Tolstoy's Anna Karenina Essay

Tolstoy's Anna Karenina Essay

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Tolstoy's Anna Karenina


The world of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina is a world ruled by chance. From the very opening chapters, where a watchman is accidentally run over by a train at Moscow's Petersburg station, to the final, climactic scenes of arbitrary destruction when Levin searches for Kitty in a forest beset by lightning, characters are brought together and forced into action against their will by coincidence and, sometimes, misfortune. That Anna and Vronsky ever meet and begin the fateful affair that becomes the centerpiece of the novel is itself a consequence of a long chain of unrelated events: culminating Anna's sharing a berth with Vronsky's mother on her way to reconcile Dolly and Stiva in Moscow. And yet, as an epigraph to this seemingly chaotic world of chance event, a seemingly amoral world that would seem to neither punish sin nor reward good, Tolstoy chooses a quotation that comes originally from the book of Deuteronomy's song of Moses: "Vengeance is mine; I will repay." Originally (and somewhat narrowly) thought to refer to Anna's final ostracism from the upper echelons of society that punish her for her misdeeds, the epigraph is the key to Tolstoy's subtle and philosophically complex conception of morality that denies the existence of a universal and unavoidable justice and derives responsibility from the individual's freedom to create and then bind himself to laws. Three of the novel's characters, Stephen Oblonsky, Constatine Levin, and Anna Karenina, all in some way connected to the Shcherbatsky family, serve to illustrate the various ways that Tolstoy's individual can be, or fail to be, "good," the various ways in which a character can be moral, immoral or amoral through the use of thought, or reason, to create necessity outside of the confused demands of a chaotic reality.

Tolstoy's world is indeed a servant to chance, and the plot depends so heavily on coincidence that Anna Karenina, taking into account the many elements of Menippian satire and Socratic dialogue that are integrated into its structure, may well be considered in part a carnival novel. The steeplechase scene during which Vronsky breaks Frou-Frou's back is a perfect example of carnivalism -- the tragic yet somehow slapstick and cartoon-like injuries that befall the riders is a parody of the grand battlefield that the steeplechase is supposed to symbolize and the ...


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...els." Anna is immovable in the face of the purely pleasurable and uninterpreted aspects of life -- "girlish delights" -- that are Oblonsky's daily bread.

Anna is thus a tragic hero in the strict Aristotelian sense of being destroyed by the logical evolution of her personality. Yet it is also true that Tolstoy resists the tragic form in the overall structure of his novel by continuing into Part VIII and into Levin's life after Anna's death. While Anna fails to sustain a life centered in "romantic morality," the Goethian ideal of complete devotion, not to the loved one, but the condition of being in reciprocal love itself, Levin finds, at the end of the novel, a way to live that transcends the demands of reality. In the folk culture of the peasants that he encountered near the very beginning of the novel, he finds the peasant Theodore who understands Levin's need to leave the mundane, to live not for his belly, but for "Truth," a goodness that is beyond the chain of cause and effect that so binds the other characters in the novel -- Dolly, for example, who, unable to apply reason outside of pragmatic thought to her life, continues to live, pathetically, with her unfaithful husband.

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