The Fluctuating Sense of Self in Anna Karenina

Russian history is marked by a search for personal and national identity, as the nation moved from czarist rule to communism to dictatorship under Putin. The novels of Leo Tolstoy presage this seemingly endless uncertainty.

Russian history is marked by a search for personal and national identity, as the nation moved from czarist rule to communism to dictatorship under Putin. The novels of Leo Tolstoy presage this seemingly endless uncertainty.

Page references in parentheses are to the Constance Garnett translation, Bobbs-Merrill, N.Y.

What makes us able to be happy?  Why do difficult life circumstances make some people miserable, while others are able to shrug them off and more-or-less enjoy life anyway?  Tolstoy’s description in Anna Karenina of Levin’s state of mind some time after his longed-for marriage powerfully expresses this contrast between a person’s living conditions, the outer life, and his or her happiness, and state of mind – the inner life.  Torn by intellectual, metaphysical struggles about the meaning of life, Levin,

a happy father and husband, was several times so near suicide that he hid the cord that he might not be tempted to hang himself, and was afraid to go out with his gun for fear of shooting himself. (840)  

While there are major life events described in this, Tolstoy’s second major novel – parties, journeys, childbirth, deaths, political meetings, hunts and agricultural labour – the focus of the novel is not on these events themselves but on how they are being perceived by one or more of Tolstoy’s characters, and how they affect that character’s inner life, sense of personal identity, and happiness. “Who am I?” is the question each of the major characters is continually asking himself or herself, and the answer is almost constantly changing.  As these characters belong to the land-owning or professional Russian classes who live alternately on country estates and in Moscow or St. Petersburg, and practise at least nominal adherence to the Orthodox Church, the question has to do not with the externals of identification with a nationality, political party, religion or social class, but with the inner life, with a sense of who he or she is as a person, and with what really matters in life.  For this reason, despite the externals of carriages, parasols and scythes, the novel is in many ways timeless: the questions the characters ask themselves are those which trouble thoughtful people anywhere, at any time.  Answers may be found, but these answers are often fluid and changing; attempting to understand oneself, or to make a definitive statement about a Tolstoy character, may be to find oneself on shifting ground.

… the novel [Anna Karenina] is in many ways timeless: the questions the characters ask themselves are those which trouble thoughtful people anywhere, at any time.

A generous novelist in so many ways, Tolstoy does not restrict the creation of an inner life, with its questions of identity, to his handful of major characters in this novel.  He begins the novel with the unglamorous Dolly, the harassed and faded mother of many children, whose husband, Stiva, is a spendthrift and philanderer. When he approaches Dolly, after her discovery of his infidelity, she tries

assiduously to give her features a severe and contemptuous expression.  She felt she was afraid of him, and afraid of the coming interview.  . . . She still continued to tell herself that she should leave him, but she was conscious that this was impossible; it was impossible because she could not get out of the habit of regarding him as her husband and loving him.  Besides this, she realized that if even here in her own house she could hardly manage to look after her five children properly, they would be still worse off where she was going with them all.  . . .  She was conscious that it was impossible to go away; but, cheating herself, she went on all the same sorting out her things and pretending she was going. (11)

Tolstoy often shows his characters expressing their inner thoughts through gestures, like Dolly making ineffectual attempts to pack.  Feeling trapped by her situation, and despite recognizing this love for her husband, she talks to Anna of her anger and hatred:

What’s so awful is that all at once my heart’s turned, and instead of love and tenderness, I have nothing but hatred for him: yes, hatred.  I could kill him. (75)

