The Question of Suicide in War and Peace and Anna Karenina
In 1898, Tolstoy wrote in a Letter on Suicide that “suicide is immoral.” He vehemently condemned the act of it, by qualifying it as unreasonable and wrong. However, in his earlier books, such as War and Peace and Anna Karenina, Tolstoy treats suicide, along with mortality in general, as an extremely important subject that affects many characters. Though Tolstoy may have spoken against suicide in his later work, the author clearly understood its reality and importance in society; he therefore chose to depict it in Anna Karenina with Anna Karenina, Constantine Levin, and Alexei Vronsky, and in War and Peace with Natasha Rostov and Helene Kuragin. Tolstoy does not condemn the suicides as immoral or irrational, but instead, in most instances, portrays the characters in a very sympathetic manner. More importantly, Tolstoy shows us what characteristics make people able to deal with situations that would drive other people to suicide. He depicts suicide as an unfortunate last resort for those lacking family support and strong religious values.
Throughout both of his great novels, Tolstoy uses a sympathetic narrator, who sees both the good and the bad in all of the characters. Suicide is no exception to this approach, and though Tolstoy might have condemned it later on in life, he depicts the important suicidal characters in a very understandable light. Anna’s suicide is surrounded by a feeling of sympathy, as she is finally doing something independently. She has made this choice alone and has no one to guide her or to help her. During the whole suicide scene, she is surrounded by many passersby peering at her: “they again peered in to her face and shouted something in unnatural voices” (Anna Karenina 883). This description brings the reader closer to Anna, as if the reader is also being peered at; thus, Anna’s feelings are made cathartic and suicide seems like an understandable end to her situation.
With Natasha’s attempted suicide, the sympathy emerges in her recovery phase. Tolstoy portrays Natasha through her feelings of guilt and slow forgiveness, and helps the reader understand why suicide might have seemed like a solution. Her failed attempt makes her extremely sick, and it is through this recovery phase that Natasha incites sympathy from the reader. Her character is slowly changing: she goes from being an innocent young girl to a mature, understanding lady, who comprehends the values of marriage and religion. This process also provokes sympathy, since one can see the difficulty she has in forgiving herself. Tolstoy also depicts this theme of understanding through making her husband, Andrei, forgive her on his deathbed. His action amplifies the importance of her past actions, and thus makes suicide seem like an understandable option.
Along with his sympathetic portrayals, Tolstoy shows us what might have lead some characters to suicide. A first lens to consider is that of Christianity. Anna’s suicide and Natasha’s attempted suicide are the results of events that can be compared to the fall of Adam and Eve. This comparison can be made since their unfortunate events occur when both characters seemed to have attained a certain degree of satisfaction in their lives. As with Adam and Eve, their decisions, and the consequences that followed them, are extremely negative, and can thus be referred to as “fall” sequences. In interpretations of Christian narrative, many theologists disagree on whether Adam and Eve’s temptation towards the fruit of “the tree of knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:9) brought trouble to our world, or actually helped mankind prosper. Jacob Boehme, a sixteenth-century Christian theologian, summarizes one side of the debate by describing the fall as “horrible, lamentable and miserable.” Indeed, many believe that it was a complete tragedy for all of mankind. However, others consider the fall as actually “fortunate.” These theologists see the fall as a blessing and as a step forward towards mankind’s progress. They argue that the fall guarantees the incarnation of God in Christ and the eventual elevation of man to an even greater paradise, and is therefore a good thing.
These two different interpretations can be seen in the contrast between the two characters’ fates. Anna and Natasha’s falls, as reinterpretations of the same biblical event, are extremely similar in many aspects. Anna’s fall takes place in Part 1 of Anna Karenina during the ball scene. In this episode, Anna dances with Vronsky, a man whom she was quickly attracted to. However, she is already married to Karenin. Natasha’s fall occurs during Chapter 5 of Part 9 of War and Peace, at the opera. Here, Helene tries to befriend Natasha, and takes her under her wing. She points her towards her brother Anatole and charms her into believing that he is extremely interested in her. Natasha succumbs to their tricks, even though she also is married. Both Anna’s and Natasha’s falls occur at important events of Russian society. Anna has met Vronsky previously at the train station, but it is at the ball that she is really attracted to him (Annna Karenina 96). Similarly, Anatole flirts with Natasha at the opera, becoming for the first time a fully tangible love interest.
