Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Blush: The Grand Finale

Sketch of Kupavina for Ostrovsky's play

While reading Anna Karenina for the first time a couple months ago, I was struck by the number of instances in which Tolstoy's characters were depicted as "blushing," "flushing," "reddening," or "crimsoning." Somewhere around page 60, I flipped to the back of the book and started keeping a list on the inside cover. I labeled it, "BLUSH."  

From what I've noticed so far from reading 19th century literature, most main characters typically blush at some point, even several times, but Anna Karenina is a novel in which blushing positively abounds. In my first reading I gleaned 95 instances out of 923 pages.*

I wonder if people blush less now than they did in the 19th century. Are we more brazen today? Has the degree of modesty which was depicted in Anna Karenina become completely archaic?

Perhaps what we might consider an excessive display of conscience could be attributed to the Russian Orthodox culture in which the novel is placed. It's easy to imagine how a collective consciousness nurtured in the bosom of the Church could produce an overarching delicacy and reverence which most modern readers would be unaccustomed to.

But what exactly does it mean when a person blushes? Some of the instances of reddening which I included in my list had nothing to do with a sense of shame. For example, Levin flushed after ice skating, Kitty was flushed and radiant after childbirth, and Vronsky reddened with vexation. However, most instances of blushing were incited by a breach of conscience or by embarrassment.

Prof. Ray Crozier of Cardiff University states,
...when we feel shame we communicate our emotion to others and in doing so we send an important signal to them. [Blushing] tells them something about us. It shows that we are ashamed or embarrassed, that we recognize that something is out of place. It shows that we are sorry about this. It shows that we want to put things right. To blush at innuendo is to show awareness of its implications and to display modesty that conveys that you are not brazen or shameless.
With this in mind I started looking closely for instances of blushing in real life. Here is what I observed last month:

A middle aged man in the check out line at my local craft supply store placed a cartload of coarsely themed placards on the counter before an attractive young cashier. As he did so, he blushed.

A baby sitter we hired for our Bible study dove across my kitchen to catch a toddler escapee. As she ushered him back to the play room, she blushed.

Yesterday I thought my son may have overheard something of an intimate nature which my husband spoke to me. (Thankfully, my son did not!) As I shushed my husband, I blushed.

That's it. Three times in a month. But you can believe I'm still on the lookout! Blushing fascinates me. While reading Anna Karenina, it was my obsession. 

The list I've included below is rather long -- I certainly don't expect you to read the entire thing! Scroll through it at your leisure.


The following is the complete list of all the quotes I gathered from my first reading of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina which I labeled, "BLUSH": 

p. 12 The little girl knew that there was a quarrel between her father and mother . . . and that [her father] was pretending when he asked her about it so lightly. And she blushed for her father. He at once perceived it, and blushed too.

p.24 Levin suddenly blushed, not as grown men blush, slightly, without being themselves aware of it, but  as boys blush, feeling that they are ridiculous in their shyness, and consequently ashamed of it and blushing still more, almost to the point of tears. And it was so strange to see this sensible, manly face in such a childish plight that Oblonsky stopped looking at him.

p.39 Catching sight of Kitty going away, and her mother meeting her at the steps, Levin, flushed from his rapid exercise, stood still and pondered a minute.

p.57  [Levin] glanced at [Kitty]; she blushed, and ceased speaking.

p.61 "My words must make a deep impression on you since you remember them so well," said Levin, and suddenly conscious that he had said just the same thing before he reddened.

p.85 Anna had the faculty of blushing.

p.95 ...with rapid, short strokes [Kitty] fanned her burning face.

p. 136 When the doctor came in [Kitty] flushed crimson . . .

p. 209 [Vronsky] blushed, a thing that rarely happened to him.

p. 213 [Vronsky] would have run to [Anna], but remembering that there might be spectators, he looked around toward the balcony door, and reddened a little . . . 

p. 216 ...a hot flush came over [Anna's] face; her checks, her brow, her neck crimsoned, and tears of shame came into her eyes.

p. 235 Anna,  . . . flushed a little the instant her son came in . . . 

p. 236 "No, I don't . . . yes, I do," [Anna] said, not looking at [Karenin] and crimsoning to the roots of her hair.

p. 253 "Let's skip that," said Varenka, flushing a little.

p. 258 "No, I've not noticed it, Maman," said Kitty, flushing hotly.

p. 280 "But I still do not admit this movement to be just," said Konstantin Levin,reddening a little.

p. 306 "You know, Kitty's coming here, and is going to spend the summer with me." 
"Really," [Levin] said, flushing  . . .
p. 307 "Darya Aleksandrovna," [Levin] said, blushing up to the roots of his hair . . .

