Levin’s life lesson on birth and death
Constantine Levin’s pair of pivotal experiences contribute significantly to Anna Karenina’s psychological tapestry because these moments of crisis draw out and highlight the subjectivity of the protagonist’s life experience. The novel’s overarching theme of emergent moral consciousness is thus foregrounded in these scenes that feature prominent shifts in self-awareness. The reader is instructed to compare these scenes first by their differences in symbolic content, then on the narrative grounds of subjectivity. Levin’s changing patterns of assumption, projection, and understanding convey to the reader the foundations for the character arc that will result in his religious conversion.
Throughout the novel, Levin and other characters are frequently described as having “unconscious” attitudes and “involuntary” actions, so the presence of language drawing specific attention to missing self-awareness is not a very conspicuous or specific link between the death and birth scenes. But because there are other, more obvious similarities and contrasts in the descriptive elements of these scenes, the reader is already taught to relate the text in these parallel scenes, and may thus examine deviations between narratological elements when they arise.
The settings of the two scenes provide the most immediate distinctions in symbolism. The “dust and slovenliness” of the Levins’ hotel is also noticed in “the dirty little room” in which Nicholas wastes away, whereas little focus is given to the material environmental of the Levins’ home where Kitty gives birth, apart from references to the rooms’ lighting. When Levin wakes up, he first sees that “a light was moving behind the partition,” and Kitty emerges holding a “candle in hand” (639). On his way out, he notices a footman “cleaning lamp-glasses” (642). These details are made metaphorically significant by Tolstoy’s reference to the baby as a new life that flickered “like the flame of a lamp” (648). It is a peculiarly telling detail that the first reference made to the child’s successfully delivery is not a realistic view of its body, but an abstract representation of its living light. At least from Constantine Levin’s perspective, birth is not tied directly to physical existence, it is an event that transcends its immediate environment.
The intangibility of the setting is further designated by Levin’s lost sense of time, again spatially represented by candles: “He was surprised when Mary Vlasevna asked him to light a candle behind the partition, and he learnt that it was already five o’clock in the evening” and “he did not know whether it was late or early. The candles were all burning low” (645, 646). Tolstoy’s focus on light gives the birth scene a symbolic identity connoted by the non-physical, in contrast to the way death is presented in corporeal detail.
The gloomy setting of the pre-death scene is introduced by concrete background imagery, such as “a dirty uniform,” “a dirty dress coat,” “a dusty bouquet,” and a “dado filthy with spittle” (445, 446). This material focus is made especially significant by Kitty’s transformation of this filthy atmosphere with “beds made, combs, brushes and looking glasses laid out, and covers spread” (452). The physical reality of “folded linen” and other atmospheric improvements is enough to give the dying man who “lay between clean sheets in a clean shirt” a “new look of hope” (450). Through either misery or joy, the moral outlook of the dying man is bound irreversibly to his physical condition. This is shown most distinctly at the moment of his passing, when the last indicator of Nicholas’ diminished will to exist is found in his mannerism of “catching at himself as if wishing to pull something off” (458). While this chapter centers most of its narrative and dialogic commentary and on the metaphysics of death, the descriptive action of the scene concludes with Nicholas literally coming to grips with “the reality of his sufferings” (454). Just as the abstract depiction of the child at his moment of birth epitomizes the birth scene’s non-physicality, the physical climax of the death exemplifies the symbolic significance of the whole fatal episode.
The dichotomy of physical versus non-physical symbolism is just one of the many links that polarize the meanings of these scenes, letting us know that they are directly comparable. The shared language of consciousness, however, is a more subtle connection between scenes than binary symbolism. As in much of the novel, the focalized narration explicitly states what the characters do and do not know, what they can and cannot comprehend, and how they interpret one another. Levin, particularly, expresses a great deal of self-consciousness toward his understanding of others’ thoughts and intentions. The death scene introduces many of these neuroses, and the birth scene resolves one, but leaves others to torment him until the end of the novel.
The most frequent and torturous attitudes to afflict Levin’s self-consciousness are those that are overtly “incomprehensible” or come on “involuntarily.” In both scenes, Levin encounters an insurmountable inability to understand his fellow humans, and in both scenes the recognition of this fundamental disconnect arises against his will. While gazing at his dying brother, Levin is said to have “involuntarily meditated upon what was taking place within his brother at that moment, but, in spite of all the efforts of his mind to follow, he saw . . . that something was becoming clear to the dying man which for Levin remained dark as ever” (455). If we are to believe the narrator, Levin’s unintended contemplation of others’ mental processes enables him to detect when one is having an epiphanic moment, but it does not extend far enough for him to see what that profound insight entails.
The frustration produced by this innate mental divide between self-knowledge and understanding of the other applies to any gap in understanding, but Tolstoy demonstrates it most dramatically with Levin’s “envy of that knowledge which the dying man now possessed and which he might not share” (456). Of all the human experiences which are agonizingly incommunicable, none is as impossible to share as the feelings brought on by death. Levin gains a painful consciousness of his general inability to fully understand his fellow man when he is unconsciously confronted by his specific inability to share his dying brother’s epiphany.
The same consciousness is produced, also by an unconscious shift in empathy, when he considers the sufferings of his pregnant wife. While “involuntarily seeking a culprit to punish for these sufferings,” and realizing there is none, Levin sees “that something beautiful was taking place in her soul, but . . . it was above his comprehension” (641). In this scene, Levin again realizes that he can recognize, but not feel another’s joy that is borne out of pain. Again, Tolstoy makes a more universal point by illustrating an extraordinary case: Levin seeks to understand an experience he cannot possibly know in his lifetime, for childbirth is even more inaccessible to him than death. But, as they fit into the novel’s refrain of “involuntary” thoughts and “incomprehensible” feelings, these extraordinary experiences are made to represent the most extreme cases of the human condition’s general barrier to empathetic experience.
Levin is ultimately thwarted in his attempts to relate others’ perspectives to his own. He only comes to peace with his consciousness of that impossible dream on the last page of the novel, when he learns to express it religiously: “there will still be a wall between my soul’s holy of holies and other people . . . but I shall still pray” (740) . He does, however, learn from the death and the birth to better relate his own perspective to others. In the death scene, Levin worries greatly about the misery his brother’s condition might bring to Kitty. He assumes that she would unnecessarily suffer from his presence, reflecting, “Why should she too be tortured as I am?” (447). It turns out, however, that she approaches the dying man’s suffering with greater ease. Kitty is more worried about Levin’s own reaction to death than her own, and she has faith in her ability not only to persevere but also to comfort Nicholas, proving Levin’s assumption wrong. She expresses this in dialogue: “Try and realize that for me to see you and not to see him is much more painful. There I can perhaps be of use to him and you” (447). Here, Levin has inaccurately projected his own fear of death onto his wife, assumed she knows what he feels, and further demonstrated his inability to grasp another human perspective.
By the time of his son’s birth, however, Levin’s consciousness has grown to include an understanding of that essential failing. He avoids projecting further by coming to the conclusion that “no one knew or was bound to know his feelings” if he did not express them carefully (642). It’s important to note that this realization is “immediately” reached, without a voluntary attempt to come by it, in accordance with Tolstoy’s insistence that consciousness is generally expanded in an unconscious fashion (642). And, because this is one of the few lessons Levin learns – he gains some faith in God, but otherwise holds onto his incomprehension of the situation – we also see Tolstoy’s suggestion that even in the most advanced cases of self-conscious behavior, moral realizations are generally incomplete.
Levin’s journey to greater self-knowledge is essentially the ‘successful’ result to the novel’s experiment, with Anna’s journey to the absolute depths of delusion standing as the negative control. The birth and death scenes are pivotal not just in terms of plot progression, but also because they provoke expansions to the protagonist’s mind. Once they have been established as thematically linked, the scenes yield a profusion of evidence for Tolstoy’s subtext on the fragmentary nature of human consciousness.
Similarities on Conflict and Destruction in the Love Story of Anna and Vronsky as Seen in Their First Encounter
Anna Karenina is a story of split, conflict, schism and divide. Anna’s battle for love, her struggle between what she needs and what she desires, her hatred of lies and her usage of them, her vacillation between libre penseur – liberal values- and old patriarchal and moral values – all reinforce the theme of internal conflict that leads to inevitable destruction. Leo Tolstoy, however, in a brilliant stroke of genius, uses the seemingly insignificant remark made by a passerby on the death of a guard in the first section of the book to elicit the overarching theme of brutal divide in Anna’s struggle for love. By using a death to gain insight into a love affair, Tolstoy reveals his ability to weave apparently isolated and disconnected instances into the cloth of the overall work in a style so unique that it makes Matthew Arnold’s tribute for the novel ring true: “We are not to take Anna Karenina as a work of art; we are to take it as a piece of life.” Indeed, Tolstoy creates life in a book, transforming it into a place full of vitality and strength.
The fascinating nature of the work lies in the way Tolstoy binds the novel together through an intrinsic and subtle thread of organization, where apparently delineated ideas are brought together in a functional coherence, a concept Tolstoy terms as the “labyrinth of linkages”. This idea is ingeniously expressed by Richard F. Gustafson in “Leo Tolstoy: Resident and Stranger”, where he writes that “Tolstoy organizes his work by a principle of inner spirit which unites not by logical connection but by a unity inherent within the variety.” (Gustafson 281). Establishing the “inner spirit” in the novel is what gives life to Anna Karenina. Just like the current binds the voluminous velocity of the youthful river, it is this “unity inherent within the variety” that binds the novel together. The code to decrypting the work, therefore, lies in the understanding of how, as Tolstoy puts it, “images, actions and situations” (Gustafson 281) work in collaboration with the overall plot. The entirely isolated and unrelated incident of a guard’s death then becomes an important key in understanding the conflict that overrides the novel as a predominant theme. This paper contends that although the death of a guard during the first meeting between Anna and Vronsky at the railway station in St. Petersburg (I, xviii) is an apparently disparate and isolated incident, however, through close analysis of the “images, actions and situations” employed in the scene, one finds the key to understanding the dark, destructive and divisive nature of Anna’s battle for a love that is displaced in the society in which Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is set.
The setting of the death of the guard is an important link in understanding the nature of Anna’s adulterous love for Vronsky. Set in a crowded railway station of Saint Petersburg, the incident is the first death of the novel, and coincides with the first meeting of Anna and Vronsky. A physical death thus becomes the harbinger of the spiritual death of Anna Karenina. Not only is the railway and the city of St. Petersburg one of the repetitive symbols in Anna Karenina, it is of special significance in the symbolism of the guard’s death. St. Petersburg is the city of modern, liberal values and one that is home to the followers of comme il faut – where everyone does what everyone else is doing, and individuality and spirituality are not central to the lives of its inhabitants. Furthermore, the station is the stark opposite of nature – the dark, imposing forms of metal and industry flourish here instead of the scenic beauty of nature. It is here in a city marked by hypocrisy and physicality, and in a station marred by ugliness that a guard is crushed to death, and Anna and Vronsky’s ill-fated love story begins. The station is described in the following words in Chapter xvii, Part I;
“The approach of the train was more and more evident by the preparatory bustle in the station, the rush of porters, the movement of policemen and attendants, and people meeting the train….The hiss of the boiler could be heard on the distant rails, and the rumble of something heavy.”
