Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Anna and Levin

Stephen Emms thinks Tolstoy blew the ending of Anna Karenina. If you haven't read the book, you might want to stop reading here.

People sometimes say the same about the last narrative section of War and Peace: “Gee, that’s anticlimactic. Who wants to see Natasha having to change babies’ diapers and live a life of boring domesticity?” Or, as Emms says here about the end of Anna, “It's like ending a stupendous five-course meal with a bowl of thin soup.”

There are two possibilities here. The first, the one that Emms endorses, is that Tolstoy is a novelist of stupendous power and nearly godlike brilliance who, unaccountably, has no idea how to end a book. The other possibility is that Tolstoy does not simply lose his gifts when he gets near the end of a book, but rather has very good reasons for giving us endings that we certainly don't expect and probably don't want. Emms appears not to consider the second option.

Emms notes that while Anna falls into despair and ends her life, the book’s other protagonist, Levin, somehow survives — despite suffering his own profound depression and coming very close indeed to suicide. Here too Emms can think of only one possible explanation: “On the basis of this novel, it could be argued that Tolstoy rejects female experience as domestic, limited, even lacking in spiritual insight, because the one woman who attempts to transgress these boundaries ends up committing suicide. Superiority of male vision and male mastery of narrative is evident.” Emms asks, “How can [Tolstoy] allow the last word on Anna to tumble from the pinched mouth of Vronsky's mother” — that is, the bigoted, selfish mother of Anna’s vain and thoughtless lover — “who says witheringly: ‘Her death was the death of a bad woman, a woman without religion’?”

Emms does not come out and say that he thinks that Tolstoy shares the judgment of Vronsky’s mother — surely he knows better. But I take it that he wants Tolstoy to somehow refute that judgment. But that’s not necessary: it is self-refuting. And Emms would better understand what Tolstoy is up to here if he had noticed the book’s epigraph: “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, says the Lord.” That is, “vengeance is mine — it is not yours.” Vronsky’s mother has raised her son to be utterly self-regarding, and cares nothing for the life — Anna’s life — that her son’s self-regard has destroyed. (Vronsky himself is actually not nearly as bad as his mother: he genuinely loves Anna, insofar as it is possible for someone like him to love.) The foulness of her easy contempt is palpably evident — for those with eyes to see.

By telling the story in this way Tolstoy is refusing to direct his readers: he lets us form our own judgments and in that way reveal our own characters. He knows that many of us will claim the right and privilege of judging Anna, of proclaiming vengeance on her — just as Job’s “friends” do in that most mysterious of the Bible’s books. He knows that many will say, again along the lines of those who surround Job, that Levin survives because he is good and Anna dies because she is bad.

But the careful reader of the book will see it very differently. What Levin has that Anna does not have is, depending on whether you are or are not religious, either luck or grace — but in either case it’s not merit. Tolstoy makes it very clear that, in his society, a man who chooses to pursue a married woman in the way that Vronsky pursues Anna will pay something of a social price, but a small one. Vronsky continues to be received in polite society. But Anna risks everything for this affair: she loses her husband, her son, her place in society. She becomes an outcast, so when her relationship with Vronsky dies, she has literally nothing left to sustain her. And this is why she takes her life.

Levin has it better. His sins, which are many, do not separate him from society or from his family. Tellingly, he does not meet Anna until late in the book, when sheer circumstances make it impossible for him to fall in love with her or for her to seduce or respond to him. But had the circumstances been different . . . ? Above all, Tolstoy makes clear, when Levin is in his darkest days he has work to do: just the mechanical routine of life keeps him alive until he has his spiritual awakening. Anna, again, had nothing of the kind. Anna had nothing at all.

These things happen, Tolstoy tells us. One life is torn apart, another is renewed and enriched, and we cannot — if we are wise, we dare not — judge that anyone gets what he or she deserves. Likewise, at the end of War and Peace, he forces us to see that those periods of our lives which are charged with drama, fevered by event, must be succeeded by much longer periods of ordinary everyday experience, and that the brilliant young girl will, necessarily, some day become the middle-aged matron.

What Stephen Emms fails to see is that Tolstoy, who mastered the conventions of realistic fiction more fully than anyone ever has, also understood the false consolations that we so often want from fiction — and refused to give them to us. This is a mark not of incompetence or narrowness or provincial bigotry or sexism, but of the highest possible artistic genius.


  • I just finished reading Anna Karenina and had been puzzling over how to interpret the ending in something other than a narrow-minded "she died because she was bad" point of view.

    I like your interpretation a whole lot more, especially making sense of the epigraph.

  • Jay, I'm very encouraged to hear it! I am convinced that what Tolstoy believes we should think is, "He who is without sin among you, cast the first stone at her" — but he knows that what many people do think is what Vronsky's mother says. And — to keep quoting Scripture — what measure you measure out, it will be measured to you.

  • This novel is about ego. Self-destruction is the inevitable end of a narcissist. Hope for the one who struggles against ego. Plain and simple.
    Careful reading of the novel reveals that Anna is first and foremost a narcissist. She loathes every person she sees before her end. She kills herself to punish Vronsky. Tolstoy's realistic style is very scientific: all these specimens of human souls come to different places within themselves and society. It is an internal struggle, not external. This novel is not about adultery and punishment for crimes. It isn't about moral justification. It is simply a demonstration of what happens to a person when her personality is overcome by her ego. I think our society's fascination with the whole idea of adultery (like sex in movies) makes it seem center stage when in fact it is only a symptom of a much larger, deeper and more important illustration of human life. Simply said, our disposition, our actions, our intentions lead us somewhere, regardless of the societal mores, values, etc. This novel confuses Western audiences because people tend to focus on the events of the adulterous love affair rather than the internal world of the characters in the story. I don't think Tolstoy was ever that sophomoric.

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