Cinema: Screen Adaptation of Anna Karenina
Screen adaptations of literary works have always been a popular film genre throughout the world and some of the greatest films have been based on famous literary pieces, most commonly novels. The most common debates or discussions that could have been occurred during that were about the notions of a specificity and fidelity. Specificity is an idea where film shares the same individual material and structure as the literature which separates and distinguish them from other practices. In comparison to specificity, fidelity is the notion which simply shows the accuracy of movie that has been created on a piece of literature.
Screen adaptation always was and still is one of the most complicated things to do. The goal is to adapt the piece of literature faithfully and accurately as a movie, because that is also a picture of the imagination which will always be the approximation to the original text. In addition, there are various structures that strengthen the differences between the literature and its screen adaptation, structures such as production technologies. The level that shows how faithful is the film or the adaptation to the original literary work is also the indicator to the strength of the film, which shows how clear the literature was transformed and pictured as a film. Those indicators can be either the textual styles, or the voices, also cast and plots. In the ex-Soviet Union and in Russia a special attention has been accorded to Russian classics of the XIX century by such authors as Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevskij, Lermontov, Chekhov. One of the main characteristics of most of these adaptations was their fidelity to the source material. The films thereby provided loyal cinematic illustrations of the well-known literary works. The tradition of screen adaptations continues into the last decades of the Soviet State and into the post-Soviet age. The 90s see several adaptations, which, differently from the previous periods, update their XIX century subject matter to modern Russia, proving that old texts can say something that has a meaning about Russia even hundred years later. In the last two decades, the adaptations of Russian classics of the XIX and XX centuries have moved from cinema screens to TV screens. With more than 30 cinematic adaptations produced through the years, Anna Karenina is undeniably a favorite of world screen media. The first silent adaptation of the novel appeared in 1911, just one year after Tolstoy’s death, while the last one was released by Joe Wright in 2012. In the interim, numerous other versions have been produced.
Anna Karenina by Alexander Zarkhi
First let us analyse the adaptation of Aleksander Zakhir on Leo Tolstoy’s novel “Anna Karenina”. This adaptation is the most famous one, moreover, the most celebrated one of Tolstoy’s novel in Russia. The film stars some of the most popular Soviet actors of those times. Furthermore, the role for countess Betsy Tverskaya played world-known Russian ballerina Maya Plisetskaya. The main and the lead role for Anna Karenina played Tatyana Samoylova, who is the perfect actress for Anna and gained the sympathy of audience of many Russians. The soundtrack for the film was written by a famous Russian composer Rodion Schedrin.
As mentioned by the associate Professor at The Ohio State University, Alexander Burry, who is also an author of Multi-Mediated Dostoevski (transporting novels into Opera, Film or Drama), nearly all directors simply reduce the novel to the Anna plot, ignoring or minimizing Levin. However, Zarkhi, tried to incorporate Levin more fully into the film. Nevertheless, doing so results in what could best be termed a collection of scenes from “Anna Karenina”. In the movie, we can see how one part quickly moves to the next part, which including in each just the main lines of dialogue and making quick, frequent, and jarring cuts. An example of this is opening scene, with the conversation of Stiva and Dolly about the unfaithfulness, which is then followed by the discussion with Levin about Kitty. All this was made without any transition. The film also draws together various threads of the novel in the scene when Anna meets Levin. During their conversation, her comments on her desperate need for love intersect with Levin’s own suicidal thoughts, along with the narrator’s more general commentary on marital relations. Viewers may not find this comparison effective, however, it is a valiant attempt to make the film about Levin as well as Anna.
Besides its great casting, acting and the camera works this adaptation has other parts to like, such as the music who was written with the leading Soviet and post-Soviet composer Rodion Shchedrin. Here in this film the music creates connection between the scenes, and this happened sometimes with the help of motifs. The clarinet theme, which was a little bit strange, is followed by a staccato motif in the trumpets in the train station scene when Anna passes Vronsky. This same scene appears again when Anna sees Vronsky at the Shcherbatskys’, however, this time music was with the strings. This music, along with the parallel shots of Anna standing on stairs above Vronsky, links the two unexpected meetings.
Then it comes the Ball scene with the waltz which is seemed to be cheerful, however, as the music becomes tempo and dissonance, it quickly transforms to something which is terrifying. The ball in the film rationalizes the action from the equivalent scene in the novel, but Shchedrin’s music faithfully preserves the essential sense of discontinuity that is the keynote of the scene as read (Kitty and Vronsky starting their dance as the music stops, or Kitty somehow “hearing” Anna and Vronsky’s conversation): by being neither a realistic representation of the music actually played at the ball, nor an expressionistic portrayal of Kitty’s emotional state, but something in between, it perfectly mirrors Tolstoy’s free indirect discourse, his subliminal imitation.
Anna Karenina by Joe Wright
This is the 2012 British adaptation of Tolstoy’s Novel, which was based on the script written by Tom Stoppard. This film earned four nominations at the 85th Academy Awards and six nominations at the 66th British Academy Film Awards. Jacqueline Durran won both prizes for Best Costume Design. This “Anna Karenina” film stars in lead roles Keira Knightley, Aaron Johnson and Jude Law.
Yuri Corrigan, the Assistant Professor of Russian & Comparative Literature, mentioned that one of Tolstoy’s brilliant observations about Anna is the way she poses as the traditional romantic heroine; torn between duty and passions, as a way of easing her guilt and uncertainty over leaving her husband and son; that is, since the dictates of her chosen genre clearly state that Karenin must be unlovable and cruel. Keira Knightley, who plays Anna in Joe Wright’s adaptation, seems to be a girl who is programmed to miss Vronsky, however, all actors give the performance on the highest level, and visual poetry that portrayed Joe Wright was beautiful.
Thoughts about simplicity, obedience, rebellion and authenticity which Tolstoy tried to picture are folded and placed in two boxes by the script of Tom Stoppard. He pictures duty to be bad and the passion of Anna as a good thing. Consequently, we have the result of what the Russian society was morally strict.
It is hard to adapt any novel, especially the ones which have high demands and are well known to many people, as each who read a novel has his/her own imagination of what is happening in it and pictures that in the way which is best for him/her. This means that it will be hard for the filmmaker to find all possible solutions and combine them in one. Adaptations of “Anna Karenina” can always unfold new details about the novel, helping us to unmask our own critical prejudice about characters. All in all, although critics agree that this novel by Tolstoy is challenging to adapt, their remarks also suggest that this challenge may be exactly what makes the novel so attractive to directors.
Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: Plot Overview
Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is a multifaceted novel, which uses complex symbols those run parallel to the main plot and adds as a concentration of the whole storyline. The Steeplechase has got critical researches for its multipurpose approach to the psychology of Tolstoy’s theme. The Steeplechase: a public event that sets the climax of the early part of Anna Karenina. T.G.S. Cain asserts that Tolstoy’s depiction of this horse race is both “the most obvious and the most controversial of the symbolic episodes” of the novel. Edward Wasiolek remarks that the passage “begs to be dismantled”. Through this Tolstoy brings about vast changes in the fortunes and mind-set of three major characters: Vronsky, Anna, and Karenin. This scene is so amenable to different interpretations that the spectrum of informed opinion is broad too. Barbara Hardy refutes such speculation about the race. She observes “the mare does not stand for Anna or Vronsky’s mistake for his failure in love”. Dmitry Merezhkovsky asks whether Vronsky did not “destroy Anna in a cruel game,” just as he killed his priced mare Frou-Frou. R.P. Blackmur considers Vronsky’s attitude toward both the horse and Anna as “reckless pastime”. On a figurative approach, Frou-Frou is clearly a symbol of Anna, or Vronsky’s relationship with her, as the horse appears in the novel soon after Vronsky’s illicit love affair with Anna becomes serious and dangerous for their social reputation both of which are ultimately destroyed. The implications of the steeplechase episode remain prominent from the beginning to the end of the novel. Tolstoy also suggests through the symbol of the horse that upon the occasion of Anna’s first sexual infidelity with Vronsky, she sustains a kind of metaphorical broken back that is analogous to the broken back of the mare in the race. This symbolic horse image implies much about the power dynamics between Anna and Vronsky. On the surface level, the gripping description of a horse race in an aristocratic Russian setting is a realistic tour de force. The author also demonstrates Vronsky’s central deficiency from which all other inadequacies flows his awkwardness or inability to keep pace and preludes Anna’s tragic death. Tolstoy portrays that Ideal love beyond marriage is a race. Anna didn’t perish right after her “broken back”, but limps through the rest of the novel until the psychological burden of adultery finally compels to kill her. The name Frou-Frou came from a popular French play by Henry Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy titled by the same name, in which the heroine Frou-Frou, abandons her husband and son for a lover. Significantly, a more particular analogy is both the horse and Anna are feverish and trembling uncontrollably before the race. Moreover, Vronsky straightens “a lock of mane that had got on the wrong side of her sharply-defined withers, a lock reminiscent of Anna’s “wilful ringlets”. Later, Vronsky breaks his mount’s back; the horse struggled like “a wounded fluttering bird”. Meanwhile in the stands, Anna also “began to flutter like a captive bird”. The event of steeplechase also places a psychological stringency on the two male characters. Karenin never recovers entirely from his wife’s open confession of her love for Vronsky and her hatred for him, which comes just after the race when Vronsky is injured. For Vronsky, he knew for the first time “the cruellest, most bitter memory of his life”. Therefore the death of the mare is also a kind of symbolic death for the three main characters, none of whom ever recovers completely after this incident. It is of great interest to evaluate that a dead horse becomes a prominent symbol, for adultery, which is a kind of a murder-suicide. Anna’s passion is rapturous and exalted but also fatal. Illicit sex for Anna makes the author reveal that at this juncture human loose contact with god just as in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.
The association between Karenin and the horse Gladiator is to be examined in the light of the scene where Anna arrives in Petersburg following her reconciliation of Dolly with Stiva. Her first thought on catching sight of Karenin is “what happened to his ears?” They pressed “against the rim of his hat” and were “gristly”. Vronsky observes Karenin’s “slightly rounded back”, “the swinging of his thighs”, each of these features links Karenin to Gladiator. Vronsky on his way to Frou-Frou sees Gladiator “with his ears looking enormous”. Vronsky is offended by Gladiator’s “wonderful hindquarters”, for he appears to sense Gladiator as his rival Karenin. But, why Karenin is attested with another horse symbol? Vronsky just before the race came to know about Anna’s pregnancy with his child and according to Vronsky’s code as an officer of the Imperial Guard, an offended husband has the right to demand a duel. Feeling duplicitous Vronsky races Gladiator, one who duels and at least metaphorically battles his enemy, Karenin. Thus Karenin runs in the steeplechase as Gladiator, as well as throughout the novel in a perilous race against Anna’s lover.
It is reasonable to imagine that Anna, Karenin, and Serezha are the subconscious human referents for the horses in the contest: Frou-Frou, Gladiator (the powerful duelist) and Makhotin (the small but distressing impediment). By implications, to the steeplechase, the race can truly be called the novel’s central allegorical image. Infidelities of high society reverberate throughout this novel. The six themes seen clearly in the steeplechase are:
- Initially, Anna is hesitant about whether to submit to Vronsky; he is not in control of the situation.
- Vronsky and Anna soon achieve relatively easy success; Vronsky establishes more control.
- They surmount a serious societal obstacle, although a presage of danger accompanies this success.
- They surmount a serious obstacle from her family, but the family continues to “pursue” them.
- They conquer a serious obstacle within their relationship, but a hint of mutual lack of confidence and a threat of violence accompanies this success.
- They fail to surmount a relatively minor obstacle; Anna perishes and Vronsky again loses control.
Anna Karenina. Narrative Structure in Chapter Eleven
Close Reading of Narrative Structure in Chapter XI of Anna Karenina
Until this point, chapters focusing on the development of their relationship have been narratively situated in the singular voices of Anna (I-XXX, II-IV) or Vronsky (I-XVIII, I-XXXI), but the voice of this passage alternates between their viewpoints, in some places stopping ambiguously between them. This is the second instance of this structure in the text so far, having previously been employed in II-VII with a transition from Anna’s reflections on her speech and actions to Vronsky’s interior monologue response: “She exerted all the powers of her mind . . . ‘This is it!’ he thought with rapture” (127). Apart from that brief moment, though, this passage in II-XI marks the first substantial instance of Tolstoy directly comparing Anna’s and Vronsky’s inner thoughts and feelings.
The passage opens with a view of each character’s inner state, giving equal authority to the two by presenting them with identical language, in the same sentence. Both Vronsky and Anna see “that which . . . had been” weighing on their consciences – the inevitable consummation of their affair – come to pass, and they judge it according to their individual expectations (135). The linguistic parallel gives these divergent views of the same act the same narrative weight. This indicates to the reader that the adulterers’ sexual urges can be equally judged as both a monomaniacal “desire” and an impossible “dream of happiness.” While the adultery is explicitly said to be shameful to both perpetrators, the narrator’s depiction of the shame from two perspectives, without one given more legitimacy over the other, introduces some amount of moral relativism to their plight. Tolstoy certainly does not imply that extra-marital sex is defensible, but his commitment to depicting it with two distinct sets of opinions keeps the morality of the outcome of their affair more open than it could be otherwise.
