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Marriage and Modernity in Anna Karenina

Modern man thinks that his sexual rights are the final chapter in the progress of civilization. Like the enlightened doctrine of religion that understands faith to be subjective, so too sexuality is now considered completely subjective; and just as religious freedom was established on account of the belief that faith is relative, so too sexual relativism proves to be the foundation for sexual freedom and equality. The formula for sexual pluralism and toleration follows the model of religious pluralism and toleration. In truth, both religious toleration and sexual toleration are derived from the Enlightenment or the belief that the progress in science accompanies moral and political progress in the form of liberal and democratic government. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina examines the conflict between sexuality and its related phenomena—love, marriage and family—under the influence of progress.

The indeterminateness of sexuality is celebrated as openness to diversity and freedom of choices, but what appears as nature liberating itself from the oppressive conventions of religion and of society turns out to be just another social convention. In the country, where man is closer to nature, sexual relativity has no place. There one finds greater modesty and differentiation between the genders, and of course more honor for marriage and family. It is only in the urban centers and their apparatuses, the universities (where the voice of nature is stifled by civilization) that sexual relativity is an authoritative dogma. Since sexuality is relative, there can be no sin or guilt, but for that very same reason, sexuality itself cannot be justified. It is a freedom without a reason or what amounts to the same thing, nihilism. All choices are equal in their meaninglessness Inner feeling has no relation to the outer world, and therefore there is no way to think about any of the moral problems that were traditionally part of sexuality and its related phenomenalove, marriage and family. There is no possible moral reflection on premarital sex, modesty, adultery, illegitimacy, courtship, trust and betrayal. It is all relative. The only traditional topic that can be discussed is rape and that is because it is not a sexual crime but a crime against the person meaning a crime against freedom because there is no consent. Sexual nihilism is so far from creating diversity that it is a kind of conformism. Without an end or order to which it is directed, all sexuality is homogenized as sensual and bodily. There is no distinctiveness to either love, marriage or family and they cannot be understood and justified. This is not a progress of man but a diminishment.

Modern man’s sexual rights are really bourgeois. Unable to believe that his own activity has any meaning, he cannot defend the substance and can only defend his right not to be constrained by others. This is negative freedom rather than true love. His right has neither justification in supreme happiness, nor in a moral order. For Tolstoy, this defensiveness distorts the nature of the phenomena. Anna never insists on her right to adultery and to divorce, or even her right to love. It is human to seek happiness and to justify it, and Anna knows that the crude spirit of legal demands simplify and distort the truth of her feelings and the complexity of her situation. Sexuality requires didactic poetry which both seeks happiness and examines the false doctrines which degrade it. The art of sexuality is a philosophic and poetic effort, not a legal movement, and is as degraded by the laws of the urban progressives as by the patriarchal laws of the feudal lords.

The bourgeois character of modern man’s sexual mores is most immediately seen in the directive: “Safe Sex”. Since sexuality has no meaning, it is subordinated to other ends, namely “self-preservation”. Man’s sexuality is indeterminate but his body seeks to preserve itself, and therefore his sexuality must take its place within the economy of bodily desires. Man is not a loving or erotic being but a bourgeois animal that seeks safety. Civilization means the license to do as one pleases within the limitations of the protective state. Safe sex requires protection from the violence of others and from disease. Contracts and medicine are the ways to treat these respective problems. What seems like a sexual triumph over the dark forces of oppression is actually worse than the medieval. Nietzsche said Christianity gave eros poison to drink. It became sin but it did not die. It was forbidden fruit that was a temptation and a danger and still required explanation. But eros is dead for modern man. There can be no searching for meaning in a safe pleasure. Lawyers and doctors now preside over eros creating a safe environment for one’s little pleasures.

The Bourgeois World

Tolstoy examines our relativism and its corresponding libertinism, contract laws, and worship of health and rejects them all in the name of romanticism. How different is life for Tolstoy. Love still breaths in Anna Karenina. It is the poet, not the libertine, lawyer or doctor who is the voice of love. Anna Karenina is the tale of two lives directed towards love in a bourgeois world. The aristocracy and the monarchy are alive in name only. The action of the novel takes place just after the emancipation laws which effectively brought feudalism to an end. The old regime has been destroyed by the European Enlightenment and Tolstoy saw that the future belonged to science and to democracy. The aristocrats in the novel are all progressives of one kind or another. They could not bear the violence and injustice of feudalism and are too sophisticated for orthodox faith. They all hope to be on the right side of history by managing progress. Tolstoy knows they will be destroyed on so many different fronts, but his book is written for them by addressing their situation. They have been uprooted from the feudal order but the new order of science and equality is no solution for life. Anna Karenina speaks to those in the twilight where the past is gone and the future is dim. They are the searching and daring ones, for whom happiness can still be felt and truth found.

The Russian liberal reforms prepare new possibilities, but they are an imitation of Paris and contain all the defects of Paris and more. No people can be considered civilized if they do not know how to love, and it is precisely on this note that modern man falls flat. While his science is great and generates power, as does the modern state by harnessing the energy of the generality people, man himself is deteriorating. Science is abstract as is modern man’s relation to humanity. The former cannot say anything about man qua man and the latter can never be an object of the passions Aristotle said of the polis that it ought not to be too big so that there is no affection, and it ought not to be too small so that it is like a household and not a city. Love too requires the proper range of feeling and attachment. The Cartesian character of modern thought precludes the romantic realm leaving only science and its objects along with either man in his abstract general humanity or in his abstract freedom and equality as an individual calculating for his own survival.

Tolstoy perfects the abstractness of scientific reason in sentiment and thereby reverses the order of modern man, so that the experience of romantic relations defines humanity and sets the path toward goodness. Levin is an atheist who has studied science but he is also a gentleman farmer who wants to have a wife, a family and a household. He is connected to the peasants and to his family and it is in these relations that he discovers the goodness of life, rather than through science and a general idea of self-preservation. The sentiments supersede science and the unity of love, marriage and family replace the individual and his rights. While Levin is Tolstoy’s example of the happy life, Anna is Tolstoy’s example of a life that ends in destruction. Her tragedy, like Levin’s happiness, is learned along the path of private life. She is a loving mother who becomes an adulteress for love. In opposition to Levin, who discovers the goodness of life, she becomes a misanthropist and commits suicide. Through the romantic comedy of Levin and the romantic tragedy of Anna, Tolstoy brings man to self-knowledge.

The Public Intellectual

The emptiness of the modern world is best expressed through its leading spokesperson. Sergey Koznishev is the most famous of the public intellectuals and the older half-brother of the novel’s hero Konstantine Levin. Koznishev is a”philosophic” writer, who moves in the circles of the professors. He is not married and has no children but is the conscience of the aristocracy and the voice for the new public duties. He is Russia’s moralist. A kind of Russian John Rawls, he preaches that all the efforts of the government and of individuals should be dedicated to the education of the serfs and their medical care. Equality demands attention to the least advantaged and to those who have been oppressed. He is always haranguing Levin who tried to perform these duties but abandoned them as futile and unfulfilling.

Koznishev himself has no relation to the serfs who are said to be his sole concern. When he leaves Moscow to visit Levin in the countryside, Koznishev stays indoors and only goes outside to work on his chess moves while Levin works the land with the peasants. Koznishev thinks of the countryside as a place to go to relax as distinct from a place where one lives and is active. He does not like to be dirty and he believes that manual labor is demeaning and beneath him. The peasants are for him an abstraction and he only has an interest in them to the extent that he can be their voice and the object of his compassion. He does not know a single one and would never sacrifice anything for one. In truth, he holds them in contempt and at a distance, and feels no shared humanity with them. He is enamored by the idea of the progress of humanity and thinks that education and medicine are sure signs of it. The emancipated serfs are really just part of his own little cosmology of progress, and he gets to be the high priest.

He spends six years writing a book that he thought would change the world, but nobody reads it. When it is finally reviewed, it is reviewed harshly. Tolstoy tells the reader that it deserves its treatment, but Koznishev can only think the criticisms are personal and wonders how he offended the reviewer. He lives in a world of polite social relations where one of the highest aims is to offend no one. How could there be any love or concern with truth in such a society? After his book falls on deaf ears, he immediately becomes a supporter of the Slavic national war which is generating enthusiasm. He just wants to remain relevant and in the limelight, so now he goes from philosophy to activism and involves himself with the scribble of newspapers and current events that are here today and gone tomorrow. He is a weak man who could never stand alone. Tolstoy says of the war that it attracted the worst of the Russians—those whose lives are worthless to themselves and who either want to die or who are destitute and want a little money, adventure and honor. In reality, Koznishev has no mind of his own and is a slave to public opinion while pretending to be its philosophic conscience.

