The Role of the Muzhik in Anna Karenina
In Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, tracing the muzhik image throughout the novel provides an insight into Anna Karenina’s psyche and subconscious. The peasant is encountered at the time of Anna and Vronsky’s first meeting, a wretched peasant crushed to death by a backwards lurch of the train that brings Anna to Vronsky. Then, the peasant resurfaces on Anna’s train ride back to St. Petersburg as a figment of her hallucinations. Then, the peasant, presented as a dirty man stooped over a sack muttering ‘incomprehensible’ words in French, haunts the dreams of both Vronsky and Anna. The peasant appears three more times on the last day of Anna’s life right before she dies, pounding iron and muttering incomprehensibly. The recurring symbol of the muzhik is more than just a heavy-handed foreshadowing of Anna’s suicide: the muzhik communicates Anna’s subconscious to the reader, shows the damage that her sins (Vronsky) have done to her soul, and makes manifest the inevitability of fate.
The first image of the muzhik is at the train station where Anna met Vronsky. Vronsky observes “a peasant with a sack over his shoulder” (pg. 75) alight from the train. This image is shortly followed by the death of the wretched railway worker, crushed to death by a backwards lurch of the train that brought Anna and Vronsky together. The muzhik, “a guard…too much muffled up against the severe frost, had not heard a train backing and had been crushed.” (pg. 77) After the muzhik dies at the railway, Vronsky donates money to the worker’s wife to impress Anna, his first flirtatious/indecent act towards Anna. Thus, the death of the muzhik is the first link between Anna and Vronsky. Though this instance of the muzhik symbol is one of the only ones that the reader does not experience from inside Anna’s subconscious, Tolstoy uses the situation to establish the muzhik symbol as a foreboding one, and the beginning of Anna’s downfall. Anna immediately recognizes the death of the muzhik as a bad omen, and the image visits her again on her train ride from Moscow to St. Petersburg. During her hallucinations in the rail car, a peasant with a long waist gnaws at something on the wall and “then there was a fearful shrieking and banging, as though someone was being torn to pieces.” (108) She is woken from her hallucinations by “the voice of a man muffled up and covered with snow.” (pg. 108) This muzhik, “muffled up” just as the dead railway worker had been, announces the stop at which Anna discovers that Vronsky has followed her to Moscow. Then, at that train stop, Anna spots the “the bent shadow of a man flashed by at her feet, and she hear[s] sounds of a hammer upon iron.” (109) Both on the train and at the train station in Moscow, Anna’s muzhiks are directly preceded by feelings of shame/confusion regarding Vronsky. The muzhiks serve as both metaphysical manifestations of Anna’s innate shame and an omen of Anna and Vronsky’s ill-fated relationship.
Well into their adulterous relationship, Anna and Vronsky experience the shared nightmare of the muzhik. This shared, subconscious episode of telepathy is especially important because it is Vronsky’s first encounter with the muzhik as a prophetic symbol as opposed to a solely physical entity. Though their dreams are fundamentally similar, the variations in their experiences provide insight into each character’s subconscious. In both dreams, the muzhik is a hideous, disheveled man with a grubby beard, rummaging through a sack muttering in French (the language of the aristocracy of Russia). Vronsky is most bothered by the incomprehensibility of the muzhik’s words, asking himself, “ ‘But why was [the dream] so awful?’ He vividly recalled the peasant again and those incomprehensible French words the peasant had uttered, and a chill went down his spine.” (pg. 308) She says,
“I dreamed that I ran into my bedroom, that I had to get something from there, to find out something, you know how it is in dreams…in the bedroom, in the corner, stood something’…’and the something turned round, and I saw it was a peasant with a disheveled beard, little and dreadful-looking. I wanted to run away, but he bent down over a sack, and was fumbling there with his hands’…’he was groping for something in the sack, and kept talking quickly, quickly, in French, you know: “Il faut le battre, le fer, le broyer, le petrir” [beat it, the iron, crush it into shape].” (pg. 386)
The pounding iron motif is clearly maintained in Anna’s dream far more than it is in Vronsky’s, and while Vronsky is most bothered by the incomprehensibility of the muzhik’s words, Anna seems most frightened by the indifference of the muzhik towards her. She says that she “wanted to run away”, but the muzhik paid her no mind, fumbling through his sack searching for something, just as she had hoped to do when she walked into the room. In other words, Anna is most rattled by the inevitability of the muzhik: her dreams are unconscious and cannot be controlled, so no matter what she does the muzhik will continue to ignore her, muttering about iron and fumbling with his sack. In this scene, the muzhik seems to represent Anna’s helplessness: her relationship with Vronsky, to her, seems both inevitable and inescapable, and she seems to sense that it will end badly.
The last day of Anna’s life begins with the symbol of the muzhik. On the morning of that fateful day, she is woken by her recurring nightmare:
“A little old man with unkempt beard was doing something bent down over some iron, muttering meaningless French words, and she, as she always did in this nightmare (it was what made the horror of it), felt that this peasant was taking no notice of her, but was doing something horrible with the iron– over her.” (pg. 757)
While Anna’s horror at being unnoticed remains the same, there is one fundamental change to Anna’s perception of the muzhik that seems to spell out the end of her. She can no longer understand what the muzhik is saying, which one can interpret as Anna having lost touch with her subconscious, her inner being. This change makes sense, given the spiel of slightly insane ramblings circulating in Anna’s head on the day of her death. After Anna is seated in her railway car to Obiralovka, two things happen almost immediately. First, she hears a young girl speaking in strange French affectations, and then she sees,
“a misshapen-looking peasant covered with dirt, in a cap from which his tangled hair stuck out all round, passed by that window, stooping down to the carriage wheels…remembering her dream, she moved away to the opposite door, shaking with terror.”
This makes the second time that the muzhik has appeared to her in the same day, once in a dream, and once in real life. The muzhik reappears right before Anna’s death, and it is unclear whether he appears to her in reality or in her imagination. After she throws herself under the train, she seems to have a moment of clarity, questioning who she is and what she is doing (further supporting the claim that previously she had lost touch with her inner being). She says, “God forgive me everything!” she murmured, feeling the impossibility of struggling. A little muzhik, muttering to himself, was working over some iron.” (p. 802) The muzhik symbol persists throughout Anna’s suicide sequence, both in reality and through Anna’s subconscious, and is in line with Tolstoy’s seeming intention for the muzhik: to highlight Anna’s lack of control over her situation, and her status as a victim of fate.
The muzhik in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina serves a tracking device throughout the novel, guiding the reader towards Anna’s inevitable social, spiritual, and physical demise. The muzhik represents fate and destiny, and the muzhik as a symbol emerges mainly in Anna’s dreams and hallucinations. By unpacking one of Anna Karenina’s most fecund symbols, the reader can track Anna’s gradual loss of touch with her inner being throughout her and Vronsky’s relationship.
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In Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, tracing the muzhik image throughout the novel provides an insight into Anna Karenina’s psyche and subconscious. The peasant is encountered at the time of Anna and […]