Many English readers stay away from Russian literature because of the daunting length – War and Peace is over 1500 pages long and the devilishly difficult names; but those who have the time and patience to read Tolstoy are rewarded by novels of complex characters; social and philosophical insights; an evocation of special world of the Russian steppes, and the life of the counts and princes in the inner circles of Petersburg and the court of the Tsar.
Anna Karenina is a potboiler. There are affairs, family feuds, suicides, deathbed pathos, jealousy, deceit, and love in every chapter. It is hard to put down. Anna is a beautiful woman who falls for the wrong man, suffers in social exile, her spirit beaten and suppressed by Vronsky, her love, and the conservative and restrictive mores of the society which he so prizes. She leaves her husband and young son for the dashing, wealthy Vronsky, but can never lose the guilt she feels for having abandoned Karenin and her son Seriozha . At the end of her life she becomes mad, tortured by jealousy and guilt, unable to bear her enforced isolation, scorn, and abandonment. She is a woman of great beauty, intelligence, and spirit; and she cannot bear the consequences of her action. She has left her husband and son for love, but her romantic vision is nothing like she imagined. She and Vronsky are stateless wanderers, and the tensions between them increase as their rootless, unengaged life continues.
Vronsky is a man who is attracted to women, and women find him irresistible. He was first a suitor of Kitty, the sister of Oblonsky’s wife, Dolly; then turns all his attention to the seductive, irresistible Anna. As the relationship with Anna matures and deepens, he gives up his military commission – a profession which defined him as much as his aristocratic heritage and wealth – and cuts himself off from the society in which he thrived. Although he finally readjusts to his new civilian life, he is bedeviled by Anna who takes out her increasing frustration on him. Although he loves Anna, her desperation and growing hysteria demoralize and discourage him; and all the hopes he had for a life of passion and love slowly but surely disappear.
Levin is a serious, thoughtful man – a philosopher who considers the meaning of life and death, the nature of Russian society, and the complexities of late 19th century economics. Like Chekhov, Tolstoy understood the implications of the freeing of the serfs in 1860, and through his character Levin, expounded theories of private capital, peasant co-ownership of land, civil rights, and the distribution of wealth. Levin is a landlord, and uses this experience to write books on political and economic philosophy. He, unlike the rest of the characters in the book, is an intellectual; but like them feels his traditional responsibility to the land, his family, and his class.
Levin, however, is neither strong nor decisive. He is given to self-pity and –doubt. He cannot forget what he considers the insult of being rejected by Kitty, and resents her and Vronsky for most of his life. He is a sexually immature man, lacking the confidence and self-assurance that attracts women, and is tormented less by the supposed affront of having been jilted than by his feelings of inadequacy.
This sexual insecurity is compounded by his existential anxiety. He cannot come to grips with the fact that life is short and meaningless; and yet cannot find solace either in religion or intellectual pursuits. The more he studies science and philosophy, the more disappointed, discouraged, and anxious he becomes. These disciplines, far from providing him answers to eternal questions, simply muddy the waters.
He wonders why and how he can be happy tending to his estate, investigating the relationships between labor and capital, and expanding on his theories in books and treatises, and at the same live in a meaningless world in which death extinguishes all.
He thinks he loves his wife, Kitty, but has doubts about that as well. He has finally vindicated himself by winning the woman who loved his rival, Vronsky; but once he has the prize in hand, finds that married life is no more than a piece of the eternal puzzle. He wonders why he is so indifferent to his young son. He is surprised that he feels none of the emotions he expected – a pride of paternity, joy at the birth of a male heir, and renewed sexual confidence thanks to the visible proof of his masculinity – and his existential funk only deepens.
Karenin, Anna’s husband, is a very unsympathetic character. At first he considers himself above common jealousy and refuses to believe that his wife has a lover. It would be disrespectful to her, he reasons, to challenge her chastity and honesty. As the unsavory truth becomes clear, he still restrains his anger, and Levin-like goes through a circus of mental gymnastics to justify his feeble response. He neither challenges Vronsky to a duel nor takes retributive action against his wife. He becomes meanly legalistic, using custody of their son as means of forcing her return. Karenin is less concerned about the blow to his male ego by the transgressions of his wife than he is about the opprobrium of society.
No one is a hero in the book, and although some lives turn out better than expected, the overall theme and moral of the story is that life has no heroes. We all are bearers of hereditary burdens, inbuilt faults of character, and an ineluctable human nature, and both profit by and suffer at the collective hands of society.