The mating of Koznishev with public opinion and the newspapers is indicative of the general problem of the Enlightenment. He started out as a kind of pseudo-philosopher discussing mind-body problems and attracting the attention of professors, but he was a popularizer or disseminator at heart. In the spirit of Enlightenment, he wanted to use philosophy for democratic ends. Golenishtchev draws attention to the problem when speaking about the Russian journals. He notices a continual decline in their quality. Originally they contained knowledge of history and philosophy, but now they are negation meaning that their opposition to authority is nihilist and without foundation. Golenishtchev wants to remedy the situation by writing a history but he too is a kind of scribbler like Koznishev and no match for the nihilism of the time.

Golenishtchev’s remarks reflect directly upon a conversation between Pestov, Karenin and Koznishev. In that conversation Koznishev plays the open minded free thinker by equivocating on the question of classical studies versus the study of science. He is for both of them and feels, in particular, to defend science against Karenin’s preference for education in the studies of the ancients.  Karenin argues that the ancients provide humane and moral learning, whereas ultimately the sciences are nihilistic. Koznishev responds with a joke stating that classical studies are only antinihilsm pills and that if they did not have that property, Karenin would be more open to science. Everybody laughed at Koznishev’s joke, which had the effect of making them forget the conflict and the nihilism of science. Pestov discusses the contributions of science to astronomy, zoology and botany but none of them can say anything about man. Katavasov is the one scientist in the book and he is a sworn bachelor who prefers cuttlefish to women. Science is amusical and anerotic. Katavasov is a specialist who could no more explain why he studies cuttlefish than plant life or the stars. Specialization is one of the effects of science and Tolstoy presents it as nihilistic. It has a specious regularity but only by arbitrarily limiting the subject. It cannot look at the whole of life and therefore we are not surprised to find Katavasov with Koznishev on the train together near the end of the novel celebrating the bravery of the soldiers. Neither science nor the philosophy that forms it and is informed by it, can discuss life and so they give way to the fits of public opinion. Koznishev’s philosophy, like his laughter, is a way of hiding from life that ultimately becomes a form of public conformity.

The story of Koznishev is one of continual intellectual decline. When we first meet him a professor has come to visit him, the public intellectual. He and the professor are discussing high minded matters of philosophy pertaining to the relation of the body to the soul. It is clear that they are talking just to impress one another and that the professor only visited Koznishev so that he himself could be recognized. There is nothing to learn from either man but the professor is supposed to be the repository of the classics and to have an independence from and distance on the contemporary through his studies of the tradition. His courtship of Koznishev is indicative of the enslavement of the humanities to public opinion. They are sophisticates whose ideas keep circling around the real issue which is whether or not the soul survives the body or dies with it. When Levin brings the real issue to their attention, they simply shout him down by insisting that neither he, nor any man has a right to ask that question at this time. They are as censorious as the priests of old and in some ways worse. When Levin, just before his wedding, confesses his atheism to a priest, he is willing to engage Levin in a discussion. The intellectuals are vain and insubstantial because they will not face death. The polite society to which the intellectuals belong demands only the pleasant and amusing. Death is far too ugly for them to think about. The absence of death from their minds also indicates that their belief in progress is just a new religion giving them illusions of continuity. They would like to be on all sides on all issues believing that it is a sign of their free thinking and openness. It is not surprising to see that when the winds of public opinion shift, Koznishev shifts with them. Philosophy becomes its slave. Levin no longer participates in conversation with them. He is too serious and troubled for such excited vanity and frivolousness.

Koznishev is single and without family. He is too busy ushering in progress for such small affairs. He has an opportunity to marry Varenka, who is a parallel character to himself. Like him, she is without marriage and family and is devoted to others, but Varenka is a caregiver and truly performs deeds that benefit others. She is not romantic and is too servile to be passionate, but she is not a hypocrite like Koznishev. She once had a love but he left her because his mother disapproved of the match. Varenka excuses him because a good son obeys his mother. She herself is obedient to Madame Stahl who has adopted her. Varenka’s is a filial love that does not contain the passion for romantic love and happiness and so she fittingly ends up alone. Likewise, Koznishev is not passionate. His high minded morality actually makes him a weak character, who does not take his own happiness seriously. He too once had a love but she died and his refusal to marry has given him a public reputation as a kind of romantic. He is reluctant to marry Varenka because his reputation will be compromised, but he does see her as a good match since she is old enough and mature enough to honor his great intelligence. The moment to propose slips by and he does not ask her. Unlike Levin, he will never return to her and try again. The passion just is not there and the world needs him, but it is not a world that supports the saintly and Tolstoy shows us that love is selfish though also good, and is certainly better than the phony moralists and even the saintly caregivers.

Levin has a much better understanding of life than the intellectual Koznishev. Levin is troubled by science because he knows it means atheism and that atheism means life ends in death. He is a kind of misfit who is awkward in polite society because he loves truth and sincerity more than charm and polish. Not only is he not fitted for vain argument, but he is not fitted for polite morality. He has tried to do the conventionally correct thing by overseeing the projects and affairs of the serfs, but he is too honest to fool himself into believing that anything useful can be done. He is not rebellious but simply follows his own path and what he knows. The serfs steal the supplies that are meant to be used for them and, for a variety of reasons, they cannot be educated. Everybody knows this but only Levin will speak about it. His friend and foil the farmer Sviatsky spends his life reading about all the latest theories coming out of France and he would not miss a meeting as a petty functionary, but his farm loses money every year and whenever Levin forces reality upon him he changes the subject. He is a nice man but a weak one subjected to vanity. Although a farmer he has no children and this sterility of body reflects the sterility of his mind. He would rather show that he is familiar with the latest progressive opinions coming out of Europe, than acknowledge the truth.

The effeminate Koznishev wants to be the compassionate voice of the new Russia, whereas Levin understands that the peasants are not just objects of pity but are part of the new capitalist economy and that if the serfs are to be free, they must become free laborers and property owners. He has tried to transform his serfs and believes it is neither desirable nor possible. Levin believes that the modern economists have failed to understand the relation of the peasant in relation to the land, and have only looked at him in terms of labor as productivity. They want him to become a rational instrument of his own desires requiring him to adapt to new technologies and motives, but the truth is that he is rooted. He does not want to change, he cannot change and he is better as a peasant than as a day laborer. The Russian peasant has never governed himself with either reason or law and is given to his passions and habits. He drinks and does everything as his forefathers before him have done. His body works but not his mind. For Levin and for Tolstoy this is not simply bad. His life is regular and he is ignorant but simple and happy. He has vices but he also has his virtues. Levin tries a variety of arrangements with them, including profit sharing and co-ownership in order to get them to be more productive and independent. They all fail. The only successful peasant farm is one that is completely familial, that is to say owned by and worked on by a peasant family, and emphatically patriarchal and non-industrial. The attempt to make them a productive element of the capitalist economy by urbanizing them would only turn them into an urban rabble, and the communists already have plans for organizing them.

Vronsky’s farm is the one example of a successful industrialized farm in the book, but it is a kind of anomaly placed into the text for the purpose of contrasting the English to the Russian. Although Vronsky, unlike all the other farmers, is able to turn a profit through the use of the latest technologies, his farm is soulless and has none of the charms of a home. He has built an enormous hospital with all the latest equipment, but he is hard on his workers and watches their pay to the penny. He is only generous on a grand scale because he wants widespread recognition for his generosity and he wants to be part of technological progress, but his laborers hate him and are of no personal interest to him. He dines with his architects and managers rather than with friends and neighbors. The opposite is the case with Levin, whose farm loses money and whose peasants will not adapt to technology, but there is a shared and felt humanity between them.

The nobles are no more capable of becoming capitalists than the serfs are of becoming free laborers. Capitalist interests are emerging and taking over the Russian empire. The government works with the banks and the industrialists in corrupt ways which transfer money and authority from the nobility to the bourgeois class. Money, industry and technology take precedence over farming, hunting and family. Ryabin is the commercial speculator in the story who takes advantage of Stiva’s need for money. Stiva sells his wife’s forest at a price well below value because Stiva’s aristocratic habits place him above petty calculation. In the modern world, these noble habits have given way to calculation. Though a man of low motive, Ryabin understands the new reality and counts the trees in the forest to know its value. He is neither leisured nor educated, but his children will be and not Stiva’s.

The Communist

Whereas Levin’s older half-brother is the voice of compassionate and progressive liberalism, his younger brother Nikolai is a communist. When he was young, Nikolai was given to religion which would have been good for him. He is not clever and is given to uncontrollable anger; religion would have helped to restrain him and guide him but he was ridiculed out of his belief. He went on to live a life of dissoluteness and gambling. Koznishev uses Nikolai’s inheritance to pay off Nikolai’s gambling debts, for which Nikolai blames him for having stolen his inheritance. Nikolai takes responsibility for nothing and blames and quarrels with everyone. He is wretched and communism is for him nothing more than a vanity that allows him to feel that he is something. In particular, it satisfies his resentments against the other members of his class whom he envies. Both his body and soul are sick.

