movie accurately portray this event from the book, but the event is based on a true occurrence witnessed (the aftermath was witnessed) by Tolstoy himself.
  • Konstantin Levin is clearly autobiographical, containing 1) specific events from Tolstoy’s own courtship of his wife, 2) Tolstoy’s own efforts to manage his estate after the liberation of the serfs in 1863 and amidst the turbulent changes in Russian society, bubbling with political and revolutionary thinking and 3) Tolstoy’s public conversion to Christianity not long after Anna Karenina.
  • The novel was offered at first in installments (as was War and Peace, word count around 587,000). This explains how the public could initially digest the length of these novels, offered to the public in smaller, more manageable sections. The final section, Part Eight, was not offered by his publisher; Tolstoy had to bring it out himself at his own expense. (Little of Part Eight from the novel is dramatized in the movie.)
  • Tolstoy does go for satire with some of the peripheral characters. Wright seems to make an effort to capture this tone with the rigid choreography depicting the bureaucracy Oblonsky works for, possibly functioning as comic relief. But in the movie, for my taste, this seems joltingly out of place considering the larger, life-changing struggles of the main characters.

While Wright does stay true to the basic story, he uses stylistic diversions and invented scenes to sharpen and condense the plot, and for efficient exposition of the characters. The novel is lengthy with many strands of character and plot. As with my other Books-Into-Movies posts, I will pick and choose comparison points that I find interesting (and so anticipate readers will find interesting as well). I will not attempt to comment on every difference (or similarity). I invite readers to offer their comments if they feel I missed something. I will then end this post with a synopsis that attempts to offer highlights of the book, not an incident by incident description, and that focuses on characters and plot depicted in the movie.

Comparison points between the book and the movie:

