Anna Karenin


by Leo Tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy's novel, "Anna Karenin", upon its release
received a mix critical reception, with Russian critics
either condemning or applauding the novel primarily on its
views of Russian society. Thematically, the novel parallels
its heroine's, Anna Karenin's, moral and social conflicts
with Constantin Levin's internal struggle to find the
meaning of life. There are many other underlying themes
which links the novel as a whole, yet many critics at the
time only looked upon its critical view of Russian life.
Henry James called Tolstoy's novels as "loose and baggy
monsters' of stylishness, but Tolstoy stated of Anna
Karenin".....I am very proud of its architecture--its
vaults are joined so that one cannot even notice where the
keystone is." That is absolutely correct, because within
Anna Karenin, there exists many themes that are all linked
together to create such a wonderful piece of work. 

Critics tend to miss the role that the theme of life and
death plays in Tolstoy's Anna Karenin. Despite its apparent
meanings, these two themes are intertwined in the novel and
provides a backbone for some of the other existing themes.
With a masterful touch, Tolstoy is able to use these two
themes to show the characters in their true forms at both
stages. The characters are shown to be living in a state of
delusion, and as the characters find themselves at times of
near death situations or on their deathbed, they are able
to reveal themselves truthfully. 

Many of the characters in the novel are able to show their
"real self" and at times of death, there is a point of
reversal in the characters. This is most evident in the
scene of Anna's near death experience during her illness.
This event brings about a change in Karenin and even
Vronsky as they trade positions. Karenin suddenly becomes
human and not hidden from life by his administrative
regulations. His carapace cracks, and he becomes drunk with
sympathy, dazzled by his own generosity. Death for Karenin
becomes the basic truth which makes him a living human
being capable of love. While on the other hand, Vronsky
takes on the role of Karenin, he is unable to deal with
Anna's deathbed crisis and even goes as far as attempting

This awareness of life-in-death provides the climax of the
novel, with the main characters perceiving the truth from
the heights of their emotional intensity. Hate and deceit
no longer exist in the presence of death, and the three
characters live in a moment of pure innocence. 

Yet as the crisis ends, and everything returns to
normality, Anna, Vronsky and Karenin return to their old
ways to live in that world of delusion. Anna and Vronsky
continues with their ill-fated love, while Karenin despite
his ennoblement, finds that Anna cannot love him and
reverts back to his old ways. This clearly shows that death
brings about the ultimate truth of life and the world of
the living is just a delusion. 

Death in the novel is personified by Levin's brother, the
all-too-intimate Nikolai, whose lingering, ghastly death
pushes Levin to make the leap of faith. This leap of faith
which the other characters had experienced, but were unable
to retain after their dramatic experience with death. Levin
is unlike them, and is in fact, able to discover for
himself the meaning of life in the world and retain his
leap of faith. For Levin in the end, he is no longer afraid
of death and even though he does not completely change, he
now knows the meaning of life and is at peace. 

Levin's example here provides for the reader an insight
into Tolstoy's intertwining and complex structure in Anna
Karenin. The reader is able to better understand how the
role of death is critical to the novel. Levin serves as the
backbone for Tolstoy's emphasis on the "natural life" where
one loves and procreates, as opposed to the "unnatural
life" where one lives by abstract principles. The natural
man, according to Tolstoy, grasps life through all its
realities and can then understand death. Intellect and
spirit merely bypass essential truths. 

While in the world of the living, Tolstoy shows the reader
the delusions of life through various characters.
Especially apparent is the princess Betsy Tverskoy who is
so caught up in her daily life and is unable to change. She
throws extravagant dinner parties for that part of society
which feasts on delusions. The irony behind it is that
they, despite their disillusionment, mock Anna at one of
the parties where she had shown up with her lover, Vronsky.
This is in essence the downfall of Anna, who has succumbed
to passion for her lover. 

The theme of life and death will come to review itself in
the novel. As for Anna, she embodies it even thought she
didn't know it. In the end, as Anna traces the career which
drives her to suicide in her long soliloquy, she discovers
that her love had turned to hate, that her life has become
a "stupid delusion" and death provides the only
alternative. Anna now accepts death as she had
spontaneously and naturally confronted her love. Anna's
death is an affirmation of her deep commitment to life and
that death is the final truth to her illustrious career.
"And the candle by which she had been reading the book
filled with trouble and deceit, sorrow and evil, flared up
with a brighter light, illuminating for her everything that
before had been enshrouded in darkness, flickered, grew
dim, and went out forever." (Tolstoy, p.816) 

Tolstoy cleverly uses the themes of life and especially
death beneath the other themes in an intricate structure.
Tolstoy uses the themes as a vehicle to link the themes
together to relate it to the readers. The theme of death is
most critical to the novel, because it invokes the
characters in the novel to do what they do. That fear of
death and not being able to understand it, is the reason
for characters' actions. It is the backbone for the other
themes of the "natural man," love and deceit, "unhappy
family," adultery, and some other themes that exists in the
In "Anna Karenin", Tolstoy seems to be in search of answers
for his own questions through the two main characters of
the novel, Anna and Levin. There are aspects of each
character that can be accredited to Tolstoy himself, and
this provides the reader with a chance to see the
development of not only Anna and Levin, but also Tolstoy
himself. Tolstoy is also afraid of death and through his
character's development he is able to discover for himself. 

Tolstoy's Anna Karenin provides a lot of insight into our
own lives. We need to look to the past to protect the
future, and yet we tend to forget that. Nevertheless,
Tolstoy has created a wonderful piece of literature with an
intricate plot structure. As Sydney Schultze puts it, "the
study of the novel's construction is rewarding because the
book is so beautifully crated." With regards to the theme,
I would be justified to say that it is the keystone, which
Tolstoy mentioned about, of the architecture of the book. 

Death is an integral part of everybody's life and no matter
who it is, everybody fears death. To come to terms with
death is something that takes a lot of courage and a full
understanding of oneself. Tolstoy in his novel, has
revealed to us the effect that death can have on a person
and advocates us to not succumb to the daily life of the
world which we live in, because it is all a delusion. Yet
if we live as naturally as possible, we can get a better
grasp on the true essence of life as Levin does in the
novel. He finds joy out of working and enjoying the fruits
of his labor, instead of indulging himself in the
materialism of the hypocritical aristocrats. Modern culture
has lost this aspect of life and we need to check ourselves
before we lead our lives into a downfall 


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