An Examination of Alcohol and Narcotic Use in Anna Karenina
In a polemic against the use of alcohol and narcotics, Lev Tolstoy poses and then answers the question of why men stupefy themselves. He attacks these vices as escapes used to silence the human conscience and allow one to do that which moral convictions would otherwise prevent. Anna Karenina, written thirteen years earlier, provides a multitude of examples of the behavior of stupefaction which Tolstoy analyzes, but two characters rise above the rest in terms of comparison to Tolstoy’s writing on drugs and alcohol. The text explains in depth the mindset of the Oblonsky siblings which is presented in every instance of their substance use and abuse throughout the novel.
Tolstoy presents the idea that each person has two inner beings, the blind and physical being which carries out all actions “like a wound-up machine,” and the seeing, spiritual being which judges the behavior of the physical, acting as a conscience which either lines up with those actions or points away from them depending on their morality. He argues that the use of alcohol and narcotics has deeper roots than the answers which people often give, such as that use improves their mood or passes the time, or just that everyone does it, because if it were that simple, these people would not willingly choose stupefying things over the wellbeing of their families. The real reason, Tolstoy says, is that when one feels the misalignment of the physical and spiritual parts of himself, he can either adjust his actions to realign with his conscience or obliterate his conscience so that he no longer feels the discrepancy; these two activities make up life.
From the first page of the novel, Stepan Arkadyich Oblonsky fully embodies the habits of which Tolstoy so strongly disapproves. Every time Stiva is shown eating, he also drinks, and when he is outside, he smokes, often encouraging the participation of his companions. Stiva also willfully partakes in the widest variety of immoral behavior of all the major characters, and his inner dialogue presents the same mindset which Tolstoy argues drives those who “stupefy themselves.” The book opens with a scene in which he wakes up on the sofa after his wife finds out about his affair with the governess and recalls his dream, which involved “little carafes, which were also women.” This introduction sets the tone for Stiva’s behavior throughout the novel and introduces two of his vices: alcohol and women, as well as his unrepentant attitude towards them. His tobacco use first appears shortly after, in the third chapter of Part One, when he fills his pockets with various items including cigarettes.
The first mention of Stiva’s alcohol consumption explains that he drinks champagne with all of his acquaintances, and Stiva has a great number of acquaintances, meaning that drinking is a habit in which he engages regardless of his companions. During his dinner with Levin, Stiva orders champagne and table wine, and the reader gets her first glimpse into the reasons for his drinking. He begins drinking when he and Levin discuss the differences between their lifestyles and relationships with women. Stiva sees the look of love in Levin’s eyes, and says something which prompts Levin to ask about Stiva’s own matters of love, but Stiva refuses to talk about himself, and shifts the conversation to Levin before slowly drinking his glass of wine. When conversation at last turns to Stiva’s affairs, he takes out a cigar and, “keeping one hand on his glass,” asks Levin for advice, smoking and drinking in order to get through a conversation with the morally upright Levin about the marital failure for which he feels bad, but for Dolly’s feelings rather than his own behavior Stiva’s conscience becomes louder in the presence of Levin and his morally pure views about relationships, forcing him to reflect on his recent betrayal of his wife, a problem which he solves with an extra high dosage of his usual poisons.
When Stiva approaches Karenin in an attempt to reconcile the man to his wife’s infidelity and grant her a divorce, he acutely feels the wrongness of what he plans to do and pulls out a cigarette so that he can overcome this and do it anyway. Stiva’s conscience makes itself known in the form of embarrassment, which he is not used to and therefore does not recognize it for what it is, mistaking it for timidity. Stiva wishes to use the same tactic, although cannot, when he approaches Karenin again in Part Seven to inquire about the elusive divorce. Upon arriving at Lydia Ivanovna’s house to get a concrete answer for Anna, Stiva encounters opposition to any conversation involving Karenin’s marital circumstances and is then forced into a discussion about religion which confuses and upsets him, and with muddled thoughts he thinks about how nice it would be to smoke (which he cannot do in his current company). Once again, Stiva knows that he should not be there asking for mercy on behalf of his sister but is so dedicated to her that he attributes his uneasy feeling to something else, the conversation and the presence of the psychic, instead of listening to his conscience and leaving Karenin to do as he sees fit as the injured party. Stiva also drinks to keep himself from judging the behavior of his friends which indirectly reflects his own behavior. When Stiva visits Levin and Kitty with his friend Vasenka, he sees the blatant courting of his sister-in-law, but refuses to acknowledge that it is disrespectful or wrong, because he too instigates relationships with women which he should not. He drinks several glasses of wine at dinner in order to stifle questions of morality which may arise due to the behavior of his friend and the presence of his wife, two people who would generally bring out different and contrary behavior in him. Stiva’s suppression of his conscience is so constant that on the first day of the hunt, he comes out of the house ready to leave and already has a cigar in his mouth, stupefaction most likely required due to the combination of his friend’s brazen behavior and the fact that he barely saw the wife from whom he had been parted for the majority of the summer before going off to hunt. During the first night of the hunt, Stiva discusses the necessity of masculine independence with Levin, who was concerned about leaving Kitty (who is pregnant) for two days, and asserts that there is nothing wrong with courting farm girls, because he has fun and his wife will be “none the worse for it” as long as nothing like that happens in the home. Levin ends the discussion and Stiva lights a cigar and leaves the barn to obliterate the conscience which would otherwise be screaming at the hypocrisy of a man in an unhappy marriage who cheated on his pregnant wife with his children’s governess giving relationship advice to a morally superior man.
