Anna Karenina

by: Leo Tolstoy

Part Two, Chapters 1–17

When the bell rings one day, Levin wonders whether his brother Nikolai has come for a visit. He is pleased to see that it is Stiva Oblonsky. Levin, grateful for a potential source of information about Kitty, takes Stiva out to hunt birds. Unexpectedly, Levin blurts out a question about Kitty, unable to restrain his curiosity. When Stiva replies that Kitty is ill, Levin is oddly pleased, thinking that he has had an effect on her.

On the way home, Levin and Stiva discuss a forest that Stiva plans to sell. Levin claims the deal is shady and accuses the merchant buyer of intending to cheat Stiva. Visiting the merchant along with Stiva, Levin refuses to shake the merchant’s hand. Stiva makes the sale anyway, and later playfully accuses Levin of snobbery.

Analysis

In these chapters we see a number of characters who recognize, or deny, their feelings. Emotional self-knowledge becomes a crucial theme. Anna and Levin are at one end of the emotional spectrum, acknowledging what they feel and accepting the troubling consequences that accompany their feelings, come what may. Other characters, however, are less able to admit their inner emotions to themselves or to others. Kitty, with her evasive and roundabout attitude toward Levin, serves as a direct contrast to Anna and her unquestioning acceptance of her feelings for Vronsky. The image of Levin haunts Kitty both while he courts her and after she rejects him, but all the while she is unable to admit to herself that she cares for him. Kitty’s alleged illness is a clear cover-up for and result of her emotional pain. She thinks she feels humiliation when in fact she feels a deep affection that reveals itself as Anna Karenina unfolds. Kitty’s conversation with Dolly, in which Kitty breaks down in tears on the subject of Levin, marks one stage in Kitty’s gradual acceptance of her feelings. For Kitty, this is a slow process. The difference is striking: Anna acknowledges her love for Vronsky in a matter of days, whereas Kitty takes years to accept her feelings for Levin.

Karenin contrasts even more extremely with Anna’s and Levin’s emotional self-honesty. Whereas Kitty stifles her feelings, Karenin locks them away entirely, even going so far as to reject the very idea of emotional truth. After Anna returns home from Betsy’s, Karenin, in reference to Anna’s fantasies about Vronsky, tells her that some things in a person’s soul are best kept hidden. This word choice is revealing: Karenin does not mind that his wife may have feelings for another man—he only objects to her acting on them in a way that other people can see. For Karenin, repression is a way of life: he has kept his feelings so quarantined that his approach to life and love is wholly, coldly rational. When coming to terms with his jealousy of Vronsky, Karenin does not succumb to passion or violence but tries to convince himself that jealousy is “illogical,” as if his troubles with Anna were a math problem rather than a deeply personal matter. This dry, analytical approach defines not only Karenin’s relationship to his wife but also his profession and attitude toward his work. Much like his character Levin, Tolstoy hated bureaucrats such as Karenin, rejecting their way of transforming the whole of life into equations, rules, and quotas. For Tolstoy, such cold rationality was anti-Russian. He believed that those like Karenin presented not merely romantic failure but a social threat as well.

The most crucial plot event in the novel—the consummation of Anna’s and Vronsky’s love—passes almost unnoticed. Whether Tolstoy chose to leave this love scene undeveloped for reasons of censorship or artistry, the event is marked only by an ellipsis between Chapters 10 and 11. Whatever the reason, this omission forces us to see that titillation is not Tolstoy’s aim in writing the novel. Anna Karenina is a novel of ideas much more than a tale of lust. As such, it focuses on the thoughts and feelings this love affair elicits rather than on what actually happens in the bedroom. The bleakness of Chapter 11, the scene immediately after the affair begins, highlights how far from sexy the situation is. Vronsky’s seduction of Anna is marked by sadness rather than happiness, contrary to all our expectations. Anna is not joyful but grieving, sobbing and declaring that she has lost everything—right at the moment when she gets everything she has wanted. Anna’s emotions are those of a jilted lover, not a fulfilled one. We realize what a tragic figure Anna is and see that her love is marked not by pleasure but by desperation.