Anna Karenina

by: Leo Tolstoy

Part Seven, Chapters 17–31

Summary Part Seven, Chapters 17–31

“No, you’re going in vain. . . . You won’t get away from yourselves.”

(See Important Quotations Explained)

On the way, Anna reflects on the Moscow cityscape and on the fact that Vronsky’s love has faded. She thinks he feels only duty—not love—toward her. At the station, Anna feels disoriented, focusing on the fakeness of the people in the crowd and hardly knowing why she is there or what destination to request. She boards the train and despises the artificiality of her fellow passengers.

Stepping off the train as it stops at Obiralovka, Anna walks along the platform in a despairing daze, finally resolving to throw herself under an approaching train in order to punish Vronsky and be “rid of everybody and of herself.” A train approaches, and Anna impulsively throws herself under the wheels, begging God for forgiveness and feeling a pang of confusion and regret when it is too late. The candle of her life is extinguished.

Analysis

The surprising revelation that Karenin—seemingly the most rational of people—is under the sway of a French psychic forces us to reassess his character. His slide from a responsible and powerful government minister to a lonely and confused man with a stalled career proceeds with startling rapidity. We see the extent of Karenin’s fall in the ridiculous scene in which he goes to sleep under Landau’s influence. The very man who epitomizes rationalism and normalcy early in the novel is now guided by the flighty comments of a man who is likely a complete scam. Tolstoy highlights the French nationality of the psychic and has him deliver his odd prophecies in French (even within the original Russian text)—gestures that poke fun at the French cultural tradition, which prides itself on being rational. Tolstoy suggests that an excessive cult of reason in any culture may be just as misguided as the most outrageous occultism. Both extremes are opposed to the grounded experience of life from which Levin learns. Levin devotes himself simply to his wish to live life, rather than to visionary or mathematical theories of existence. Consequently, Tolstoy implies, Levin succeeds where others produce empty phrases and—like Karenin in the end—lead empty lives.

Tolstoy’s brilliance as a literary psychologist is evident in the last and biggest of the quarrels that plague Anna and Vronsky’s relationship. In literal terms, Anna’s anger makes no sense. Vronsky has shown himself to be agreeably flexible in assenting to Anna’s travel plans, only requesting that they leave a bit later so he can finish some transactions for his mother. Anna explodes in response to this seemingly reasonable request. Her outburst is not logical but suggests something deeper happening in her psyche. Anna’s fury at Vronsky’s mother and her resentment at his request that she “respect” Countess Vronsky stem from Anna’s criticism of the very notion of respect. She makes this criticism explicit when she says that respect is a poor substitute for love. It is likely that Anna briefly identifies with the Countess as a recipient of Vronsky’s dutiful respect rather than his passionate love. What Anna fears more than anything is what she abhorred in Karenin—that Vronsky feels duty toward her but nothing more.

Anna’s death scene is justifiably considered one of the greatest of Tolstoy’s achievements in the novel, and in Russian literature as a whole. Her suicide is not merely the end of her life but also its summation: she acts independently and alone, and she seeks to escape the falsity of the people around her, just as she did in life. Yet Anna is not a diva in death, any more than she was in life. She does not pity herself or appeal to the sympathy of the crowd; she does not care about what other people think of her. Anna does not fancy herself superior to anyone but rather includes herself in the group of people that she wishes to get rid of—she escapes not just the world but Anna Karenina as well. Tolstoy’s portrayal of Anna’s final minutes is filled not with the wrath and vengeance that the novel’s epigraph foretells but rather with great tenderness. His description of Anna’s life as a candle being illuminated and then snuffed out forever equates her life with light and truth. Tolstoy pays a quiet tribute to this character of whom he disapproves but whom he loves nonetheless.