Anna Karenina (Leo Tolstoy)

Tolstoy, Leo.  Anna Karenina. Trans. Constance Garnett.

Sin will find you out.  Without directly saying it, Tolstoy reiterates the theme found in Plato’s Gorgias: wrongdoing is its own punishment.  Sin has a reflex action upon the will.  Anna’s adultery creates a situation from which she cannot escape.  Even when those whom she’s wronged are willing to provide a way out, she finds she cannot take it.

The main character, however, is not Anna.  It is Levin.  Levin is Tolstoy’s alter-ego.  Levin begins as what can only be described as a proto-Any Randian.  He even identifies “the mainspring of all our actions” as self-interest (Tolstoy 280). He matures into an anarcho-agrarian.  

Side point: while converts to Russian Orthodoxy boast of Holy Russia’s Christian heritage, Tolstoy paints a different picture.  Levin was an average Russian who hadn’t taken Communion in nine years.  He didn’t even believe in God.  

Anna wants “love,” which she thinks she isn’t getting from her cold marriage to Karenin. Levin has to learn about himself through a series of “successful failures,” both in love and in farming.

Here is the challenge Anna represents to the modern world.  We can all grant that she is a whore.  She broke her marriage vows.  Anna, however, defined love as “zest” or “passion.”  If the zest isn’t there, then love isn’t.  This isn’t all that different from some religious groups defining their love for God in terms of the intensity of their affections.  You can’t say Anna’s definition of love is wrong if you share the same premise with her.

Love is not how hard I feel about something.  Love is a commitment to will the good of the other.

Tolstoy gives us a brilliant analysis of St Petersburg culture. St. Petersburg was the New York of Russia.  Moscow was slightly more conservative and traditional. Even though St Petersburg society is utterly decadent, there is a veneer of traditional morality.  If Anna goes through with it, she can never integrate into polite society again.  While Petersburg may eschew traditional morality, no one wants to hobnob with whores.

Tolstoy doesn’t explore the religious angle as intensely as Dostoevsky, though that is the point upon which the book ends.  Nonetheless, Tolstoy notes that today’s freethinkers lack the power of earlier ones.  How much truer is that today!  He notes, “In former days the freethinker was a man who had been brought up in ideas of religion, law, and morality, and only through conflict and struggle became a freethinker; but now there has sprung up a new type of born freethinker who grows up….in ideas of negation in everything….

“In old times, you see, a man who wanted to educate himself would have begun to study all the classics and theologians and tragedians and historians and philosophers, and what mental work came his way.  But in our day he goes straight for the literature of negation” (532).

Tolstoy was a genius.  No doubt about it.  Excusing his own hypocritical life, he might have given us the finest novel of all time.




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