The Deeper Symbolism and Analysis of Christian Values in Anna Karenina
Leo Tolstoy is a critically acclaimed Russian novelist who dared to go against the contemporary orthodox ideas of his time in his quest of truth. He was a realist who didn’t believe in conventional norms of romanticization of literature which was prevalent in his time. He believed that painting a rosy picture of the society does nothing but create a façade in front of the readers and takes them away from the grim realities of the actual happenings of the society to a point of no return.
Tolstoy, in his diary wrote, “Art is a microscope which the artist aims at the mysteries of his soul and which reveals these mysteries common to all ”. This metaphorical microscope focuses on the infinitesimal of details that apparently are considered ‘unimportant’ and brings in front of the readers a hundred times enrichened version of the detail. No writing of his other than the well acclaimed, ‘War and Peace’ pays impetus to the aforementioned point. This work of his didn’t portray any ‘hero-figure’ in it, neither did it revolve around any single plot. It is a tale of more than six-hundred odd characters who were mostly unrelated when studied superficially, but then they all share one thing in common; the fact that they were all in some way affected by the Napoleonic invasions. It displays very vividly the contrasts that life holds in store for people. It’s a book filled with binaries; love and hate, life and death, utopia and dystopia, etc.
Bringing out social contrasts and realities wasn’t the only thing he portrayed in his works. He held his own set of critical opinions on religion and moralities which was clearly seen across a multitude of his works. His works like, ‘ Chto takoye iskusstvo? ’ clearly put on display his inclinations towards communism. He contemplated over how masses were ‘enslaved’ and exploited by the elites of the society and how the decadent bourgeoise institutions like the value system and the state are mere ways of institutionalized exploitative relationship. Other works of his like, ‘Anna Karenina’ go to great depths to analyse orthodox Christianity, struggle of the labour class, communism and the moral standings of the feudal society. In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy goes to great extents to criticize the orthodox church of Russia, the hierarchical, thus, inherently classist bureaucracy, the state owned education system and even the peasantry. Due to his constant and brutal criticism of conservative Russian church, he was declared an apostate and denounced from the fraternity of the church and was under the watch list of the state.
Introduction to Age and Society
The story is set in feudal Russia, headed by Czar, where bureaucracy held a divine position but for most parts didn’t hold much relevance to the common masses. The entire bureaucratical institution was unapproachable and was held sacrosanct. When a character is seen to be more integrated into the mainstream society, what usually follows is the fact that the person holds a high and comfortable rank in the aforementioned feudal system and his entire social and personal identity is often seen to be revolving around his feudal rank. Masculinity was defined in the terms of how a man enforced and adhered to the social identities that were bestowed upon him by the virtue of his position in the military or the bureaucracy, as was seen in the case of Vronsky and Karenin. Karenin at some points in the story seemed to be more troubled with the fact that his wife had fallen in love with a lower ranked military personnel than him than the very fact that his wife had betrayed their marriage and committed adultery. While men like Karenin and Vronsky were shown to be at the epitome of the pyramid of masculinity, men like Levin who did actual manual labour, had a good bonding with the working class people, had out of the box ideas of transforming the methods of agriculture, was rejected by his lady love merely because of societal pressure.
There was a second theme, the impact of Christianity on the societal norms, that went hand in hand with the ongoing backdrop of the old-school feudal Russian society. Two perspectives of Christianity were portrayed with such mellifluous ease that they transitioned in and out of each other without leaving any jagged edges. On one hand, Karenin was portrayed as an old school Russian aristocrat who was so engrossed in holding a high moral ground of ‘Christian forgiveness’ that at the end he ended up ripping apart his and Anna’s life into shreds just for a façade of the perfect Christian Aristocratic family in Russia. On the other hand was Countess Lydia who was shallow and didn’t have an iota of interest in Christianity but made sure to masquerade as an intellectual who believed in a more liberal and elitist Christianity.
The book has multiple storylines going on at the same time that beautifully cascade and mingle together to flow as one coherent and well-written story. The book starts with a grief-stricken Dolly who was cheated upon by her long standing husband, Prince Stepan Arkadyevitch Oblonsky, Stiva. He turns to his sister, Anna Arkadyevna to help them strike peace with each other. In a parallel storyline, Konstantin Levin, Stiva’s friend shows up at Moscow to confess his long-standing love to Kitty Shtcherbatsky and ask her for marriage. Kitty was held up in a squabble because she had two suitors between whom she had to choose. On one hand was Levin for whom she had always had feelings and on other hand was Count Vronsky who was a fairly high ranked military candidate and cynosure of her mother’s eyes. Held up in the believe that Vronsky had fallen for her, she straightway rejected Levin’s proposal but was left heartbroken when she saw that Vronsky had fallen for Anna in the ball. Levin returns back to his countryside farming ways and Anna leaves for St. Petersburg, but this time around, she is followed by Vronsky. Kitty fell severely ill after being rejected and had to be taken to Germany to find a cure. There she met a Russian woman who had a very liberal and unique approach towards Christianity and was influenced by her. She tried to escape her feminine side while under the influence of religion. Later on though, she realized the absurdity and went back to Russia, out of depression.