A second component that is similar is the boldness of the suitors. Indeed, Anna asks Vronsky to leave her alone, but instead he follows her to St Petersburg, saying that he will be wherever she is (Annna Karenina 119). Natasha is struck by Anatole’s very direct language and engagement with her. When she confronts him by telling him that she is married, Anatole disregards this reservation, claiming that he cannot control his love and that he is madly in love with her (War and Peace 611).
On this same point, both women feel pleased at first at the attention they receive, but that happiness is followed almost immediately by a guilt and a rationalization of their actions. While at the ball, Anna feels a “joyful light kindled in her eyes” every time Vronsky speaks to her (Annna Karenina 97). Furthermore, “she seemed to make efforts to restrain these signs of joy, but they appeared on her face of their own accord” (Annna Karenina 97). However, as she is leaving the ball, Anna describes herself as “wicked,” but justifies her impulses by telling herself that she “was really not to blame, or only a very little” (Annna Karenina 114). Even as Anna is on the train back, she senses “the feeling of shame” growing stronger as she thinks about Vronsky, but once again she justifies it by thinking that their interaction had nothing “differing from those with other acquaintances” (Annna Karenina 618). The same pattern can be seen in Natasha. At first, she seems “pleased to see that that [Anatole] was captivated by her and it did not occur to her that there was anything wrong with it” (War and Peace 603). However, not long after, “she felt all the time that by talking to him she was doing something improper” (War and Peace 603). Her justification for her actions comes after the opera, when she reflects upon what happened to her: “Nothing! I have done nothing, I didn’t lead him on at all. Nobody will know and I shall never see him again” (War and Peace 605).
This rationalization and non self-blame can be seen as a response to vulnerability. Indeed, for both Anna and Natasha, these events occur when each woman is in a very vulnerable position in her life. Anna has not been to a ball in a while, since she now lives in St Petersburg with her husband. She only comes to the ball because Kitty invites her and wishes Anna to be there for her grand entrance in society. As for Natasha, this is the first time she is at the opera, as seen through the external description of the opera as comic and strange. Natasha is not only vulnerable because she has never been in this environment, but also because she has been waiting in the country for her husband, Andrei. All this makes both characters susceptible to being seduced.
Another component that is also present in both of the falls is the amplitude of terms associated with the body and with physical pleasure. Anna is wearing “a low-neck black velvet dress which exposed her full shoulder and bosom” (Anna Karenina 95). Similarly, Natasha has her “bare arms and neck” exposed and notices “women with gems on their bare flesh” (War and Peace 596, 598). Tolstoy’s descriptions characterize each fall as something that has nothing romantic to it, but that rather is completely based on physical attractiveness.
The last element that connects both of the falls is the influence of a parental figure. This idea is less apparent with Anna, but can still be inferred from her interaction with Vronsky’s mother. The two women meet in the train from St Petersburg to Moscow and bond instantly. The older woman speaks greatly of her son and is very eager for Anna to meet him. As for Natasha, her father accompanies her to the opera and pushes her to interact with Anatole. It is unclear whether he knows what he is getting his daughter into, but he is certainly a major influence on her behavior. Through all of these similarities, the falls of Anna and Natasha resemble one another unmistakably. The difference between the two arises in the consequences.