In the next chapter, Tolstoy describes the scene in which the guard is crushed under the train, this way: “Just as they were getting out of the carriage, several men ran suddenly by with panic-stricken faces. The stationmaster too ran by in his extraordinary coloured cap. Obviously something unusual had happened. The crowd who had left the train were running back again.” The words “bustle”, “rush” and “movement” used in chapter xvii all elicit the frenetic activity on the station, where important looking men in uniforms – porters, policemen and attendants – all are in a busy commotion. The “heavy” train, the reason of the entire fuss, is ominously approaching the station – it is threatening in its “rumble”, while the “distant” boiler gives off an evil “hiss”. Furthermore, in the same chapter, the words “quivering”, “hanging low”, “frost”, “stooping figure”, “whining”, “swaying” and “oscillating” have been effectively used to create a miserable image of an unwelcoming station, where happiness is nonexistent and gloom prevails. There is a “bitter frost”, and a man has been “crushed” by the moving train. The “mutilated corpse” and the talk of the “horrible death” augment the dreary tone. The dark language not only foreshadows the death of the guard, but the fatally destructive meeting of Anna and Vronsky. Tolstoy uses anaphoric device in which similar words are repeated consecutively to emphasize the importance of a particular theme. In this case, the station is linked with Anna’s struggle for love, by binding it together with the theme of destructive despair. It is this element of dark, destructive gloom that is the “inner spirit” which binds the isolated station in St. Petersburg with Anna’s experience of love. Indeed, the fulfillment of her physical desire with Vronsky in chapter xi, part II is described in equally dark, destructive and gloomy words:
“She dropped her once proud and gay, now shame-stricken, head, and she bowed down and sank from the sofa where she was sitting, down on the floor, at his feet.”
In addition, the repeated use of the words “guilty”, “sinful”, “humiliation”, “horror”, “awful”, “revolting”, “fearful”, “shame”, “pitiful”, “loathing” and “despair”, all closely packed together within one short chapter, reinforces the disgust and shame that Anna feels. What was meant to be the reward of her passion for Vronsky is described in terms of punishment and despair, and the language serves to reinforce this sense of loss. David H. Stewart in his article “Anna Karenina: The Dialectic of Prophecy” elaborates on how an individual incident is connected to the overarching theme in the Anna Karenina: “The (individual) episode’s power derives not only from the way in which Tolstoy conceived it but from the stylistic presentation in which poetic and rhetorical techniques assist in activating many areas of the reader’s mind and in this way distribute his response over a broader, more generalized area of experience” (Stewart 268). In this case, through the use of language, specifically anaphora, two isolated situations have been intertwined in the patchwork of the overall theme of Anna’s despair with a subtle thread.
In addition to the gloom of the setting, the atmosphere at the station is one of utter confusion, a feverish rush akin to doomsday. This chaos is the immediate response of the crowd once they realize “something unusual”, in this case, the guard’s death, has happened. The terrified people running aimlessly around the station, not yet knowing what has happened, create a situation where intimate contact appears absurd and out of place. Anna and Vronsky, however, experience love at first sight in this very setting, which marks out the beginning of their love affair as an absurd happening that is out of place of the social milieu in which they exist, highlighting the socially unacceptable nature of their love. The public humiliation that follows the Anna-Vronsky love affair is also foreshadowed in this scene. “People coming in were still talking of what had happened.” (I, xviii) Again, the particular has been used to explain the general theme. The element of a buzz among the crowd over the death has been magnified manifold, and transformed into scandalous gossip as it is projected forth in Anna’s relationship with Vronsky. The public eye, its scrutiny of the characters’ actions and the systematic outlawing of the society’s “criminal” is a dominating feature of Anna’s destruction. She resents her being ostracized from the Russian society she was once an endearing part of, especially when she speaks of her public humiliation at the opera, “Unpleasant…hideous! As long as I live I shall never forget it. She said it was a disgrace to sit beside me.” (V, xxxiii) The public dishonor that mortifies Anna is in a sharp parallel to the “talking” at the station. However, while the dead guard is oblivious to his being the talk of the town, Anna, being alive and sensitive to the gossip around her, finds it torturous to cope with it.
Tolstoy once wrote in response to a critic that Anna Karenina is a piece of architecture in which the “vaults are joined in such a way that you cannot notice where the keystone is”. Apart from the creation of specific situations that draw links to the overall themes of the novel, Tolstoy has employed recurrent images throughout the course of the text that belie the presence of a centrally wedged and binding keystone within the structural design of Anna Karenina. Indeed, images are dispersed throughout the novel at crucial points in the plot, and when the strands of these images are pulled together, a magnificent fresco is created. The images in the station scene of part I, chapter xviii are crucial strokes in the painting that is Anna’s love affair with Vronsky. Symbols of the train, the “muffled up” guard and the “mutilated corpse” are effectively used in describing the death of the guard, while simultaneously drawing links to elicit an understanding of Anna’s conflict for love. The train is a symbol of brutal destruction and irreconcilable divide. The train is “heavy” and ominous; it is the harbinger of industrialization and modernity that introduced liberal values to Russia, corrupting its spiritual soul. The train is a recurrent image of destruction whose main function is to divide – metaphorically and literally. While the watchman was quite literally “cut in two pieces”, the train symbolizes the advent of modernity and European ideas of physicality, which served to divide Anna. Like Russia, Anna was split physically and spiritually. The guard’s end was violent, drawing parallels with the violent nature of Anna’s adulterous affair with Vronsky – she rips herself out of the comfortable social position she enjoys, and flings herself in the dangerous path of adultery. In physical and spiritual terms, she was “cut in two” as a result of this. She is torn between the need to have a fulfilling family, and the desire to have a passionate love life. The violently divisive nature of her love clearly stands out as a dominating feature, and is heavily reflected in the death of the crushed guard.
The image of the “muffled up” watchman is another example of a linkage that connects the specific to the general. Tolstoy describes the death of the guard in one simple yet striking sentence: “A guard, either drunk or too much muffled up in the bitter frost, had not heard the train moving back, and had been crushed.” This one sentence is packed with strands of the overall themes of Anna Karenina. The train, the brutal destruction, the “muffled up” insensitivity of Anna and the unfavourable conditions of the “bitter frost” surroundings all resonate within this one intelligent sentence. The guard is oblivious to his surroundings, and parallels can be drawn to Anna’s oblivion to her husband’s feelings and the society’s condemnation while she is pursuing the affair. She, like the “drunk” guard, is too caught up in the passionate physicality of Vronsky’s love that she fails to take into account how deeply grave her situation is. For instance, in chapter xxiii, part II, Anna is “terrified at what she had done” when she thinks of “her son, and his future attitude towards his mother”. However, she tries to “reassure herself with false arguments” and forces herself to imagine that “everything would remain as before”. Anthony Thorlby writes that Anna’s thoughts to herself belie a sense of “the pressure of unspoken considerations, of evasions and pretences” (Thorlby 60). Her inability to think of her situation in practical terms, and remain “muffled up” in her own world is one of the main reasons of the conflict her conscience is subject to. As Gustafson puts it, “Anna is not punished by Tolstoy for her sexual fulfillment. In a fuller sense, Anna’s story is a moral tragedy of self-enclosure…in her pursuit of love, she hides from her own truth.” (Gustafson 132). Her terror of experiencing the worst scenario possible causes her to underestimate the gravity of her situation. Anna is not honest to her own self, and in failing to confront her reality, she is crushed like the guard who does not realize the train is “moving back”. Anna’s love for Vronsky was, indeed, surrounded by the cold and unwelcome snare of the Russian society, and was fuelled by Anna’s blind ignorance of the consequences of her illicit passions. In the end, just like the watchman, Anna is “crushed”, both physically and spiritually.
The image of the “mutilated corpse” is disturbing, not only for the characters present at the station, but also because the image comes back to haunt at a time when Anna has consummated her relationship with Vronsky. At the station, Oblonsky is distressed over the sight of the body; he not only becomes “evidently distressed”, but frowns and is “ready to cry”. His repeatedly laments “How awful!”, and “Anna, if you had seen it!”, implying the horrendous nature of the deformed corpse. The body, as we learn later, is “cut in two pieces”, and is distorted beyond repair. In chapter xi of part II, we see fulfillment of Anna’s physical desire demarcated by the image of a lifeless body falling at the feet of its murderer. Vronsky has fulfilled the “one absorbing desire of his life”, yet he feels “what a murderer must feel, when he sees the body he has robbed of life”. Instead of ecstatic elation, there is a deep sense of shame. In Anna he sees the proof of his crime – and “in spite of all the murderer’s horror before the body of his victim, he must hack it to pieces”. The murderous brutality of the guard’s death resonates in this scene, where Anna, the object of Vronsky’s love, is likened to a dead, lifeless corpse who must be cut up mercilessly. Anna has died before her death. She has become the “mutilated corpse” that invokes pity and horror in its onlookers. Just like Oblonsky is moved on how “awful” the guard’s corpse was, Anna too, invokes pity at her shameful condition. The image of the guard’s corpse thus, is powerful in its ability to connect with the fate of Anna’s love.
Tolstoy, with his keen observation of the minutest details, describes his characters’ actions and expressions in such a way that they serve to reveal significant truths about the individual character, or the society that particular character represents. Tolstoy is a master of depicting the minutest details and changes in his characters and, with his penchant for forming a subtle network of links throughout his plot, skillfully connects the particular to the general. In closely looking at how the characters behave at the station in chapter xviii, part I, important links can be drawn to understanding the nature of Anna-Vronsky love affair. Through Vronsky’s eyes, Tolstoy gives us a detailed view of the exquisitely charming facial expressions of Anna Karenina, as we, along with Vronsky, see her for the first time. Apart from the loveliness of her features, what enthralls Vronsky is the liveliness in her expressions, the “suppressed eagerness which played over face, and flirted between the brilliant eyes and the faint smile that curved her red lips.” Her eyes and smile are enchanting to behold. However, alongside her beauty of her charm, the “suppressed” nature of it is also revealed throughout the chapter.
“It was as though her nature were so brimming over with something that against her will it showed itself now in the flash of her eyes, and now in her smile. Deliberately she shrouded the light in her eyes, but it shone against her will in the faintly perceptible smile.”