  • The start of the movie, with back-and-forth cuts among principal characters, is not explicitly in the book, but is faithful to the basic story and serves to set it up. There is no statement from Alexey to Anna that “sin has a price, you may be sure of that” before she goes to visit her brother.
  • Anna’s meeting with Vronsky’s mother on the train is straight from the book.
  • The worker at the train station mangled by a train, with the aftermath witnessed by Anna, and with Vronsky handing out money for the family of the worker, is also directly from the book.
  • Konstantin Levin’s failed marriage proposal and Kitty’s awkward rejection is from the book.
  • Anna Karenina convincing “Dolly”/Darya to forgive Anna’s brother, Stepan/“Stiva” Oblonsky, is directly from the book and brings us a conspicuous irony to start this story.
  • Vronsky’s flirtation with Kitty, abandoned when he becomes infatuated with Anna at the ball, is right from the book. Kitty definitely feels hate for Anna after the ball. The movie’s phasing into Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky dancing alone and focused on each other captures the story’s essence.
  • Levin’s brother Nikolay, the sickly revolutionary, is from the book. An elder brother of Levin’s, a politician, is not portrayed in the film.
  • Alexey’s impersonal, detached persona is directly from the book.
  • Vronsky’s pursuit of Anna with her initial reluctance, asking him to stop his attentions, is from the book. But as in the book, Anna does not really want him to stop, and when put on the spot, cannot banish him from her life. The interior monologue of the Anna character in the book has her disappointed, even pained, when she goes to an event and he is not there even though she has asked him to stop his attentions.
  • In the novel, Tolstoy only gives us an oblique indication that Count Vronsky and Anna Karenina have consummated their relationship. There are no explicit sex scenes in the novel.
  • “Stiva” Oblonsky’s visit to Levin in the country is from the book.
  • In the book, Kitty leaves town with her family because of illness after her disappointment with Count Vronsky. This is not depicted in the movie. An entire section of the book, with Kitty in Germany, is not depicted in the movie.
  • The events of the horse race, including Vronsky taking a fall (in the book, clearly as a result of his own negligence) with Anna screaming out and the horse destroyed as a result of a broken back is straight from the book.
  • The carriage scene with Anna confessing she is Vronsky’s mistress is similar to the book. In the book, Anna does not mention the child. And in the book, Alexey’s reaction comes in two stages. The movie condenses his reaction. In the book, Alexey says he will communicate with her—“as I may take measures to secure my honor and communicate them to you.” He tells her in a later letter that she should return to him, that he assumes she has “repented… of what has called forth the present letter.” The letter has the same emotionless detachment present in the Alexey character.
  • Konstantin Levin cutting grass with the peasants at his estate is directly from the book.
  • The scene with Alexey seizing Anna’s letters and telling her he will “take measures to put an end to the state of things” after Alexey sees Count Vronsky has visited Anna at their home against his wishes is straight from the book.
  • The scene with the blocks, during which Kitty and Konstantin Levin come together is similar to the book—in the book, the letters are written on a chalkboard, but with very similar results. Both seem to know what words the starting letters refer to as they go back and forth. It is as if they are seeing their situation with one mind, with one heart. It is a sweet scene in both the book and the movie.
  • “Dolly”/Darya tries to convince Alexey to forgive Anna in the book as well, prevailing upon Alexey’s Christian beliefs.
  • Anna contacting Alexey indicating she is ill is from the book. His reluctance to go to her, followed by his visit to her and ultimately reconciling with her when she recovers is also from the book. However, in the book, Vronsky, humiliated by the affair’s developments, shoots himself in the chest. So Vronsky is also in a state of compromised health. The result is the same—they are to part permanently, with Vronsky prepared to take a post away from the city and Anna initially refusing to see him even to say good-bye. But they cannot stay away from each other, and renew the relationship again.  In the book, they leave the area and travel abroad, living together in Italy for a brief period.
  • Kitty insisting on nursing Konstantin Levin’s dying brother is from the book, but takes place in Moscow, not at Levin’s country estate. In fact, they quarrel over whether Kitty will go to Moscow with Levin, but when she insists, he agrees.
  • Anna seeing her son on his birthday against Alexey’s wishes is from the book. But some details are different. Anna’s son has been told in the book that Anna is dead. This certainly factors in to Alexey’s decision to refuse Anna’s request. And in the book, Anna sneaks into her old home in the morning, getting past a servant who does not know her, as opposed to barging in as she does in the movie. In the book and movie, Alexey’s silent presence causes Anna to run out of the room.
  • Anna does indulge in opium/morphine in the book, as also shown in the movie.
  • Anna goes to the opera and is snubbed socially, as in the book. Vronsky disbelieves that Anna has decided to go to the opera and does not understand her position well enough to know how awkward her attendance will be. In the book, Vronsky also does not go at first, and arrives in the middle of the opera to discover what has occurred.
  • “Dolly”/Darya, in the book as in the movie, is one of only a few of Anna’s old friends who welcome her and remains affectionate with her.
  • Anna’s irrational jealousies are straight from the book. She constantly questions whether or not Vronsky continues to love her.
  • In the movie, Alexey remains indecisive about the divorce. In the book, after some indecision, he refuses to grant the divorce he offered earlier in the story.
  • Vronsky does leave after yet another quarrel—what turns out to be their final quarrel—after which Anna says “…you will be sorry for this.” She visits “Dolly”/Darya and has an awkward interaction with Kitty who is in town after having her first child. Kitty is not directly rude to Anna, but is clearly not affectionate toward her or even comfortable with her.
  • As in the book, Anna rides the train for awhile, then kills herself by throwing herself onto the tracks. In the book, she seems to have last-moment second thoughts, but it is too late.
  • Part Eight of Anna Karenina concerns mainly a debate between Konstantin Levin and his older brother over a war Count Vronsky is reportedly going to fight, a war between Serbs and Turks that does not directly involve the Russian government. This section also concerns Konstantin Levin’s emerging embrace of Christianity (coinciding with Tolstoy’s own real-life experience). We do get a brief summing up when Konstantin Levin’s older brother encounters Count Vronsky and his mother on a train. There we learn Vronsky became ill after Anna’s death and now says “… as a weapon I may be of some use. But as a man, I am a wreck.” Alexey brings Anna Karenina’s and Count Vronsky’s child into his family as we see portrayed in the film. In the book we get the impression that he feels he has no choice. In the movie we see him smiling with his son and Anna’s daughter interacting, a slightly different take on Alexey’s reaction. Levin’s statement to Kitty that he had realized something profound, but with him deciding not to elaborate on it with her, is straight from the book, and ends the book as it also ends the movie.