p. 329 A burning blush of shame spread over [Anna's] face.

p. 333 Again a flush of shame spread over [Anna's] face . . .

p. 344 "I do nothing," answered Anna, blushing at these searching questions."

p. 353 [Serpukhovskoy] hurriedly took three 100-ruble notes from his wallet, blushing a little.

p. 357 Vronsky opened the letter, and flushed crimson.

p. 362 [Vronsky] was confused, and reddened . . . 

p. 365 On seeing [Anna], Karenin began to rise, but changed his mind; then his faced flushed hotly -- a thing Anna had never seen before.

p. 376 It seemed to Levin that he had deceived someone, that he ought to explain something, but that to explain it was impossible, and for that reason he was continually blushing . . . 

p. 391 [Levin] felt that in not answering Darya Aleksandrovna's letter he had, by his rudeness, of which he could not think without a flush of shame, burned his ships . . . 

p. 415 "I meant, I only . . . " [Anna] said, flushing hotly. This coarseness of [Karenin's] angered her, and gave her courage.

p. 420 And on receiving an assenting nod from Karenin [the lawyer] went on, stealing a glance now and then at Karenin's face, which was growing red in patches.

p. 426 "Stiva! Stiva!" Dolly called, reddening.

p. 435 Kitty was looking at the door, calling up all her energies to keep from blushing at the entrance of Konstantin Levin.

p.436 "Have you a lot of people? Who's here?" asked Levin, unable to help blushing . . .

p 437 [Kitty] crimsoned, turned white, crimsoned again, and grew faint, waiting with quivering lips for [Levin] to come to her.

p. 446 [Kitty] felt that the impression she had made was very good. She blushed and laughed with delight...

p.454 Once or twice [Kitty] stole a look at [Levin], as though asking him, "Is this what I think?"
         "I understand," she said, flushing a little.

p.467 Karenin flung the telegram down, and, flushing a little, got up and began to pace up and down the room.

p.482 [Betsy] got up, but Anna, suddenly flushing, quickly seized her hand.
            "No, wait a minute, please. I must tell you . . . no, you." She turned to Karenin, and her neck and brow were suffused with crimson.

p.489 "I hope you believe in my love for my sister and my sincere affection and respect for you," [Olblonsky] said reddening.

p.491" Yes, I think divorce -- yes, divorce," Oblonsky repeated, reddening. " That is from every point of view the most rational course for married people who find themselves in the position you are in."

p.507 "You're mad!" [Kitty] cried, turning crimson with vexation.

p.511 "It's so stupid, what happened to me, I'm ashamed to speak of it!"[Levin] said,reddening . . ."

p.524 [Golenishchev] had never met Anna before, and was struck by her beauty, and still more by the frankness with which she accepted her position. She blushed when Vronsky brought in Golenishchev, and he was extremely charmed by this childish blush overspreading her candid and beautiful face."

p.525 . . . again a vivid flush overspread [Anna's] face.

p.554 "Yes, I'm writing the second part of the Two Principles," said Golenishcev, coloring with pleasure at the question . . .

pp. 557-558 Levin crimsoned both from shame and from anger with his wife, who had put herself and him in such a difficult position; but Marya Nikolaevna crimsoned still more. She positively shrank and flushed to the point of tears . . ."

p.583 [Countess Lydia Ivanovna] blushed with excitement when Karenin came into the room . . .

p.589 Countess Lydia Ivanovna, breathing hard and flushing crimson, put into Karenin's hands the letter she had received.

p.614 "Come and dine with me," said Anna resolutely, angry with herself for her embarrassment, but flushing as she always did when she defined her position before another person.

p.626 "Oh we shall be delighted," answered Varenka, coloring a little.

p.627 The rapidity of [Varenka's] movement, her flushed an eager face, everything betrayed that something out of the ordinary was going on in her.

p.628 Agafya Mikhailovna, her face flushed and angry, her hair untidy, and her thin arms bare to the elbows, was moving the preserving pan over the brazier with a circular motion, looking darkly at the raspberries and devoutly hoping they would stick and not cook properly.

p.631"That Vronsky paid you attentions -- that happens to every girl."
        "Oh, yes, but we didn't mean that," Kitty said, flushing a little.

p.637 [Sergey Ivanovich] looked straight into [Varenka's] face, and noticing the flush of joyful an alarmed excitement that overspread her face, he was confused . . .

p.640 Varenka's heart throbbed so that she heard it beating, and felt that she was turning red and pale and red again.

p. 641 Everything in the expression, the flushed cheeks and the downcast eyes of Varenka betrayed a painful suspense.