Although he claims to be an atheist, he cannot face his mortality and dies screaming for a doctor while having succeeded in driving those who cared for him to feel relief at his death. He has no children and no wife but lives with Marya, the stereotypical prostitute with a heart of gold, whom he despises and abuses. Nikolai is of particular interest because he represents communism, and the revolting disproportion between what it pretends to and what it is. Nikolai who can barely muster a bit of tenderness for his devoted brother, and hates his half-brother, is the voice for the brotherhood of man on earth. He is too proud for pity though he is poor, wretched and dying. He is the face of Christianity liberated from God and heaven. He is concentrated resentment without any of the possibility of virtue and salvation that elevates the Christian.

Tolstoy predicts that communism is the strong horse to which the liberals will fall. It is a replacement for religion and has all of its worst fanaticisms with none of its benefits. It speaks to the angry and ignorant and offers them a heaven on earth, but is more inhuman than both feudalism and liberalism. Like Marx, Nikolai never gives the details of the communist order because he does not really love it or believe in it. It is all critical study because hatred animates him more than either justice or love. Marya is of course contrasted with Mary, in order to show us that communism as a new salvation will leave the peasants in their misery without the balm of Christian hope. Nikolai dies in a new hotel that was built for the people and was meant to be a sign of progress on account of providing comfort and new conveniences for them, but the hotel is run down because no one cares for it. Everyone comes and goes and over time no one cares enough about it to either maintain or restore it. The contrast between its newness and its filth, makes it more disgusting since it draws attention to the neglect. Like communism, there is no attachment and no care.

The Bureaucrat

To round out the degradation of the political situation is the prominence of bureaucracy. Karenin is the most famous and honored political man in the story and he is a bureaucrat. We do not  know very much about his duties because they are not humanly interesting. He is the political face of a world without gods and heroes. His is a world of characterless rule following and petty place hunting. When he is finally placed in a situation requiring strength of character and mind, his smallness becomes evident to all and he pathetically clings to lies about himself to salvage his own self-respect. He is a conventional man who never had to face a situation outside of the rules and fooled himself into believing that his life was real. When his wife leaves him he falls apart and reveals that his life was nothing but an appearance. In particular, he believed that he was above jealousy because he believed that his wife’s conscience was her own affair and that as a husband he had no claims upon it.

This belief is partly attributed to his Christianity but it is also due to his cowardice. He wanted to believe he was loved and he wanted to believe that there would be no need for him to assert his rights as a husband.  His titles and procedures and petty office maneuvers are his way of not looking into life. When his wife has an adulterous affair and leaves him, he must look at the abyss for the first time. He came to an agreement with her that she may keep her lover provided that she not bring him into the house and that she remains discreet, so that others do not learn about the affair. He suffers but it is more from his vanity than from pained love. Keeping up the appearance is enough for him, and he can live a lie provided his public reputation remains intact. He has neither frankness, nor honor and is incapable of love.

He is not, however, a caricature. No character in Tolstoy is one dimensional. All of them have their moments when we sympathize with them and even admire them, no matter how briefly. Even Karenin has a moment of glory, but it is short lived and he returns to his original place. Humiliated and defeated, he decides to give Anna a divorce, but then he hears that she, pregnant with Vronsky’s daughter, is dying. Anna, believing that her life is at its end, confesses guilt and renounces her affair. Once Anna’s love promises her no future, her passion for happiness is extinguished and she can feel for the suffering she has caused her husband. He is no longer a contemptible impediment with rights he does not deserve. Suddenly she recognizes his rights as a husband and feels ingratitude for having betrayed him. He is willing to forgive both her and Vronsky and to take care of their child as his own.

Now Vronsky is humiliated. He had nothing but contempt for Karenin and looked at him as a foolish and weak cuckold-the St. Peterburg opinion about husbands. Karenin goes from cuckold to god. Both Anna and Vronsky confess their sins to him and he grants forgiveness from the generosity of his own soul. But he is not a god for long. Anna does not die and her thoughts immediately turn again to Vronsky. With the hope of a future happiness, love is reborn. Vronsky attempted suicide on account of the shame he felt from being renounced for Karenin, but Anna interprets the attempted suicide to be love and she wants to reward him for his sacrifice. Karenin is deemed odious again and Vronsky and Anna leave Russia with their daughter for Italy.

Karenin’s forgiveness is no more sincere than Anna’s guilt. He hates her and wants to punish her, but pretends to Christian forgiveness. Denying her a divorce and possession of her son is all the leverage he has. He uses Christianity to bolster his own self-esteem by pretending that he suffers and is persecuted like Christ. Christianity gives him the pretense to having a spiritual life that others do not have, when in fact his Christianity just serves his pride. He is a man without imagination and cannot even imagine his own death. He is a creature of the world and has none of the sentiments stemming from reflection on mortality. He hands himself over to Lydia Ivanovna, the voice of Christianity in St. Petersburg who is herself an abandoned woman looking to find some love and influence. Together they elevate and enrich a charlatan from France, whom they declare a seer. Religion, like philosophy, becomes a ridiculous affair. Through bourgeois life, modern Russia degrades the human possibilities: philosophy is sophistry, morality is false high mindedness, politics is bureaucracy and religion is superstition and fraud.

Marriage and Adultery

In the midst of this modern falseness and decay, Tolstoy turns to private life. It is there that he hopes to rediscover man. The action of the novel begins with a bourgeois marriage and bourgeois adultery. Stiva is the brother of Anna Karenina, and as she is the example of an adulteress, he is the example of an adulterer. Tolstoy describes him as an urban liberal, not to be confused with a political liberal. Stiva, has no mind for public affairs and does not understand either the political principles or institutions of liberal governments. He gets all his opinions from liberal newspapers which flatter his vanity through a condescending tone of snide adolescent superiority and inside jokes. He dislikes the conservatives because they threaten his pleasures, but he could not give a second thought to the communists who would take away his freedoms altogether and likely murder him. He lives in his own little urban bubble unaware of the greatest dangers.

He is, however, far superior to the others of his ilk because in addition to loving his pleasures he has a cultivated and urban charm that is not simply false. Furthermore, he has retained a degree of manliness in his tastes and in his character. He is not vain, dislikes dishonesty, loves hunting and has a capacity for frankness and open friendship. His own dishonesty in his affair is a problem for him just as is Anna’s for her. He can be an operator but still maintains something of the old world’s love of family. His manliness stands in stark contrast to the urbanite Vaska, who is from a younger generation, and has no manliness whatsoever—no marriage, no family, no manly abilities in hunting and riding, and who only knows the art of flirting and of being generally nice.

Stiva is excellent at his job because it means nothing to him. Passion never distracts him and he only seeks promotion when his financial situation is dire. His passion is for his pleasures, and work is merely clerical. Unlike Levin, who has a passion for his work and his family, Stiva is divided. Work and family take him away from his pleasures, and when he is with his pleasures, he is neglecting his responsibilities. In these respects, he is superior to Karenin and we are certainly meant to like Stiva as we are meant to dislike Karenin. While Tolstoy does not justify adultery, he is not unsympathetic to adulterers. Both Stiva and Anna are strong, charming and beautiful, and although we cannot approve of their adultery, they are allowed to give justifications for themselves and are among the most likeable and impressive characters in the story. Tolstoy is no simple moralist. Anna’s fall is a tragic one and like all tragic heroes, admiration and pity are mixed in with our awareness of their crimes.

Tolstoy treats male and female adultery side by side, so that he can examine the unity of husband and wife. Adultery is not the same for the male and the female. Marriage has a private and public aspect. It regulates sexuality and procreation which cannot but be of vital concern to society, but it is also the joining of hearts. Marriage cannot be the same for both men and women because the sexes are not the same. Their love and betrayals must of necessity have a different character. Whereas Stiva’s adultery is a crime against his own family, it is not a crime against society as such. Stiva’s adultery belongs to the more provincial Moscow, whereas Anna’s is more typical of the cosmopolitan St. Petersburg, where the rights of husbands are ridiculed and every young man distinguishes himself by having affairs with married women. Vronsky’s mother, whom he hates, was a great St. Petersburg adulteress. Vronsky and Anna move within the liberties of St. Petersburg but they are ultimately outside of its hypocrisies.