Karenin was doubtful of his wife’s change in behaviour but wanted to believe that his wife can never be promiscuous. But, at every turn, Anna made it very clear that she had formed an attachment with Vronsky and that she never really was happy with Karenin. Vronsky was conflicted between his career and love interest. Things get worse when Anna gets pregnant with Vronsky’s child. Anna had to confess her adultery infront of Karenin who didn’t want to divorce her for the sake of his image in the society and wanted it to seem like they still were the best example of the ideal ‘perfect aristocratic family’. Later on though, he had a change of mind and did go to a divorce lawyer. Anna bore a daughter after which she became severely ill. While on her figurative ‘deathbed’, Karenin forgave her for all her acts. Out of guilt, Vronsky tried to commit suicide but after Anna’s condition improved they went abroad to start afresh even though Anna had denied to sign the divorce papers out of the fear of losing her son. On the other hand, Levin and Kitty got married. The series of unfortunate events that led to the death of Nicolai left Levin in a very emotional state of mind. Kitty got pregnant with Levin’s baby.
After having spent her honeymoon in St. Petersburg, Anna got even closer to Vronsky because she missed her son and she felt that she now had no one but Vronsky. When Vronsky asks her not to attend the theatre, she doesn’t pay heed to him and goes there. She gets humiliated and mocked there and Vronsky being angry at her ignorance of his advice, shows no sympathy to her humiliation. This is a turning point in their relationship. When Dolly visits Anna she feels as if Anna was living a better life than she was but the reality was that neither Vronsky, nor Anna were happy with each other. Anna, later on, gave up any expectations from life and committed suicide. Karenin turned towards religion after being influenced by Countess Lydia Ivanova. Vronsky volunteered in the military during Russo-Turkish war. Levin came across the concept of salvation after which he decided to ‘live for his soul’ rather than his individual self-interest. Levin, at the end, manages to find peace within himself.
Anna’s character was that of a Russian Noblewoman in the 19th century who seemingly had ‘the perfect family life’ with her husband at a high administrative position and a son. Though seemingly flawless, she was miles away from being happy with her husband Karenin. Though she most probably did honour him, the essence of love and affection that tied couples together was missing in their relationship. As luck would have it, she found her beckoning in Count Vronsky who was enrolled in the military and was a potential suitor for her sister-in-law’s younger sister, Kitty. As their fling proceeded and Vronsky followed her all the way back to St. Petersburg, where she tried remaining in denial regarding her deepest and darkest of desires. As time flew by, she became visibly attached to Vronsky and got pregnant with his child. Her husband who had observed very closely the developments of her relationship didn’t want to divorce her even after she confessed about her adultery because he didn’t want his reputation to get tarnished and wanted Anna to move away from Vronsky if she wanted to be forgiven by him.
Even after she moved out to the countryside with Vronsky, she was lonely because Vronsky found it tough to juggle between his career and love life. She felt humiliated and patronized by the attitude and lack of sympathy of Vronsky after the theatre incident. This was a huge turning point for her as she felt that she had no one but Vronsky because her son was under Karenin’s custody. Vronsky’s alienation from her left her emotionally dishevelled and messed up. At the end, she ended up taking her own life by jumping infront of a train. Anna’s life was filled with emotional injuries that scarred her heart badly, but the fact still remains that she cheated upon her husband, with whom she already had a family. Not being happy with her relationship doesn’t entitle her with the privilege to cheat. She was burdened with social norms laid down for the aristocrats, Especially the noblewomen. Her mere bonding with Vronsky led to rumours being spread about her that upset her husband and reduced her value infront of him. Later on, even after she moved out with Vronsky, she wasn’t happy because she felt as if Vronsky didn’t love her as much as he used to and she felt an alienation of sorts tearing them apart. Not once did she stop to think rationally that Vronsky really just was busy dealing with his career and that he has a world that’s beyond her. At some point, she became overbearing and passive-aggressive. She felt the need to go to the theatre to prove her love for Vronsky after being advised against it multiple times.
Levin starts as a lovelorn, lost and seemingly aimless individual whose entire life seems to be revolving around his long-standing love interest, Princess Kitty. At the very beginning of the story, his character seemed like that of an average Russian landowner in the countryside who was mostly alienated from the lives of peasants who worked for him. But, after getting rejected by Kitty, he was a changed man. He went back to his countryside and started involving himself in the affairs of the peasantry, not as their master and lord, but as one amongst them. Levin was aware of the social changes going around Russia at that time and wanted to be a part of it. So, he tried to bring agricultural reforms in his area.