p. 648 "I? Why should I go? Kitty said, flushing all over, and she glanced around at her husband.
           "Do you know Anna Arkadyevna, then? Veslovsky asked her . . ."
           "Yes," she answered Veslovsky, crimsoning still more . . .
[Levin's] jealousy had in these few moments, especially at the flush that had overspread her cheeks while she was talking to Veslovsky, gone far indeed.

p.649 As Veslovsky said good night to his hostess, he leaned down to kiss her hand again, but Kitty, reddening, drew back her hand . . .

p.679 "No, it's impossible," [Levin] thought, glancing now and then at Veslovsky bending over Kitty, telling her something with his charming smile, and at her flushed and agitated.

p.680 " . . . shall I come too?" said Kitty, and she blushed.

p.693  Anna noticed Dolly's expression, and was disconcerted by it. She blushed, dropped her riding habit, and stumbled over it.

p.717  Once Darya Aleksandrovna felt wounded, and got so excited that she positively flushed ...

p.726  . . . a flush rose into [Anna's] face. She got up, straightened her chest, and sighed heavily.

p.740  Several people smiled. Levin crimsoned . . .

p.746  "Yes I quite remember our meeting," said Levin, and blushing crimson, he turned away immediately, and began talking to his brother.

p.756  . . . Anna, flushing hotly, got up . . .

p.761  . . . the blood rushed to [Kitty's] heart, and a vivid blush -- she felt it -- overspread her face.

p.761  Levin flushed a great deal more than [Kitty] when she told him she had met Vronsky at Princess Marya Borisovna's.

p.762  "I am blushing now much more, much more," [Kitty] said, blushing till the tears came into her eyes.

p.762   In spite of [Kitty's] blushing [Levin] was quickly reassured and began questioning her, which was all that she wanted.

p.767  "What I began precisely was to write a book on agriculture; but studying the chief instrument of agriculture, the laborer" said Levin, reddening, "I could not help coming to quite unexpected results."

p.787  Looking at himself in the mirror, Levin noticed that he was red in the face, but he felt certain that he was not drunk, and he followed Stephan Arkadyevich up the carpeted stairs.

p.789  Levin looked from the portrait to the original. A peculiar brilliance lighted up Anna's face when she felt his eyes on her. Levin flushed, and, to cover his embarrassment, was about to ask whether she had seen Darya Aleksandrovna lately; but at the moment Anna spoke.

p.793 "Tell your wife that I love her as before . . ." [said Anna]. "Certainly, yes, I will tell her . . . " Levin said, blushing.

p.795  Kitty took not the slightest interest in the discussing the drinking habits of the peasants. She saw that [Levin] blushed, and she wanted to know why . . .
          "Stiva strongly urged me to go and see Anna Arkadyevna"
          And as he said this, Levin blushed even more . . . 

p.800 [Kitty's] flushed face, fringed with soft curling hair escaping from under her nightcap, was radiant with joy and courage.

p.806 [Levin] saw the old princess too, flushed and overwrought, with her gray curls in disorder, forcing herself to gulp down her tears, biting her lips . . .

p.816  "Bolgarinov has fully assented as far as he's concerned," said Stephan Arkadyevich, turning red. Stepan Arkadyevich reddened at the mention of that name because he had called that morning on [Bolgarinov] and the visit had left an unpleasant impression.

p.817  Stephan Arkadyevich had made haste to forget it all as soon as possible. And now, at the mere recollection, he blushed.

p.821 [Seryosha] bowed to his uncle as to a stranger, but recognizing him, he blushed and turned hurriedly away from him, as though offended and irritated at something.

p.821 "Well and how are you getting on?" [Stephan Arkadyevich] said, wanting to talk to him and not knowing what to say.
          The boy, blushing and making no answer, cautiously drew his hand away.

p.822 [Seryosha] blushed crimson, and his face clouded over.

p.837 [Vronsky] had actually flushed with vexation, and had said something unpleasant.

p.839 [Vronsky's] embarrassment confirmed her suspicion. [Anna] flushed hotly and drew away from him.

p.844 "I said yesterday that it's absolutely nothing to me when I get, or whether I get, a divorce," she said, flushing crimson.

p.857 Gathering her courage, Kitty went in, walked up to [Anna], blushing, and shook hands.

p.858 "[Levin] has gone back to his own country," said Kitty, blushing.

p.887 "I do believe the laundress hasn't sent the washing yet, and all the best sheets are in use. If I don't see to it, Agafya Mikhailovna will give Sergey Ivanovich the wrong sheets," and at the very idea of this the blood rushed to Kitty's face.

p.914 Levin reddened with vexation, not at being defeated, but at having failed to control himself and being drawn into an argument.

