Mixed Messages; Judgment in Anna Karenina

November 17, 2021 by Essay Writer

The question of judgment and sympathies in Anna Karenina is one that, every time I have read the novel, seems to become more complicated and slung with obfuscation. The basic problem with locating the voice of judgment is that throughout the novel, there are places where we feel less than comfortable with the seemingly straightforward, at times even didactic presentation of Anna and Vronsky’s fall into sin alongside Levin’s constant moral struggle. As Anna’s story unfolds in its episodic manner within the context of the rest of the novel, Tolstoy seems to be trying to make the fact of her guilt more and more clear to us; at the same time though, we have more and more difficulty in tracing out the specific locus of that guilt. In a novel as consummately constructed as this one is, we are tempted to look for places where the undercurrents of the text, the places where the text takes on its own life and force, run against, or at least complicate, the discernment of authorial judgment. By closely examining Tolstoy’s treatment of Anna’s moral crisis as compared with his handling of Levin, we might attempt to unravel the book’s rather layered and complex system of condemnation. The novel’s epigraph sets a certain tone for us before we even begin reading; the biblically inflected “Vengeance is mine; I will repay,” plants in our heads the idea that wrong will be done and punishment exacted. Indeed, we come across a wrong in the very first lines of the opening chapter, in Stepan Arkadyich’s dalliance with the French governess, which has thrown the Oblonsky house into “confusion.”(1) Tolstoy’s descriptions of Stepan Arkadyich as a pleasant, honest, well-liked bon vivant seem at times to drip with contempt. He is “lazy and mischievous”(14), his life “dissipated”(14), and “the distributors of earthly blessings, in the form of positions, leases, concessions and the like, were all friends of his and could not pass over one of their own; …Oblonsky did not have to try especially hard to obtain a profitable post; all he had to do was not refuse, not envy, not quarrel, not get offended, which, owing to his natural kindness, he never did anyway.”(14) Stiva is basically a totally harmless, even likable character, but at the same time we are made very aware that he is one of the novel’s moral weaklings. There is something very resonant about the “stupid smile”(3) Stiva gives Dolly as she confronts him with the evidence of his philandering‹he is made to seem constitutionally incapable of an appropriate response. In an irony almost too glaring to call irony, Anna enters on to this scene in the role of restorer of her brother’s familial harmony. Before she is off the train from Moscow though, before her name even appears in the text, the seduction has begun. From the moment Vronsky sets eyes on her, the narrator makes it abundantly clear that the attraction and flirtation are, on Anna’s part anyway, genuine and involuntary. When she looks back at Vronsky as he has stood aside to let her leave the carriage, Tolstoy, through Vronsky, notes “the restrained animation that played over her face and fluttered between her shining eyes and the barely noticeable smile that curved her red lips. It was as if a surplus of something so overflowed her being that it expressed itself beyond her will, now in the brightness of her glance, now in her smile. She deliberately extinguished the light in her eyes, but it shone against her will in a barely noticeable smile.”(61) It is significant that our introduction to Anna is through Vronsky. Vronsky’s response to her is instantaneous, and the reader shares in his gaze as he “follow[s] her with his eyes until her graceful figure disappear[s];”(63) as we recognize what has passed between them, we are also made to instinctively feel Anna’s force of attraction. If Anna can be said to cast a spell, Tolstoy makes sure the reader falls under it as well as Vronsky. She continues to exude an almost magical charm through her impressions on the members of the Oblonsky family. In her first conversation with Dolly she is presented as all filled with genuine empathy and compassion for her sister-in-law. Kitty is soon “in love with her, as young girls are capable of being in love with older married ladies.”(71) Admiration comes from every corner‹the very narration itself seems to be in love with her. Peace is restored to the troubled household, (“God is merciful,”(71) Anna significantly writes to her brother inviting him home for dinner), in time for the great ball, during which Anna’s charm, at its stunning peak, becomes almost sinister. Our view of her during this scene is from Kitty, who is of course very threatened by Anna as soon as men, particularly Vronsky, enter the scene. Though her enchantment is still presented as natural and ingenuous, now “there [is] something terrible and cruel”(83) in it. Nevertheless, the moments between Anna and Vronsky as they are falling in love, at the ball and then later on the station platform, are some of the most electrifying in the novel. There are