Nonetheless, Dolly’s instinctive sense of her true self, loving her husband and her home, brings about the reconciliation which resolves the marital crisis at the beginning of the novel.  Less readily resolved is what might be called the “extra-marital crisis” which develops between Stiva’s sister, Anna, and the handsome military officer Vronsky.  Stiva, a shallow man who lives for sensual pleasures (and, undeservedly, probably the happiest character in the novel), could hardly be more different from the conscientious and compassionate Anna, who comes to Moscow from St. Petersberg to try to heal the rift between him and Dolly.  Anna succeeds, temporarily, as she has succeeded in most ventures in her life thus far, by her beauty, warmth and intelligence which readily make people love and admire her.  Anna is aware that her marriage to the bureaucrat Karenin is not particularly satisfying, but she is absorbed in her love for her young son, Seryosha, and in her social life.  Like her brother, she too is living on a fairly superficial level, though inoffensively, enjoying the pleasure other people take in her company.  Her serenity is disrupted when she inadvertently attracts the attention of a dashing officer and man-about-town, Vronsky, whose mother has already been charmed by Anna’s company on a train journey.  Vronsky is intrigued by Anna, and after monopolizing her during a crucial moment at a ball, sets out to win her.  Tolstoy uses small physical details to evoke some of his characters:  he makes frequent reference to Anna’s beautiful small hands, her husband’s irritating habit of cracking his fingers, and Vronsky’s white, even teeth.  These teeth are mentioned often, and as his seduction of Anna progresses, they come to suggest a predatory, even rapacious, quality to him.  At his last appearance in the novel, after Anna’s suicide, he is, appropriately enough, suffering from toothache.  
Whatever psychological and physical pleasure Anna undoubtedly takes from her increasingly intense affair with Vronsky, it is inevitably accompanied by guilt and remorse.  Unlike her brother in his casual relationships, and although affairs seem to be common enough in St. Petersburg high society, Anna cannot be callous and cautious enough to avoid emotional commitment, and public revelation of it.  After she and Vronsky first consummate their love, her response is not one of fulfillment and ecstasy, like a D.H. Lawrence heroine, but rather humiliation and misery.  

… she dropped her once proud and gay, now shame-stricken head, and she bowed down and sank from the sofa . . . she felt so sinful, so guilty, that nothing was left her but to humiliate herself and beg forgiveness; and as now there was no one in her life but him, to him she addressed her prayer for forgiveness.  Looking at him, she had a physical sense of her humiliation, and she could say nothing more.  He felt what a murderer must feel, when he sees the body he has robbed of life.  (160)

Curiously, Anna’s guilt is directed towards herself, her sense of identity; Tolstoy doesn’t actually have her seem to feel guilty towards her husband, Karenin; she is haunted by a dream that

both were her husbands at once, that both were lavishing caresses on her.  …And she was marveling that it had once seemed impossible to her, was explaining to them, laughing, that this was ever so much simpler, and that now both of them were happy and contented.  But this dream weighed on her like a nightmare, and she awoke from it in terror. (161) 

Nightmare and terror pursue Anna for the rest of the novel until she eventually takes her own life by throwing herself under the wheels of a train, echoing a fatal accident they‘d witnessed on the very occasion she first met Vronsky, at the same station where she dies.  Anna’s mental anguish comes from the loss of her position in the social world she values, and severance from her young son — loss of her identity both in society and as a mother, and expresses itself in a growing possessiveness of Vronsky and jealousy of anything in his life apart from her.  Despite her physical and emotional passion for Vronsky, she cannot be happy.

If I could be anything but a mistress, passionately caring for nothing but his caresses: but I can’t and I don’t care to be anything else.  And by that desire I rouse aversion in him, and he rouses fury in me, and it cannot be different.  Don’t I know that he wouldn’t deceive me, that he has no schemes about Princess Sorokina, that he’s not in love with Kitty, that he won’t desert me!  I know all that, but it makes it no better for me. (813)

Anna’s jealousy unsurprisingly irritates and alienates Vronsky.  Losing her sense of proportion and of justice, she puts the worst possible meaning on his words and gestures, and eventually has to resort to opium in order to sleep – which of course worsens her problems.  Tolstoy spares his reader little in following Anna’s consciousness on her final despairing journey.
         Tolstoy’s other major character and counterpart to Anna is Levin, a landowner deeply involved in the management of his estate – both its crops, and the lives of the peasants who work for him. In some of the most beautiful scenes of the novel Tolstoy evokes the joy and physical pleasure Levin feels while working on the land. However, he is also an intellectual, caught up often in discussions of the major political and social ideas of his day.  As Dolly does at the beginning of the novel, Levin near its end finds a resolution to a potentially life-altering crisis.  Although absorbed in the work of his estate, and sense of necessary labour and obligation, his intellectual struggles have tempted him to suicide (as in the passage I’ve quoted at the beginning).  Eventually, however, he gives up on trying to figure everything out, and instead resolves to act intuitively, trusting his experience and instinct.  