None of the St. Petersburg adulterous affairs are loving and none of the adulteresses are maternal. The women of St. Petersburg defile the marriage bed to satisfy momentary desires, to show their freedom from their husbands, but mostly because they want to be at the center of society and believe that the best woman is the one most talked about. They are enemies of domesticity and lovers of their fame and rank. They would not want to behave like provincial women or the lower classes, so they behave in a manner they know no decent woman would imitate. At the center of society is not the church but the opera. It is the social event where people go to see and be seen, and at the center point of this center are the female singers and actresses. The women want to be like the actresses and have the city as their stage. In the domestic realm the least talked about woman is the most modest and best, but in the great city the claims of marriage and household are chains and the woman who is seen and heard the most is the best.

The actress is the ideal. She seduces whole audiences of men and women and uses her sexuality for money and applause. The city is really a gynaecocracy . Politics and religion are replaced by entertainments and affairs through which the weaker sex enslaves the stronger sex. Vronsky who is the only military man of note in the story is only of interest for the love interest. None of these affairs add to the happiness of the women, but it satisfies their vanity. They are women of crude feeling and course pleasures, who cannot taste real happiness. The opera speaks to this boredom and adds to it in turn. It is a distraction full of vain stimulations like their affairs but in the end they return to their boredom. This way of life is reflected in the opinion Vronsky’s mother has of his affair with Anna. She approves of the affair because it shines the light of society on him, but she wants him to move on and tend to his career and eventually marry. Theirs is a life divided between vanities, course pleasures and empty careers. Marriages are carried on as a kind of charade. Nobody believes in them but nobody wants to be without the appearance.

It is in the rot of St. Petersburg that Anna’s tragedy is possible. Anna is a tragic figure because she is torn between her love for Vronsky and her love for her son. It is the way of nature that sexuality and procreation are connected and unconnected. She is both lover and mother and her first duty as mother conflicts with her romantic inclination. As a mother, her duty is to provide a father for her child. Even the St. Petersburg adulteresses do this. Anna knows that her son Seryozha would never love her if she did not provide a father for him. For this very reason, she cannot love her daughter. Anna cannot divorce Karenin and legitimate her daughter, and therefore there can be no future between her and her daughter. How could her daughter love her when born to disgrace?

Consequently, Anna neglects and effectively abandons her daughter. In order for mothers to provide fathers for their children, mothers must be wives, which means they must allow claims to be made upon their sexuality by their husbands. The male will not take care of either wife or child if they are not his. This means that women must not only be virtuous but they must maintain the reputation for virtue. The female is the more dependent sex and needs the man more than the man needs her. Modesty is nature’s guile. It arouses and refuses, and flatters while making serve. Modesty intermingles the wills and submits while enchaining. If the child is to be sacred, its origins must be sacred and that means the modesty and fidelity of women is the bedrock of marriage.

The moral universe rebels against Anna’s crime elevating her to tragic proportions whereas Stiva’s adultery borders on comedy. The action of the novel begins with Stiva awakening from a dream of women shaped like wine glassesa dream through which he manages to merge his two favorite pleasures. Despite the pleasantness of his fantasy he vaguely remembers something troubling about his life. Eventually it comes to him. His affair with the children’s English governess has been discovered by his wife and there are, to say the least, bad feelings. Stiva will not lie to himself and pretend to feel guilt for what he desires and for what delighted him. He even justifies the affair as necessary. Why should he a man still vibrant and attractive not have an affair, especially when his wife has become unattractive from numerous births. Nature is harder on women than on men. The attraction to beauty which results in reproduction is a trick of nature since it leads to ugliness. Stiva loves his children but they are no substitute for his original motive. What he cannot find at home he seeks elsewhere. He pities his wife Dolly and does not want to see her suffer, but he recognizes no claims upon his desires.

Dolly is deeply wounded but her suffering but it does not rise to the level of tragedy, and even in her pain there is a comic element. She says that Stiva is now a stranger to her by which she means that they no longer share a future together. Her family meant everything to her and now it all seems like a lie. Even her affection for her own children is compromised since she loved them as his children too. The entire household is thrown into confusion by the affair and the children are neither bathed nor fed. The family is supposed to be a little community with all of its members dedicated to it, but now there is no love and no dedication. Dolly knows that she is no longer attractive but believed that she was Stiva’s first love and only love. It is a delusion and she hates him and can no longer look at him. Her hatred is more pitiable than terrifying and is eventually assuaged. She is persuaded by Anna not to divorce him but to forgive him. Anna says that although she does not understand it, Stiva is one of these men who cheat but nonetheless love their family, and although Anna speaks to persuade, she also speaks what is true of Stiva, while making it clear that it could never be true for her.

Despite being the guilty party and throwing the whole family and household into chaos, it is clear that Stiva is the favorite of the household and that Tolstoy presents him as more likeable, though less admirable, than Dolly. Tolstoy shows us the family and household from the urban perspective. Although Dolly is pitiable, she is not beautiful and amusing. There seems to be little pleasure in the family unless taking care of children gives you pleasure. The city is simply in conflict with the family. All the charms of life are elsewhere and a devoted mother is an anachronism like a virgin in a whorehouse. Dolly’s indignation verges on the comical in such an atmosphere and Tolstoy shows us that society can be so corrupt that even the maternal instinct, which is natural and the glue of the family and the continuity of the species, can be rendered ridiculous in urban society.

Dolly eventually moves to the country and it is there that we learn to see her beauty. As Stiva is most directed towards beauty and pleasure, Dolly is directed towards her children. She takes joy in them and tirelessly dedicates herself to them. She is a kind of hero of motherhood, who believes that an abandoned woman is ruined and that a woman’s glory is in her family. She begged Karenin not to divorce Anna and to forgive her, because Dolly believes that a divorced woman is dishonored and abandoned. As a woman who believes in motherhood, she does not believe that women are whole in themselves. Dolly also persevered to bring her sister Kitty and Levin together for the happiness of both. Stiva’s betrayal is a great humiliation because it insults her within the only realm in which she can have her virtue. She would like to be made whole through her children, but they are also his children and, to her disappointment, they are not perfectly good either.

In a moment of resentment towards Stiva and self-pity for herself, Dolly has a little imaginary fantasy of leaving Stiva and living with her own lover, as Anna has done. She envies Anna’s freedom and visits her  out of friendship and gratitude. Anna is as beautiful as ever and she lives on a great estate in a mansion with the finest furnishings. She herself wears the finest clothing. This is in striking contrast to Dolly’s patched wardrobe and relative poverty. But Anna’s inner life is miserable and Dolly will learn not just to pity her but to dislike her.

Anna suffers from her own inner conflicts. She has given up everything for Vronsky but she cannot hold on to his love. Dolly soon sees past the gilding into Anna’s misery and character. In particular, she sees that Anna is a bad mother with no love and no care for her own daughter, and that she is also a bad partner to Vronsky, who wants a son of his own and who wants his daughter to become his own through marriage. He demanded everything of Anna and promised everything in return, but love is no longer enough for him. Theirs was a love at first sight.

Anna is described as a beautiful woman with a light and graceful but strong step. She is full of strength and desire but is gentle and beautiful. An exceedingly rare combination containing the attributes of the beloved and the lover, she is mirrored in the character of Vronsky’s mare, which from the side had very delicate bones but from the front was broad and powerful. The horse was small but full of desire. It needed no direction but anticipated his wishes and carried him with ease, but from his own carelessness, unable to stay with her, he shifts in his seat and breaks her back—a foreshadowing of Anna’s destruction. Vronsky pursues Anna for a year before she gives in. Karenin is no match for him. Vronsky is handsome, from among the most notable families, and he is a military man of some standing and courage. He is certainly capable of fighting a duel, whereas Karenin would not even dream of it. He is known for his affairs but has a depth of feeling and devotion that separates him from the other gallants. The company of the wholesome Shterbatsky family was a welcome moral bath for him, and he never thought of Anna as just a conquest, as she never thought of him as just a St. Petersburg fling. She is flattered by his attentions and touched by his puppy like devotion. His adoration of her is in striking contrast to her husband who is dry and sarcastic as well as older and ugly. She has never been in love before and is consumed by it.

The visit to Italy prepares their life on Vronsky’s estate and their final fates. Vronsky is conflicted between staying in Russia to satisfy his ambition and running away with Anna. He trades in his military uniform for a cape and fedora and plays the artist in Italy. It is an easy life and they do not have to face the conflicts at home. While there they visit the gallery of a celebrated Russian painter who has painted a picture of Christ and Pontius Pilot, in which Christ appears as a man and not as a divine being. Vronsky’s friend Golenishtchev criticizes the painting because the subject is only of interest if Christ is divine, and if he is just a man then the painting has no significance. This bit of art criticism precedes the decision to hire the celebrated artist to paint Anna. Vronsky had been trying to paint her but could not satisfactorily. He flattered himself by blaming his technique when in fact he simply did not have the requisite talent. The celebrated Russian, however, does a masterful job and captures her perfectly. Vronsky wanted to believe that he alone could paint her because he alone loved her and knew her beauty.