certainly overtones of judgment on Anna’s narcissism; Kitty describes her as “demonic”(83), and when Anna sees Vronsky unexpectedly through the snow on the platform, though she has apparently told herself that she would “never allow herself even to think of him”(102), she is “overcome by a feeling of joyful pride,”(102) when she sees the admiration in his face. But the exhilaration and sexual excitement that comes through in the writing about these two is unmistakable, and utterly engaging. Their affair becomes desirable to the reader, because the passages when they are together, in the beginning of their relationship, are so charged. We can safely assume that there was no such intensity or narcissism in Stepan Arkadyich’s affair with the French governess, as we can sense that the quality of Levin’s feelings for Kitty are presented very differently. Far from seeming fated or inevitable, Levin’s love for Kitty is a hand-me-down, has passed over her older sisters, and has now devolved upon her. Nor is it an impetuous love. Vronsky follows Anna the day after the ball on a whim, simply to be where she is; Levin spends a good deal of the novel alone, rejected by Kitty, but thinking of her. When he sees her again, his love therefore appears steady, measured and true, in contrast to the uncertainty that plagues Anna and Vronsky’s love for one another.All the book’s overt signs, (we might even say there is a Œprotest-too-much’ over-abundance of them), point to Levin as the book’s moral center. He is too ingenuous to be a Œhit’ in society. He is a Œworker of the land’, an occupation upon which Tolstoy clearly places a kind of edenic, (though perhaps slightly patronizing), value. He places great value on family. He is not seeking love of the kind Vronsky and Anna have ; almost as an extension of his feeling for land and the ground, Levin is looking not for a grand passion, but for a family life. Perhaps most significantly, he is always working on himself, questioning himself, sounding himself, earnestly collecting information from the world and measuring it against himself, constantly struggling to attain to the truth of himself and the world around him.2In terms, though, of Œthe pleasure of the text’, Levin is something of a reader’s disappointment. The sections that deal with him are no where near as engaging or infectious as the sections dealing with Anna and Vronsky, (with the possible qualification that toward the end of the book the scenes between Anna and Vronsky become more and more tawdry and unpleasant), and while the morality imposed on the book may be clear, so is the fact that good morality does not necessarily make for good reading. In the relative tedium and lack of engagement in Levin’s sections of the book, I can’t help but feel at times that Tolstoy himself was bored with him, even though he represents all that the text professes to value. If we return to the famous opening line of the novel, it is the unhappy family that generates a narrative. Levin’s Œhappy family’ closes out the text; being just like every other happy family, it does not produce a narrative. Any great writer must also be a great reader, and from the way he writes about Anna, the reader feels Tolstoy’s love for his own creation; in spite of her sin, in spite of her narcissism, (which eventually develops into a kind of hysteria), perhaps even in spite of the fact that he had set out to write a novel about “eternal justice,”3 we sense, in a fairly visceral way, that Tolstoy feels a deep and abiding love for his heroine. We feel this allegiance perhaps most strongly in his treatment of Anna’s suicide. Her last thoughts and movements as she throws herself under the train seem to echo her life since Vronsky entered it: “…with a light movement, as if preparing to get up again at once, [she] sank to her knees. And in that same instant she was horrified at what she was doing. ŒWhere am I? What am I doing? Why?’ She wanted to rise, to throw herself back, but something huge and implacable pushed at her head and dragged over her.”(768) Even when you know it’s coming, it is an almost unbearably brutal read; the text itself seems to register the horror of her death by immediately withdrawing to talk of Sergei Ivanovich and his book sales, or lack thereof.In trying to clarify the authorial judgment in this great novel, we run up against the central rift that Isaiah Berlin called attention to with his dual formulation of Tolstoy as the foxy hedgehog, a conflict between what the messianic moralist knew he should put in his novel, and what the writer loved to write about. In the end, perhaps because Tolstoy was a better writer than he was true moralist, I’m not sure that Tolstoy ever reconciled the novel’s judgment of Anna with his own sympathy and love for her. The result is a novel divided, uneasy with the Œvengefulness’ of its own condemnation, perhaps proud of its over-riding message of living for truth and “the good”(817) in life, but ultimately unable to fully convince us that it gravitates toward its own confused and forced moral center.

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