Vronsky’s perspective follows in the second sentence, as indicated by two factors. First, there is a motif, his “trembling lower jaw,” that is found next in chapters situated in Vronsky’s frame of reference (II-XXIV 177, II-XXV 182). Through this scene and the disastrous horse race, the twitching mouth becomes a symbol of guilt. It will be interesting to see whether this remains a habit of Vronsky’s alone, or whether other guilty parties are indicated by this narrative device. Second, the narrator tells us how he feels about his actions: “he stood over her, entreating her to be calm, himself not knowing how or why.” Vronsky’s perspective, established in the previous sentence as an unwavering commitment to his sinning, is expanded to include conscious doubt and physically-manifested guilt, without necessarily overruling his former passion. Tolstoy thus introduces psychological complexity to a situation that at first appeared to be a simple of matter of wrongdoing and remorse.
After another sentence of Vronsky’s dialogue, but before we see into Anna’s head, there are two sentences describing Anna’s actions from an ambiguous point of view. The signifier here is “her once proud, bright, but now shame-stricken head.” Attention has previously been drawn to Anna’s luminous features, but it has been accompanied by interior feelings of both characters. In I-XVIII, “Vronsky had time to notice the subdued animation that enlivened her face” after he is said to have “felt compelled to have another look at her” (56). In II-IX, it is said that “[Anna’s] face shone with a vivid glow” before the descriptive text gives way to an interior monologue provoked by her feelings of falsehood (132). Therefore, we cannot definitively attribute this piece of the text to a single character’s bias. But because there is still a moral judgment made by the depiction of Anna’s body as “shame-stricken” and in need of upholding, we have to assume it has a source. We could assume it is a continuation from Vronsky’s perspective in the previous sentences, or that it is a transition into Anna’s in the next. Or we could treat it as a moment dissimilar from the rest of the novel, as an example of the omniscient narrator passing judgment on its subjects. These three interpretations that attribute the morality of the scene to a single voice are countered, however, by further evidence in the passage which suggests a generalized judgment of these character’s actions by the text as a whole.
The penultimate paragraph starts in Anna’s perspective, following her dialogue into her feelings of guilt, then crosses back into Vronsky’s when he is said to feel “what a murderer must feel” (135). The narrative center comes back to Anna with “the shame she felt at her spiritual nakedness,” but is made ambiguous again when this “nakedness communicated itself to [Vronsky].” This narrative voice is ambiguous because what starts as a notion developed within one character’s mind is transferred, without dialogue, into the emotional outlook of the other character. Furthermore, Anna’s idea of “spiritual nakedness” parallels Vronsky’s unspoken conception of her “spiritual beauty” earlier in the novel (II-VII 126). What we have here is one point of view expressed by two characters simultaneously, conveyed by an impartial third-person voice that switches between their perspectives mid-sentence. Analysis of this last perspective shows that this polyphonic muddling coincides with a generalization of the passage’s themes.
After Vronsky picks up what is “communicated” to him, the text continues in his mindset of homicidal guilt. But the language used to describe this point of view is modified, it refers abstractly to “the murderer,” his horror, and his violent actions, placing them in parallel to Vronsky’s anxiety and actions. Tolstoy opens up the metaphorical framework that his character has invented, shifting from Vronsky’s view of himself feeling like a murderer, to the external narrator’s view of Vronsky acting like a murderer. Tolstoy solidifies the thematic connection between sex and violence in Vronsky’s character, while also generalizing that connection as a device to encompass more than just this particular character’s situation. The implication is that the text, not just the character, can define adultery in this way, as a horrific act of violence. But, as suggested earlier, this is just one among many definitions the text introduces for Anna and Vronsky’s relationship.
As narrative voices overlap, varying levels of the shame expressed toward illegitimate love, from psychological distress, to physical revulsion, and finally to criminal culpability, are articulated holistically by Tolstoy and his creations. Because, in the end, no lone voice silences the others, this passage instills the possibility that the novel could thematically pursue any facet of this theme of shame. The combination of narrative ambiguity and unambiguous moral judgments teaches the reader to be receptive to messages coming from the text, but to avoid a one-dimensional acceptance of their conclusiveness.
Anna Karenina and Love in a Time of Cholera: Common Themes
Love is depicted as a fairy-tale. There is always a prince who saves the girl from a life of misery and the two live happily-ever-after. Fortunately, there are authors out there who give the readers more of a plot-twist on the traditional love story and make it interesting. Leo Tolstoy and Gabrial Garcia Marquez have written stories about traditional love with the not-so-average characters and plot lines. Tolstoy and Marquez have very different backgrounds, their stories of Anna Karenina and Love in the time of Cholera have the same universal constant of what love is. Anna Karenina and Love in the time of Cholera depict a constant, sickening, love.
Anna Karenina is a modern woman in Russia that is at first accepted in her society as a high-class married woman. She has a child and seems content in the place in life where she is currently at. She is a high society woman and has all her eggs in one basket. Then her world is flipped upside down when she meets Vronksy and starts an affair with him. Anna gets so deeply involved in the affair with Vronksy that she is more than willing to leave her content life behind and even her child to live with a man who had not seemed to love her as much.
Anna Karenina’s random love affair is not what is based on the usual and traditional love story. Her stagnant marriage with Karenin and life with him is what the traditional love story comes to play in this role. Joshua Rothman of the New Yorker had analyzed that “Tolstoy…was thinking about love in a different way: as a kind of fate, or curse, or judgment, and as a vector by which the universe distributes happiness and unhappiness, unfairly and apparently at random” (2012). The story of Anna Karenina and her fate is not so random, though her madness and jealousy had led her to commit suicide.
Anna gave up everything she had ever known for a real chance at love. She wanted love and be loved in return. Anna is naiive and “[she] does bad things, but often only because she underestimates just how bad the consequences of those things will be” (Rothman). Her relationship with Vronksy is highly toxic not only because it broke whatever commitment she made to Karenin, her husband, but because “that nothing good came out of the romance” (Rothman). Anna’s affair with Vronksy is a sickening love because of how poisonous their relationship was. The affair had caused lives to be ruined, heartbreaks, and eventually the suicide of Anna Karenina herself.
Love in the Time of Cholera depicts love as sickening in a different way than Anna Karenina did. Florentino and Fermina fall in love at a young age. The story starts out of what seems like a sappy love story. They planned on being together forever and marrying, then Fermina grows up and is suddenly not interested in Florentino anymore. The process of her falling out of love is quick and abrupt and the real reason is never clarified. The part where the story turns to a tainted version is when Florentino just stalks Fermina for about fifty years until she is widowed and lonely and settles so she doesn’t have to be.