Soon thereafter, they are dissatisfied with Italy and leave. One could not make the same criticism of Anna’s picture that is made of the painting of Christ. With the death of God in Russia, Anna becomes the new object of art, not only of painting but of course of the novel. She is an ideal of love  in its devotedness surpassing that of God and motherhood. This time in Italy is the happiest time of Anna’s life. It is Vronsky who is not happy. As she is idealized in art, he discovers that he cannot live for her alone and that he is losing something of his own self-respect by becoming her devotee. He can no longer feed his vanity through the belief that he is an artist, and he also feels that his devotion serves her more than him. Vronsky wanted to think that his love was unique, but now it seems capable of being understood by others. He abandoned all his ambitions for his goddess but now feels that his manhood is compromised. He needs something of his own.

When Dolly meets Anna, the fissures between her and Vronsky are developing but are not at a breaking point. Vronsky has asked Dolly to persuade Anna to seek a divorce, because Vronsky wants a legacy. Love is not enough for him. He is growing older as is she and their beauty is fading. He is a great count and looks to his own continuity through his progeny, but his only child is legally Karenin’s as would be any future children he has with Anna. Nature is not sufficient for Vronsky. Property and inheritance are legal matters and because he wants a family, he needs the laws. Anna we learn, unbeknownst to Vronsky, is practicing birth control because she does not want children. She has no hope of getting a divorce and does not want to be put into the humiliating position of having to ask Karenin for one. Her situation is impossible and as she struggles the noose tightens around her. She has done everything she can to make herself a useful partner to Vronsky. She studies all the latest technologies and knows more about them any of Vronsky’s engineers. He inevitably consults her about the purchase of the latest machines and their uses. She proves invaluable as an advisor, but he needs a wife and a mother for his children

Dolly is repulsed by Anna. Anna clearly takes no pleasure in her daughter and neglects her. She knows nothing about her development, health and happiness and does not care to know. Her indifference is the effect of her belief that her daughter will hate her and despise her, because she brings shame upon the daughter. The child cannot be separated from its origin, so if the child is sacred its conception must be sacred too. As a mother Anna knows she has betrayed the child and cannot make it right. Dolly is shocked and horrified by Anna’s disrespect for pregnancy and her disinterest in her own child. She leaves the estate happy with her own condition and cured of her envy and fantasy. She cannot wait to be with her own children. Stiva’s adultery does not compare to that of his sister’s. It is devoid of tragedy and contains nothing of cosmic significance because he is not a mother. Stiva is a sworn hedonist, which is difficult for a woman since she is related to her children more naturally, that is to say bodily, than is a man.

Stiva is a hedonist because he sees that his aristocratic privileges cannot be justified, so he just enjoys them while he can. Levin cannot be brought to see this but it keeps him from Stiva’s way of life.Stiva does love his family but he cannot imagine them as part of his own continuity. The theoretical and social changes effected by science and equality mean that he can no longer imagine any continuity in his family. The feudal pass is over and his name will die out.  His lack of connection to the past clouds his future and he lives in the ever vanishing present. Since he can find no eternity in the family, he is financially irresponsible. He spends beyond his means and when he is short of funds, he sells his wife’s inherited lands at a price far below value and spends the money, in addition to other things, on a necklace for his French ballerina and mistress.

Eventually he seeks advancement to satisfy his debts, and though he makes more money, he just goes deeper into debt. Upon his promotion he, a Muscovite, wants to live the St. Petersburg life of the great capital, which he calls the carefree life. He worries that he is 20,000 in debt but soon learns that the carefree life of St. Petersburg is completely supported by debt and that those he envies are many hundreds of thousands in debt. The great wealth and opulence of the empire only serves to transfer wealth from the nobility to the banks. He will ruin his family and his wife will grow to despise him and hate him. Stiva is never really free from this hate, as he is never so corrupt as the St. Petersburg set as to feel his family is meaningless. Some in St. Petersburg have several families and support them all on borrowed money that they have no hope of paying back. Such is the carefree life.

While Stiva and Anna belong together as brother and sister, Dolly the devoted mother comes from the Shtcherbatsky family, who represent an older generation of Russians who are grounded in the family and are not haunted by desires and doubts. Prince Shtcherbatsky and his wife had  three girls and one son. They were dedicated to their children and had a clear idea of the education suited to them. Their son died honorably in a patriotic war and their three daughters marry and become mothers. They are grounded in the family and have no confusion about what a family is and each person’s place in it. Prince Shtcherbatsky is down to earth. He is not one for either philosophy or the arts, but he has unerring judgment in all things moral.

The Shtcherbatsky’s are a kind of touchstone for wholesomeness, but science and democracy have uprooted the instincts and the Shtcherbatsky’s themselves are now caught between worlds and are subject to confusion. They still have one daughter who is not married. In the old world, the parents, and the father in particular, would have chosen a husband for Kitty, but according to the new manners, she should choose for herself, though she has none of the judgment necessary to make a good  choice, and opinions have not changed so much as to be forgiving of bad choices. Kitty must choose between Levin and Vronsky. With encouragement from her mother, she chooses the charming and handsome Vronsky to the sincere and awkward Levin. Vronksy is from a great St. Petersburg family and Levin is a country gentleman farmer. The mother wants to make a splendid match, and Kitty is inclined as well, though conflicted. Of course, along with the freedom given to women is the freedom given to men, and a man need not announce his intention or follow up on it even though he appears interested. Vronsky , who visited Kitty regularly and attentively, abandons her for Anna. Kitty is humiliated and guilt ridden, almost to the point of death, for rejecting Levin’s offer of marriage. Prince Shtcherbatsky had said that Vronsky was a peacock and that Levin was a man, but in the new world where the inclinations of young girls decide everything, the Prince is ignored.

Dolly contains the healthy maternal instinct of the old world, but there is no social order to support her. With the decline of the aristocratic institutions, children no longer provide any eternity for the father. Furthermore, business and the pleasures of the city, and especially the attraction to youth, cannot but compromise the family. Marriage and family must be rediscovered, and Levin and Kitty are of course the new example of the happy family. Love, marriage and family are formed into a unity but with difficulty and learning. The problem is that love is an enthusiastic state through which two people hope to become whole through one another, but family is a tranquil state that seeks regularity and contentment and is disturbed more by the passions than enhanced through them. This unity is not possible simultaneously. Levin and Kitty must undergo a kind of domestic education in order to find their happiness.

Levin is a comical character both in the sense that he is mildly ridiculous and that his life ends happily. After much soul searching and struggle, he learns what everyone else already knows, and what he himself already knew. He takes his place as a father and husband, as well as a good human being understood in the simplest sense that can be comprehended by a peasant, but he had to go through his struggles just as Anna too had to find her own limits after having been forced to live out the conflicts of her life. In this book about marriage and adultery, the meaning of life is discovered by pushing it to the breaking point.

Levin is a gentleman farmer touched by family tradition but also learned in science. His family and lands lend continuity to his existence and he would like to find a wife with whom he could start a family, and above all a wife from the Shterbatsky family with whom he loves. He was a friend of their deceased son, and he remembers the familial love and always wanted to be a part of that touchstone of wholesomeness. He would have married any of the daughters, but the oldest two are already married leaving Kitty. He is contrasted with Stiva who is his oldest and closest friend. The urbanite and the country gentleman are presented as liberal and conservative, and although they conflict, they are held together through habits of friendship and family.

Marriage is for Levin part of his imagination connecting him to his household, his ancestors and to his descendants. Order, regularity and continuity through family and property mean more to him than beauty and pleasure. Kitty, on the other hand, is young and the most beautiful of all the eligible girls. At the balls, she knows that she is the center of attention, and Vronsky, who is considered perhaps the most eligible bachelor in Russia, courts her. The youthful expectations of love are harshly disappointed. Levin is rejected by Kitty and Vronsky falls in love with Anna whom Kitty adored as a friend. Levin is of course jealous of Vronsky but it is a healthy jealousy that does not create hatred but causes Levin to evaluate himself. Like a true lover, he wants to be worthy of his beloved and so looks to his own merits. He takes his rejection hard and though he does not hate Kitty, his pride is deeply wounded and he feels that he must forget both her and marriage. He throws himself into both the management of his farm and his study of Russian economics to forget his pain. He would like to live for his work but he cannot. At times he imagines himself marrying a peasant and living a simple life but he is not a simple man and cannot escape who he is. He needs time to heal and to mature.