Yet again, Tolstoy employs anaphora to convey a sense of the restraints and limitations Anna’s life has. The life in her nature is revealed “against her will”, “brimming” out from underneath her inner depths, struggling to express itself. She “shrouded” this life, pushing it back within her “deliberately”, but it resisted her efforts and once again “shone against her will” in her “faintly perceptible smile”. The repetition of words and phrases that elicit Anna’s struggle to contain the life within her give us a glimpse of the restraint she has accustomed herself to in her years of marriage to Alexey Karenin. It seems as if, after years of suppressing herself, she is allowing herself to live for the first time: “As she spoke she let the eagerness that would insist on coming out show itself in her smile.” A part of her has been locked away for years, and it is at this moment that we see glimpses of it. Interestingly, at this point of the story, Vronsky, just like the reader, knows nothing about Anna and how cold and unappealing her husband is. He is unaware of the lack of love she feels towards her husband, or how her womanhood has been reduced to the role of a dutiful wife and mother. He has not been introduced to the Anna that yearns for a passionate love, yet in this first glimpse of Anna, Tolstoy gives a peek into her restrained life. Indeed, Anna’s battle for love revolves around this very suppression she feels within her marriage and her lack of fulfillment in her married life. The failure of the marriage is the cause of the destructive love affair – a link that has been effectively established in the very first meeting between the ill-fated lovers.
Countess Vronsky is another conspicuous character in the scene, whose actions and gesture reveal the menacing nature of Russian society. Tolstoy uses strikingly effective word choice to introduce this lady in the novel: “His mother, a dried-up old lady with black eyes and ringlets, screwed up her eyes, scanning her son, and smiled slightly with her thin lips.” The image this one sentence conjures is dark, unpleasant and threatening. Vronsky’s mother, we have been told before, is a woman of a colourful past, having multiple affairs during her youth. Here, the “black” soulless eyes, the scrutiny with which she looks at her son and the mean smile that spreads on her lips serve to enhance the image of Countess Vronsky as a dishonest and insincere figure. There is a cruelty in the way she scrunches up her eyes to look at her son. This is not the look of love a mother would give to her son. In a small gesture, the crude nature of her character is revealed. Emile Melchior writes in her criticism of Anna Karenina, that Tolstoy “observes, listens, takes in whatever he sees and hears, and for all time, with an exactness which we cannot but admire.” (Melchior). It is this acute observation that pours out forth from the pen of Count Leo Tolstoy, and breathes life into his words. Indeed, in the depiction of the Countess, and her “wrinkled hand”, Tolstoy gives a sense of the wretchedness of the lady who says clichéd phrases that make one cautious of her sincerity towards the other. The Countess, in her character, is an image of the wretched high class Russian society. The society, just like the Countess, is a victim of comme il faut – it is kind towards the ones who put up appearances, and spiteful of those who don’t. Such a society disregards Levin and esteems Oblonsky and Vronsky despite Levin’s moral superiority over both men. It is the same Countess, and indeed the same Russian society, that ostracizes and disgraces Anna for her love affair with Vronsky and pushes her into the destructive despair that leads to her death. Thus, through the pitiful depiction of Countess Vronsky, Tolstoy has in effect depicted the Russian society that is equally pathetic.
Anna Karenina is a story of destructive divide that has been told in a powerful style that is unique to Tolstoy. The “inner spirit” Gustafson speaks of, that resides in the novel, is one that is forcefully alive within the station scene in chapter xviii, part I. The scene begins with an unusual meeting between Anna and Vronsky, while the station, the setting of their meeting, is frenzied at the oncoming of a train. The end is demarcated by the violent and brutal death of the “muffled up” guard, which Anna sees as an “ill omen”. The death, indeed, lays out the sequence of events for Anna’s ill-fated love affair with Vronsky: it is bizarre, chaotic and in the end, brutal.
The Implications of the Near-death Experience by Anna During Labor
The idea of seeing a widely loved, magnificent woman go from the envy of St. Petersburg to the deranged, self-obsessed person that made the rash decision to jump underneath a train to get revenge on her husband sounds like a crazy thought. Knowing this, it is important to note that Anna’s suicide in Anna Karenina was no spur of the moment idea. Throughout the later parts of the novel, there is a noticeable decline in Anna’s mental health, leading her to her untimely death. This gives way to the question of just how a woman who had it all developed such angry, vengeful thoughts, and later actions. While these thoughts were not all directed at herself, they were the final straw in her decision to end her life. Although the exact origin of these thoughts and feelings of hers is unknown, it is fairly easy to make an educated guess. In Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy, the scene in which Anna nearly dies in labor acts as a turning point for her mental health, eventually leading to her untimely demise.
The decline in Anna’s mental health after the delivery of her second child, Annie, can be seen in people’s first impressions of her before her near-death experience, as opposed to after. Prior to this event, Anna was a kind, loving woman who was highly regarded by everyone who met her. In fact, in Part I, when Countess Vronsky first meets Anna, she states, “As an old woman all I can do is tell you straight out that I’ve fallen in love with you” (Tolstoy 75). This shows how easily people can fall for the charming personality Anna possessed before her near-death experience. While people who meet Anna for the first time after she has Annie still feel the same feelings of adoration for her, they also get an idea of the emotionally drained, tortured soul that lies within. In Part VII, just after meeting Anna for the first time, Levin thinks, “What a wonderful, sweet, pathetic woman….” (Tolstoy 839). This clearly shows that Anna has developed feelings within herself that have become so overpowering that they now overflow into her everyday life, making it so that people can feel her pain. Anna’s inner turmoil developed after the birth of Annie can be seen in the change in people’s initial opinions of her both before and after the event.
Another situation that shows Anna’s mental health decline after the birth of her daughter is the change in the nature of her relationship with Vronsky. Before she became pregnant with Annie, Anna and Vronsky were more concerned with the relationship at hand. They were completely in love, and did not keep it a secret from anyone. In Part II, when Anna and Karenin are on their way back from the horse races, Anna admits, “I’m listening to you and thinking about him. I love him, I’m his mistress, I can’t bear it, I’m afraid- I hate you… You can do whatever you like with me” (Tolstoy 254). This shows Anna’s extreme commitment to Vronsky after they have sex for the first time. While it seems as though their relationship will last a lifetime, as it was based purely on love, that is far from true. Once Anna gives birth to Annie, and nearly dies in the process, her way of thinking about her relationship begins to change, as does his. In Part VI, shortly after Anna has recovered from her near-death experience, Vronsky realizes, “She was completely different now from what she had been when he saw her first. Both morally and physically she had changed for the worst” (Tolstoy 431). This reveals that Vronsky has noticed the new changes in Anna. She is mean, spiteful, and jealous, and he does not like what she has turned into. Also in Part IV, Chapter III, Vronsky thinks, “These attacks of jealousy that had recently been coming over her more and more often horrified him; no matter how he tried to hide this they made him feel colder toward her, in spite of his knowing that the reason for her jealousy was her love for him” (Tolstoy 431). This explicitly shows that Vronsky’s feelings towards Anna have changed now that her mental health is taking a turn for the worst. Because of the birth of Annie, Anna and Vronsky’s relationship is no longer centered around their love for each other, but around their underlying problems with each other that will continue to get worse and worse until Anna decides that she is going to commit suicide as the ultimate form of revenge against Vronsky. The change in the nature of Anna and Vronsky’s relationship after the birth of Annie reflects the decline in Anna’s mental health after her near-death experience.
In Anna Karenina, the topic of Anna’s suicide is one that weighs heavier on the heart. It can be argued that the emotional break that caused her to jump underneath the train on that fateful day could be foreshadowed by her witnessing the peasant dying by getting run over by the train in Part I. While this event may have had a profound effect on her emotionally, it seems as though this idea had been formulated much earlier than right when she saw the freight train arrive at the station in Part VII. The decline in her mental health after the near-death experience she has after the birth of her daughter reveals the fact that her suicide was not a rash decision. Her decision to jump underneath the train was one of anger and revenge, an action produced by the thoughts she begins to have after looking death in the face. In Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy, the scene where Anna nearly dies in labor causes a sharp decline in her mental health, eventually leading to her untimely death.
Levin’s Mowing Expounded in “Anna Karenina”
Constantine Levin, a hero of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, longs to discover some harmonious part of himself through experiencing the peasant way of life. He believes there to be something profoundly rewarding in the simple act of working as one’s needs dictate. By working with and alongside the peasants for a whole day of mowing in his own fields Levin seeks to gain some of the uncomplicated peace-of-mind that he feels the lower farming classes enjoy.
However, Levin’s motives for mowing are distinctly different from those of the hired workers. Levin feels he must mow as a kind of remedy for the type of aristocratic life he has been leading. His first experience with the activity came when he had “lost his temper and to calm himself had used a remedy of his own — he took a scythe from one of the peasants and himself began mowing.” Levin mows to relieve himself of the pressures brought on by the work of his own class (giving orders to his steward, running his farm indirectly through middle-men). Not only does he mow to soothe his stresses, but also to give himself a greater feeling of connection to his land and farming process. Levin cannot understand why the Russian peasants do not commit themselves entirely to the well-being of the farm — why some men could be so careless as to handle equipment so that it breaks, or why they would defy orders and harvest a field easier to finish than the one they were directed to harvest. The peasants work for their direct benefit: spend a day working in the field, earn a set amount of money. It does not matter to them exactly how much work is accomplished. But for Levin, the work translates more ambiguously into gain. It matters how well the fields are mown, and how much is done by each man. Levin stands to either gain or lose wealth based on the quality and quantity of his hired help. This is a great stress to him, and he longs to be more connected to the land and its rewards the way the peasants are. Thus Levin’s mowing is soothing to his own work-related stresses, and it builds a positive connection between him and the land. Through mowing, he can work and see a direct result result.
The Russian peasants need to mow so that they can provide for themselves and their families. For Levin, mowing is almost as necessary. He does not need to work to be able to eat, but he needs to in order to feel at peace with himself and his own role. However, to the outside eye, a day spent mowing appears to be a sort of aristocratic game. Levin is aware of this fact, and is even intimidated enough so that he is “in doubt whether to go mowing or not” upon Koznyshev’s arrival. He “fears his brother might laugh at him.” Levin is embarrassed by his deviance from his upper-class role while he is embarrassed by the high status itself. He experiences a distinct confusion caused by his innate role as “boss” in conflict with his desire to lose himself as a cog in a wheel. This confusion is perhaps the root of his abnormal relationship to his peasants. He places his property in their control and even decides for a time that he must become one of them.