In those years, Florentino would be at every public event he knew that Fermina would be at so he could catch even the slightest glimpse of her presence. He wanted to save himself for when he finally is with the love of his life but precisely fails when he has affairs with many, many women while stalking Fermina. The title of cholera plays a role in this story because love is symbolized a lot with disease. When “Florentino falls madly in love, his symptoms match those of cholera however, Florentino resigns himself to ride out the symptoms and refuses to seek relief” (Smith, 4).
Florentino’s life-long obsession with Fermina is unhealthy, especially when compared to the symptoms of a fatal disease. He does not wish nor try to be cured of his overwhelming love for Fermina, but merely treats the empty voids in his life with countless women. Florentino and Fermina end up together and then their stories are cut off to the readers of them being both quarantined on a boat that is infected with cholera.
Conclusively, the two very different love stories still have the same concept about love. The love portrayed in Anna Karenina is tainted in the reasons that her sacrifices for love were very consequential. She had lost everything she was accustomed too. She had even lost herself because of the very man she left everything for did not love her in return. The love that was depicted in Love in the Time of Cholera was one that was sickening both physically and psychologically. Florentino’s love for Fermina had the same symptoms of cholera but refused to receive any help because he did not want to be helped. Based on these two stories, love is not something that is shaped by time and culture. Even in the 1800s of Russia, when people wanted to marry for love it was something that was not socially acceptable if the person is someone of lower standards. Love is not the fairy-tale story that every little girl dreams to have one day. Love is something that is understood under all languages, making it a constant symbol universally. In the case of these two stories, based on two different backgrounds, love is a sickening disease that nobody is saved from.
Anna Karenina. Analysis of The First Meeting of Anna and Vronsky
Lust at First Sight
Leo Tolstoy is perhaps one of the greatest writers of western civilization, and his epic Anna Karenina is no exception. An intricate novel filled with symbolism, character depth, and enough complex literary technique to make any english teacher squeal with delight, one of the fundamentals that makes this novel so good is the fact that everything has something important to it. Every single scene in this book means something, whether it is where Anna consummates her affair or when Stiva hugs his children. The scene I chose is fairly simple: Anna meets Vronsky for the first time. Even though no major interactions occur, the simple occurrence of Vronsky and Anna having a polite conversation leads to major foreshadowing and character breakdown.
Now, this scene directly precedes the train death scene, where much may be learned from Vronsky’s character, but I chose this scene, where Anna meets Vronsky, simply because it gives us more of an overall view of the mayhem about to ensue. Without knowing anything about the storyline past here, looking at this three page segment gives it all away. The moment Vronsky lays eyes on Anna, we can tell he is absolutely enthralled. Not in a joyous fangirl-esque captivation, but in typical Vronsky style a mildly amused, yet amorously attentive at the enigmatic woman who just walked by him.. Even though not much has been explained about him so far in the saga, this scene shows his character. He can’t take his eyes off of Anna, and she notices this, yet he remains with a calm, almost cold expression. We see how Vronsky is reserved in his actions, and coolly polite. His conversation with his mother seems almost forced, and he simply approaches the conversation to learn who the woman he just gazed upon was, as he is basically watching/listening to Anna outside while talking to his mother.
Vronsky immediately takes to Anna, but it appears that Anna only considered Vronsky after noticing his expression. Anna is described as a woman with a certain charm, whether it is social, physical, or simply unexplainable. She walks around with a light in her eyes, and a trace of a smile, appearing enigmatic while poised and elegant. As Vronsky watches Anna, she notices this and suddenly makes her face seem colder, but as Tolstoy describes, “She deliberately extinguished the light in her eyes, but it shone against her will in a barely noticeable smile”(61). Thus, it seems that Anna notices the effect she has on others, and takes pleasure from it, yet encountering Vronsky gives her a spark that others do not give her. Later on, whilst talking with both Vronsky and his mother, Anna stealthily flashes smiles at Vronsky, as well as giving him her hand to kiss before leaving. From this, we see that this scene is a mockery of love at first sight, where little love is prevalent, and the two simply cannot have a happy ending.
And thus, from what we know of the story so far, Anna and Vronsky are simply infatuated with each other. Anna has some desire that her lifestyle cannot quench, and Vronsky can sate it. While some may see their instant chemistry as love at first sight, i only see it as lust at first sight, where the two simply need some chemistry in their lives. Vronsky is a man who has been living a textbook life, and Anna is a woman who has lead a life too perfect to the point of boredom. What the two lack in their fulfilling lives, they find in each other.
Man versus woman in society
The novel Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy commences and concludes with the act of adultery and the consequences of the forbidden love affairs. Stepan Arkadyevitch Oblonsky and his sister Anna Arkadyevna Karenina are the driving forces of the scandalous love affairs within the novel. Oblonsky has an affair with his children‘s governess, while Anna Kanrenina has an affair with a wealthy military officer, Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky. Oblonsky and Karenina’s affairs are similar in that they both go against their social responsibility; however, the love Karenina has for Vronksy is much more passionate than the attraction Oblonsky feels for the governess.
The consequences the siblings face for their actions are completely different because of their gender roles and the societal norms.
Taking a further look into Oblonksy’s affair and the consequences of it, the apparent differences between his sister’s affair are evident. Oblonsky is not an emotional person; he has a hard time deciding on his emotions because of their lack of true meaning. Oblonsky could not “persuade himself that he repented of his conduct” with the mistress (Tolstoy 7). He felt no serious remorse for his actions with the mistress because he never developed any real emotion for her. Oblonsky being a male sees no harm in sleeping with another woman because there is little consequences for his actions; however, a woman who is doing the same thing could potentially become pregnant and face immense consequences. Oblonsky views his relations with the mistress as “fun” and not harming to the “sanctity of his home” (Tolstoy 111). Society seems to share the same views as Oblonsky, besides his wife being upset with him nothing else changes for him. He and his wife continue their maladaptive marriage and he ends up getting the job he wanted.
All the while, society has no criticism for his actions due to his lack of emotion and gender.
Completely opposite from Oblonsky’s affair, Karenina’s affair has love, passion, and committement. The consequences she faces are extremely severe and lead to her eventual suicide. Karenina is a woman and society holds her to a higher standard for her affair, yet she also allows her “dangerous passions” to interfere with her affair (Tolstoy 382). Karenina’s mother speaks of her daughters strong emotions and how they tend to get her in trouble. Her strong passion for Vronsky pulls Karenina away from her husband and son and she eventually abandons them. The abandonment of her family is another reason why she treated negatively by society. Society was shocked that Karenina was willing to completely abandon her son and husband; they viewed her abandonment as failing to be a mother and wife— a woman’s duty in society. The problem with Karenina’s gender is demonstrated one night when she begs to attend the opera with Vronsky; however, Vronsky does not understand why she would want to show herself as a “fallen woman” to society and embarrass him (Tolstoy 1181).