Kitty too needs time to recover and to mature, and as Levin hoped to escape his pain in his work, Kitty too hoped to escape all the ugliness of courtship and marriage by throwing herself into care giving. She would like to be like Varenka who looks after the sick, but Kitty cannot but arouse desire and disrupt the families of the ill, because she is lovely and does not have Varenka’s almost saintly insensitivity to tenderness. Like Levin, Kitty discovers that she is trying to be something she is not. This discovery reconciles her to the hope of love and she regains her health. Levin’s wounded pride is difficult to assuage, but he sees her in a carriage and his heart is rekindled. He knows he loves her and that there can be nobody else. Eventually Stiva brings them together at his dinner party. Kitty and Levin break away from the rest of the party and are presented in contrast to it. They reunite through a children’s game which requires understanding without speakinga kind of fill in the blank game. They understand what needs to be discussed and what needs to be said and quickly, to the joy of both, agree to marry.

While their hearts and fates are being united, the rest of the party is discussing the new laws pertaining to equality between the sexes. The group has been discussing education when they turn to the subject of women’s education—its foundation and end. Women’s education is a consequence of the democratic reforms and they are trying to think through the direction the equality between men and women will take. They begin by stating that the foundation of the reforms will be women’s rights but soon shift to their equal duties and end with competition and power. While rights liberate, the idea of duties suggest that men and women are not only equal but are the same and should share in the same activities including business and politics. This means direct competition and a struggle for money, honor and power. To this proposal, Prince Shtcherbatsky says that it is as if her were to insist on his right to be a wet nurse—a ridiculous claim since the male breast cannot give milk. He reminds the urban sophisticates that rights must follow nature and that by nature the male and the female are different. No matter what the laws demand, Prince Shtcherbatsky cannot give milk. The men would not discuss the implications of equality to the family in front of the women.

The question of equality and rights is not necessary for Levin and Kitty because their hearts speak to one another. They believe that forming a family together is a higher calling than pursuing money, distinction and power. Political language is for those who are in an adversarial relation and seek to protect themselves from one another. Levin and Kitty are clearly different but complimentary and neither one would dream of usurping the place of the other. The idea of equality and rights has no place between them because they are directed towards one another and the common goal of a family. We see them advance from their courtship to marriage and then to the household and the family.

As in the courtship, the weeks leading up to the wedding favor Kitty. Where love reigns, women rule because their will must be won over. Levin is in a state of euphoria and cannot arrive at the Shtcherbatsky household early enough to gain the consent of the Prince. He is at his most enthusiastic and ridiculous during the days leading up to the wedding. He counts himself the luckiest man in the world, and his feelings of unworthiness drive him to all kinds of unusual behavior. Just before the wedding his doubts about himself get the better of him and he visits her insisting that she could not love him. His doubts about her love of course insult her and anger her, but his is a sincere heart and he wants a sincere love, and it is hard for him to believe that a goddess could love a mere mortal.

In the same vein of sincerity and adoration, he gives her his diary containing the names of all the women with whom he has been. He is ashamed of his past and must confess, because his past is a betrayal of her and the ideal of marriage. It haunts him and he needs to be forgiven for his filth, and he needs a sincere love. He wants to be loved warts and all. He had no idea how cruel this would be to her because he had no idea how much she loved him. They will enter into the marriage more mature for having gone through this peculiar courtship. The wings of love are trimmed, but their wills are more united and better prepared for their lives together as husband and wife and as father and mother.

They are married in the Russian Orthodox Church and as is tradition, Levin must go to confession before the wedding. He is anxious because he is sincere and feels the need to tell the priest that he is an atheist. His anxiety is the effect of his belief that his atheism will be unsettling to the priest and a cause of great consternation. How can an atheist be married in an orthodox church? To Levin’s surprise the priest is not the least bit shocked or concerned. Levin is not the first atheist he has seen and he will not be the last. The priest is nonplussed and asks Levin, “What will you tell your children?” In other words, a father cannot be an atheist. The priest is prescient. The experience of fatherhood changes Levin. It is not easy to be a parent and an atheist, and this conflict is something with which Levin must come to terms

The wedding completes the comedy of Levin’s marriage. He is more than a little late because his shirt has been forgotten and a new one needs to be bought. Levin is of course a nervous wreck, though it is Kitty who is waiting and must now wonder about his intentions. His ridiculous situation lightens the sanctimony around the ceremony. Neither Levin, nor Kitty is really aware of the religious element of the ceremony. It is a romantic marriage and they are thinking about one another, but they are surrounded by witnessesfamily, friends and even strangers who have come in off the street. Marriage cannot simply be about couple since it is also a social convention that subjects them to laws as husband and as wife, which is very different from a completely emotional connection. Just as Levin’s atheism is not unique and distinctive, so too his marriage is just one of many. He is part of the regularity and order of sexuality and reproduction which cannot but moderate his romantic enthusiasms. The intrusion of the general case on one’s own uniqueness is a humbling part of nature’s comedy.

Kitty is the model wife, as Levin is the model husband. It is the convention of the Russian aristocracy to have an extended honeymoon, but Kitty wants to go directly to Levin’s farm in the countryside to setup her home, which turns out to be more difficult than one might think. The difficulty is related to their different genders. It is no longer possible to live off of the enthusiasms of love and they must now live together as man and woman. The first misunderstanding is about money. Levin is angry that Kitty seems to be squandering his money on drapes, silverware and other furnishings. He does not understand that she is nesting. She is preparing the house for the arrival of her own family whom she thinks necessary and desirable when she and Levin make their own family.

Marriage and family are inseparable in her mind, and she looks forward to being wife and mother. She is not given to frivolousness and luxury, and spends the money with purpose for the sake of both of them. Yet, she too gets angry and treats him unjustly to the point he would like to hit her, but he refrains because he realizes that they are one and that to hit her would be like a man punching himself. He is a half hour late from the fields and she in a jealous rage makes accusations. As he was jealous of his money, she is jealous of his time and attention, and does not understand what he owes to his work. They are man and woman and have different virtues and duties and must learn to respect what belongs to each while understanding how they complement one another and contribute to their common goal. His work is harder and more given to utility, whereas as hers is more directed towards beauty. He is more serviceable and she is more pleasing. As husband and wife, they do not belong to one another wholly, and must learn how to be separate and how to be together in what constitutes the shared household.

Their differences in character become pronounced when Nikolai is dying, and we see that the male does not do well in the female realm. Levin does not want Kitty to join him because she would have to be in the company of Marya. Kitty insists on keeping Levin company because she wants to share in his emotional troubles and to comfort his brother as her own. Nikolai is an image of the horrors of dying. He is skeletal, he moans and he can hardly move. His image paralyzes Levin with terror and wonder. He sees the universal end of man and is haunted to the point of helplessness.

Kitty, in contrast, takes control of the situation. With a soft touch she brings cleanliness, comfort and even beauty to what is mortifying. She is given to care and comfort and is not overwhelmed with wonder and terror because she is a believer. She wants Nikolai to take his last rights, and the comfort she takes in God and heaven allows her to give care on earth. Levin is more theoretical and Kitty more practical. He is given to science and atheism, and even his practical activities as a farmer are filled with theoretical reflections which involve him in questions regarding Russian legislation and the differences between nations. He is a troubled soul precisely because his reason conflicts with his life, whereas Kitty has more unity because her simple faith gives strength to her cares. Even Anna, who is by far the most educated woman in the novel, is neither scientist, nor atheist and her conflicts are personal. Man’s labor places him in the world and provides greater contact with nature, whereas the female on account of her relative weakness and dependency is naturally concerned with the male will and her own children.

Shortly after the death of Nikolai, Kitty gives birth. Levin is confronted with the twinship of birth and death. Kitty’s labor is difficult and Levin believes that her screams are cries of death. He is out of his mind with the belief that she is dying and he prays to God for help. The irony of an atheist praying strikes him momentarily but it is not something he dwells on. This conflict, however, is the conflict of his life. From the very beginning of the novel he was characterized as a man with romantic longings for family and belonging, but who was also under the influence of science and atheism. How he reconciles his rationality with his life, is a kind a test of his character. Kitty does not die but gives birth to their son. Levin imagined that the birth would be a joyous occasion but it makes him serious. As he holds him, Levin becomes aware that his own existence is extended into one more point of exposure. This of course differs from Kitty whose joy and attachment are more immediate.

Jealousy is not a passion from which either Kitty or Levin is free. In its most extreme form it is the passion of a god and those who feel it take on the form of one. It is the demand to be loved; the awareness that wills are capricious but should be directed towards oneself and deserve punishment when they are not. It is of course impossible to command love unless one is a god to whom love is owed and it would be unjust for anyone but a god to punish for love. The jealousies between Levin and Kitty never take on this terrible aspect. He remains jealous of Kitty’s former affection for Vronsky, but she is prudent enough not to mention it and eventually Levin can meet Vronsky on friendly terms.

