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Though Anna Karenina gives the novel its name, Levin acts
as the novel's co-protagonist, as central to the story as Anna herself.
Many critics read Levin as a veiled self-portrait of the
author: his name includes Tolstoy’s first name (Lev in Russian),
and many of the details of his courtship of Kitty—including the
missing shirt at the wedding—were taken straight from Tolstoy’s
life. Most notably, Levin’s confession of faith at the end of the novel
parallels Tolstoy’s turning to religion after writing Anna Karenina.
Independent-minded and socially awkward, Levin is a truly
individual character who fits into none of the obvious classifications
of Russian society. He is neither a freethinking rebel like his
brother Nikolai, nor a bookish intellectual like his half-brother
Sergei. He is not a socialite like Betsy, nor a bureaucrat like
Karenin, nor a rogue like Veslovsky. Levin straddles the issue of
Russia’s fate as a western nation: he distrusts liberals who wish
to westernize Russia, rejecting their analytical and abstract approach,
but on the other hand he recognizes the utility of western technology
and agricultural science. In short, Levin is his own person. He
follows his own vision of things, even when it is confused and foggy,
rather than adopting any group’s prefabricated views. Moreover,
Levin prefers isolation over fitting in with a social set with which
he is not wholly comfortable. In this he resembles Anna, whose story
is a counterpart to his own in its search for self-definition and
Despite his status as a loner, Levin is not self-centered,
and he shows no signs of viewing himself as exceptional or superior.
If Tolstoy makes Levin a hero in the novel, his heroism is not in
his unique achievements but in his ability to savor common human
experiences. His most unforgettable experiences in the novel—his
bliss at being in love, his fear for his wife in childbirth—are
not rare or aristocratic but shared by millions. Anyone can feel
these emotions; Levin is special simply in feeling them so deeply
and openly. This commonality gives him a humanitarian breadth that
no other character in the novel displays. His comfort with his peasants
and his loathing of social pretension characterize him as an ordinary
man, one of the Russian people despite his aristocratic lineage.
When Levin mows for an entire day alongside his peasants, we get
no sense that he is deliberately slumming with the commoners—he
sincerely enjoys the labor. Tolstoy’s representation of Levin’s
final discovery of faith, which he learns from a peasant, is equally
ordinary. In this regard, Levin incarnates the simple virtues of
life and Tolstoy’s vision of a model human being.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Anna Karenina!