Some Notes After Reading Anna Karenina

anna-kAnna Karenina is the first full length Leo Tolstoy novel I read after reading War and Peace six years ago. This is also the first lengthy novel of around a thousand pages that I read after reading Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov three years ago. After Anna Karenina, the only lengthy tome by the 19th Century Russian masters left for me to read is The Idiot.

Morality and Women Oppression

Like Tolstoy’s other novels, Anna Karenina is primarily an exploration of the question of morality as is pretty much explicit in novellas such as the Kreutzer Sonata, The Death of Ivan Ilych, Family Happiness, The Forged Coupon etc. This investigation is carried out in Anna Karenina by way of the subject of marriage and adultery. From the very beginning, with the opening line on , up to the end we are led by the hand to delve in Tolstoy’s ruminations on the questions what is good and evil, what is proper and indecorous, and what is the meaning of life and faith. This interrogation is primarily achieved by the construction of the distinction between the adulterous love affair in the triangle of the characters Anna-Karenin-Vronsky and the counterpoint of the parallel story of the successful marriage of Levin and Kitty.

In this moral universe, the female adulteress is condemned to death while the ideal couple is given the key to unravelling the mystery of human conditions. The male lover, the third term who ruined the Karenin’s marriage is given the chance to redeem himself by self-immolation in the glory of war. And yet in spite of the dominant feudal-patriarchal convictions on family life as the foundation of Christian happiness that underpin the novel, Tolstoy does not paint the sinnful woman as pure evil. For all of depiction of Anna’s whims and the depravity of her social position, Tolstoy’s masterful rendition allows readers to peer deeply into the sorry condition of women in 19th Century Russia. We are shown the double-standards and oppression of gender that women of Czarist society – even those of noble standing like Anna – are made to go through.

In Anna, Tolstoy created a character that we can sympathize with. This is unlike the hedonist Flaubert, as Priscilla Meyer points out in her introduction to the novel, who paints his protagonist Madame Bovary as an inferior provincial girl who enters into adulterous liasions and ruins herself simply on account of an unquenchable thirst for materialistic luxury, an obsession with social status, and the fantasy of eloping into another country. On the contrary, Anna possesses all that already. We thus begin to see the unequal position women in a feudal-patriarchal society. We read a truer account of romantic passion unmediated by mercinary considerations. We get to see how a woman is trapped in a marriage not of her own choosing and is condemned by society after finding the man he truly loves who is a dashing and young aristocrat. So unlike Flaubert, Tolstoy avoids the pitfall of denigrating his character based on his own gender and class position but rather shows how a woman is caught in the web of conventions that eventually pushes her to her death.

Mirror of the Russian Revolution

This must be the reason why V.I. Lenin himself, in an attempt to reclaim the great Russian master from his bourgeois and royalist admirers in the intelligentsia, dubbed Tolstoy as the “Mirror of the Russian Revolution.” Despite Tolstoy’s being a “landlord obsessed with Christ” he is also “a great artist, the genius who has drawn incomparable pictures of Russian life… powerful, forthright and sincere protest against social falsehood and hypocrisy… [and] merciless criticism of capitalist explotation.” In this regard, the figure of Levin is crucial. The character which Tolstoy stands-in for himself in the Anna Karenina, Levin is representative of Tolstoy’s romanticizing of country life and his admiration for the Russian peasant. Thus we read in the novel a protest against the advance of capitalism, the ruining of the peasant masses, and their dispossession of land in the altar of profit and capital:

Russia’s poverty was not only caused by a wrong distribution of land and a false agricultural policy, but that of late years it was fostered by an alien civilization artificially grafted on Russia, particularly the means of communication, that is, the railways, which led to a centralization in the towns, a growth of luxury, and the resulting development of new industries at the expense of agriculture, as well as credit facilities and, as their concomitant, stock-exchange speculations. He argued that with the normal development of the wealth of a nation all these phenomena would make their appearance only after a considerable amout of labor had been devoted to agriculture and only after the agricultural industry had been placed in proper, or at any rate definite, relations to the other industries; that the wealth of a country must grow in a uniform fashion and especially in such a way that other industries should not outstrip the agricultural industry, that the means of communications should be developed in strict conformance with the condition of agriculture, and that with our wrong methods of using land, the railways, called into existence not by economic but by political needs, had come prematurely and instead of promoting agriculture, as had been expected, had outstripped it and by stimulating the development of industry and credit facilities had arrested its progress; therefore, just as the one-sided and premature development of a single organ in an animal would impede its general development, so credit, means of communciations, and the increased growth of industry, though undoubtedly necessary in Europe where they had arisen at the right moment, had been injurious to us because they had pushed aside the main problem of the organization of agriculture.

Tolstoy is very much aware of revolutionary communism as the following passage from Anna Karenina clearly shows:

“You know,” Nikolai Levin went on, “that capitalism is crushing the worker. Our workers and our peasants bear all the burden of labor and are placed in such a position that no matter how hard they work they cannot escape from their brutish conditions. The capitalists rob them of all the profits of their labor by which they might improve their condition and obtain the leisure necessary for getting some education. Everything over and above their wages is taken away from them, and our society is so constituted that the harder they work the greater the profits of the merchants and the landowners, while they remain beasts of burden forever. And this state of affairs has to be changed,” he concluded.

Tolstoy, however, does not see this as an alternative to the Czarist order as can be seen by his depiction of Levin’s brother Nikolai as a coarse, violent, and excessively passionate communist who has to die in the course of the novel. This figure is opposed to the refined, christian, pacifistic, and reformist line pursued by Levin, and of course, Tolstoy himself in real life. For Lenin, “Tolstoy reflected the pent-up hatred, the ripened striving for a better lot, the desire to get rid of the past – and also the immature dreaming, the political inexperience, the revolutionary flabbiness.” This contradictory aspects in Tolstoy is of course a product of the contradictions of Russian society during his lifetime.

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5 thoughts on “Some Notes After Reading Anna Karenina

  1. Tried reading Anna Karenina early in college. Hindi kinaya, hanggang page 300 lang! Hahaha. Try checking out Joe Wright’s film adaptation with Keira Knightley as Anna. Na overshadow ang film because of the bruhahaha regarding Tom Hopper’s Les Miserables

  2. Pingback: Jumble Spoiler – 08/23/14 | Unclerave's Wordy Weblog

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