But the young and handsome Vaska, who could never interest Kitty, makes Levin jealous to the point of having to order him from the house. Kitty is pregnant, but that does not stop Vaska from openly flirting with her as is his habit. His behavior is acceptable in the city and eventually he will flirt with Anna to the pleasure of both Anna and Vronsky, but in a wholesome household like Levin’s it is disrespectful and outrageous. Marriage and family require respect for the sentiments which inform them, and to treat a married woman as if she were single, cannot but insult the affections and rights which unite husband and wife. Kitty too becomes jealous. Anna feels that she is losing the affection of Vronsky and seduces Levin for the sake of her own pride. It gives her satisfaction for several reasons. To seduce a decent married man allows her a small victory over the societal opinions which keep her ostracized. It also gives her a victory over Vronsky’s old love.

But most important, and most indicative of her decline, is that it affirms the power of her charms. She begins to see herself as a seductress and not as a lover and a beloved; she begins to resemble the St. Petersburg women and actresses for whom sexuality and its charms are but a power and a vanity. Nothing happens but Levin is impressed and smitten and thinks that Anna is an amazing woman. Kitty quickly realizes from Levin’s comments that he has come under Anna’s spell. She is hurt and hates Anna, and Levin is quickly cured of his passion. Anna’s victory like those of the St. Petersburg women is short lived. Kitty inspires tenderness and lasting affection, whereas only a loyal soldier like Vronsky can stay with Anna.

Anna’s jealousy proves to be ineradicable, terrible and ultimately ruins her relation with Vronsky and destroys both of them. She is jealous because she knows that she cannot make Vronsky happy and supposes that he will seek it elsewhere. She cannot give him a legacy and she cannot join him in society. Vronsky needs manly freedom and friendship. He cannot be cloistered in the household with her and needs his own sphere of activity. Kitty has the domestic home and Levin has his farm. They live separately and together, but this is impossible for Anna and Vronsky because the domestic cares can have no dignity for her. She has broken the bonds of marriage and abandoned her son. How could she possibly find new duties in Vronsky’s home? And Vronsky cannot dedicate himself to his farm because he is a soldier. He loves camaraderie and has ambition, and although his farm is a family farm, he was not raised on it. Furthermore he hates his mother—the famous St. Petersburg adulteress. How could he, ,like Levin, have romantic ideas about the home? For Vronsky, the household is a business. His need for society is a reproach to Anna because she is a publically disgraced woman and he could not possibly rise in public office because of their association. He could not even bring to any respectable home. A man who needs society must to some extent be subject to its opinions.

There is a double standard with respect to social opinion. While it is true that Vronsky did not commit adultery, he nonetheless seduced and impregnated a married woman, and convinced her to abandon her husband and her son. Yet all doors are open to Vronsky, while even Anna’s best friend Betsy will only reluctantly visit her and for the briefest moment. The honor of the female and the male are different. She knows this as does Vronsky, but she decides to enter society anyways as a last resort and out of defiant pride. She goes to the opera and is publically humiliated. Of course, St. Petersburg is filled with adulteresses, but Anna is the only one who has not kept up appearances. The other adulteresses stay in their marriages and pretend to honor the conventions, but Anna wanted to be devoted to love and to be free from living lies that breed self-contempt. By stepping outside the conventions she tests their power and her own autonomy.

Vronsky’s love of society is not for female society but for friendship. He becomes part of the political machinery and joins the progressive faction. Tolstoy takes us inside the belly of the new democratic elections. Honest men are knowingly slandered as thieves and neighbors learn to hate each other. The most shameless and calumnious make their way to the top. Drunkenness is strategically induced to get votes and most of those who vote do not even know what they are voting for. Besides causing faction and bad character, election politics becomes bureaucraticthe one who knows all the procedural rules is the most informed. The parties themselves are just interested in victory, and cleverness at getting elected becomes more important than  governing. The parties and elections round out the general degraded character of life in bourgeois Russia. Levin’s private life seems all the more respectable given the nature of public life.

Anna had been making life miserable for Vronsky by blaming him for everything that went wrong with her life. She was particularly mad at him for making fun of female education in physics. Since Anna no longer fits into traditional marriage, she took it upon herself to create a new life for women, and promoted female education in advanced studies such as physics. Vronsky mocked Anna’s new education for women as unsuitable and unnecessary for women. At a point of irritation he finally says a few words that will finally destroy her. As part of her project, she takes in a young English girl and raises her. Vronsky sees that Anna shows more affection for a stranger than for their own child. In fact, Anna has no affection for their own child Annie. Vronsky reproaches Anna and calls her an unnatural mother, and suggests that this whole project of education she has undertaken is artificial and a false substitute for natural affection and real obligations. She gave up everything for him including her own son, and now he makes it clear that he holds her in contempt because she is not a natural mother meaning a mother who loves her own child. The circle is now complete and Anna has returned to her beginning. Vronsky implies that her first duty is to her own child and that he cannot love her. Anna’s fate is sealed. She had a choice between motherhood and love, and for a brief time she thought she could have both, but now she has neither.

She loved her son Seryozha and he loved her. Their affection for one another is evident when Anna sneaks into Karenin’s house to see Seryozha on his birthday. He was told that she was dead to spare him the pain of her shame and his own abandonment, but he dreamed of her and believed she was alive and that he would see her again. After this bitter sweet reunion, she will never see him again, and he will be destroyed in his own way. He eventually learns of her story. Stiva goes to visit him but Seryozha cries and screams that he does not want to see his uncle or any of his relatives, because he does not want to be reminded of his mother. He is emotionally damaged and in order to avoid the pain he throws himself into a game called “train” by which he pretends to be a train. He runs around and then stops and then runs again like a train. This game is indicative of greater themes in the novel. The train is the sign of the new society and its technological progress but inevitably it runs people over. The spirit of technology or what is the same thing, applied science, enters the family and is at odds with it.

Seryozha was forced to memorize languages and biblical names and stories, but none of that touched his feelings and he learned poorly because it was unrelated to him. His natural inclination was towards those around him, but having felt the pain of what is for him shame and abandonment he imitates a machine, and as Tolstoy suggests through his presentation of the logic of the emotions, he is likely to become like one. The  failure of his religious education will be replaced by a technical one.

Anna loses her sanity before her suicide. She knows that she cannot make Vronsky happy and that he holds her in contempt. She also knows that his family would love to see him with a woman with whom he could marry and have legitimate children. Deep down she knows they are right and that if he has ruined her, she has ruined him, but she is jealous of the influence his mother might have on him and is convinced that Vronsky is ready to leave her for a girl favorable to his mother like Princess Sorokin. Vronsky leaves the house to visit his mother in order to have her sign over deeds, which would make his life with Anna better, but she has convinced herself that he is leaving her. She is beside herself with fear and sends a letter for him to return. She does not want to be alone and visits Dolly and Kitty, which only clarifies her situation as a woman with whom decent women cannot associate.

Through a misunderstanding, she believes that Vronsky has ignored the urgency of his request and this provides for her a kind of revelation about the meaning of human life and human relations. Just as, at the very end of the novel, Levin has his revelation that restores him to life and love, Anna has her revelation that leads her to hatred and death. She knows that even if she gets a divorce from Karenin, she cannot be happy, because Vronsky only stays from duty and no longer loves her. And even if she could have custody of Seryozha, there would be no happiness because she had left him for Vronsky and the shame of her situation would ruin her relation with her son anyways. No longer able to have her love requited, she no longer believes in love and states that Vronsky never loved her but only enjoyed the pride of conquest. Now that the pride has been quenched, the enthusiasm is gone. She hates him more than she has hated anything, but that is because she loves him more than anything. She loves too well and not too wisely. Her hatred consumes her and she sees love as a hypocrisy and she believes hate is the true passion of human beings. Afterall, she could leave her own child whom she adored. She hates with reasons and honest reflection and one senses that she, like Levin, has a depth of feeling and comprehension that sees deeper into life than the other characters. Tolstoy joins together her madness with her clarity, and we see that, at least in her case, the truth of her situation cannot support her life. Her final act is her suicide. She believes that by killing herself, she will punish him with regret and that his suffering will prove his attachment. Though she will be dead, she will have triumphed.

