The Ironic Symbolism in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina

June 22, 2022 by Essay Writer

The novel Anna Karenina by Tolstoy, contains numerous of these motifs and symbols, that may be easy to miss at first. Tolstoy used these motifs in a calculated way and has them appear in the novel throughout. Multiple characters and events that take place surrounding the imagery of the train has a deeper meaning that is tied back to the background of where the novel is set in. The most important motif that Tolstoy uses is the one of the trains, that shows the development of the relationship between Anna and Vronsky, the fate of Anna, and the destruction it has on society.

The train appears in the novel twice, both in a significant way. Anna’s life of unease and travel is all connected to trains, while all of the main interactions happened at the train stations. The first time we see the train was in part one, when Vronsky meets Anna. Vronksy was at the station, waiting for his mother, while Anna was getting off, on her way to visit her brother. The train has a foreboding and dark presence when pulling into the station, as those could feel the ground shaking under them. “And in fact the whistle of the locomotive could be heard in the distance. A few minutes later the platform started shaking, and the locomotive came puffing in, the steam driven downward by the frost, the piston of the middle wheel slowly and evenly pushing and pulling…”(Tolstoy 70). The vivid description of the train in this scene gives it an evil and unnatural aura it as it pulls into the station. As Anna gets off, the two exchange a few words, and from there Vronsky was enchanted with the radiance that came within Anna. “ It was as though an excess of something so filled her whole being that it expressed itself against her will, sometimes in the brilliance of her gaze, sometimes in her smile. She deliberately tried to extinguish that light in her eyes, but it blazed out against her will in that faint smile” (Tolstoy 73). As the two were about to depart, they witnesses a man take his life. A guard for some unknown reason, had been run over by the train. The two were appalled at the accident that had just occurred, and had a bad feeling about it, instantly. Anna had an inkling about what she had just witnessed and thought to herself over and over “‘It’s a bad omen,’ Anna says” (Tolstoy 77). Anna reflects on this death as an event that will set the tone for what is to come later on, in a very negative way. This event would foreshadow Anna’s downfall, towards the end of the novel. This scene at the train station is one of the novel’s most crucial aspects, as this almost surreal example of Anna falling for Vronsky is reflective of Anna failing to resist to the dark passion of love and the beginning of her collapse from dignity and morality.

The second, and final time the train is seen is when Anna takes her own life. Anna is very unhappy with both the life she was given, and the life that she chose. She thought she was making the right choice for her happiness by choosing Vronsky over Karenin, however it ultimately made things worse. Anna was unhappy and felt trapped in her new relationship with Vronsky. The only way she felt that she could escape was to end her suffering all together. She wanted to end her pain, and instead make those around her feel the same pain she felt. She wanted Vronsky to hurt, and she felt that taking her own life was the only option she had. “There! She said to herself, looking at the shadow of the freight car on the mixture of sand and coal the ties were sprinkled with. There-right in the middle! I’ll punish him and escape from everyone and from myself…”(Tolstoy 918). Anna then steps onto the train tracks where she is then hit and killed instantly. The death that Anna had witnessed in the very beginning led her up to this point. The bad omen she felt was coming to fruition, when she decided to take her life in the same exact way.

Not only has the motif of the train foreshadowed the death of Anna, but the train itself is portrayed in a negative light. Tolstoy incorporates the symbols of railroads and the motifs of trains, that bring out tragedy brought by the industrialization of the advancing progress of Russian technology in society, the destructive nature of trains, and how characters such as Anna and Levin, assist as a reminder of how trains are dangerously destroying society and older values that had been set in place in a country. During the Russian industrialization, trains were brought in as a new invention, that would disrupt the system they had set in place before, to illustrate that Russia is moving slowly away from tradition and old values and heading towards a modern and capitalist society. These trains were also seen as very dangerous even though they represent progress to mankind. Tolstoy used this background on Russia, and displayed it through the use of trains in the novel. By spoiling Russia, Tolstoy blamed Europe for pushing for modern technology and destroying the normal way of life. The trains not only destroyed Russia’s way of life, but Anna’s as well, when she took those last few steps onto the railroad tracks. “And just at that moment, when the middle point between the wheels drew level with her, she flung aside the red handbag and drawing her head down between her shoulders she fell underneath the car on her hands, and with a light movement, as though she were preparing to get up again at once, she sank to her knees” (Tolstoy 918). The train disrupted apart of Anna’s life, which was used to her best interests, as she thought, to disrupt those, including Vronsky and Karenin, just as they did in Russia, meaning they were seen as dangerous to not only the society, but to human life as well.

The motif of the trains plays a significant role in the work. From the knowledge of Russia, Tolstoy was able to convey this motif in a very negative light. The two times it is shown, people die from getting hit, whether that be by accident, or by choice. The disruption brought on by the new innovation of these machines, disrupted those lives in the novel, that forever changed the society surrounding. Anna and Vronsky’s romance begins and ends at the train station. It begins with the first arrival of the train that ends up killing the guard at the station, and sets Anna’s first interaction with Vronsky, which is overlaid with death, that foreshadows Anna’s eventual downfall. Tolstoy’s use of imagery of the train has an almost harsh, and unnatural presence that sets the tone for the path that Anna would follow to her own death, following the first departure from the station as soon as she began her affair with Vronsky. Altogether, Tolstoy wanted to show the negative impact the trains have on Russian society, and was able to demonstrate that throughout the novel, most specifically through the character development of Anna Karenina.


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