Synopsis of Anna Karenina

(As indicated previously, this is not a comprehensive or even totally chronological synopsis.  The focus of the synopsis is on describing the main events as offered by Tolstoy in the novel. I have mainly concerned us with characters and events depicted in the movie, though I do mention aspects of the book that are prominent, but not offered in the movie. The main purpose of this synopsis is to aid in the comparison of the book to the Joe Wright movie, and not to provide a definitive synopsis of the entire novel.)

Part One
Anna Karenina travels to Moscow from Petersburg to help her brother, Stepan Arkadyevitch Oblonsky who has cheated on his wife Darya/“Dolly” Alexandrovna. Anna is successful in convincing Darya/“Dolly” to forgive her brother. While traveling to Moscow, she rides with the mother of a dashing military man, Count Alexey Vronsky. While in Moscow, Anna attends a ball that Count Vronsky also attends. Count Vronsky becomes infatuated with Anna Karenina, who is married to a high-ranking, but not particularly dynamic nor emotional husband. She has an eight-year-old son. Anna attempts to distance herself from Vronsky, but he communicates his attraction to her.

We also meet Konstantin Levin, an awkward man from the country who owns a prosperous agricultural estate. He has business with Oblonsky, and also comes to Moscow to make a marriage offer to Kitty, Darya’s/“Dolly’s” younger sister. Kitty turns down Levin’s proposal; she is hoping for a marriage offer from Count Vronsky who has been paying attention to her recently. But Vronsky does not seem the marrying sort. At the ball, Kitty hopes to capture and retrain Vronsky’s attention and is visibly unhappy with Anna Karenina when Vronsky pays more attention to her. Levin also has a brother, Nikolay, who is associated with leftist revolutionaries. The relationship is odd, with Nikolay vacillating from ordering Konstantin out of his presence to expecting his brother’s approval and maybe even help.

Part Two
Kitty Shtcherbatskaya becomes ill after losing the affections of Count Vronsky. The family leaves Moscow for Germany where she befriends a feisty, intelligent girl named Varenka. Kitty recovers from the ill effects of events back in Russia and prepares to return.

Count Vronsky relentlessly pursues Anna Karenina, showing up at whatever engagements she attends. She resists him at first, asking him to stop his attentions. But when he is not present at a social event, she finds herself wondering where he is. She finally gives in to the attraction, and an affair between them begins. (Tolstoy depicts this in a very tame way by today’s standards. We know they have become involved as a result of the end of a scene when they part, with Anna expressing regret and remorse at the relationship, but no indication they will break it off. There is no sex scene at all.) Gossip and rumors swirl around them as their relationship becomes evident. The rumors come to the attention of Anna Karenina’s husband. He speaks to Anna, but in an odd, clinical way, almost as if he is talking about his detached prescription for someone else’s situation. He tells her she risks bringing public disgrace on her, on him, and on her son. He shows little emotion, almost as if anger and jealousy are beneath him.

Anna Karenina and her husband attend a horse race Count Vronsky is riding in. Vronsky rides well up until the end of the race when he makes a mistake and the horse stumbles, collapses, and the horse’s back fractures. Vronsky goes down as well, escaping serious injury. Anna Karenina does not hide her distress at Vronsky’s possible jeopardy. Her behavior is so emotional and unsubtle that her husband feels the need to talk to her. In the carriage ride home, he tells her she has behaved inappropriately, and that it should not happen again. She confesses the affair and tells him she hates him and wants nothing more to do with him. He tells her: “Very well! But I expect a strict observance of the external forms of proprietary till such time… as I may take measures to secure my honor and communicate them to you.”