Koznyshev embodies the unconfused aristocratic opinion. He and Levin talk freely about how enjoyable the work can be until he understands that Levin intends to mow “all day, just like the peasants,” as opposed to sort of playing at it until one gets tired. He reprimands Levin that “it is splendid physical exercise,” but that he will “hardly be able to hold out.” Looking at mowing as the benefit of exercise instead of as the necessity of work shows where the aristocratic and peasant classes distinctly veer away from one another. Levin exists as a medium between the two ways of thinking. Levin desires to mow hard the entire day and is driven by the desire to “keep up” with the peasants and exist as their equal.
Levin seeks not only emotional gain, but also the actual profits of the crop. Levin does posses somewhat of an aristocratic view upon entering into his commitment; he comments: “I need physical exercise; without it my character gets quite spoilt.” Here, instead of focusing on the value and direct reward of the work, Levin seeks to remedy the physical frustrations of an upper-class, indoor life spent primarily in celibacy. Levin experiences some moments where he looks to mowing as a sort of prescription for his stifled and frustrating life as an aging and wifeless man in a drawing room. Not only does this way of thinking undermine the real work of mowing and the healing properties it can offer, but it shows a temporary misunderstanding between Levin and nature. Mowing can not ultimately cure his frustrations with his present life. Mowing one time, or even several times, can only provide temporary relief from emotional ailments. To be entirely cured by mowing, Levin would have to actually give himself to it completely and become a peasant himself. And while Levin fantasizes about doing just this, he can never commit himself entirely. Even if Levin’s wet nurse were a peasant, his blood still would run blue. Everything Levin wants in life is still wrapped up in the duplication of the aristocratic family life he enjoyed with his mother and father. While he can use mowing to escape what is lacking in his regular life, Koznyshev and the other peasants are ultimately right: mowing can not save an aristocrat. It can only turn him into a peasant. Before he actually begins to mow, Levin is quite clearly confused between the aristocratic and peasant modes of reasoning and necessity.
Although the decision to mow causes some anxiety and confusion in Levin, the longer he works at it and the deeper he falls into the rhythm of the scythe, the more he feels at peace. As Levin approaches the field where the men have already been at work and each man has already completed “his second swath,” Levin views the peasants “following each other in a long straggling line, some with coats on, some in their shirts, each swinging his scythe in his own manner.” Levin sees each mower as a distinct individual. He notices specific men he has had working on his farm before. He notices each man’s various clothing, and each man’s distinct mowing technique. He sees each of the peasant mowers, and undoubtedly himself, as distinct and individual men, which in this case has as a connotation of inefficiency, insofar as “straggling” men cannot mow a field; only a group can. It is only in the midst of the entire day of mowing that Levin is able to leave this view behind, and take on the feeling of a group of men toiling as one and losing themselves in their work.
Although there is variance in each peasant’s mowing technique — some are younger and newer and therefore mow more stiffly, while some are older and more seasoned and can mow so well it appears as though they are “at play” — one comes to realize that it is not the individual that carries importance in the act of mowing. A “tall old man with a shriveled, beardless face” advises Levin to “Mind Master! Having put your hand to the plough, don’t turn back!,” suggesting a rejection of the idea of mowing for one’s health or for a game. Levin promises to “try not to lag behind,” meaning that for the next few hours he will leave his status as “master” behind, and will instead respect the wisdom and authority that the oldest and most experienced mowers possess. He begins to mow badly at first, because he feels he is being scrutinized as different from the other mowers. He is conscious of the desire to prove himself, and therefore mows too “vigorously” and with too much thought. His desperate desire to perform well is what keeps him from accomplishing his aim. An experienced mower knows that the best way is to let the scythe “mow of itself”.
As the day progresses, Levin realizes that he “must swing the scythe less with [his] arms and more with the whole of [his] body.” This is his first major step toward releasing his unnecessary pretensions of proving himself and his own level of skill. The change from working with a specialized (and fairly weak) selection of limbs to mowing with the whole of one’s body implies the end of acting out of the strained section of the mind and body and the beginning of using one’s entire being.
Soon after Levin’s realization, he begins to give himself entirely over to his task. As Titus, the man Levin has placed in charge, mows faster and longer, seemingly as a challenge, Levin begins to think “of nothing and [desire] nothing, except not to lag behind and do his work as well as possible.” Nothing exists at all but the task of mowing in front of and all around him. All of Levin’s senses become dominated by mowing, and he hears “only the swishing of the scythes and [sees] only the convex half-circle of the mown piece before him, and the grasses and heads of flowers falling in waves about the blade of his scythe.” Mowing becomes all of nature. The sounds and shapes in the field are made by the scythe, and the grass and flowers exist only when the scythe strikes them. They move in “waves,” a term that alludes to another great part of nature: the ocean, whose movements can be imitated by the swinging of the scythe. In a sense, the mowing field begins to embody the entire world.
With mowing as the world and Levin working in it, the entire experience becomes bathed in innocence and purity. Nothing matters but the work. At one point Levin is “suddenly conscious of a pleasant coolness on his hot perspiring shoulders, without knowing what it was or whence it came.” Such description bears some resemblance to biblical content, and finally to Eden. Levin “look[s] to the sky” to find its origin. Everything is beautiful and merciful to Levin. He works hard, and eventually there comes rest at the end of the swath. The work, the rest, and the swinging of the scythe itself take on a certain rhythm that runs through to Levin’s core.
In this state of peacefulness, the scythe begins to “mow by itself,” and the work is really more like “play.” Submerging oneself in this mowing world is no longer a chore. The work becomes its own reward when one can become so close with it. Even the kvas (“lukewarm water with green stuff floating in it and a flavor of the rusty tin box”) tastes better to Levin than anything ever has, because of the work he has done to earn it. The rhythm involved in the actual swing of the scythe, the steps across the fallen grass in Titus’ footprints, and the rests at the end of each row create a harmonious experience.
Another part of the rhythm of mowing is the respect given to the aged and experienced. Where a younger and stronger man might normally be valued as optimal for physical labor in another field, in the art of mowing, a man who is aged, experienced and therefore skilled is appreciated as the most valuable. The emphasis on experience goes to show that mowing is indeed an art where skill may be valued over brute force. The rhythm of the planting season and the harvesting season, the syncopated work and rest of each meal break and the mowing of each swath: each year that comes makes a man wiser and more valuable in the field. Where a young man might mow with a “strained kind of movement” as if in “feverish labor” and not be able to “change the motion of his body and at the same time observe what lay before him,” an old man might “go along, holding himself erect” and cut the juicy grass with “a precise and even motion that seems to cost him no more effort than swinging his arms when walking.” To these peasants of age and experience, mowing has become something unlike toil. For these men the “scythe seem[s] to mow of itself.” It is this kind of working nirvana that Levin strives for and is able to achieve in fleeting moments.
Levin is able to leave his identity as the “master” behind, and is taken under the wing of the old peasant in front of him. Levin trusts him to decide the correct rhythm of the proceedings, (deciding when it is dinner time, or what pace to mow at) and does not struggle to be in control as he does with his steward and in other aspects of farming. Levin even makes the decision not to go home for dinner and highlight the difference between him and the other mowers. Instead he elects to stay with the old man and share his rye bread mash, and then nap with him in the grass “regardless of the flies” and “of the crawling insects that ticked his perspiring face and body.” Levin gives even his body over to nature. By dining with the old man and the other peasants, especially by actually eating the old man’s food, Levin obliterates the uncomfortable distance of class or status between himself and the others. He seems to establish himself as a young mower in need of guidance, not as a master who is playing at laboring. Although the act of mowing can not cure Levin’s aristocratic self, by submerging himself in the natural order and rhythm of the peasants’ work, Levin, in effect, temporarily becomes a peasant himself.
The use of the trains as symbolism in Anna Karenina
Throughout the course of Leo Tolstoy’s iconic tragedy Anna Karenina, the presence of trains is essential both in terms of symbolic resonance and as a way to communicate social commentary and setting. Tolstoy employs train imagery as a way to talk about movement in terms of the fast-paced course of life, foreshadowing the desperate saga of Anna and Vronsky’s romantic relationship. In general, the existence of the railroad is meant to be viewed as a destructive force in the context of the novel, something that initiates death and devastation from its first mention in the text. This symbolic relationship is primarily evident during Anna and Vronsky’s initial meeting, their rendezvous on the train, and at the time of and following Anna’s suicide, using the significance of trains to trace the course of their relationship throughout the text as a sort of timeline, navigating the tumultuous end that eventually becomes inevitable for both.
The initial mention of the fated train, Anna’s arrival to Moscow, begins the culmination of her relationship with Vronsky, ironically also the first time he is mentioned to her in the text. As he first enters the carriage to meet his mother, his attraction to Anna is obvious- so begins their fated alliance. However, this encounter is pursued by the gruesome death of a rail worker, leaving his mangled body under the train, a precursor to Anna’s death, and what she calls “an omen of evil” (Tolstoy, 63). This commentary is reflected not only in the fate of the man, but in herself; “her own personality was to be split in two in the next railroad scene, while she is reading a book. The tragedy was already in the making. The man ‘cut in two’ can become a symbol.” (Stenbock-Fermor, 69). Thus, Anna and Vronsky’s encounter is made dark with the presence of death, hinting at Anna’s imminent demise in the same way, as “the accidental death of a man at the time of their first meeting suggests…the manner in which to punish Vronsky and free herself” (Stenbock-Fermor, 65).
The scene is also made eerie with the mention of “a peasant with a sack over his shoulder” (Tolstoy, 58), the same haunting image that will appear throughout the course of the text. What’s more, the reader is left in suspense to whether or not the death was a suicide or not, as the voices in the crowd at the station are heard saying “What?…What?..Where?..Flung himself!..Crushed!..” (Tolstoy, 62), a definite premonition of Anna’s coming end. Furthermore, this beginning scene is also made important because “Anna’s first appearance is at a railway station, as is her last…[making] it possible to argue persuasively that the major railway scenes are the ‘pillars’ supporting the structure of the novel as a whole” (Jahn, 2). Aside from the development of the central romantic relationship in the text, the presence of the railroad here, in this crucial scene, can also act as Tolstoy’s particular social commentary on the all-powerful and destructive nature of the railroad, as this “expressed Tolstoy’s belief that the railroad served only to pander to and further inflame the already monstrous appetite of the idle and privileged” (Jahn, 1).
Following this first encounter, Anna and Vronsky’s next confrontation is pivotal in terms of the development of their relationship. As she escapes from his advances in Moscow, Anna flees back to her role as Madame Karenina in St. Petersburg, a literal migration of emotion as she yearns to rid herself from Vronsky’s advances and her own gnawing feeling of self-doubt. When the train stops midway and Anna finds Vronsky waiting for at the platform to confess his love, she is “seized by a feeling of joyful pride” (Tolstoy, 96). Again, the railroad has expedited her relationship with Vronsky, culminating in a new transition as their romance travels not unlike the ever mobile train. In addition, Tolstoy’s inclusion of “the bent shadow of a man glided by at her feet, and she heard sounds of a hammer upon iron” (Tolstoy, 96) also draws us back to the first railroad scene, highlighting the similarities between their first encounter and the present one in the imagery of the maimed worker trapped under the rails. However, this sentence is more literally translated from its native Russian to “ ‘slid under her legs’…more clearly suggesting a foreboding of violence in sexual union” (Browning, 527).