Anna and Natasha’s lives end differently because of the elements surrounding these women. One of these essential components is the presence or not of family. In Anna’s case, it is the absence of family that is to be noted. Indeed, when she goes back to St Petersburg and finds her husband, she “met his fixed and tired gaze, her heart contracted painfully with a sort of unpleasant sensation, as though she expected to find him looking different. She was particularly struck by the feeling of discontent” (Anna Karenina 124). She is also taken aback by the reality that is her son. Though she misses him a lot while in Moscow, she feels very weirdly about him upon her return home. He is not as she remembered him and she “had imagined him to be nicer than he actually was” (Anna Karenina 128). Towards the end, her son also claims that he cannot recognize his mother anymore, creating even more of a distance between them. It seems that Anna misses the presence of a close family. At first, this is remedied by the new presence of Vronsky in her life. However, this also decreases with time as she feels that, since her looks are being compromised by age, Vronsky must like her less and less. Furthermore, when Anna decides that she is going to commit suicide, she visits her brother Stiva and his wife Dolly, to “tell her frankly, I am unhappy, I deserve it, it is all my fault, but I am unhappy all the same, please, help me” (Anna Karenina 871). When she gets there, however, Kitty is also there. Vronsky was originally supposed to marry Kitty and she fears that he regrets not having pursued this connection. Anna is scared to face her and, feeling even more threatened and lonely, decides not to tell Dolly anything. Had Kitty not been at Dolly’s house at that moment, Anna probably would have told Dolly everything and her fate might have been different. It is this lack of family communication and this feeling of loneliness that drive her closer to suicide.
In contrast, Natasha’s family is essential in helping her recover from her fall. One of the most important characters in this sense is Sonia. Sonia does not want to let the Rostov family be disgraced by Natasha’s actions, and therefore stands by her side till Natasha forgives herself. This action is contrary to the wishes of Natasha, who begs Sonia to leave her alone: “Go away! Go away!” (War and Peace 628). When Natasha attempts to commit suicide by taking poison, she wakes up in the morning to find Sonia at her bedside, ready to comfort her and help her. Natasha’s mother is also important in her recovery: this older woman very close to her throughout the book and her attitude does not change, even as Natasha feels that she has shamed the family. This stable presence is essential in helping Natasha to feel better, and not feel like she has done something unforgivable. The presence and support of family therefore serves as a factor that helps Natasha to deal with her fall, while the absence of it served in driving Anna to suicide.
Another important element to note is the presence of God in one’s life. Dostoevsky, in A Writer’s Diary, wrote that “suicide went straight to the question of the existence of God” and it seems that Tolstoy was grappling with that same idea. The question of God and religious faith come up at length in both novels, but especially so in questions of death and suicide. In Anna’s case, a lack of spirituality and relation with God push her to commit suicide. Without any familial support, she is left with nothing bigger than life to help her. Anna realizes that she needs God to help her with her situation, but this realization comes too late. It is when she is on the tracks and preparing herself for her fate that “she tried to get up, to throw herself back, but something huge and implacable struck her on the head and dragged her down on her back. ‘Lord, forgive me everything!’ she cried” (Anna Karenina 884). Had she sought help in God earlier, or had she had some religious beliefs throughout her life, she would have potentially been able to save herself, and find a better way to cope with her fall.
This saving action of God can be seen in Natasha’s case. Though Natasha already has help coming from her family’s support, it is not until she seeks God and attends church that she really feels like she is getting better. When she goes to church, she has a “sense of the possibility of correcting her faults, the possibility of a new, clean life, and of happiness” (War and Peace 704). Tolstoy also adds that “it seemed to her that God heard her prayer” (War and Peace 709). Thus, the presence of God and of a religious belief seems to be another element that can help one recover after a fall.
Three other characters in particular help in putting these elements into perspective. These individuals are more complicated cases, but each in his or her own way fits into this argument that family support and religious faith can prevent one from committing suicide. The first of these characters is Helene in War and Peace. It is not explicitly said whether Helene commits suicide or not, but her fate (death by a drug overdose due to an attempted abortion) is linked to her absence of faith and family. Helene is less present than the two major characters mentioned previously, but she is portrayed enough for the two characteristics to appear through her actions and thoughts. Towards the middle of the book, Helene gets married to Pierre, even though she does not particularly like him and is not very attracted to him. Given these inclinations, she cheats on him several times with various people, such as Dolokhov and Boris. She also does not act like what would be considered a “good” wife, as she very early on in the marriage tells Pierre that she does not want to have his children. Thus, she does not receive any support from Pierre, who does not show her much affection either. He does challenge Dolokhov to a duel, but he is doing it to prove himself, rather than out of jealousy or love for Helene. Furthermore, Helene is very close to her brothers, but given the potential incest that happened between them, their relationship is extremely ambiguous, and not based on care or protection.