Konstantin Levin stays at his country estate, busying himself with running the agricultural enterprises there. During a visit from Oblonsky, he finds out Kitty has left Russia to recover from bad health, and has still not married. He remains interested in her, and laments her rejection, but sees little hope for his wish to marry her.

Part Three
Konstantin Levin absorbs himself in the work at his farm/ranch, including the physical work of cutting tall grass with a scythe. “Dolly”/Darya has a conversation with Konstantin about Kitty, asking him why he is avoiding her, and whether he hates her. He does not hate her, but as a refused suitor, finds being in her presence awkward.

Anna’s husband writes, forgiving her, and telling her to return to Petersburg and to end her relations with Vronsky. “The family cannot be broken up by a whim, a caprice, or even by the sin of one of the partners in the marriage, and our life must go long as it has in the past.” Vronsky’s mother tries to get him to break off the affair which is obvious to everyone. Anna tells her husband she is a “guilty woman… a bad woman” but that she can “change nothing.” Alexey insists she conduct herself so that “neither the world nor the servants can reproach you… In return you’ll enjoy all the privileges of a faithful wife without fulfilling her duties.” He walks away. Anna bows “in silence” as he walks by her.

Levin continues to run his farm. His brother visits—it is evident to Konstantin Levin that his brother Nikolay is dying. Levin considers the ramifications of the recent liberation of the serfs, and the best way for Russian farms to be productive given the new circumstances.

Part Four
Anna continues to see Count Vronsky. She has Vronsky in their home against Alexey’s expressed wishes. Alexey discovers this breach of his wishes. He tells Anna he is going to Moscow and that his lawyer will contact her. Their son will go to his sister’s.

Oblonsky invites Alexey to dinner while he is in Moscow. Alexey resists, as the pending divorce will change the relationship between the families. But he agrees to go. The dinner includes a number of guests who discuss various issues. Konstantin Levin and Kitty are there. “Dolly”/Darya discusses Anna with Alexey. She wants him not to proceed with the divorce. She at first does not believe Anna has been unfaithful. Alexey says he would like to believe it is not true, but with his wife admitting to it, he has no choice. “Dolly”/Darya implores him to forgive. She cites Christian tenets—“love those who hate you”—to persuade him.

In a magnificently sweet scene, Kitty and Konstantin Levin come together. Kitty is drawing with chalk on a chalkboard. Levin takes the chalk and writes a series of letters, the first letters of words to a sentence. Kitty knows immediately what he’s asking and answers that her refusal of him is not permanent. Kitty also confirms she loves Levin and will agree to a marriage proposal.

Anna Karenina sends word that she is dying. Alexey suspects a trick, but comes to her sickbed. Anna is very ill. Alexey discontinues the divorce action and decides to forgive her (again). But she does not die. She recovers. Vronsky feels humiliated by the circumstances of his affair with Anna and shoots himself in the chest. He also recovers. Anna agrees not to see Vronsky and says good-bye to him. He is to take a post at Tashkent. They get together for what is supposed to be a final meeting. But they decide not to part—they will live together. Count Vronsky declines the Tashkent post and retires from the army.

Part Five
Konstantin Levin and Kitty marry. They have occasional quarrels, but are both happy and seem well-matched. One of the quarrels comes when Levin gets word his brother is in Moscow dying. Kitty wants to accompany him; Levin wants her to stay away. Kitty wins the argument and not only goes to Moscow but does hands-on nursing of Nikolay. Nikolay dies with Kitty and Konstantin Levin present. Kitty shows symptoms of being ill, but discovers she is pregnant.