The separation between Vronsky and Karenina begins to develop at this point in the novel; the difference between male and female is demonstrated because Vronsky, who has impregnated a married woman, faces no consequences while Karenina is completely excluded from society. Karenina is now an embarrassment for Vronsky according to society. Sadly, the passion Karenina feels and her role in society are reasons that lead to her eventual downfall.
After studying the affairs and the consequences of both Oblonsky and Karenina, the major similarities and differences between the two situations are evident. The most obvious similarity between the two characters is found in their personalities; they are both sociable and delightful in the beginning of the novel. However, this similarity begins to change as society changes their view of Karenina. On the contrary, gender role is the major difference between the two characters. Tolstoy uses these two characters to demonstrate how during this time a man and a woman could commit the same sin, yet the woman is the one that faces the harshest punishment. As a male, Oblonsky has an advantage in the affair and his lack of emotions in his relationships allows him to live carelessly without any consequences from society. Tolstoy develops Oblonsky’s character very little, and in fact he becomes more of a stagnant character. Karenina’s personality is the complete opposite of Oblonsky; she is a very passionate woman, and society viewed this a negative. Furthermore, the treatment of man versus woman in the novel is the major difference between Karenina and Oblonsky, and is a representation of how society handled gender roles.
Overall, Tolstoy uses the novel Anna Karenina to display how the treatment of man and woman during this time was unfair. Karenina is judged brutally for her strong passions in her affair and not fulfilling her role in society, while the emotionless Oblonsky gets away without any consequences. The novel shows how society judges those who do not follow gender norms or one’s societal role.
The Implications of the Near-death Experience by Anna During Labor
The idea of seeing a widely loved, magnificent woman go from the envy of St. Petersburg to the deranged, self-obsessed person that made the rash decision to jump underneath a train to get revenge on her husband sounds like a crazy thought. Knowing this, it is important to note that Anna’s suicide in Anna Karenina was no spur of the moment idea. Throughout the later parts of the novel, there is a noticeable decline in Anna’s mental health, leading her to her untimely death. This gives way to the question of just how a woman who had it all developed such angry, vengeful thoughts, and later actions. While these thoughts were not all directed at herself, they were the final straw in her decision to end her life. Although the exact origin of these thoughts and feelings of hers is unknown, it is fairly easy to make an educated guess. In Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy, the scene in which Anna nearly dies in labor acts as a turning point for her mental health, eventually leading to her untimely demise.
The decline in Anna’s mental health after the delivery of her second child, Annie, can be seen in people’s first impressions of her before her near-death experience, as opposed to after. Prior to this event, Anna was a kind, loving woman who was highly regarded by everyone who met her. In fact, in Part I, when Countess Vronsky first meets Anna, she states, “As an old woman all I can do is tell you straight out that I’ve fallen in love with you” (Tolstoy 75). This shows how easily people can fall for the charming personality Anna possessed before her near-death experience. While people who meet Anna for the first time after she has Annie still feel the same feelings of adoration for her, they also get an idea of the emotionally drained, tortured soul that lies within. In Part VII, just after meeting Anna for the first time, Levin thinks, “What a wonderful, sweet, pathetic woman….” (Tolstoy 839). This clearly shows that Anna has developed feelings within herself that have become so overpowering that they now overflow into her everyday life, making it so that people can feel her pain. Anna’s inner turmoil developed after the birth of Annie can be seen in the change in people’s initial opinions of her both before and after the event.
Another situation that shows Anna’s mental health decline after the birth of her daughter is the change in the nature of her relationship with Vronsky. Before she became pregnant with Annie, Anna and Vronsky were more concerned with the relationship at hand. They were completely in love, and did not keep it a secret from anyone. In Part II, when Anna and Karenin are on their way back from the horse races, Anna admits, “I’m listening to you and thinking about him. I love him, I’m his mistress, I can’t bear it, I’m afraid- I hate you… You can do whatever you like with me” (Tolstoy 254). This shows Anna’s extreme commitment to Vronsky after they have sex for the first time. While it seems as though their relationship will last a lifetime, as it was based purely on love, that is far from true. Once Anna gives birth to Annie, and nearly dies in the process, her way of thinking about her relationship begins to change, as does his. In Part VI, shortly after Anna has recovered from her near-death experience, Vronsky realizes, “She was completely different now from what she had been when he saw her first. Both morally and physically she had changed for the worst” (Tolstoy 431). This reveals that Vronsky has noticed the new changes in Anna. She is mean, spiteful, and jealous, and he does not like what she has turned into. Also in Part IV, Chapter III, Vronsky thinks, “These attacks of jealousy that had recently been coming over her more and more often horrified him; no matter how he tried to hide this they made him feel colder toward her, in spite of his knowing that the reason for her jealousy was her love for him” (Tolstoy 431). This explicitly shows that Vronsky’s feelings towards Anna have changed now that her mental health is taking a turn for the worst. Because of the birth of Annie, Anna and Vronsky’s relationship is no longer centered around their love for each other, but around their underlying problems with each other that will continue to get worse and worse until Anna decides that she is going to commit suicide as the ultimate form of revenge against Vronsky. The change in the nature of Anna and Vronsky’s relationship after the birth of Annie reflects the decline in Anna’s mental health after her near-death experience.
In Anna Karenina, the topic of Anna’s suicide is one that weighs heavier on the heart. It can be argued that the emotional break that caused her to jump underneath the train on that fateful day could be foreshadowed by her witnessing the peasant dying by getting run over by the train in Part I. While this event may have had a profound effect on her emotionally, it seems as though this idea had been formulated much earlier than right when she saw the freight train arrive at the station in Part VII. The decline in her mental health after the near-death experience she has after the birth of her daughter reveals the fact that her suicide was not a rash decision. Her decision to jump underneath the train was one of anger and revenge, an action produced by the thoughts she begins to have after looking death in the face. In Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy, the scene where Anna nearly dies in labor causes a sharp decline in her mental health, eventually leading to her untimely death.
The perfect woman for Tolstoy as illustrated in Anna Karenina
“All happy families are alike. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” (1.1.1)
In this famed first sentence of Anna Karenina, Tolstoy alludes to the two kinds of familial happiness, almost comically simplifying the idea of ‘family’. However, this formula cannot be tested because the families in Anna Karenina are not happy families, and the reader is treated to people nearly broken by adultery and scandal. Tolstoy presents the Oblonskys’ plight as lighter because the adulterer is male, suggesting that the success of a family depends on the wife’s immobility, not the husband’s. Though Stiva, Vronsky, and Karenin divide their time between their home and their amusements, women (like Dolly) must make home the focal point of their lives. However, Tolstoy emphasizes Anna Karenina’s animation when he introduces her in Chapter 18, and links her constant motion to her sexuality and independence outside the home. Tracing Tolstoy’s descriptions of Dolly Oblonsky and Anna Karenina throughout the novel reveals Tolstoy’s ‘ideal’ woman: one who unconditionally accepts both the pleasant and unpleasant aspects of her role as a mother and wife.