Moreover, this image is prevalent throughout the text, particularly a striking image in Anna’s repeated dreams of the bearded peasant. Strongly reminiscent of her reminder of sin and the likelihood of death, she tells Vronsky that she learns in the dream that she will die in childbirth. Although Vronsky too has a similar dream, he better “embodies the shadow” (Browning, 527) stooping under Anna and catalyzing her self-destruction. In the mention of this discrepancy, we can suggest that the image of the train is Vronsky himself, both a sexual innuendo and a description of the moral evil of modern society. As previously discussed, the inclusion of the railroad can be interpreted as a mechanism of the pitfalls and industrialization of Russia. Vronsky, with his new-age and elitist attitude of adultery and distaste of marriage exemplifies this, a symbol of the havoc and disruption of the structure of Russian society brought by the integration of the train into upper-class life. To supplement this, it can be noted that although the train that Anna travels in posh and warm, she finds it stifling rather than comfort, electing the bitter cold of the outside instead. Thus, she casts off the comfort and luxury of elite society that chokes, rather than nurtures her, choosing to partake in a taboo affair with her lover. As she exits the train, she visibly leaves the grasp of society, picking the radical and sentimental over what social structure has wrought for her.
Following the preliminary meetings of Anna and Vronsky at the railroad, we are brought to the conclusion of their love at and following the point of her suicide, the full circle of her predestined fate ending as she encounters self-annihilation. As she is crushed under the sharp metal of the train, “logic leads to the conclusion that Anna was killed by (or, more accurately, made herself the victim of) upper-class society” (Jahn, 3). Again, she sees “a misshapen-looking peasant covered with dirt, in a cap from which his tangled hair stuck out all around…stooping down to the carriage wheels” (Tolstoy, 704), the continuous reminder of her guilt and of the burden she is forced to bear, initiating her suicide. Furthermore, the scene following Anna’s death is also set on a railway, as the Vronsky’s meet with Stiva on a train full of soldiers headed to fight in the Russo-Turkish war. Despite Anna’s death, Tolstoy’s mention of the war, especially on the backdrop of the train, indicates the overlying notion that regardless of death and tragedy, life continues to go on and to progress. Anna’s death has not halted the motion of life; it has only resulted in the greater suffering of others. This is seen on behalf of Vronsky, who like Anna, seeks to end his life in the war to which he is carried to by train. Here, both halves of the illicit pair have reached the peak of ultimate self-obliteration, further fostering the image of the train as supremely caustic and harmful.
It is evident that the inclusion of the railway in Anna Karenina is meant to act as a general symbol of destruction and death, as seen through Anna and Vronsky’s initial encounter, their confrontation as Anna flees to St. Petersburg, and at the time of and following her suicide. In general, Tolstoy includes these components as a way to map the pair’s storyline as their relationship progresses, the train both a symbol for Russia’s rapid industrialization and the course of their liaison. The railroad was something that the author viewed as ugly and unnecessary, and so portrayed the interactions between Anna and Vronsky as such, posing a negative connotation of both adultery and the existence of the train. With this in mind, it is possible to say that the railway effects the ultimate demise of this heroine, exerting all of its brutal force and condemning her to suicide, the unfortunate end to her short love.
- Browning, Gary. “Peasant Dreams in Anna Karenina.” The Slavic and East European Journal 44.4 (2000): 525-36. JSTOR. Web. 21 Jan. 2015.
- Jahn, Gary R. “The Image of the Railroad in Anna Karenina.” The Slavic and East European Journal 25.2 (1981): 1-10. JSTOR. Web. 21 Jan. 2015.
- Stenbock-Fermor, Elisabeth. The Architecture of Anna Karenina: A History of Its Writing, Structure, and Message. Vol. 1.
- Lisse: Peter De Ridder, 1975. Print. Tolstoy, Leo, and Constance Garnett. Anna Karenina. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003. Print.
How differences and parallels are used as literary devices
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy is, in many aspects, a story of love and relationships. Two couples, Kitty and Levin, and Anna and Vronsky, find some form of love and passion throughout the course of the novel, yet their personalities determine the success of their relationships. In Part VI of the novel, the two couples are both spending the summer in their country estates, and their behaviors in and reactions to parallel circumstances reflect the ultimate fates of their romances. Kitty and Levin are able to have a more secure and emotionally fulfilling relationship than Anna and Vronsky because they understand each other and because, despite this, each has genuine preoccupations of his or her own.
The contrasting manners in which Kitty and Anna treat their domestic roles reflect the stability of their respective relationships. At a gathering of the women in the family on the balcony, Kitty is “introducing [a] new way” of making jam, “which [was] employed in her old home,” (502) to Agatha Mikhaylovna, who had run Levin’s household before his marriage. Kitty, upon moving into Levin’s home, has almost immediately concerned herself with the running of the household and taken over Agatha’s job. Though the scene in which they make jam according to Kitty’s instructions humorously mocks the seriousness with which the women take household chores, as seen in the mention of “Agatha Mikhaylovna’s wrath” (502) should the jam turn out poorly, it also portrays the mild friction that is inevitable with a sudden addition to a family and the management of a household changing hands. Therefore, small conflicts like this mark Kitty’s integration into her domestic role as Levin’s wife. She makes Levin’s home hers by bringing practices from her “old home,” (502) and thus establishes a permanence in their relationship that Anna and Vroknsky’s relationship lacks.
During Dolly’s visit to Vozdvizhensk, she concludes that the running of Vronsky’s household “had all been done by, and depended on, the master’s care” (570-571). While Levin keeps himself informed of his household, such as inquiring about the jam, he seemed content to leave the decisions to Kitty. Vronsky, on the other hand, seems to have always run his household, and the arrival of Anna into his life did not change this fact. Indeed, Dolly observes that, “Anna, Sviyazhsky, the Princess, and Veslovsky were all equally guests” (571) in Vronsky’s house. Anna’s status, therefore, is not that of a wife, but of a lover on whom nothing and no one in Vronsky’s house depended except Vronsky himself. The only reason Anna can call this house home is Vronsky’s love for her. Indeed, she has convinced herself that she loves only her son and Vronsky, and that, if they are both in her life, she shall need no other human interaction. Unlike Kitty, who attaches herself to Levin’s house and makes it her home in all aspects, including having her mother and sister present, Anna has nothing tangible around her in which to ground herself and to make her feel that she belongs. Therefore, Kitty is more confident in her love and relationship than Anna is because her place in the world is not based solely upon one man’s emotions any longer. Conversely, because Kitty feels more confident in Levin’s love for her, she is able to settle into his house and make her presence permanent, while Anna, fearing that Vronsky will cease to love her, continues to feel like a guest.
While both Kitty and Levin have tasks and thoughts with which to occupy themselves in each other’s absence, Anna does everything in her life with Vronsky in mind, contributing to her obsessive relationship with him. At one point, Kitty is focusing all of her energy on making a couple of Varenka and Koznyshev, and Levin is concerned with his new wagons. Their off-handed exchange about where they will be that afternoon exemplifies their casual interactions when both are occupied with matters of their own concern. They both understand their ability to go about their daily lives, apart and involved in their own thoughts, and still be a loving couple. In addition, they mostly interact freely and comfortably with their houseguests, Kitty in particular with the women that she loves, and this love coexists with her love for her husband. Anna, on the other hand, is unable to focus on anything else but Vronsky’s love and attention. Though she and Vronsky seem to be occupied in various activities, their bond rarely involves other people, and Anna’s “chief preoccupation” is still “herself in so far as Vronsky held her dear” (583). All that she has is dependent on Vronsky’s love, and she feels that she can only retain it with her physical beauty. Despite remaining beautiful, however, she is still extremely insecure about Vronsky’s feelings towards her, and tries all that she can to make him stay by her side lest he leave her. In the parallel scenes in which both women take leave of their husbands, who are going to the Kashin elections, Vronsky is “bracing himself for a struggle,” (584) because he knows that Anna cannot bear to see him go off into society without her. Conversely, Kitty is the one who advises Levin to go to the elections, even buying him a uniform, because she fears that he will be bored. Kitty is obviously comfortable with her husband being away from her, because she is confident in his love, and has other methods of occupying herself in his absence, while Anna’s insecurities flare every time Vronsky is to leave because he is her everything. In his absence she can only worry about his whereabouts.
Though both Anna and Levin are prone to bouts of jealousy and anger, Levin and Kitty understand each other, and Levin expresses his feelings, while Anna conceals her emotions from Vronsky, who does not understand her. Levin and Kitty are able to understand each other without verbally communicating, and Levin reflects that Kitty “would understand what he meant from a mere hint” (507). Levin, upon seeing Vaskena flirt with Kitty, is overcome with extreme jealousy. Kitty is able to see immediately that “something was wrong with her husband,” despite his best efforts to conceal his anger, and when she asks him about it even once, he “gave vent to his feelings and told her everything” (519). This candidness in their relationship prevents either from concealing hostile feelings, and therefore prevents deep-rooted conflicts and misunderstandings from arising between them. Their straightforward relationship is also placed in contrast to Anna and Vronsky’s relationship, in which Anna does not ever want to discuss difficult matters, the most pressing of which is divorce, because “it irritates her” (568) when Vronsky brings it up. She and Vronsky also often misunderstand each other’s intentions, as when Anna returns from her conversation with Dolly. Vronsky “looked inquiringly into her eyes” to ask about her meeting, but she misinterprets it as a look of longing, and instead only “smiled at him” (581). These misunderstandings are common between the couple, and, paired with Anna’s refusal to address difficult matters, create an atmosphere of restlessness and mistrust.
In addition, Levin, as a man, is able to act to ameliorate his jealously of Vasenka by driving him out of his house. In this way, Levin no longer feels “insulted and tortured” (547) by his presence, and is able to release his feelings. Anna, on the other hand, does not have the power to free herself from her jealousy because she cannot know what Vronsky does when he leaves her to attend to his business in society. Each time he departs is difficult for her, and before he leaves for the Kashin elections she takes to adopting a passive aggressive tone, referring to the “box of books” (584) that would keep her company. Vronsky worsens her pain by wishing to supress her emotions and “avoid a scene,” and his actions make her believe that he does not care for her. Anna and Vronsky have to guess the other’s intentions and meanings, and often these misunderstandings lead to ever-growing hostility.
