1997-03-13: Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina (1877, tr 1960)

by Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), tr. by Joel Carmichael (1915-2006)

I found this work somewhat unsatisfying, although I’m sure many would enjoy it a great deal. My main objection is to the character of Anna, and certain of the other characters with whom her fate is involved. Of course, she is not the center of the book; that is taken by Constantine Levin, who obviously conveys Tolstoy’s own thoughts.

I can’t take Anna seriously because I can’t believe someone would act as she did without reasons, and those reasons are not portrayed. In this sense, the book is a sham. Tolstoy must not have taken her seriously, and her story is merely a ruse to expose the reader to Levin.

Levin is a very convincing character, one whose thoughts must have been in Tolstoy’s own mind long before the writing of the story. Levin’s entire story is one of spiritual development, from a plain lack of faith (or lost faith) to certainty in his spiritual awareness.

The final few chapters are a fairly bald statement of Tolstoy’s views on the meaning and place of goodness in human life, and might be said to describe an enlightenment experience (see below). This is all very interesting, and I don’t disagree with the statements or sentiments, but it is a long way to go to get there.

Of course, the book is famous for its vast cast. Some of them are very well drawn, such as Oblonsky. Tolstoy jumps from the viewpoint of one character to another in a way that most modern novelists don’t, because modern readers won’t usually accept it. Readers expect a writer to stick to a point of view.

Perhaps the most remarkable part of the book (about two pages in chapter 12) is when the viewpoint is transferred to Levin’s dog Laska, during a bird-shoot. It seems that Tolstoy has spent some time studying his dogs.

Here are some excerpts from the end.

Chapter XI.

Levin is supervising some of his peasants working with a new machine. They get talking about another peasant, a rich, goodhearted one who might rent some of Levin’s land.

The rent’s high, Mr. Constantine, it wouldn’t pay Plato,” replied the peasant, plucking the ears of rye off his sweat-soaked shirt.

“Then how does Kirilov make it pay?”

“Oh, Mityukha! He could make anything pay, Mr. Constantine! He’s a squeezer. He gets what he wants. No pity for a Christian from him. But Uncle Fokanich! D’you think he’d skin anyone! Sometimes he gives credit, and he’ll let a man off. Then he runs short himself. That’s how he is.”

“But why should he let anyone off?”

“Just so – people are different; one man lives just for his own needs – take Matyukha, he just stuffs his own belly, but Uncle Fokanich is an honest old man. He lives for his soul, he remembers God.”

“How does he remember God? How does he live for his soul?” Levin almost shouted. “Everyone knows that – he lives righteously, in a godly way. People are different, after all. Take yourself, you don’t hurt anyone either …”

“Yes, yes – good-by!” said Levin, breathless with excitement; turning away he took his stick and hurried off toward home. At hearing what the peasant had said about Plato living for his soul, righteously, in a godly way, vague but important thoughts seemed to burst out from under lock and key somewhere in throngs, and all rushing forward toward a single goal swirled round in his head, dazzling him with their light.

Chapter XII

Levin walked along the highroad with great strides, attending not so much to his own thoughts (he was still unable to disentangle them) as to a spiritual condition he had never experienced before.

The peasant’s words had affected his soul like an electric spark, suddenly transforming and fusing into one a whole swarm of disjointed, impotent individual thoughts that had never stopped interesting him. These thoughts had occupied his mind, thought he hadn’t known it, even while he had been talking about letting the land.

He felt something new in his soul, and palpated this new thing with pleasure, not yet knowing what it was.

He goes on about what he has just heard and some of its rational consequences.

Theodore says that Kirilov lives for his belly. That’s understandable and rational. … Then [he] says living for your belly is bad, and that you have to live for the truth, for God, and I understand him from a mere hint! And I and millions of people who lived ages ago and are living now, peasants, the poor in spirit, and wise men who’ve thought and written about this, and said the same thing in their unclear way – we all agree on this one thing: what we should live for, and what it is that’s good. There’s only one thing I, together with everyone, know with certainty, know clearly and beyond question, and this piece of knowledge cannot be explained by reason – it is beyond that; it has no causes and can have no consequences.

If goodness has a cause, it is no longer goodness; if it has a consequence, it is also not goodness. Consequently, goodness is outside the chain of cause and effect.

It is just this that I know, and that we all know.

Levin goes on to believe that from now on he is a changed man, and will never have occasion to be irritated or angry with anyone. Five minutes later he becomes irritated by his coachman.

Later, he is passing from one part of the house to another, and stops on a verandah to look at the stars, and muse about how he feels, and about the prospect of living in this new state. Kitty comes by and speaks to him, wondering if he is bothered by something.

But even so she wouldn’t have been able to distinguish [his] expression if a flash of lightning that blotted out the stars had not lit it up. By the light of that flash she could see the whole of his face, and when she saw he was calm and happy she smiled at him.

She understands, he thought, she knows what I’m thinking about. Should I tell her or not? Yes – I’ll tell her! But just as he was about to begin she also started talking.

“Oh, Kostya! Do me a favor, go to the corner room and see how they’ve arranged everything for Sergius,” she said. “I can’t very well go myself. See whether they’ve put in the new washstand.”

“All right, I’ll go at once,” said Levin, straightening up and kissing her.

No, there’s no need to tell her, he thought, after she had passed in before him. This is a secret that’s necessary and important for no one but me, and can’t be expressed in words.

this new feeling has not changed me, it has not made me happy, it has not given me any sudden illumination, as I dreamed it would. It has also been no surprise. But whether it’s faith or not – I don’t know what it is – through suffering this feeling too has imperceptibly entered into me rooted itself firmly in my soul.

I’ll go on getting angry at Ivan the coachman, I’ll go on arguing, go on expressing my ideas inappropriately, there will still be a wall between the inmost shrine of my soul and other people, including my wife – but from now on my life, my whole life, no matter what happens to me, every second of it, is not only not meaningless as it was before, but it has the incontestable meaning of the goodness I have the power to put into it!

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