The first words in Anna Karenina are: “Vengeance is mine. I will repay”. It is of course spoken by God in Romans 12:19. Those open the novel because they reflect upon Anna’s fate. She usurps the authority of God by avenging herself against Vronsky through her own suicide. She has a moment of regret just before it is too late and asks forgiveness, but the deed is done. Her vengeance cannot but help reveal the place of man in the order of things. He is neither god nor beast. His desires are never simply animal, because they are accompanied by his desire for immortality. Yet, he can never become a god because he must die. He is an incomplete being in need of some kind of communion, and for that reason his jealous demand to be loved is both an error and a monstrosity. She does indeed destroy Vronsky. He is sick beyond words and goes off to war with his own paid for regiment to die. It is a kind of suicide and he wants to be rid of his life. On the train to war, he has a toothache. He had perfectly even teeth, and this toothache reminds us that there was something beautiful but superficial about Vronsky. He was too splendid, and as is typical of the St. Petersburg crowd, he never paid sufficient attention to the painful and ugly.

Anna’s death and epiphany of hate is covered over by Levin’s epiphany of love and restoration to life. Throughout the novel he struggled with his love of family and his science and atheism. He had given up Christianity for science but it was like a man giving up a warm, fur coat for a muslin garment. He felt cold and naked, and despite having a wife, a family and his ancestral household he felt inclined to suicide to the point of having to hide the rope from himself. For Anna, science is a vanity that distracts her from her situation and comforts her resentments. She wants to believe that women could be like men and that she could be free from her shame. But Levin is a serious man and his theoretical beliefs affect his life. Tolstoy makes him choose between reason and life suggesting that the two cannot be reconciled.

Levin first turns to the antimaterialist philosophers for a defense of God, but he discovers that while they are useful in disabusing man of false ideas of materialism, they cannot establish the divine through reason. He then abandons the tradition of philosophy as of limited use, if not as of mere sophistry. He turns to his own life in order to discover the divine. He realizes that he acts resolutely in life and without hesitation. He took care of his own affairs and those of his family and neighbors, not because he was thinking about the common good, but because he could not do otherwise. He discovers that he is rooted and that he must live as his father and forefathers have lived and that he must raise his children in the same way.

Thinking obscured from him this necessity or perhaps one should say duty. Looking in on himself he discovered an infallible judge which told him right from wrong and when he was wrong he knew it. This inner conscience is confirmed for him by an outer voice. The peasant Fyodor says of the rich peasant Platon that he is a good man and Levin immediately understood what he meant by good. He meant and he states that one must not live for one’s own wants but for God. Levin had been looking for material miracles but now discovers that God is within him. He had been living rightly but thinking wrongly because of the pride of his intellect. He realizes that he could only live by the beliefs in which he was raised and he abandons reason for the belief in the love of the neighbor. He leaves his state of doubt and enters a state  of conviction.

The name of the good peasant is of course no accident. Tolstoy also names the peasant, who in War and Peace teaches Pierre the meaning. of life, Platov. The name refers back to Plato, which is ironic because Levin had abandoned Plato. By naming the peasant Platov, Tolstoy draws attention to the difference between his own philosophy and that of Plato. The difference centers around the nature of the theoretical life. Plato celebrates Socrates whom nobody would take for a family man and whose life and death was nothing but a defense of philosophy. Socrates too had an inner voice which he calls his daimonion, but his inner voice tells him to philosophize and that the unexamined life is a life not worth living. Philosophy is needed precisely because the resolute deeds of man are not sufficient. Socrates is not a man of deeds but of thoughts which create doubts, but he argues that those doubts are what philosophy is and that his knowledge of ignorance is superior to any ignorant conviction.

Levin’s conviction is that there is a Christian God and that he should love his neighbor, however, he is still haunted by doubt. What about all the different religions that have different revelations? Reason does not recognize the Christian revelation any more than the Muslim revelation. He comforts himself by stating that he is not trying to understand the relation of the divine to the world but is finding his way to a truth that is in his heart and is beyond all doubt and from that point he must find God.

Tolstoy takes most of Levin’s faith from the Profession of Faith of the Savoyard Vicar in Rousseau’s Emile. It is an attempt to found religion on sentiments rather than in scriptures. Like Rousseau, Tolstoy wants a humane and tolerant religion that naturalizes Christianity. Levin does not believe in miracles and he is not superstitious. He does not even concern himself with heaven and hell or the salvation of mankind. Loving his neighbors does not mean saving souls, but helping friends and family in the usual sense of the term.  In fact, he keeps his religious conviction to himself and does not even share it with his wife. It comes from his heart and although it includes a love for mankind, it includes his family above all. It affirms the tradition of his forefathers, but that tradition is not sacred because it is derived from the true revelation, but because he is attached to it from birth—it is his own.

Before facing the final problem of the diversity of revelations, he runs to find his wife and son during a terrible storm. A huge oak falls where they were and he prays to God in desperation even though he knows prayers are of no use. One might say that he knows and does not know since he prays despite his reason. They are alive and he feels what is dearest to him and what must be affirmed in him. He does not care about the war between the Christian Slavs and the Muslims and feels that it is only in his little domestic world, perhaps only in his feelings, that he can be good. His epiphany inspires him to change his life and become a better person but he will continue to be angry at his coachman, lose his temper in arguments, scold his wife and repent of it, and pray without reason. His life will go on as it did before with the only difference that now he knows what goodness is and he can work toward it. The naturalization of Christianity takes place in relation to the humane and familial sentiments. There is no greatness and glory and certainly no philosophy, but only domesticity and humaneness.


It is sometimes said that Levin is Tolstoy. While the equation is invited because they share a name, they are surely different. Levin is not a novelist and although he is a troubled man of learning as well as a man of feeling, he is not a genius. He cannot see into the problems of his own inheritance, as can even Stiva, because his attachment to his own ancestry is beyond question. Philosophy cannot shake from him what is his own and that to which he feels he belongs by feeling and by right. Theory for him is against life and he seeks to recover those naïve and immediate sentiments of goodness and God lost to thinking. Tolstoy himself has an ironic distance on his own hero. He is much more aware than is Levin of both social influence and individual psychology. Levin’s existential crises are never very convincing and as Stiva points out they are near comical. The same could be said of his epiphany, especially in light of the problems of the diversity of beliefs which he himself poses. It is all a bit contrived and comical, especially in light of Anna’s tragedy. Comedy is no way to live any more than is tragedy.

Tolstoy presents Levin with his reason and Anna with her desire in order to correct modern man’s Cartesianism, which cannot but undermine love, marriage and family. The scientific project of the Enlightenment reaches its end with the reform of private life by defining sexuality and procreation as free from all natural and religious ends and only belonging to the individual will. There is no wholeness and unity of existence. Sexuality and procreation are integrated into an order of abstract reason and course sensuality. There is libertinism, contracts and medicine but there is no love and family in any meaningful sense. It is a perverse combination of the animal and the divine, as man rules himself but only for animal pleasures and ends. In comparison to ourselves, we cannot but be impressed by the tragedy and comedy of Tolstoy. The experiences and conflicts of Anna and of Levin are truer to the natural phenomena than any attempt to impose a rational grid.

While it is true that Tolstoy breaks through the concepts of science and the language of rights to rediscover private life, it is also true that he works within the romantic tradition. Not only is Levin’s faith derived from Rousseau, but Anna’s conflict between love and family is taken from Rousseau’s Julie. Following Rousseau and the romantics, Tolstoy formulates the conflict between reason and the divine as one of romantic recovery of a lost goodness supported by God from an alienating rationality. Anna’s tragedy is that she ruined the sentiment of goodness by breaking the duties of motherhood, whereas Levin fulfills the simple goodness of man through his traditional household.

This return and recovery of nature is not without its problems. Romanticism is a kind of half-way house between philosophy and religion satisfying the demands of neither. If science is true, then there is no God and one must reconcile life to it. If religion is true, then we know of God through revelation and not through ourselves. The romantic formula was rejected in Tolstoy’s own lifetime by Nietzsche. The taste for sincerity was atheistic and longing for life became a taste for creation in the face of nothingness, or in other words, that man himself become God. But the same could be said of Nietzsche, that one could say of romanticism. Nietzsche wanted commitment to God or gods in the face of the abyss, but one could say with Socrates that either God exists or does not exist. This is a rational or Platonic way of looking at the problem. Tolstoy replaced Plato with Platov because he believed that reason and life were in conflict, but Plato says that philosophy is both knowledge of ignorance and knowledge of eros. In other words, that philosophy perfects both science and love. Communion with truth may be the only real unity.


Also see “Reflections on Tolstoy’s ‘What is Art?’ Relevant to Our Times“; “Vengeance is Mine: Levin’s Obscured Faith Journey in Anna Karenina“; and “Consciousness, Memory, and History in Tolstoy’s War and Peace.”

Mark KremerMark Kremer

Mark Kremer

Mark Kremer is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Kennesaw State University. He is author of Romanticism and Civilization: Love, Marriage, and Family in Rousseau’s Julie (Lexington Books, 2017).

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