* I counted 95 occasions. If I had counted the actually times the words "blushing", "flushing", "reddening", or "crimsoning" were used, the number would be greater.


  1. Wow! This is a wonderful post. I love your personal examples, too. I think I'm going to look and see if there is any blushing going on in my home. After reading this, there better be!

    P.S. I cannot help but wonder what all this blushing says about Tolstoy!

    1. OK, now I have to tell you that while I was brushing my eight-year old's hair today, she told me a story about herself. She said, "Mom, when I was at Knott's Berry Farm, and Mrs. (so-n-so) told me to go with my partner, I blushed." So I asked her why she blushed, and she said she felt embarrassed. Her partner told her that her cheeks turned pink. We weren't even talking about blushing, she just brought it up out of thin air.

      BTW, be prepared for a little blushing in The Portrait.

    2. Thank you Ruth!

      I would venture to assume that Tolstoy's conscience was extraordinarily sensitive. What are your thoughts on that?

      What a sweet story about your daughter! And the timing! Bless her heart. :)

      Oh and yes, just last night I noticed in my reading of Portrait that Isabel Archer "colored" three times. There was a good bit of blushing in The Return of the Native also, but nothing I've read so far rivals AK for rosy cheeks.

  2. I see a master's thesis in the making! Wikipedia, that reliable source, says "Blushing is generally distinguished, despite a close physiological relation, from flushing, which is more intensive and extends over more of the body, and seldom has a mental source." So the thesis (which would be cross-disciplinary, covering psychology, physiology, and literature) would be about why, where, how, and when characters blush or flush. That could keep a grad student busy for a few years! :-)

    1. Ha! Jeannie, you practically have the précis for the thesis right there.


    2. Oh Jeannie! What a dream it would be for me to work on a master's thesis! (The thought of it makes me blush crimson.) But alas -- that is a distant shore since I have no degree whatsoever! I suppose I'll have to be content with learning for love until my all my children are well on their way. :)

      I DO love your precis for a thesis though! Fascinating.

      P.S. It's interesting that flushing was distinguished as "seldom having a mental source". I looked back over quotes from both Tolstoy and Henry James; both authors used the terms interchangeably -- almost always to signify mental agitation. (Or more specifically in the case of Tolstoy I should say, the TRANSLATION I read used the term interchangeably. Perhaps that nuance has been lost to English readers.)

    3. The funny thing is, I'm re-re-reading Jane Austen's Emma (I find Victorian lit very good bedtime reading b/c I enjoy it AND it makes me sleepy) and last night all the "blushing" and "colouring" references jumped right out at me. Harriet Smith blushed and coloured twice on one page. :-)

    4. I'm planning to start Pride and Prejudice in a few weeks, Jeannie. I may just have to keep another tally for the sake of comparison! Thanks for giving me a heads-up! :)

    5. btw I realized I said Victorian Lit when I should have, I suppose, said Regency Lit. How do you tell the difference? Regency's the one with the empire waistlines. :-)
      I may join you for the P&P read. Re-reading P&P is, IMHO, an excellent use of time.

    6. I would love for you to join me! I'm hoping to start on Valentine's Day! I still have to finish The Portrait of a Lady and I'm going to try to squeeze in Part One of The Pilgrim's Progress between now and then.

  3. Now I will be on the lookout for blushes (in both real life and literature)

    1. jo, I would love to read your observations! Please let me know if you decide to write a post about what you notice.

      Long live the blush!

  4. I love how your own blush sightings fit in with those of the novel. That nesting doll pic is what I is the very image I was thinking of as well when reading along in this post.

    Tim (who can't remember the last time he blushed, but that's more from poor memory than from lack of occurrence)

    1. Thank you, Tim.

      I've had a fascination with nesting dolls since I was a small child. They've always seemed strongly symbolic to me (love, family, nurture, unity, safety). I was excited about using some for this post.

  5. I thought I posted this yesterday to you, but I must have forgotten to hit publish. It's been an exhausting weekend. Sorry if it is a duplicate somewhere...

    Yesterday, my pastor read from Jeremiah 6:15, which says, "Were they ashamed when they had committed abomination? No! They were not at all ashamed; nor did they know how to blush." (NKJV)

    So I thought of your post, especially your question:

    "I wonder if people blush less now than they did in the 19th century. Are we more brazen today? Has the degree of modesty which was depicted in Anna Karenina become completely archaic?"

    Anyway, I thought it was interesting, and I did not see it listed in your blush posts. But if you knew about it already, then you know what I'm talking about.

    1. Excellent connection! I love that. I do recall that passage now that you mention it, but I did not think of it at the time I was writing this post. Thank you, Ruth!


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