Tolstoy: Anna Karenina

October 24, 2015

Anna Karenina
Leo Tolstoy
(Modern Library, 1940) [1877]
950 p. Second reading.
Translated from the Russian by Constance Garnett

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

It is one of the great opening lines, and it is fitting that it comes from one of the greatest novels. I first read Anna Karenina about 15 years ago, and thought that the time had come to revisit it. I am glad that I did. I had forgotten a great deal, and of course the sections about marriage and fatherhood mean more to me now than they did in my bachelor days.

I had not remembered, for instance, that, despite its title, the book is largely two stories told in parallel: those of Anna Karenina and Konstantin Levin; the reader is invited to set the two lives side by side and compare them. As the novel unfolds, Anna spirals down and down, making one poor decision after another, while Levin, in contrast, finds himself grounded more and more steadily, finding his place in the world by attending to his duties as husband and father:

In former days—almost from childhood, and increasingly up to full manhood—when he had tried to do anything that would be good for all, for humanity, for Russia, for the whole village, he had noticed that the idea of it had been pleasant, but the work itself had always been incoherent, that then he had never had a full conviction of its absolute necessity, and that the work that had begun by seeming so great, had grown less and less, till it vanished into nothing. But now, since his marriage, when he had begun to confine himself more and more to living for himself, though he experienced no delight at all at the thought of the work he was doing, he felt a complete conviction of its necessity, saw that it succeeded far better than in old days, and that it kept on growing more and more.

The long denouement in which Levin confronts the spiritual and personal poverty of the views he has held through most of his adult life deserves to be remembered as one of our finest fictional treatments of religious conversion. It is nuanced and tentative, and left incomplete at novel’s end, but what we have is nonetheless quite excellent. “He was in the position of a man seeking food in toy shops and tool shops.”

I was also struck, on this reading, by the numerous comments Tolstoy makes about the effects of moral choices on our notions of what is “rational” and “reasonable”. For example, Stepan Arkadyevitch, whose affair with his children’s governess opens the novel, forms his political alliances based largely on how those alliances judge his own personal conduct:

Stepan Arkadyevitch had not chosen his political opinions or his views; these political opinions and views had come to him of themselves, just as he did not choose the shapes of his hat and coat, but simply took those that were being worn. And for him, living in a certain society—owing to the need, ordinarily developed at years of discretion, for some degree of mental activity—to have views was just as indispensable as to have a hat. If there was a reason for his preferring liberal to conservative views, which were held also by many of his circle, it arose not from his considering liberalism more rational, but from its being in closer accordance with his manner of life. The liberal party said that in Russia everything is wrong, and certainly Stepan Arkadyevitch had many debts and was decidedly short of money. The liberal party said that marriage is an institution quite out of date, and that it needs reconstruction; and family life certainly afforded Stepan Arkadyevitch little gratification, and forced him into lying and hypocrisy, which was so repulsive to his nature.

A very similar dynamic is evident later in the novel as the affair between Anna and Vronsky matures. The open adultery bars them from respectable social life, and in consequence Vronsky’s views on what is and is not scandalous behaviour begins to evolve:

One would have thought he must have understood that society was closed for him and Anna; but now some vague ideas had sprung up in his brain that this was only the case in old-fashioned days, and that now with the rapidity of modern progress (he had unconsciously become by now a partisan of every sort of progress) the views of society had changed, and that the question whether they would be received in society was not a foregone conclusion.

This same process, which I believe is rather prevalent, has been recently treated with some fine insights in Jay Budziszewski’s The Revenge of Conscience.

Obviously Anna Karenina is a great novel. I’m very grateful to have had the opportunity to read it again.

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