Despair and Hope in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina

Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina doesn’t end with the suicide of Anna. Its final section concludes the story of its other primary character, Constantin Levin. Levin’s situation is very different from Anna’s. He is married to the woman he loves, who has recently given birth to their first child, a healthy son. They live on a farm amidst the beautiful Russian countryside and he is well-liked by the peasants under his employ. Despite his obvious good-fortune, he too has feared himself close to suicide. The reason is his inability to affirm faith in God. His most diligent inquiries have left him without the certainty he craves. All he knows is that the conclusions of materialism are emotionally and morally unacceptable but that a convincing case for God’s existence and beneficence continually evades him. The insensate horror that would define a godless world, and the sustaining silence where he expects to hear God speak, leave him in a state of panicked existential despair. His happiness cannot gain purchase in the roiling cauldron of his unbelief.

But Levin experiences a revelation. He discovers, once and for all, that God is ultimately ineffable. He discovers that faith is not probity in matters of theology but rather the blissful acceptance of the utter necessity of an all-loving presence in the universe (acceptance which, in our fallen state, depends upon a kind of moral probity). After this revelation he witnesses how it fails to change his social being; he still behaves rudely and uncharitably to his servants and to his family. He does not allow that to derail his new understanding. He accepts that he is an imperfect social being and commits himself to understanding further the mystery of his own nature as a created being among other created beings. He surrenders himself to love, just as Anna could not.

Tolstoy’s moral genius lies in the way he delineates Levin’s deep and lasting, yet subtle and fundamentally private transformation by his new insight into the nature of the divine. Levin does not instantly attain saintliness—far from it. He must negotiate the challenges of the human world just as before, prey to the same vanities and resentments, but he can now do so possessed of new gifts: the knowledge of his own blessedness in the company of those around him and the freedom of a soul without fear.

Anna becomes, at the end, consumed by the belief that hatred permeates all human relationships. She comes to see the world and everything in it as irredeemably ugly. The social world she sees as a sick and malicious charade whose awful conceit infects her relations with those she loves. Her bright and blazing consciousness, her huge and hungry soul, cannot survive the littleness of the world around her. Her otherworldly charm outshines, and so conceals, a fatal fragility of spirit. The reader is left with the powerful and painful impression that Anna’s destruction was not inevitable. At the moment that she takes her life she is shocked at her own actions. She cannot understand, in those final instants, why she is doing it.

If Anna’s tragic journey marks the worst kind of moral waste, then Levin’s journey marks the opposite. From humiliation and despair (his wife at first rejects his proposal) he salvages, despite his own abundant failings, the joyous future he dreamed of. He witnesses the full horror of mortality in his brother’s agonizing demise and the bitter regrets that are poured out in this process. He witnesses also the true power of human compassion in his wife’s saintly nursing of his dying brother, and in the marvelous, delicate form of his newborn child.

Both Anna and Levin suffer and inflict cruelties, some inconsequential, others grave. Anna becomes the victim of the countless unacknowledged cruelties that constitute, as she sees it, the totality of the social world. Levin transcends such cruelties, ready, we sense, to forgive them in himself and in others. There is profound sadness in this literary masterpiece, but Tolstoy does not close the door on consolation. Having shown us two young families (Anna’s two families) torn apart by subtle deceptions, he shows us another thriving in the consciousness of their sacred bond.

The triumph of literature is to offer each of us vivid evidence of lives beyond our own, to speak to us out of the vast invisible worlds that other people carry in them. Tolstoy’s miraculous feat, in showing us Anna and Levin, is to swing two worlds into alignment, to confront the darkness that surrounds them and threatens to swallow us all, and to look beyond, to the blaze of countless galaxies, to the spangled majesty of love.

Editor’s note: The image above, titled “Portrait of an Unknown Woman,” was painted by Ivan Kramskoy in 1883.

This article is reprinted with permission from our friends at Crisis Magazine.
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