Count Vronsky and Anna Karenina travel abroad, living briefly in Italy. Anna has a child, a girl they name “Annie.” Vronsky takes up painting and shows a little amateur talent but does not pursue it. They decide to return to Russia. Countess Lidia Ivanovna has fallen in love with Alexey (he seems unaware of it) and pitches in to help him maintain his household. (Servants actually keep the household running.) She tells Alexey and Anna’s son that Anna is dead. Alexey goes along with this. Anna writes the countess and asks to see her son. Alexey first indicates he sees no choice but to agree. But the countess argues “he looks on her as dead. He… beseeches God to have mercy on her sins… now what will he think?” Alexey now agrees with the refusal, which the countess writes to Anna. Anna resolves to see her son on his birthday. She goes to the home at 8:00 in the morning and gets past a servant who does not know her. The reunion is affectionate. Alexey finds out she is there, walks in, sees her and bows his head silently. Anna runs out of the room, taking the gifts she brought with her, never giving them to her son as intended.

Vronsky is not at their hotel when she returns. She starts to doubt his love, even wondering if he is seeing other women. Because he is accompanied by a friend when he returns, she cannot confront him with her concerns. She decides to go to the theater. Count Vronsky cannot believe she does not understand the awkward position she has put herself in. First deciding not to go, he arrives late at the theater to find Anna has been snubbed. Anna blames Vronsky for the incident, saying somehow if he had loved her more, this wouldn’t have occurred. Vronsky reassures her and they reconcile, then leave for the country. But though “he did not reproach her in words… in his heart he reproached her.”

Part Six
Darya/“Dolly” spends the summer with Kitty and Konstantin Levin. Konstantin’s older brother Sergei is also there and looks like he’s going to propose to Kitty’s visiting friend Varenka, but doesn’t. Stepan Oblonksky visits and they go shooting with another friend. They visit with peasants and eat with them. The guests cause some stress between Kitty and Konstantin.

Darya/“Dolly” visits Count Vronsky and Anna on Count Vronsky’s property in the country. Darya/“Dolly” accepts Anna’s awkward social position but understands that others don’t. Anna is grateful for the chance to talk to one of her old friends about people and events in the city. Count Vronsky approaches Darya/“Dolly” and asks her to convince Anna to push for a formal divorce, something she has been reluctant to do. He wants legal heirs, legal sons, to carry on his name, and cannot attain this under the current circumstances. Anna seems to cool to the divorce idea and says she does not wish to have any more children. A divorce will mean Anna will have to give up her son, and she clearly prefers her son over the daughter she has had with Vronsky. Anna takes no steps to get a divorce as she and Count Vronsky spend months at Vronsky’s country estate.

In October, Vronsky decides to go to Moscow for provincial elections. Anna says she will pass the time reading (and not go with him), but it is clear she is unhappy he is leaving her alone. Vronsky considers this an issue of masculine independence, and is annoyed with her apparent irritation. Levin and Kitty also come to Moscow. The elections take place, with Konstantin Levin’s brother involved, as well as Vronsky. Konstantin Levin awkwardly interacts with participants much to his brother’s dismay. He has no feel for politics. Levin particularly wants little to do with Vronsky and is inadvertently rude to him. Vronsky seems barely aware of Levin’s discomfort with him. Anna writes a testy letter to Vronsky when he is a day late returning. She fusses over what he might be doing while he is away from her. When Vronsky returns, he again reassures her, but also reproaches her for her clinginess. He reminds her he is ready to move with her to Moscow. Anna realizes she must obtain a divorce to move forward with her life with Count Vronsky, and writes to her husband asking for a divorce.

Part Seven
With encouragement from Oblonsky, Konstantin Levin meets Vronsky in Moscow. He is reticent about the meeting, but the meeting is cordial. Oblonsky takes Levin to meet Anna. Anna is very charming and Levin forms a favorable impression of her. Levin tells Kitty of the meeting, saying Anna is a “very unhappy, good woman.” Kitty replies with an outburst: “You’re in love with that hateful woman; she has bewitched you! I can see it in your eyes.” Levin reassures her, and they quickly reconcile, but Kitty’s reaction betrays a hostility to Anna going back to the time when Kitty had affection for Vronsky. Anna has deliberately “done her utmost to arouse in Levin a feeling of love—as of late she has fallen into doing this with all young men…”

Levin undergoes a tentative embrace of Christianity. After some nervous uncertainty, Kitty successfully gives birth to a baby boy.