Anna goes progressively mad, and Tolstoy writes the final chapters of her life as in interior monologue, a Molly Bloom-like extended private soliloquy. Anna is tortured, tormented, and unhinged. While we are sympathetic to her plight, we are frustrated by her indecision and precipitous actions. She should have known that leaving her husband and son for a pretty boy socialite was not a good idea.
Vronsky also misunderstands the nature of society and how giving up his commission to live in an unlawful relationship are tantamount to social exile. He has made a romantic misstep almost as bad as that of Anna. Nevertheless, as the relationship between Anna and him deteriorates, he is faithful, concerned, and supportive of her. Finally, as her jealousy and madness become insupportable, he decides to leave her; but her death by suicide tragically preempts his decision. He joins a volunteer army to fight the Turks in Serbia, partly as an attempt to rehabilitate his military reputation and partly to forget the unhappy and disappointing life he has had with Anna.
Karenin in a moment of sympathy for the supposedly dying Anna, forgives her for leaving him, and promises to do anything that will make her happy. She recovers and he reneges on his promises, turning instead to a mystic for guidance and moral support. He refuses the divorce which will set Anna free, and even though she has conceded custody of her son, he is immovable.
Oblonsky is a good sort, a bon vivant who is immune to social pressure and scrutiny. He is so engaging and thoroughly guileless that he is loved by everyone, and even his aggrieved wife who he has deceived with their French maid, forgives him. He intercedes in the affairs of his sister, Anna, with Karenin; and emerges as the only really sympathetic character in the story. He knows who he is and happily accepts his frivolity and sybaritic nature. He is never mean or vindictive, treats his wife well in the end, and has been a champion of his sister throughout her difficulties.
Dolly, Oblonsky’s wife is the other sympathetic character. She becomes close to Anna and provides the feminine support and intimacy that her husband cannot give. Dolly is perceptive, insightful, and understands men, women, and human nature. She wants little for herself, puts up with her husband’s indelicacies and spendthrift ways, and sacrifices her own wealth for the sake of the family. She is aggrieved, but never vindictive, mean, or destructive.
There is no dramatic conclusion to Tolstoy’s story. Anna commits suicide but the book goes on for another hundred pages, as ends are tied up – Vronsky off to war, Dolly and Oblonsky back to their shaky but decent marriage, and Karenin under the pernicious influence of the mystics. It is only Levin – Tolstoy’s alter ego – who has a final resolution. He finds the answer to his existential question about the meaning of life. It is goodness, he concludes, a quality of life which is beyond reason:
I was in search of an answer to my question. But reason could not given an answer to my question – reason is incommensurable with the problem. The answer has been given me by life itself, through my knowledge of what is right and what is wrong. And this knowledge I did not acquire in any way: it was given to me as it is to everybody – given because I could not have got it from anywhere.
He has suffered from pride which has kept him from the truth:
‘Yes, pride’, he said to himself…’and not merely pride of intellect, but folly of intellect! And most of all – dishonesty of mind, sheer dishonesty. Sheer intellectual fraud’, he repeated.
The last lines of the book are spoken by Levin who finally looks forward to the future:
I shall still lose my temper…I shall still embark on useless discussions…there will still be the same wall between the sanctuary of my inmost soul and other people…I shall still be as unable to understand with my reason why I pray, and I shall still go on praying – but my life now, my whole life, independently of anything that can happen to me, every minute of it is no longer meaningless as it was before; but has a positive meaning of goodness with which I have the power to invest it.
We don’t believe Levin/Tolstoy because until this final epiphany he has been a man of doubt and indecision, a tireless devotee of science and intellectual pursuit, a man of reason and logic. His doubts and anxieties will certainly return.
In the collection of Tolstoy’s last short stories, The Death of Ivan Ilyich & Other Stories written many decades after Anna Karenina, the author is still struggling with existential conundrums. In the chilling end of the story when Ilyich is near death, Tolstoy writes:
Another fortnight passed. Ivan Ilyich now no longer left his sofa. He would not lie in bed but lay on the sofa, facing the wall nearly all the time. He suffered ever the same unceasing agonies and in his loneliness pondered always on the same insoluble question: "What is this? Can it be that it is Death?" And the inner voice answered: "Yes, it is Death."
"Why these sufferings?" And the voice answered, "For no reason—they just are so." Beyond and besides this there was nothing.