Stiva often assumes that his companions will consume in the same way that he does and encourages them to keep up. He does this intentionally according to Tolstoy, to stupefy those around him and numb their consciences which would otherwise object to his behavior. He automatically fills Levin’s glass before their conversation about Stiva’s affair, although Levin refuses what would be his third glass of wine at lunch and proceeds to give him an objective and judgmental metaphor about stealing sweet rolls on a full stomach. The first time that Stiva and Levin go hunting, Stiva expresses surprise that Levin does not smoke, saying that it is “not so much a pleasure as the crown and hallmark of pleasure,” unable to comprehend that Levin does not have the same need to hide his behavior from the spiritual and moral part of him. While the Levins reside in Moscow awaiting Kitty’s delivery, Stiva takes advantage of Levin’s susceptibility to peer pressure and, after they have both drunk a great deal, convinces him to see Anna, something with which Stiva knows that neither Levin nor Kitty is comfortable based on their behavior when the topic came up on his visit to their home with Vasenka. Additionally, Stiva knows that it is wrong to stupefy himself in this way, but if the people around him are doing the same, then he has the excuse that everyone drinks, and everyone smokes, and does not have to think about the true cause of his urges.
The only mention of Anna Arkadyevna Karenina being under the influence before she gives birth comes during the ball scene when Kitty notices that Anna is “drunk with the wine of the rapture she inspired,” perhaps an indicator of the addiction to which her relationship with Vronsky will lead.Anna’s substance use begins after the birth of her illegitimate daughter, when she believes that she will die and wishes to stop the pain. The moment at which she demands morphine also comes directly after the scene in which she unites her husband and Vronsky, an emotionally distressing situation which forces her to confront the fact that she just gave birth to a child who is not her husband’s, and that she never seriously considered ending the affair despite her knowledge of the immorality and negative effects on her husband and son. The morphine dampens the pain of her fever, but it has side effects include sedation and euphoria, both of which would give Anna an escape from her complicated personal life and make addiction to the already habit-forming opioid even easier.
Later in the novel, the reader finds out that Anna does become addicted to morphine, and consistently uses it to rid herself of paranoia about Vronsky and thoughts of her husband and son or her complicated position in society. When Dolly visits the Vronsky estate and talks to Anna about arranging a divorce since Karenin has finally consented, Anna retorts that she cannot talk about the matter because it drives her mad and when she thinks about it, she cannot fall asleep without morphine. She cannot bear to think of the husband she wronged and the son who she will lose forever in the case of a divorce; as much as she wants to be rid of Karenin, their marriage, however meaningless, connects her to Seryozha. Her attachment to her husband brings Anna pain, but thinking about a divorce and the permanent loss of her son drudges up her own immoral actions which put her in that situation, and she cannot accept this awareness of the spiritual part of her which disapproves of her actions. There is also lingering guilt about her romance with a Vronsky and how it began at a time when he had led Kitty to believe that he would propose. Anna reveals this guilt when she asks whether Kitty is still angry with her, before continuing to deny responsibility for the situation, saying that it could not have been otherwise. This suggests that she still has not accepted her choice in the matter and her complicity in the destruction of lives around her, numbing herself with morphine instead of facing herself.
Anna distracts herself during the day with external diversions which Tolstoy claims that “for people of dull, limited moral feeling […] are often quite sufficient to enable them not to perceive the indications conscience gives of the wrongness of their lives.” She reads voraciously, walks, and talks with Princess Varvara, but Anna is the kind of person for whom external means are not sufficient, and for this reason she turns to morphine at night, stopping her brain for a moment of peace from the anxiety that whispers thoughts of Vronsky’s indifference and imagined infidelity. By Part Seven of the novel, Anna is so desperate to stupefy herself that she no longer limits her substance use to morphine at night. During Levin’s visit, Anna reveals that she has begun using tobacco as well when she asks Levin if he smokes and then takes out a cigarette for herself. Due to Anna’s social ostracization, she does not have a wealth of opportunities for distraction; she begins supporting an English family and writing a children’s book, and never stops reading, but those do not take up enough hours in the day. As her panic about her situation increases, so does her need to escape, eventually leading her to take more than one dose of opium at night, and to wonder if drinking the whole bottle of it would kill her, though she ultimately chooses a less peaceful end.
Tolstoy’s “Why Do Men Stupefy Themselves?” explains more fully the beliefs about alcohol and narcotics which he expresses through their role in Anna Karenina. Stepan Arkadyich constantly battles the spiritual side of himself which would prevent him from having affairs and enabling his sister and force him to examine the morality of his behavior, a task which he attacks with copious consumption of alcohol and tobacco. Anna Arkadyevna shows the addictive and stupefying nature of narcotics when she forms an opium habit after the birth of her illegitimate child, attempting to suppress thoughts of the morality of past actions rather than preparing herself to commit more. The two siblings present different images of stupefaction, one numb enough to continue life as he wishes, and the other never fully escaping her conscience by those means, but they both demonstrate the duality of the inner being, the physical and the spiritual as Tolstoy classifies them.
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In a polemic against the use of alcohol and narcotics, Lev Tolstoy poses and then answers the question of why men stupefy themselves. He attacks these vices as escapes used […]