In the end, Anna’s romance with Vronsky ends with death, while Levin’s romance with Kitty remains fruitful and happy. Though Levin, too, often contemplated suicide, unlike Anna he is able to look past all the evil he sees in those around him and realize that a meaningful life means being good from within oneself. That Levin was able to achieve this understanding was dependent not only on his personality and romance with Kitty, but also his place in society. As a man, he has the opportunity to act upon his emotions and actively seek personal happiness. Anna, on the other hand, constrained by gender expectations in high society, is trapped in endless cycles of obsession, because to obsess is all she can do. Without Vronsky, she has no place in society, and no home of her own.
The use of society as weapon for murder
Nothing exists to hinder an individual’s pursuit of happiness besides the shackles built from the expectations of others. Societal norms become ironclad laws, and those who do not accept these constraints often find themselves lost, ostracized, and abandoned by their peers. Society’s current obsession with social media, as well as the U.S. election of a president whose rhetoric propagates the marginalization of minorities, have created a constant need to conform to an accepted persona of the in-crowd and secure validation from others. These restrictions have weighed down individuals since social groups were formed. In Leo Tolstoy’s novel of literary realism Anna Karenina, Alexei Vronsky and Anna Karenina attempt to escape the social climate of late 1800’s Russia to carry out a love not accepted by the public. Although Anna’s beauty and grace seem to put her above her deprecating society, the skewed judgements and sexist expectations of her peers influence almost all aspects of her life and eventually lead to the loss of her social standing and the demise of her affair with Vronsky. By demonstrating the impossibility of sustaining a relationship simply through love, Anna Karenina highlights the inescapable implications of social class on an individual’s life and happiness.
Society imposes its expectations on both Anna and Vronsky’s lives and relationships, although these effects possess a double standard based on gender. In her article on the unrealized inner desires of characters in Anna Karenina, “Keeping Secrets in Anna Karenina,” Mary Ann Mefi states that “from the start, Anna and her brother Stiva Oblonsky are associated with a tendency to let the outer world mold them in a way which prohibits the inner life from flowing into consciousness and becoming their main motivator” (Mefi). These two characters, are influenced greatly by their societies. Instead of living for their own desires, they primarily take cues from the people around them. Tolstoy uses Oblonsky as a satirical example of this influence as he “adhered firmly to the view of the majority” (Tolstoy 19) on all subjects, and he changed his opinions whenever the majority changed, without any conscious thought. Although Oblonsky has an affair, he is not ostracized for his actions, as affairs do not go against the accepted status quo for men. This concept of a difference in treatment based on gender is apparent throughout the novel. Oblonsky’s peers view him in the same dignified position before and after the affair as he sustains his friends, job, and marriage. Vronsky, who is also a sociable individual, does not receive any judgement for his affair at its conception. Upon learning of Vronsky’s relationship, other men admire him for “the exalted position of Karenin, and the consequent publicity of their connection in society” (Tolstoy 162). He is idolized for his affair as he took the wife of a man high-seated in society, Alexey Karenin. In this scenario, Anna Karenina is a coveted object. It is of no consequence that an affair is considered immoral as it puts him above others in his society.
Though her lover is revered for his affair, Anna becomes the subject of public scrutiny for her parallel actions. After news of Anna’s affair spreads, “The greater number of the young women, who envied Anna and had long been weary of hearing her called virtuous, rejoiced at the fulfillment of their predictions, and were only waiting for a decisive turn in public opinion to fall upon her with all the weight of their scorn” (Tolstoy 162). Anna’s position in society does not depend on the substance of her character as her peers are willing to change their view of her when some form of gossip gives them the opportunity to (Roberts). Social reputations are fabricated concepts that rely on the way others view an individual, not necessarily the way the individual behaves. Anna is treated as worthless and despicable for loving someone, which exhibits the hypocrisy of society in its treatment of men and women for the same actions.
Societal pressures also influence Anna’s relationship with her husband, Alexey. Upon learning of her affair, Alexey states that he would ignore it “so long as [his] name is not disgraced… and that only in the event of your compromising me I shall be obliged to take steps to secure my honor” (Tolstoy 297). Alexey would rather have a troubled marriage than admit to Anna’s affair as his social standing is more important to him than the basis of his relationship. As Henry Pickford states in The Tolstoy Studies Journal, Alexey is not concerned that Anna is cheating on him as he is not married for happiness but because it is perceived necessary by the society he resides in (Pickford). Thus, Anna cannot be with the person she loves and is forced to sustain a public image that she herself no longer wants. Due to the pressures placed upon them by society, Anna and Alexey must lead lives of either falsehood or persecution.
After continuing their affair, the constraints of their public images become so prominent in their lives that Anna and Vronsky attempt – unsuccessfully – to elude their hyper-critical social class by escaping to Italy. Despite being in a country completely separated from Russia, Anna and Vronsky only associate with Russian people and quickly become repulsed by their surroundings: “The palazzo suddenly seemed so obtrusively old and dirty, the spots on the curtains, the cracks in the floors, the broken plaster on the cornices became so disagreeably obvious… that they had to make some change” (Tolstoy 444). Anna and Vronsky’s escape cannot last as the Italian environment is not satisfactory to them due to their excessive russian social conditioning. In no setting are they able to find happiness; thus they are never able to liberate themselves from the influence of their social circles. Tolstoy uses imagery in this setting to further emphasize these cultural pressures. While in Italy, Anna and Vronsky encounter a Russian painter and, upon seeing the skill in his portraits, request a painting of Anna. After the painting is finished, Vronsky is surprised the painter could have captured Anna’s signature beauty: ‘One needs to know and love her as I have loved her to discover the very sweetest expression of her soul’” (Tolstoy 442). However, the narrator explains, “it was only from this portrait that Vronsky had himself learned this sweetest expression of her soul. But the expression was so true that he, and others too, fancied they had long known it” (Tolstoy 442). This painting, as well as the social perspective that Anna is viewed from, creates an unattainable idea of beauty that does not exist. Although Vronsky feels as though he has long known this idea of her, his discovery of this “characteristic beauty” (Tolstoy 442) comes about simply because it is placed in front of him. Although beginning positively, in which their glamorous reputations precede them, this critical eye on Anna and Vronsky eventually becomes a negative perspective. The continuous impact on them proves the harmful and far-reaching influences of the culture surrounding them.
Juxtaposed to this failing relationship is a successful couple: Levin and Kitty. They remain independent from exterior influences and focus solely on each other. In a commentary on Tolstoy’s writing style, S.E. Shevitch states that Levin and Kitty’s relationship is able to last as society does not have an impact on the two. Throughout his life and throughout their relationship, Levin has remained unaffiliated with meaningless social and political problems (Shevitch). Conversely, Anna and Vronksy openly disobey their society, yet are also dependant on it. Their lifelong elite statuses have made them unable to escape the limelight, even when it is highly critical of them. Thus, Tolstoy provides a contrasting couple to emphasize the negative effect of society on a person’s mental well-being. Levin and Kitty’s relationship succeeds because Levin has always separated himself from political debates and social circles and never became dependent on their approval. The comparison of these two relationships throughout the novel emphasizes the way in which society influences how individuals act in carrying out their own desires and in relations with others. The inescapable effects of Anna and Vronsky’s refusal to obey societal rules torments their everyday lives when they return to Russia. Anna is willing to abandon her social standing for love by breaking social norms in “not having obtained a divorce, but having absolutely declined all idea of one” (Tolstoy 403). However, Anna and Vronsky’s love cannot last as the societal implications of this choice never stops affecting their relationship. In 1800’s Russia, social stigma was so powerful that without validation love could not prevail no matter the strength. Anna and Vronsky’s affair was doomed to fail as the heavy weight of society dictated most of their choices and feelings. After Anna momentarily refuses to see Vronsky, he exclaims, “‘This is how people go mad… and how they shoot themselves…to escape humiliation’” (Tolstoy 387). Although his peers were previously envious of him, they now see him as a failure as his relationship is no longer enjoyable. Luckily, Vronsky survives the injury, yet his actions attest to his belief that death is the only way to escape society’s judgemental eye. Anna faces a similar feeling of humiliation when she attends a play with a friend after returning to the city. She is disgraced by her peers simply for being in attendance and consequently laments to Vronsky, “Hideous! As long as I live I shall never forget it. She said it was a disgrace to sit beside me” (Tolstoy 507). According to Henry Pickford, characters in Anna Karenina often face a battle between their internal desires and their external actions which results in negative psychological impacts on them. These “external roles, ruts, duties, and customs devoid of intentional meaning” (Pickford) can threaten a person’s free will and ability to have independence in their own desires. The Russian upper class is merciless in their adherence to these social norms. Consequently, Anna’s unending experience of disparagement due to her inability to find a belonging in society severely strains her mental state and her relationship with Vronsky. These burdens lead to her final act of life to be in defiance of the society that destroyed her happiness.
After fights with her lover progressively worsen due to incessant humiliation from the public eye, Anna resolves to kill herself: “I will…escape from everyone and from myself” (Tolstoy 706). By committing suicide on railroad tracks, Anna exhibits the harsh effects of her constant struggle to live out her own desires in the face of a judgemental community. Henry Pickford explains the symbolism of railroad tracks as a metaphor throughout the novel for the rigidity of societal expectations. Railroad tracks, just like social rules, offer a specific path that must be followed and cannot be left (Pickford). An individual’s free will is almost impossible in Russia’s elite class as each decision must abide to a preset form of rules. The characters bound to this track are never able to escape it. Specifically for Anna, these expectations of her social class influence the choices she makes for much of her life. When she finally decides to follow her own desires, the judgments of her peers for not sticking to the “rails” results in the deterioration of herself and her mental health. Anna sees the only escape from these rules, which impose themselves in all facets of her life, as death. In a fitting ending to her constrained life, Anna eventually commits suicide on a railroad track, symbolic of the suppression she endlessly endured.
The disturbed lives of the characters in Anna Karenina demonstrate that most individuals must either conform to society’s rules and live a life of fabrication or reject them in exchange for social exile or even death. Dismissing cultural norms requires an extreme disregard for the opinions of others that few are able to achieve. These ideas of societal expectations are commonplace today with endless examples of their impact in the stories of self-conscious teens, oppressed citizens, and ostracized minorities. Yet, now more than ever, these pressures are truly inescapable. Due to individuals’ limitless connections through technology, critical opinions are consistently broadcasted in the palm of a person’s hand, making us inseparable from their harmful influence.
Melfi, Mary Ann. “Keeping Secrets in Anna Karenina.” Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, vol. 25, no. 1-2, 2004, p. 70+. Literature Resource Center, libraries.state.ma.us/login?gwurl=http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=LitRC&sw=w&u=mlin_s_sharonhs&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CA114049422&it=r&asid=447d05f74407ce4eead78e759d8dee27. Accessed 2 Feb. 2017.