Twenty years after Anna Tolstoy is even more obsessive about death, dying, and meaning.
Ivan Ilyich shuddered, shifted himself, and tried to resist, but was already aware that resistance was impossible, and again with eyes weary of gazing but unable to cease seeing what was before them, he stared at the back of the sofa and waited—awaiting that dreadful fall and shock and destruction.
"Resistance is impossible!" he said to himself. "If I could only understand what it is all for! But that too is impossible. An explanation would be possible if it could be said that I have not lived as I ought to. But it is impossible to say that," and he remembered all the legality, correctitude, and propriety of his life. "That at any rate can certainly not be admitted," he thought, and his lips smiled ironically as if someone could see that smile and be taken in by it. "There is no explanation! Agony, death....What for?"
At the same time, Ilyich/Tolstoy refuse to give up, and Ilyich has an epiphany even brighter than that of Levin:
"And death...where is it?"
He sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it. "Where is it? What death?" There was no fear because there was no death.
In place of death there was light.
"So that's what it is!" he suddenly exclaimed aloud. "What joy!"
To him all this happened in a single instant, and the meaning of that instant did not change. For those present his agony continued for another two hours. Something rattled in his throat, his emaciated body twitched, then the gasping and rattle became less and less frequent.
"It is finished!" said someone near him. He heard these words and repeated them in his soul.
"Death is finished," he said to himself. "It is no more!"
He drew in a breath, stopped in the midst of a sigh, stretched out, and died.
Death is finished, says Ivan Ilyich. It is no more. Death itself is not so bad. It happens to everyone. It is inevitable, absolute, and certain. It is the fear of death which causes so much anxiety, and ironically only death itself can remove that fear. In his last moments of life, Ivan Ilyich is no longer afraid.
In Master and Man Tolstoy tells the story of two men who are caught in a blizzard and face their death. One dies, but the other survives, and in the last passage of the story, Tolstoy writes of Nikita’s final accommodation with death:
He died at home as he had wished, only this year, under the icons with a
lighted taper in his hands. Before he died he asked his wife's forgiveness and forgave her for the cooper. He also took leave of his son and grandchildren, and died sincerely glad that he was relieving his son and daughter-in-law of the burden of having to feed him, and that he was now really passing from this life of which he was weary into that other life which
every year and every hour grew clearer and more desirable to him. Whether he is better or worse off there where he awoke after his death, whether he was disappointed or found there what he expected, we shall all soon learn.
Anna Karenina is a great story. We care about Anna especially because she is such an attractive, alluring, proud, and defiant woman who despite her charms and intelligence simply cannot overcome convention and the social mores of the time. At times we feel she is like Ibsen’s Nora (A Doll’s House) who finally in an act of desperation and will leaves her husband. We want Anna to be free from the shackles of convention; but we understand from the beginning the tragic impossibility of such freedom. We care less about Levin because he is often sanctimonious, overly intellectual, and clueless; and yet we sympathize with him. Everyone lives on at least two planes, and we can identify with Levin’s commitment to work, land, and country; and his existential insecurities. He is in a way everyman.
The story is a great ride seen through the eyes of the aristocrats of the 19th century. Their balls, formal dinners, country homes, theatre, and elegant social whirls are fascinating and exciting. Vronsky, Karenin, and Oblonsky live in a cultured but intellectual world where ideas, glamor, and privilege coexist.
The woods, forests, and plains of Russia are as much a backdrop to the story as the salons and courts of Petersburg.
Tolstoy was a canny observer of the relationships between men and women. In a society where sexual roles were so well-defined, the behavior of men and women was predictable; but just like Shakespeare who created strong female characters who were able to best their lovers and husbands at every turn, Tolstoy imagined feminine women who are smarter, more sensitive, and more perceptive and insightful than their mates. Karenin and Levin are clueless, while Anna and Kitty understand men, marriage, power, and position. Oblonsky is a likeable cad, and Vronsky is apparently noble in his attentions to Anna, but a social climber and traditional man at heart.
Anna Karenina is set against the backdrop of the dramatic social and political changes occurring in the last quarter of the 19th century, and entire chapters of the book are devoted to intellectual debate about labor, capital, private enterprise, communism, and social integration.
So, Anna Karenina is first and foremost a page-turning potboiler; but it would not be a great novel if it stayed within the narrow confines of that genre. Within the context of a story of sex, love, and romance Tolstoy provides insights into human nature, society, and politics.
On to War and Peace!