Anna Karenina begins with infidelity. Stepan Oblonsky enters his home to find, “his Dolly, forever fussing and worrying over household details…sitting perfectly still…looking at him with an expression of horror…” (1.1.3) Stiva’s wife is only mobile within the household and is fulfilled by ‘female’ occupations; only when he finds her sitting still does he know that something is wrong. Throughout Anna Karenina, Tolstoy is unforgiving in his description of Dolly’s mannerisms and appearance, describing her as “worn out, already growing elderly, no longer pretty, and in no way remarkable, in fact, quite an ordinary woman.” (1.1.6) Her physical appearance, her piety, and her inability to satiate her husband’s sexual desires define the sad life that Dolly lives. Tolstoy, while being sympathetic to Dolly’s plight, seems to approve of it. Her devotion to her children makes her an effective wife and mother, but her age and appearance hinder her from the happiness she seeks. Though heartbroken, Dolly says “I can’t leave [Stiva]: there are the children, and I am bound.” (1.19.67). Dolly is rendered immobile by her duties to her family and her home but, despite Stiva’s infidelity, Dolly quickly forgives her husband and returns to her domestic responsibilities. Tolstoy uses Dolly as a foil for Anna: in many ways, Dolly embodies the ‘perfect’ wife and mother in ways that Anna no longer can after her meeting Vronsky. Tolstoy uses Dolly to show the life that is available to women who are stationary, virtuous, and pathetic.
Presenting a contrast to the traits of Dolly Oblonsky, every aspect of Anna Karenina seems to come in abundance. Tolstoy writes that, “it was as if a surplus of something so overflowed her being that it expressed itself beyond her will, now in the brightness of her glance, now in her smile. She deliberately extinguished the light in her eyes, but it shone against her will in a barely noticeable smile.” (1.18.50) Anna comes in excess, characterized by a vitality and energy beyond her conscious control, and her constant motion speaks to her inherent sexuality. Unlike Dolly, her introduction to the novel is independent: for the first several chapters of Anna Karenina the reader gets to know her as simply Anna, not the wife or sister of someone or another. The cold stringency of Anna’s husband makes the reader root for Vronsky and Anna’s union, no matter the cost. But Tolstoy first expresses his disdain for and the imminent demise of Anna in Chapter 29, in which a watchman is run down by a train. He was “either too drunk or too bundled up because of the freezing cold” (1.29.81) to hear the incoming train, and is cleaved in half. This is the reader’s first hint that Vronsky and Anna’s story will read less like a love story and more like a tragedy. At a ball shortly before this train ride, Kitty describes Anna as “intoxicated with the delighted admiration she was exciting” (1.23.70) and high on Vronsky’s attention. Then, on the train, Anna “with her little deft hands…took out a cushion, laid it on her knees, and carefully wrapped up her feet.” (1.29.85) Tolstoy’s imagery suggests that this incident, paired with the scene on the train proves that Anna, just like the watchman, is both blind and deaf to her impending tragedy. Though loved by all for her motion, she does not yet realize that she is trapped between her passion for Vronsky and a society that shuns women who act on passions outside the home.
Though Tolstoy has certainly created a sympathetic character, he implies that Anna’s actions hold her accountable for her unhappiness upon returning home to her son and husband. Her sexuality and independence in Moscow has opened a door for her that cannot be closed. When she sees her son for the first time since returning from Moscow, Anna says that Seryozha “like her husband, aroused in [her] a feeling akin to disappointment.” (1.32.95) Unlike Dolly, she is unable to find contentment within the home. When it comes time to make love to her husband, “[Anna’s] face had none of the eagerness which, during her stay in Moscow, had fairly flashed from her eyes and her smile; on the contrary, now the fire seemed quenched in her, hidden somewhere far away.” (1.33.102). Compared to Dolly, Anna is no longer Tolstoy’s ideal woman because she seeks something beyond her life as a wife and mother.
Tolstoy’s ideal woman is evident in his treatment of female characters in Anna Karenina. Dolly’s choice to forgive her husband and dedicate herself to her home reflects the abdication of her happiness to a patriarchal double standard. This choice stands in sharp contrast to Anna’s growing dissatisfaction with her husband and child. Dolly Oblonsky is doomed to immobility within the home, while Anna is mobile yet headed towards death, scandal, and unhappiness. In treating Dolly as a foil for Anna, Tolstoy demonstrates his belief that women have no way out: they are perpetually trapped between the Madonna and the whore, and those women that lean too far towards the saintly Madonna (Dolly) and too far towards the passionate whore (Anna) are condemned to unhappiness. Thus, Tolstoy’s women demonstrate his belief that a woman who is not a loyal wife is nothing at all.
How differences and parallels are used as literary devices
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy is, in many aspects, a story of love and relationships. Two couples, Kitty and Levin, and Anna and Vronsky, find some form of love and passion throughout the course of the novel, yet their personalities determine the success of their relationships. In Part VI of the novel, the two couples are both spending the summer in their country estates, and their behaviors in and reactions to parallel circumstances reflect the ultimate fates of their romances. Kitty and Levin are able to have a more secure and emotionally fulfilling relationship than Anna and Vronsky because they understand each other and because, despite this, each has genuine preoccupations of his or her own.
The contrasting manners in which Kitty and Anna treat their domestic roles reflect the stability of their respective relationships. At a gathering of the women in the family on the balcony, Kitty is “introducing [a] new way” of making jam, “which [was] employed in her old home,” (502) to Agatha Mikhaylovna, who had run Levin’s household before his marriage. Kitty, upon moving into Levin’s home, has almost immediately concerned herself with the running of the household and taken over Agatha’s job. Though the scene in which they make jam according to Kitty’s instructions humorously mocks the seriousness with which the women take household chores, as seen in the mention of “Agatha Mikhaylovna’s wrath” (502) should the jam turn out poorly, it also portrays the mild friction that is inevitable with a sudden addition to a family and the management of a household changing hands. Therefore, small conflicts like this mark Kitty’s integration into her domestic role as Levin’s wife. She makes Levin’s home hers by bringing practices from her “old home,” (502) and thus establishes a permanence in their relationship that Anna and Vroknsky’s relationship lacks.