Reasoning had brought him to doubt, and prevented him from seeing what he ought to do and what he ought not.  When he did not think, but simply lived, he was continually aware of the presence of an infallible judge in his soul, determining which of two possible courses of action was the better and which was the worse, and as soon as he did not act rightly, he was at once aware of it.  

So he lived, not knowing and not seeing any chance of knowing what he was and what he was living for, and harassed at this lack of knowledge  . . . yet firmly laying down his own individual definite path in life. (843)

This resolution, to trust himself and stop attempting to rationalize everything, is his path to confidence and happiness.

A deeper and more reflective character than any other in the novel, Levin and his solution, though hardly set up by Tolstoy as a general model for living, does in this final section of the novel following the horrendous suicide of Anna, form a joyous and life-affirming conclusion.  Of course, Levin is not able to live all the time at the level of his great insight, as he recognizes, with humour: 

I shall still go on in the same way, losing my temper with Ivan the coachman, falling into angry discussions, expressing my opinions tactlessly . . . I shall still go on scolding [my wife] for my own terror, and being remorseful for it . . . but my life now, my whole life apart from anything that can happen to me, every minute of it is no more meaningless, as it was before, but it has the positive meaning of goodness, which I have the power to put into it. (869 – 70) 

This “positive meaning of goodness” and Levin’s recognition that he has within himself the power to put it into his life is in sharp contrast to Anna’s despairing sense of ugliness and hatred for everything around her, in the last period of her life.  She has been thrown a lifeline a few times, particularly when Karenin, fearing that Anna will die in childbirth, has a profound (though temporary) experience of love and forgiveness which transform this dry stick of a man who worries only about his public reputation into a loving human being. But Anna isn’t able to retain hold of her better moments, and live with any conviction of the possibility that she can put any ‘positive meaning of goodness’ into her life.    

Another female character in Anna Karenina whose consciousness and fluctuating sense of identity is developed at length by Tolstoy is Kitty, sister of Dolly and, eventually, wife of Levin.  Younger than any of these others, Kitty is very much shown as a developing character, changing from the rather vain and self-centered girl at the start, alternately obsessed and humiliated by her social role as a marriageable belle. Eventually, through a spiritual crisis brought on by illness and the influence of a selfless and idealistic friend, Kitty comes to value the love of Levin, whom she had rejected, and matures into a  compassionate wife and mother, nursing Levin’s dying brother and sharing her husband’s kindness and sensitivity to their companions in their rural life.  At the start of the novel, the mature, helpful and sophisticated Anna is idolized by the immature Kitty – until the obvious mutual attraction of Vronsky and Anna destroys Kitty’s own illusion of Vronsky’s interest in her.  Heartbreak brings on physical illness, but Kitty’s interest in the human diversity at a spa town and her recognition and admiration of selflessness in a generous-spirited friend, Varenka, show her other possible approaches to life, and lead her back to health and to a better understanding of herself and her place in the world.   Although she has been briefly carried away by Pietist idealism, 

. . . with her father’s coming all the world in which she had been living was transformed for Kitty.  She did not give up everything she had learned, but she became aware that she had deceived herself in supposing she could be what she wanted to be.  Her eyes were, it seemed, opened; she felt all the difficulty of maintaining herself without hypocrisy and self-conceit on the pinnacle to which she had wished to mount.  Moreover, she became aware of all the dreariness of the world of sorrow, of sick and dying people, in which she had been living.  The efforts she had made to like it seemed to her intolerable, and she felt a longing to get back quickly into the fresh air, to Russia, to Ergushovo . . .  (254) 

The return to Ergushovo leads Kitty to a reconciliation with Levin, once he overcame his gloomy conviction that she could never love him, and their eventual marriage.  For both of them, in different ways, the life of the body brings a deep sense of happiness and fulfillment.  Their courtship is somewhat turbulent, as is their marriage, since Levin is prone to strong emotional reactions often without much cause, but their common interests and goals, and longing for the “positive meaning of goodness which [they] have the power to put into [life]” helps each of them – eventually – achieve a sense of proportion and happiness at the conclusion of this profound and searching novel.