Levin has this overbearing habit of over-analysing and making things seem more complex than they actually are. He tends to question norms whose answers are right infront of his eyes. This is precisely the reason why he has often been depicted to be failing at having humane emotions as was the case when his brother Nicolai was on his death bed. His analytical mindset leads him to question his religion right before his marriage and he has been depicted asking the priest about the existence of God. At the very end, his search for answers comes to an end when he finds true peace in letting things go and not holding onto them with a sense of materialistic attachment. He finds true happiness in lying down on the grass and admiring the simplicity of the practically bare but astonishingly beautiful sky. The novel portrayed infront of the reader the journey of Levin as he grew from a lost, wandering soul to a learned man who knew the meaning of life.
19th century Russia had very clear division of hierarchy in the administration and the military. The position at which men stood in this hierarchical extravaganza governed the way they were supposed to behave in the society and what kind of actions they were allowed or not allowed to do. Even within this stringent feudal structure, there existed other sub-classifications that were predominantly seen amongst the Russian high-society, like the Gender norms. Femininity and Masculinity were defined using very hard and fast descriptors and any act of a person of either of the sexes that didn’t confide to the boundaries of these descriptors was ridiculed and the person was ostracized from the society. In case of Anna, though she did cheat on Karenin with Vronsky, the fact remained that adultery and sexual promiscuity was very common and ‘fashionable’ amongst the men of the high society.
This aspect is first looked into in the book’s epigraph, “ Vengeance is mine, I shall repay.” Though passive-aggressive, this constructs an idea for the reader to proceed to the actual text. The reference serves as a deterrent to the Russian society that is waist-deep in ‘sins’ but leaves no opportunities to fling mud at individuals who dare step against norms, and that no one but God can judge them. As was seen in the book, though polygamy and and polyamory were prevalent in Russian society, Anna was ridiculed for actions. Levin was treated as an outcast just because he was from the countryside and didn’t hold a high position in the feudal rungs even though the village economy was the backbone of soviet Russia.
Family has been portrayed as the most important institution in the book. It has been portrayed as hallowed and sacrosanct that shouldn’t be destroyed under any circumstances even when it causes mental duress to either of the spouses. Karenin didn’t divorce Anna not because he wasn’t affected by Anna’s adultery, but because he wanted to maintain a good image of his family infront of the society. Same was the story with that of the Scherbatskys. Kitty and Dolly were portrayed as virtuous Christian women who took care of both, their husbands and their maternal family.
He was the trailblazer of a literary device called, ‘The Interior Monologue’. This concept was a novelty in the 19th century. This device depicts the thought process of the characters directly. This helps the reader in forming a bonding of sorts with the character. This device was used extensively in case of Levin in the form of utter dejection and hopelessness after being rejected by Kitty, epitome of jubilancy in working alongside the farmers and apprehension during Kitty’s childbirth. It was again used for Anna during her last moments before she decided to jump infront of the train.
Though less morally polarizing than other 19th century classics, it still had a recurring theme of forgiveness revolving around Christianity. The plot of the story revolves around a main issue,i.e, adultery and forgiveness has often been shown as its solution, as was seen during the episode where Anna was on her death bed and Karenin ‘forgave’ her right then and there. While mediating between Oblonsky and Dolly, Anna says, “If you forgive, its completely, completely”. This sentence sets a stage for every other act of ‘forgiveness’ that follows later on. This shows the reader that ‘Christian forgiveness’ isn’t based upon actual empathy but on the sheer fact that every sin must be forgiven because Christ said so.
Trains have been shown as harbinger of bad times and death, literally and figuratively. Literal instances include the episode in which Anna and Vronsky met for the first time at the train station and a train worker got crushed under the wheels of the train. This event foreshadowed the final cardinal event of the book; the death of Anna, which was a result of her jumping infront of the train.
Figurative instances include when Anna is frustrated with how hard Vronsky works and says, “Due train que sela va” which loosely translated into hoe she wont be able to see him anymore in a while, seeing how much workload he has. Vronsky purchased a highly prized racehorse called, Frou-Frou for the race of the officers. Though he started strong, he ended up falling in a ditch which eventually killing the horse. This episode was introduced at a point of time in the book where Anna had just started to acknowledge her love for Vronsky. It was as if Frou-Frou depicted Anna and her love for Vronsky. Anna met the same fate as the horse and both of them had more or less a similar reason,i.e, Vronsky’s moment of carelessness and negligence.
Levin and Kitty’s marriage is symbolic of a number of things, the most important of which is the forced institution of marriage. After Kitty’s initial rejection, their marriage seemed imposed upon them and forced by circumstances despite of them seemingly being in love with each other. Again, the way Levin questioned the logic behind ‘confession’ right before their marriage concretes the fact that he doesn’t confide himself to the religious dogma that Kitty, her family and the society in general seems to follow. At the end though, Levin seemed to have achieved a level of spiritual revelation through the questions that he put infront of the priest.
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