During Dolly’s visit to Vozdvizhensk, she concludes that the running of Vronsky’s household “had all been done by, and depended on, the master’s care” (570-571). While Levin keeps himself informed of his household, such as inquiring about the jam, he seemed content to leave the decisions to Kitty. Vronsky, on the other hand, seems to have always run his household, and the arrival of Anna into his life did not change this fact. Indeed, Dolly observes that, “Anna, Sviyazhsky, the Princess, and Veslovsky were all equally guests” (571) in Vronsky’s house. Anna’s status, therefore, is not that of a wife, but of a lover on whom nothing and no one in Vronsky’s house depended except Vronsky himself. The only reason Anna can call this house home is Vronsky’s love for her. Indeed, she has convinced herself that she loves only her son and Vronsky, and that, if they are both in her life, she shall need no other human interaction. Unlike Kitty, who attaches herself to Levin’s house and makes it her home in all aspects, including having her mother and sister present, Anna has nothing tangible around her in which to ground herself and to make her feel that she belongs. Therefore, Kitty is more confident in her love and relationship than Anna is because her place in the world is not based solely upon one man’s emotions any longer. Conversely, because Kitty feels more confident in Levin’s love for her, she is able to settle into his house and make her presence permanent, while Anna, fearing that Vronsky will cease to love her, continues to feel like a guest.
While both Kitty and Levin have tasks and thoughts with which to occupy themselves in each other’s absence, Anna does everything in her life with Vronsky in mind, contributing to her obsessive relationship with him. At one point, Kitty is focusing all of her energy on making a couple of Varenka and Koznyshev, and Levin is concerned with his new wagons. Their off-handed exchange about where they will be that afternoon exemplifies their casual interactions when both are occupied with matters of their own concern. They both understand their ability to go about their daily lives, apart and involved in their own thoughts, and still be a loving couple. In addition, they mostly interact freely and comfortably with their houseguests, Kitty in particular with the women that she loves, and this love coexists with her love for her husband. Anna, on the other hand, is unable to focus on anything else but Vronsky’s love and attention. Though she and Vronsky seem to be occupied in various activities, their bond rarely involves other people, and Anna’s “chief preoccupation” is still “herself in so far as Vronsky held her dear” (583). All that she has is dependent on Vronsky’s love, and she feels that she can only retain it with her physical beauty. Despite remaining beautiful, however, she is still extremely insecure about Vronsky’s feelings towards her, and tries all that she can to make him stay by her side lest he leave her. In the parallel scenes in which both women take leave of their husbands, who are going to the Kashin elections, Vronsky is “bracing himself for a struggle,” (584) because he knows that Anna cannot bear to see him go off into society without her. Conversely, Kitty is the one who advises Levin to go to the elections, even buying him a uniform, because she fears that he will be bored. Kitty is obviously comfortable with her husband being away from her, because she is confident in his love, and has other methods of occupying herself in his absence, while Anna’s insecurities flare every time Vronsky is to leave because he is her everything. In his absence she can only worry about his whereabouts.
Though both Anna and Levin are prone to bouts of jealousy and anger, Levin and Kitty understand each other, and Levin expresses his feelings, while Anna conceals her emotions from Vronsky, who does not understand her. Levin and Kitty are able to understand each other without verbally communicating, and Levin reflects that Kitty “would understand what he meant from a mere hint” (507). Levin, upon seeing Vaskena flirt with Kitty, is overcome with extreme jealousy. Kitty is able to see immediately that “something was wrong with her husband,” despite his best efforts to conceal his anger, and when she asks him about it even once, he “gave vent to his feelings and told her everything” (519). This candidness in their relationship prevents either from concealing hostile feelings, and therefore prevents deep-rooted conflicts and misunderstandings from arising between them. Their straightforward relationship is also placed in contrast to Anna and Vronsky’s relationship, in which Anna does not ever want to discuss difficult matters, the most pressing of which is divorce, because “it irritates her” (568) when Vronsky brings it up. She and Vronsky also often misunderstand each other’s intentions, as when Anna returns from her conversation with Dolly. Vronsky “looked inquiringly into her eyes” to ask about her meeting, but she misinterprets it as a look of longing, and instead only “smiled at him” (581). These misunderstandings are common between the couple, and, paired with Anna’s refusal to address difficult matters, create an atmosphere of restlessness and mistrust.
In addition, Levin, as a man, is able to act to ameliorate his jealously of Vasenka by driving him out of his house. In this way, Levin no longer feels “insulted and tortured” (547) by his presence, and is able to release his feelings. Anna, on the other hand, does not have the power to free herself from her jealousy because she cannot know what Vronsky does when he leaves her to attend to his business in society. Each time he departs is difficult for her, and before he leaves for the Kashin elections she takes to adopting a passive aggressive tone, referring to the “box of books” (584) that would keep her company. Vronsky worsens her pain by wishing to supress her emotions and “avoid a scene,” and his actions make her believe that he does not care for her. Anna and Vronsky have to guess the other’s intentions and meanings, and often these misunderstandings lead to ever-growing hostility.
In the end, Anna’s romance with Vronsky ends with death, while Levin’s romance with Kitty remains fruitful and happy. Though Levin, too, often contemplated suicide, unlike Anna he is able to look past all the evil he sees in those around him and realize that a meaningful life means being good from within oneself. That Levin was able to achieve this understanding was dependent not only on his personality and romance with Kitty, but also his place in society. As a man, he has the opportunity to act upon his emotions and actively seek personal happiness. Anna, on the other hand, constrained by gender expectations in high society, is trapped in endless cycles of obsession, because to obsess is all she can do. Without Vronsky, she has no place in society, and no home of her own.
Levin’s life lesson on birth and death
Constantine Levin’s pair of pivotal experiences contribute significantly to Anna Karenina’s psychological tapestry because these moments of crisis draw out and highlight the subjectivity of the protagonist’s life experience. The novel’s overarching theme of emergent moral consciousness is thus foregrounded in these scenes that feature prominent shifts in self-awareness. The reader is instructed to compare these scenes first by their differences in symbolic content, then on the narrative grounds of subjectivity. Levin’s changing patterns of assumption, projection, and understanding convey to the reader the foundations for the character arc that will result in his religious conversion.
Throughout the novel, Levin and other characters are frequently described as having “unconscious” attitudes and “involuntary” actions, so the presence of language drawing specific attention to missing self-awareness is not a very conspicuous or specific link between the death and birth scenes. But because there are other, more obvious similarities and contrasts in the descriptive elements of these scenes, the reader is already taught to relate the text in these parallel scenes, and may thus examine deviations between narratological elements when they arise.