Pickford, Henry W. “Of Rules and Rails: on a Motif in Tolstoy and Wittgenstein.” Tolstoy Studies Journal, vol. 22, 2010, p. 39+. Literature Resource Center, libraries.state.ma.us/login?gwurl=http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=LitRC&sw=w&u=mlin_s_sharonhs&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CA272167843&it=r&asid=b60c736d6d9490cac43f5ac22793009c. Accessed 2 Feb. 2017.
Roberts, Lee. “The Asian Threat in Europe: Topical Connections Between the Serial Novels Anna Karenina and Effi Briest.” The Comparatist, vol. 35, 2011, p. 85+. libraries.state.ma.us/login?gwurl=http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=LitRC&sw=w&u=mlin_s_sharonhs&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CA258599254&it=r&asid=8398f04c6425013b0fc9e2c6c2e1fe35. Accessed 2 Feb. 2017
Shevitch, S. E. “Russian Novels and Novelists of the Day.” Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, edited by Dennis Poupard, vol. 17, Gale, 1985. Literature Resource Center, libraries.state.ma.us/login?gwurl=http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=LitRC&sw=w&u=mlin_s_sharonhs&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CH1420020525&it=r&asid=f013954289279a09cbc40166f43696bc. Accessed 1 Feb 2017.
Tolstoy, Leo, and Constance Garnett. Anna Karenina. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003. Print.
How Judgment is Used in Anna Karenina to Make the Plot Complex
The question of judgment and sympathies in Anna Karenina is one that, every time I have read the novel, seems to become more complicated and slung with obfuscation. The basic problem with locating the voice of judgment is that throughout the novel, there are places where we feel less than comfortable with the seemingly straightforward, at times even didactic presentation of Anna and Vronsky’s fall into sin alongside Levin’s constant moral struggle. As Anna’s story unfolds in its episodic manner within the context of the rest of the novel, Tolstoy seems to be trying to make the fact of her guilt more and more clear to us; at the same time though, we have more and more difficulty in tracing out the specific locus of that guilt. In a novel as consummately constructed as this one is, we are tempted to look for places where the undercurrents of the text, the places where the text takes on its own life and force, run against, or at least complicate, the discernment of authorial judgment. By closely examining Tolstoy’s treatment of Anna’s moral crisis as compared with his handling of Levin, we might attempt to unravel the book’s rather layered and complex system of condemnation.
The novel’s epigraph sets a certain tone for us before we even begin reading; the biblically inflected “Vengeance is mine; I will repay,” plants in our heads the idea that wrong will be done and punishment exacted. Indeed, we come across a wrong in the very first lines of the opening chapter, in Stepan Arkadyich’s dalliance with the French governess, which has thrown the Oblonsky house into “confusion.”(1) Tolstoy’s descriptions of Stepan Arkadyich as a pleasant, honest, well-liked bon vivant seem at times to drip with contempt. He is “lazy and mischievous”(14), his life “dissipated”(14), and
“the distributors of earthly blessings, in the form of positions, leases, concessions and the like, were all friends of his and could not pass over one of their own; …Oblonsky did not have to try especially hard to obtain a profitable post; all he had to do was not refuse, not envy, not quarrel, not get offended, which, owing to his natural kindness, he never did anyway.”(14)
Stiva is basically a totally harmless, even likable character, but at the same time we are made very aware that he is one of the novel’s moral weaklings. There is something very resonant about the “stupid smile”(3) Stiva gives Dolly as she confronts him with the evidence of his philandering?he is made to seem constitutionally incapable of an appropriate response.
In an irony almost too glaring to call irony, Anna enters on to this scene in the role of restorer of her brother’s familial harmony. Before she is off the train from Moscow though, before her name even appears in the text, the seduction has begun. From the moment Vronsky sets eyes on her, the narrator makes it abundantly clear that the attraction and flirtation are, on Anna’s part anyway, genuine and involuntary. When she looks back at Vronsky as he has stood aside to let her leave the carriage, Tolstoy, through Vronsky, notes
“the restrained animation that played over her face and fluttered between her shining eyes and the barely noticeable smile that curved her red lips. It was as if a surplus of something so overflowed her being that it expressed itself beyond her will, now in the brightness of her glance, now in her smile. She deliberately extinguished the light in her eyes, but it shone against her will in a barely noticeable smile.”(61)
It is significant that our introduction to Anna is through Vronsky. Vronsky’s response to her is instantaneous, and the reader shares in his gaze as he “follow[s] her with his eyes until her graceful figure disappear[s];”(63) as we recognize what has passed between them, we are also made to instinctively feel Anna’s force of attraction. If Anna can be said to cast a spell, Tolstoy makes sure the reader falls under it as well as Vronsky.
She continues to exude an almost magical charm through her impressions on the members of the Oblonsky family. In her first conversation with Dolly she is presented as all filled with genuine empathy and compassion for her sister-in-law. Kitty is soon “in love with her, as young girls are capable of being in love with older married ladies.”(71) Admiration comes from every corner?the very narration itself seems to be in love with her.
Peace is restored to the troubled household, (“God is merciful,”(71) Anna significantly writes to her brother inviting him home for dinner), in time for the great ball, during which Anna’s charm, at its stunning peak, becomes almost sinister. Our view of her during this scene is from Kitty, who is of course very threatened by Anna as soon as men, particularly Vronsky, enter the scene. Though her enchantment is still presented as natural and ingenuous, now “there [is] something terrible and cruel”(83) in it.
Nevertheless, the moments between Anna and Vronsky as they are falling in love, at the ball and then later on the station platform, are some of the most electrifying in the novel. There are certainly overtones of judgment on Anna’s narcissism; Kitty describes her as “demonic”(83), and when Anna sees Vronsky unexpectedly through the snow on the platform, though she has apparently told herself that she would “never allow herself even to think of him”(102), she is “overcome by a feeling of joyful pride,”(102) when she sees the admiration in his face. But the exhilaration and sexual excitement that comes through in the writing about these two is unmistakable, and utterly engaging. Their affair becomes desirable to the reader, because the passages when they are together, in the beginning of their relationship, are so charged.
We can safely assume that there was no such intensity or narcissism in Stepan Arkadyich’s affair with the French governess, as we can sense that the quality of Levin’s feelings for Kitty are presented very differently. Far from seeming fated or inevitable, Levin’s love for Kitty is a hand-me-down, has passed over her older sisters, and has now devolved upon her. Nor is it an impetuous love. Vronsky follows Anna the day after the ball on a whim, simply to be where she is; Levin spends a good deal of the novel alone, rejected by Kitty, but thinking of her. When he sees her again, his love therefore appears steady, measured and true, in contrast to the uncertainty that plagues Anna and Vronsky’s love for one another.
All the book’s overt signs, (we might even say there is a ?protest-too-much’ over-abundance of them), point to Levin as the book’s moral center. He is too ingenuous to be a ?hit’ in society. He is a ?worker of the land’, an occupation upon which Tolstoy clearly places a kind of edenic, (though perhaps slightly patronizing), value. He places great value on family. He is not seeking love of the kind Vronsky and Anna have ; almost as an extension of his feeling for land and the ground, Levin is looking not for a grand passion, but for a family life. Perhaps most significantly, he is always working on himself, questioning himself, sounding himself, earnestly collecting information from the world and measuring it against himself, constantly struggling to attain to the truth of himself and the world around him.2
In terms, though, of ?the pleasure of the text’, Levin is something of a reader’s disappointment. The sections that deal with him are no where near as engaging or infectious as the sections dealing with Anna and Vronsky, (with the possible qualification that toward the end of the book the scenes between Anna and Vronsky become more and more tawdry and unpleasant), and while the morality imposed on the book may be clear, so is the fact that good morality does not necessarily make for good reading. In the relative tedium and lack of engagement in Levin’s sections of the book, I can’t help but feel at times that Tolstoy himself was bored with him, even though he represents all that the text professes to value. If we return to the famous opening line of the novel, it is the unhappy family that generates a narrative. Levin’s ?happy family’ closes out the text; being just like every other happy family, it does not produce a narrative.
Any great writer must also be a great reader, and from the way he writes about Anna, the reader feels Tolstoy’s love for his own creation; in spite of her sin, in spite of her narcissism, (which eventually develops into a kind of hysteria), perhaps even in spite of the fact that he had set out to write a novel about “eternal justice,”3 we sense, in a fairly visceral way, that Tolstoy feels a deep and abiding love for his heroine. We feel this allegiance perhaps most strongly in his treatment of Anna’s suicide. Her last thoughts and movements as she throws herself under the train seem to echo her life since Vronsky entered it: “…with a light movement, as if preparing to get up again at once, [she] sank to her knees. And in that same instant she was horrified at what she was doing. ?Where am I? What am I doing? Why?’ She wanted to rise, to throw herself back, but something huge and implacable pushed at her head and dragged over her.”(768) Even when you know it’s coming, it is an almost unbearably brutal read; the text itself seems to register the horror of her death by immediately withdrawing to talk of Sergei Ivanovich and his book sales, or lack thereof.
In trying to clarify the authorial judgment in this great novel, we run up against the central rift that Isaiah Berlin called attention to with his dual formulation of Tolstoy as the foxy hedgehog, a conflict between what the messianic moralist knew he should put in his novel, and what the writer loved to write about. In the end, perhaps because Tolstoy was a better writer than he was true moralist, I’m not sure that Tolstoy ever reconciled the novel’s judgment of Anna with his own sympathy and love for her. The result is a novel divided, uneasy with the ?vengefulness’ of its own condemnation, perhaps proud of its over-riding message of living for truth and “the good”(817) in life, but ultimately unable to fully convince us that it gravitates toward its own confused and forced moral center.
The Novels “Anna Karenina” and “We”: In Pursuit of Love
Sexual relations have different social implications depending on the society in which they take place. Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is a 19th century novel and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s Envy is a 20th century novel. Both novels portray the imperfect realities of coupling, yet in very different fashions. Anna Karenina focuses more in depth on the third person relations between characters, while We narrates D-503’s perspective. Both give the reader the understanding that society impacts the value of the relations between man and woman. The consequences of those actions are also depicted.
In order to have imperfect relations, there must be an ideal. Both novels inexplicitly explain an unidentifiable perfect couple. In Anna Karenina, this consists of a married man and woman, who peacefully interact socially and in the bedroom. We’s flawless couple includes a male Number and a female Number who have no emotional connection and “have the right of access to any other’s Number as sexual product” simply to satisfy human need for sex (Zamyatin p. 22). These are very drastically different social implications: one insists on an emotional bond, and the other frowns upon it. Yet in both, social perfection is desirable.
In order to maintain the image of perfection, characters from both books endure discomfort. “The Karenins, husband and wife, went on living in the same house, met everyday, but were completely estranged from each other,” because it upholds their image of an ideal couple (Tolstoy p. 353). Tolstoy writes, “The Karenin, husband and wife,” emphasizing their role to each other and that both are partaking in the establishment of the image. They must endure this because Anna decides she loves a different man. This is not socially acceptable, so rather than either of them facing the embarrassment, they pretend like everything is normal.