Oblonsky asks Alexey for a divorce for Anna. Alexey says the issue has already been addressed; he will not give up his son, and Anna had made that a condition. Oblonsky tells him Anna no longer makes custody of her son a condition of the divorce. Now Alexey says he wants to do everything possible, but as a proper Christian, he is not sure what is possible. He says he will think it over, not committing to a divorce. A strange incident at a dinner involving Alexey, Oblonsky and a French nobleman influences Alexey to decline Anna’s request for a divorce.

Tensions grow between Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky. Anna seems constantly upset, certain Count Vronsky’s love is waning. She loves him intensely and hates him intensely. She constantly challenges him when he is with her, demanding reassurance, never satisfied with the reassurances she gets. When he leaves her for any reason, even logical reasons, she is suspicious and angry he is gone. But when he is with her, she is difficult with him, fluctuating from occasional moments of intense affection to mostly complaints about his behavior and challenges that he does not love her anymore. In the midst of a quarrel, he leaves to go to his mother’s home for business. Anna tells him he will be sorry. She visits “Dolly”/Darya; Kitty is there too. Anna has an awkward meeting with Kitty. Though Kitty is outwardly polite, Anna senses Kitty’s discomfort around her. She goes to the train and rides it, continuing to reflect on her circumstances, finding no escape from continuous suffering and inner turmoil. She exits the train and kills herself by putting herself on the tracks into the path of an oncoming train. “…there, in the very middle… I will punish him and escape from everyone and from myself,” she says to herself as she ends her life. At the last moment, she seems to have second thoughts, but it is too late.

Part Eight
The main characters from the Anna Karenina storyline appear only briefly in this final section. Vronsky speaks to Konstantin Levin’s older brother in passing on a train. He has been deeply hurt by Anna’s death and after an intense grieving period is off to fight alongside Serbians against Turks (in a war not declared by the Russian government). Much of this section pertains to a debate about this war, a debate between Levin and his older brother (and a few others), and Levin’s emerging embrace of Christianity. Levin still reflects on whether other religions of humanity can connect to God. Alexey takes Anna and Count Vronsky’s daughter into his family. The book closes with Levin meditating about spirituality and almost sharing those thoughts with Kitty. But he holds back as Kitty brings some mundane household issue to his attention.


Previous Books-Into-Movies posts (in reverse chronological order):

Books-Into-Movies: “Lincoln” (based on the book Team of Rivals)

Books-Into-Movies: “Water for Elephants” (based on the book Water for Elephants)

Books-Into-Movies: “the five people you meet in heaven” (based on the book the five people you meet in heaven)

Books-Into-Movies: “Moneyball” (based on the book Moneyball)

Books-Into-Film Commentary – “Birdsong” (Part One)/Books-Into-Film Commentary – “Birdsong” (Part Two)

Books-Into-Movie Commentary – Special 40th Anniversary Edition: “The Godfather”

Books-Into-Movie Commentary – “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”

Books-Into-Movies: “Tamara Drewe” (based on Tamara Drewe)

Books-Into-Movies: “Red” (based on Red)

Books-Into-Movies: “Secretariat” (based on the book Secretariat)

Books-Into-Movies: “The Social Network” (based on the book The Accidental Millionaires)

Books-Into-Movie Commentary – “Hugo” (based on the book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret)

Books-Into-Movie Commentary – “Sarah’s Key”

Books-Into-Movie Commentary – “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan”

Books-Into-Movie Commentary – Special Easter Edition: “Ben Hur”

Books-Into-Movie Commentary: Jane Eyre

Books-Into-Movie Commentary: True Grit

Books-Into-Movie Commentary: Gulliver’s Travels