Adding to this, none of the members of the family are religious or believe in God. Towards the end of her life, Helene converts to Catholicism, goes to church, and also donates to the church. However, she does not do this for the “right” reasons, but rather because she hopes that the Pope will annul her union with Pierre, allowing her to remarry. Helene has led a life distant from God and from family values, and her fate in the book reflects that lifestyle.
Another helpful character is Levin in Anna Karenina. Though Levin never attempts to commit suicide, he is important to consider as he thinks about suicide and the meaning of life in many instances. Levin is a character who, like Natasha, finds peace and meaning in life through family and spirituality. Levin starts to think about suicide especially towards the end of the novel. Paradoxically, this is when he has everything he has been wanting: a wife, a son, and a happy life on the whole. Though his thoughts are serious, suicide itself is not an actual option because his family is extremely important to him. Indeed, he loves Kitty and, even though they fight a lot, he is deeply thankful for her and is glad to have her in his life. This feeling is amplified when Kitty gives birth to their son.
Levin is also in constant search of the meaning of life and his place in the world. Though at first he is not religious and actually considers himself an unbeliever, Levin wonders throughout what is the best way for him to be a good man. He tries a variety of options, such as cultivating or studying, but none seem to work for him. He has many interactions with spirituality, namely at his wedding, at his brother’s death bed, and at the birth of his son, but it is not until the end of the book that Levin comes to terms with it. It is through an old peasant that Levin understands the place and role of God, and that “we must live for justice, for God” (Anna Karenina 915). Therefore, it seems that his search for spirituality and his discovery of God help him in coming to terms with his life. Through such inquiry, and with the help of family, Levin can deal with issues that could have potentially resulted in suicide.
The last character who deals with suicide and its linked issues is Vronsky in Anna Karenina. Vronksy is an interesting character because his situation involves a degree of family support, but in relation with an absence of faith. Vronsky encounters suicide when Anna is giving birth to her second child and has had a dream that she will die in childbirth. During the childbirth, Vronsky encounters Anna’s husband, Karenin, who informs him that he has forgiven Anna. This news, along with the prospect of Anna dying, leads Vronsky to a state of stress and despair, resulting in him pointing and shooting a gun at himself. He simply injures himself and his attempt is quickly moved past. However, even this incident can be linked back to the characteristics of family and faith. In the absence of faith, it seems that Vronsky has no other choice but to attempt to commit suicide. However, since he has the thought of family with him, his actions do not result in what he was trying for. He is mainly committing suicide out of fright of Anna dying, and his love for her has recently been growing stronger. Anna is also giving birth to his daughter. The love he holds for his family seems to be what saves him from death. His absence of faith is not strong enough to balance it in the other direction. He is not religious, but has nothing against faith in particular. He simply has never considered himself a follower of God. These two elements put together lead to a pitiful attempt at suicide, one that only ends up injuring him slightly.
Through his characters’ closeness to death and to questions of life and morality, Tolstoy seeks to understand suicide as a questionable solution to various problems. Though he might have believed later on that suicide was unreasonable and an act against God, Tolstoy depicts it in War and Peace and in Anna Karenina as the result of understandable human failings. He also sets up his characters’ lives to show how the presence of family and of religious belief can help someone deal with problems that would lead others to suicide. Through his narratives, Tolstoy informs the reader of what he believes leads to a good life.
Boehme, Jacob. Concerning the Three Principles of Divine Essence. Trans. John Sparrow. London: J.M. Watkins, 1910. Print.
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. A Writer’s Diary. Trans. Kenneth Lantz. Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 2009. Print
Tolstoy, Leo. War and Peace. Trans. Louise and Aylmer Maude. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Print.
– -. Anna Karenina. Trans. David Magarshack. New York: Penguin Group, 2002. Print.
Wikisource contributors. “Tolstoy Letter on Suicide.” Wikisource. Wikisource, 2014. Web.
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