In Anna Karenina the ideal couple is a happy and married. In We, there is not the image of perfect unity, rather there is the ideal estrangement. D-503 and O try to maintain this, with their regulating the Sex Day rules, and not calling each other “my.” D-503, however, become infatuated with another Number, I-330. Because in their society, in theory, “there’s no longer the slightest cause for envy,” so when D-503 hurts O with his affections towards another Number, he must recognize the faults with both himself and the system (Zamyatin p.23). O loves D-503, and when she admits this, D thinks to himself, “What savage terminology – “mine.” I was never… But I suddenly caught myself: It occurred to me that I wasn’t before, true, but now…” (Zamyatin p. 76). Here he understands the difference in society’s ideal and the reality. He was not socially hers, but emotionally he was. Now he loves I-330, which should not happen. He calls the word “mine” “savage” because it is from “the Ancient Days,” and has been socially discarded; the feeling has not subsided.
The feeling of ‘mine-ness’ and deviating from the social norm is depicted in a drastic manor in each novel. In Anna Karenina, when Anna and Vronsky consummate their relationship, rather than the ideal perfect union, their coupling is compared to a dead body. Tolstoy emphasizing the unnatural reality of their relationship writes, “And as the murderer falls upon this body with animosity, as if with passion, drags it off and cuts it up, so he covered her face and shoulders with kisses” (Tolstoy pp. 149-150). This is a very horrific scene. Besides the word “murderer,” other words like “animosity,” “drags,” and “cuts,” give the reader the understanding that Anna has killed her potential for the ideal relationship. She has allowed herself to enter a dark place.
D-503 does not enter a dark place, but a place of freedom. Previously, he was only allowed to sleep with someone when other prescribed it, and only allowed as much emotional attachment as society deems appropriate. When D-503 and I-330 consummate their relationship, D-503 later describes the experience “… I tasted the swallow of burning poison, and another and another, and I broke free of the earth, a free planet, whirling furiously, down, down, along some orbit yet to be calculated” (Zamyatin p.56). This “free planet” depicts the freedom that D feels, the magnitude of it all. But it is mixed with the “poison.” This toxin is arguably the alcohol, which D tastes for the first time, but is also possibly the forbidden love. He knows that estrangement is the ideal, yet he cannot help his feelings for I-330, making them toxic. His romantic interest in I-330 is poison for his relationship with O and his relationship with OneState. He feels free, despite all the issues, because he has a more humane kind of love.
With humane love, there is hurt. In Anna Karenina, Vronsky, learning the consequences of his actions, discovers Anna is pregnant. His experience is described, “At this news he felt with tenfold force an attack of that strange feeling of loathing for someone that has been over him” (Tolstoy p.188). This feeling of attack is the discomfort in love. Society perceives that a man and woman should be married to have sexual relations. Vronsky and Anna are not, and through Anna’s pregnancy, they will have to face the humiliation of breaking the ideal. This is uncomfortable.
D-503 experiences a similar discomfort in his new relationship with O. Since impregnating her, he has a more humane, and less robotic, relationship with her. With this, however, comes hurt. While he gives her what she wants, he does not love her. At this point, he recognizes his role in hurting her. O rubs his arm, as if to say, it’ll be ok. D thinks, “This was some kind of ancient caress that I’d never heard of… I felt such hurt and shame that I jerked my hand back (probably a little too roughly)” (Zamyatin p. 164). He reacts so sharply because he is unfamiliar with affection, and is aware that he has enabled this kind of affection. He feels guilty.
If one followed the social standards, he or she would not feel guilty. Both in Anna Karenina and in We, the couples are imperfect because they do not follow the expectations of that society. Anna decides she does not wish to follow the expectation of marriage, and D-503 decides not to act in estrangement. Tolstoy and Zamyatin depict very different societies, but both suffer from human love. The similarities in the character’s trails highlight the inevitable struggle for perfect love, but the consequences of this inability.
“Anna Karenina”: Actions Mean More than Words
Facial expressions and body language communicate one’s intentions and emotions far better than words. Leo Tolstoy, in Anna Karenina, describes a plethora of physical descriptions, enabling the reader to more completely understand the characters’ emotional state of mind. Other characters and the narrator frequently describe Anna’s shoulders. When Vrosnky and Levin look at them, they have a surge of excitement. Dolly and Kitty notice them and are impressed. The narrator depicts her shoulders in times of discontentment or pain. In all three cases, Anna’s shoulders signify the mood at the time of the interaction. Anna’s shoulders are a tangible manifestation of her mental and emotional state, and what kind of energy she expresses.
When Anna’s shoulders are described for the first time, Anna also acts promiscuously for the first time, by dancing with Vronsky, whom is expected to propose to Kitty. Kitty admires Anna’s dress, which exposed her shoulders and chest. She emphasized that “the black dress with luxurious lace was not seen on her; it was just a frame, and only she was seen – simple, natural, graceful, and at the same time gay and animated” (p.79). Anna’s dress choice is evidence of her mood; she wanted to fit within the “frame” of society’s expectations for her, yet still expose her exuberant nature.
While still conforming to society’s expectations, she sympathizes with social outcasts, foreshadows her future affair. At the ball when Anna is exposing her shoulders, Kitty walks over to Anna, and interrupts a conversation, where Anna is saying, “No, I don’t throw stones” (p.79). This is a reference in the bible when a woman is caught in the act of adultery. The woman is dragged into public, completely naked. The crime for adultery at the time was stoning. Jesus says, “He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone at her” (John 8:7). When Anna says, I don’t cast stones, she is saying that she is not without sin, but also that she may sympathize with a woman who commits adultery. The circumstances – her flirtatious mood, exposed shoulders, and the conversation — foreshadow her leaving her husband in favor of Vronsky, her future lover.
Once Anna becomes more comfortable with her expressive mannerism, Vronsky follows the opportunity until they consummate their relationship. The narrator compares this interaction; “as the murderer falls upon this body with animosity, as if with passion, drags it off and cuts it up, so [Vronsky] covered [Anna’s] face and shoulders with kisses” (pp.149-150). In this graphic description, the reader becomes aware of the toxic physical relationship the characters have created. Anna’s shoulders — the tangible revealing of her previous mental restraint– inform the reader of the characters’ actions. By comparing their physical relationship to a murder, Anna — and the reader — is forced to recognize that Vronsky killed her previously admired social standing because of “these kisses” on her shoulder, (p.150). Yet, she holds Vronsky’s love closely. He killed her mental resistance, and in doing so, encouraged her promiscuous behavior to grow.
After an extensive stretch of time, Anna is dying from puerperal fever, and she reconsiders the growth of her scandal. She no longer holds her defiance as a dear characteristic, which is apparent in how she now carries her shoulders. As she lay in bed, “The doctor took her arms away, carefully laid her back on the pillow and covered her shoulders” (p.413). She is no longer in a position of physical power, which is represented by the doctor covering her shoulders, as if to say, you need to stop exposing yourself and return to your previous way of life. The physical recovering instigates verbal control, which she used to easily possess. She demands that Alexi Alexandrovich uncover Vronsky’s face and forgive him, which he does. Once this is complete, she prepares to die.
Contrary to her plan, Anna miraculously lives, and resorts back to her previous risqué relationship with Vronsky, much to society’s gossiping pleasure. Suppressed by the lies and exclusion, Anna decides to go to the opera to prove she does not care about society’s expectations for her. Vronsky describes Anna as she sits in a box at the show; “The setting of her head on her handsome, broad shoulders, and the restrained excitement and brilliance of her eyes and her whole face reminded him of her just as he had seen her at the ball in Moscow” (p. 546). Her shoulders are described as broad, which could mean they were drawing more attention than usual. It is interesting that the singer’s shoulders are the only other shoulders described in this scene. Obviously, being the main performer, the singer is seeking attention. By also wearing a revealing dress, Anna is competing for attention with the performer. She succeeds. Vronsky, not looking for Anna knows where she is sitting “from the direction of all eyes” (p.545). Anna is the center of attention. She ends up in a cyclical process: Anna is excited to prove she can act however she wants, so she dresses in a revealing manor exposing her shoulders, then when people stare and gossip she becomes even more excited. By showing her shoulders, she is physically displaying her emotional state of excited defiance toward social expectations.
In Anna’s final moments of life, she looses her mental vigor. When she is at the train station looking for Vrosnky in a completely agitated state, she suddenly thinks of the train as a way to end her misery. “Exactly at the moment when the space between the wheels came opposite her, she dropped the red bag, and drawing her head back into her shoulders, fell on her hands under the carriage, and lightly, as though she would rise again at once, dropped on to her knees” (p. 768). Tolstoy describes Anna as “drawing her head back into her shoulders,” which could be a metaphor for her physical and emotional trial. During her entire relationship with Vronsky, there has been a struggle between what she verbally says and what her body reveals. When she meets Vronsky for the first time, “she deliberately extinguished the light in her eyes, but it shone against her will,” (p.61). At a party she encourages him to leave her alone, and when he refuses says, “That only shows you have no heart,”… But her eyes said that she knew he had a heart, and that was why she was afraid of him.” (p.139). This is a reoccurring struggle, so when Anna finally has no more mental strength to fight the oppression of her situation, she acts purely how her body has wanted to the entire time. In her dying moments, her head, which represents her mental strength, falls onto her shoulders, which represents her physical desire. Her final moments are her mental ending her externally expressed internal struggle.
This struggle can be related to Vronsky’s attention and Anna’s resistance. It is not accidental that both Anna’s shoulders and promiscuousness appear at the same time; when her shoulders are described, and when they are not, are based on her intentions. At the train station, when she first arrives in Petersburg and meets Vronsky, “she deliberately extinguished the light in her eyes, but it shone against her will”(p. 61). Upon their meeting, her shoulders are not depicted. Every other feature is described: her figure, expression, head, eyes, eyelashes, and lips. She tries to distinguish the light, which shows she is committed to maintaining her social expectations, despite her attraction to Vronsky. Similarly, at a party she encourages him to leave her alone, and again, her shoulders are not described. By dressing to expose her shoulders, she no longer attempts to restrain the defiant energy within her.
Tolstoy is aware of the relationship between mental thought and physical action; he expresses his understanding of body language as a form of communication through his descriptions of Anna’s shoulders. While Anna’s mental strength is what was extinguished by her inner struggle, other characters are aware of her trials because of her expression of her body, particularly her shoulders. When she allowed Vronsky to kill her social standing, she introduced the beginning to her tragic end. Had she never exposed her shoulders, she would have maintained her moderate existence and extensive prestige.