The settings of the two scenes provide the most immediate distinctions in symbolism. The “dust and slovenliness” of the Levins’ hotel is also noticed in “the dirty little room” in which Nicholas wastes away, whereas little focus is given to the material environmental of the Levins’ home where Kitty gives birth, apart from references to the rooms’ lighting. When Levin wakes up, he first sees that “a light was moving behind the partition,” and Kitty emerges holding a “candle in hand” (639). On his way out, he notices a footman “cleaning lamp-glasses” (642). These details are made metaphorically significant by Tolstoy’s reference to the baby as a new life that flickered “like the flame of a lamp” (648). It is a peculiarly telling detail that the first reference made to the child’s successfully delivery is not a realistic view of its body, but an abstract representation of its living light. At least from Constantine Levin’s perspective, birth is not tied directly to physical existence, it is an event that transcends its immediate environment.
The intangibility of the setting is further designated by Levin’s lost sense of time, again spatially represented by candles: “He was surprised when Mary Vlasevna asked him to light a candle behind the partition, and he learnt that it was already five o’clock in the evening” and “he did not know whether it was late or early. The candles were all burning low” (645, 646). Tolstoy’s focus on light gives the birth scene a symbolic identity connoted by the non-physical, in contrast to the way death is presented in corporeal detail.
The gloomy setting of the pre-death scene is introduced by concrete background imagery, such as “a dirty uniform,” “a dirty dress coat,” “a dusty bouquet,” and a “dado filthy with spittle” (445, 446). This material focus is made especially significant by Kitty’s transformation of this filthy atmosphere with “beds made, combs, brushes and looking glasses laid out, and covers spread” (452). The physical reality of “folded linen” and other atmospheric improvements is enough to give the dying man who “lay between clean sheets in a clean shirt” a “new look of hope” (450). Through either misery or joy, the moral outlook of the dying man is bound irreversibly to his physical condition. This is shown most distinctly at the moment of his passing, when the last indicator of Nicholas’ diminished will to exist is found in his mannerism of “catching at himself as if wishing to pull something off” (458). While this chapter centers most of its narrative and dialogic commentary and on the metaphysics of death, the descriptive action of the scene concludes with Nicholas literally coming to grips with “the reality of his sufferings” (454). Just as the abstract depiction of the child at his moment of birth epitomizes the birth scene’s non-physicality, the physical climax of the death exemplifies the symbolic significance of the whole fatal episode.
The dichotomy of physical versus non-physical symbolism is just one of the many links that polarize the meanings of these scenes, letting us know that they are directly comparable. The shared language of consciousness, however, is a more subtle connection between scenes than binary symbolism. As in much of the novel, the focalized narration explicitly states what the characters do and do not know, what they can and cannot comprehend, and how they interpret one another. Levin, particularly, expresses a great deal of self-consciousness toward his understanding of others’ thoughts and intentions. The death scene introduces many of these neuroses, and the birth scene resolves one, but leaves others to torment him until the end of the novel.
The most frequent and torturous attitudes to afflict Levin’s self-consciousness are those that are overtly “incomprehensible” or come on “involuntarily.” In both scenes, Levin encounters an insurmountable inability to understand his fellow humans, and in both scenes the recognition of this fundamental disconnect arises against his will. While gazing at his dying brother, Levin is said to have “involuntarily meditated upon what was taking place within his brother at that moment, but, in spite of all the efforts of his mind to follow, he saw . . . that something was becoming clear to the dying man which for Levin remained dark as ever” (455). If we are to believe the narrator, Levin’s unintended contemplation of others’ mental processes enables him to detect when one is having an epiphanic moment, but it does not extend far enough for him to see what that profound insight entails.
The frustration produced by this innate mental divide between self-knowledge and understanding of the other applies to any gap in understanding, but Tolstoy demonstrates it most dramatically with Levin’s “envy of that knowledge which the dying man now possessed and which he might not share” (456). Of all the human experiences which are agonizingly incommunicable, none is as impossible to share as the feelings brought on by death. Levin gains a painful consciousness of his general inability to fully understand his fellow man when he is unconsciously confronted by his specific inability to share his dying brother’s epiphany.
The same consciousness is produced, also by an unconscious shift in empathy, when he considers the sufferings of his pregnant wife. While “involuntarily seeking a culprit to punish for these sufferings,” and realizing there is none, Levin sees “that something beautiful was taking place in her soul, but . . . it was above his comprehension” (641). In this scene, Levin again realizes that he can recognize, but not feel another’s joy that is borne out of pain. Again, Tolstoy makes a more universal point by illustrating an extraordinary case: Levin seeks to understand an experience he cannot possibly know in his lifetime, for childbirth is even more inaccessible to him than death. But, as they fit into the novel’s refrain of “involuntary” thoughts and “incomprehensible” feelings, these extraordinary experiences are made to represent the most extreme cases of the human condition’s general barrier to empathetic experience.
Levin is ultimately thwarted in his attempts to relate others’ perspectives to his own. He only comes to peace with his consciousness of that impossible dream on the last page of the novel, when he learns to express it religiously: “there will still be a wall between my soul’s holy of holies and other people . . . but I shall still pray” (740) . He does, however, learn from the death and the birth to better relate his own perspective to others. In the death scene, Levin worries greatly about the misery his brother’s condition might bring to Kitty. He assumes that she would unnecessarily suffer from his presence, reflecting, “Why should she too be tortured as I am?” (447). It turns out, however, that she approaches the dying man’s suffering with greater ease. Kitty is more worried about Levin’s own reaction to death than her own, and she has faith in her ability not only to persevere but also to comfort Nicholas, proving Levin’s assumption wrong. She expresses this in dialogue: “Try and realize that for me to see you and not to see him is much more painful. There I can perhaps be of use to him and you” (447). Here, Levin has inaccurately projected his own fear of death onto his wife, assumed she knows what he feels, and further demonstrated his inability to grasp another human perspective.
By the time of his son’s birth, however, Levin’s consciousness has grown to include an understanding of that essential failing. He avoids projecting further by coming to the conclusion that “no one knew or was bound to know his feelings” if he did not express them carefully (642). It’s important to note that this realization is “immediately” reached, without a voluntary attempt to come by it, in accordance with Tolstoy’s insistence that consciousness is generally expanded in an unconscious fashion (642). And, because this is one of the few lessons Levin learns – he gains some faith in God, but otherwise holds onto his incomprehension of the situation – we also see Tolstoy’s suggestion that even in the most advanced cases of self-conscious behavior, moral realizations are generally incomplete.
Levin’s journey to greater self-knowledge is essentially the ‘successful’ result to the novel’s experiment, with Anna’s journey to the absolute depths of delusion standing as the negative control. The birth and death scenes are pivotal not just in terms of plot progression, but also because they provoke expansions to the protagonist’s mind. Once they have been established as thematically linked, the scenes yield a profusion of evidence for Tolstoy’s subtext on the fragmentary nature of human consciousness.