Anna Karenina

by: Leo Tolstoy

Part Three, Chapters 1–18

At a party at Betsy’s, Anna talks to some young members of the fashionable St. Petersburg set and is struck by how bored they are despite their merry lives. One of the party guests, Liza, asks how happy one can be lolling around on a sofa all day.

Analysis

Though Levin’s extended meditations on farming may at first appear to be a digression away from the primary concerns of the novel, this focus on agriculture, much like Kitty’s experiences at the spa, leads us toward questions that are relevant to Anna’s story. Levin struggles with the dilemma of how to establish a sustainable relationship with the natural world, which he finds beautiful, rich, and giving, and which he loves dearly. His love for the countryside is evident from the bliss he experiences in mowing all day. Yet Levin realizes that bliss is not enough, and that his relation to nature is threatened on all sides by others, including the peasants who mistrust him and the westernized agricultural theorists who counsel fruitless so-called improvements. Levin tries hard to practice good husbandry but always seems to fail. Levin’s problems with his land have elements in common with Anna and Vronsky’s predicament. Anna and Vronsky’s love is true and natural, and their early spiritual delight in each other is comparable to Levin’s feeling of rapture and fulfillment when mowing. Yet we see that, like Levin, Vronsky and Anna have trouble managing this love that should be so simple and natural but that society resists from all sides. The central question in both situations is whether society can ever learn to accommodate nature—whether grain fields or love—without loss or sacrifice.

It is symbolically important that Dolly suddenly appears in the countryside after being associated with the city up to this point in the novel. For Levin, Dolly is a sort of stand-in for her sister, Kitty. Levin was once in love with Dolly too, as well as with the rest of the Shcherbatsky family. We learn that Levin viewed the Shcherbatsky girls as goddesses or dreams fleetingly descending to greet him. After Kitty rejects Levin, he keeps her on her dreamy pedestal as an untouchable figure. But when Dolly moves to the more rugged Russian countryside—where she can no longer be an idealized dream but must deal with daily hardships—she brings the Shcherbatskys down to earth for Levin. Dolly represents a hope that the two things Levin loves most, Kitty and the countryside, may be united. While Levin still outwardly insists that his relationship with Kitty is over, we feel that the flame of his love for her still burns. Ideal life and real life may join for Levin eventually.

Tolstoy’s representation of Karenin changes gradually but drastically, so that by this point in the novel we are likely to have a very different image of him from the image we had earlier, without fully realizing that our perception of him has altered. Karenin is a competent but colorless statesman: a perfectly nice person but too absorbed in policy decisions and abstract issues to develop much of a distinct personality. Tolstoy initially depicts Karenin in neutral situations, with characters referring to his public role as one of the most important men in St. Petersburg. But at this point in the novel, Tolstoy reveals more of Karenin’s feelings, which do not enhance our respect for him. Karenin believes himself to be rational, but when he thinks of Anna as a “depraved woman,” we feel he exaggerates irrationally. Similarly, when Karenin reviews the list of men whom women have wronged throughout history, he comes across as pretentious and comical, just as he does when he rejects the idea of a duel because he is scared of pistols. Our regard for Karenin sinks, just as Anna’s regard for him does. This shift is precisely Tolstoy’s intention, making us feel as if we evolve along with the heroine of the novel.