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NA408112 - TOLSTOY, L.: Anna Karenina (Abridged)
Count Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy was born in 1828 on his family’s estate
at Yasna Polyana in the province of Tula, some two hundred miles from Moscow. His family was Russian landed gentry, and Tolstoy grew up during the last phase of serfdom.
Both his parents had died by the time he was ten years old, and he was brought up by elderly women relatives and educated at home by tutors. He then attended Kazan University, but gave up his studies to farm and manage his estate, which he failed to do successfully.
He spent the years 1851 to 1857 in the army as a volunteer officer, and served with his regiment at the siege of Sevastopol. After his release from the army he traveled abroad, returning to live at Yasna Polyana. There he became a Magistrate and built a school for peasant children. In 1861 he married Sophie Behr, a young woman sixteen years his junior.
The following period of his life was calm and prosperous. His marriage was a happy one, and his wife bore him thirteen children. His farming was successful, and his writing began to bring him an income. But after some fifteen years, his theological doubts and social concerns led to a severe spiritual crisis. In 1879 he wrote a complete account of his religious conversion in A Confession. He followed this with a series of pamphlets, and his
personal view of the Christian doctrine became known as ‘Tolstoyism’. Although his teachings attracted many followers in Russia and abroad,
they alienated the Church, and in 1901 he was ex-communicated.
In adopting what he perceived as a godly and compassionate way of life, which involved dressing simply in peasant clothes, following a vegetarian and teetotal regime and doing manual work, Tolstoy became increasingly estranged from his wife and children. At the age of 82 he attempted to escape from these family tensions by leaving home secretly at night, accompanied by his daughter. He collapsed at a nearby railway station where he later died of pneumonia on November 8, 1910.
It is generally accepted that Anna Karenina belongs among the world’s greatest novels, and shares with War and Peace the reputation of being one of Tolstoy’s two great masterpieces.
The subject of the novel suggested itself to Tolstoy in 1873 when, at
a railway station near his home, a young woman threw herself under
an approaching train. The central core of the novel is Anna and Vronsky’s obsessive, doomed love affair, but their story is interwoven with other strands which, taken together, address all the major human experiences; sexual and spiritual love, birth and death. The action is set against the changing background of Russian life in the final years of the 19th century, and Tolstoy writes authentically about every aspect of society from the glittering drawing rooms of Petersburg and Moscow, to his beloved countryside, where landowners and peasants are attempting to adjust to the new order as serfdom comes to an end.
As a counterpoint to Anna and Vronsky’s story, Tolstoy presents us with
a view of other, different relationships. Levin and Kitty, after experiencing the pain of rejection and separation, are united in a union blessed by Church and State, while Dolly and Stiva’s marriage manages to survive, though damaged, after Stiva’s thoughtless philandering. Human nature, with all its failings, is the fabric of which this great and compassionate work is composed, in which its author shows us our imperfections, but
does not judge our actions.
Many women of the time found themselves in similar situations to Anna’s, arising from their innocence and ignorance of the world. Anna has married a man many years her senior, whom she does not love. Their lack of compatibility is not surprising, given the limited influence a young girl was able to exercise in the choice of her husband. As Dolly explains to Levin: “You men become attracted to a girl; you call on her, get to know her, wait your chance, and if you find her to be what you thought her, you propose...But the girl is not asked. You want her to choose for herself, but she cannot choose; her function is merely to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’.”
Dolly has married Stiva from the schoolroom, without any understanding of her husband’s selfish, voluptuary character, and is rudely awakened by his affair with their governess.
Kitty mistakes Vronsky’s attentions for love, and is heartbroken when she discovers he does not care for her. Before she and Levin can be united, she has to go through a period of painful learning, before she can appreciate the qualities of the man she has rejected. Anna, having married without love, is defenseless against the power of her passions once Vronsky unleashes them.
An affair such as theirs might have been acceptable in their sophisticated circle had it been conducted discreetly. Even Anna’s husband would have been prepared to turn a blind eye had his own reputation remained unaffected. But the depth of their passion leads them to flout society’s rules, and
society takes its revenge.
In experiencing that revenge it is Anna who suffers most. As a man with
a mistress Vronsky is not markedly different from many others, and his
position in society is practically unaffected. But Anna, as a ‘fallen’ woman finds the doors of respectable houses closed to her, and when Vronsky wishes to enter them, he is obliged to do so alone. The laws of marriage and divorce are heavily biased in favor of the husband, and Karenin has the power to separate Anna from her beloved son.
Thus the forces of society gradually bear down upon Anna with the same insensible and inexorable momentum as the iron monster, which finally crushes the life out of her body on the railway line. The constant reminders of the extent to which she has transgressed society’s laws finally lead her to destroy the love which is the source of her shame and guilt, and with it her only reason for living.
But the novel does not end with Anna’s death. Her tragic destiny is set within a wider framework, and contrasted with the happier outcome of Levin and Kitty’s story. The path they have followed leads to their finding a deeper love and understanding within their marriage, while Levin’s search for faith results in his spiritual enlightenment. There is much of the author in the character of Levin, whose experiences to a great extent reflect those of Tolstoy’s own life. In the end Levin comes to believe, as did Tolstoy, that God is inside all of us, and that it is only by leading a life which reflects his goodness that we can be happy.
As the book ends with Levin gazing into the vastness of the night sky filled with joy at his newly-discovered faith, we feel we are in the presence of the author himself, as he affirms his belief in the power of our innate goodness to give meaning to the lives we lead, and to bring us happiness despite our human failings.
Notes by Neville Jason
Laura Paton trained at LAMDA where she won the St. Philip’s Prize for Poetry and the Michael Warre Award. She has toured the UK extensively in productions as varied as The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Oscar Wilde’s Salomé.
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