The use of the trains as symbolism in Anna Karenina
Throughout the course of Leo Tolstoy’s iconic tragedy Anna Karenina, the presence of trains is essential both in terms of symbolic resonance and as a way to communicate social commentary and setting. Tolstoy employs train imagery as a way to talk about movement in terms of the fast-paced course of life, foreshadowing the desperate saga of Anna and Vronsky’s romantic relationship. In general, the existence of the railroad is meant to be viewed as a destructive force in the context of the novel, something that initiates death and devastation from its first mention in the text. This symbolic relationship is primarily evident during Anna and Vronsky’s initial meeting, their rendezvous on the train, and at the time of and following Anna’s suicide, using the significance of trains to trace the course of their relationship throughout the text as a sort of timeline, navigating the tumultuous end that eventually becomes inevitable for both.
The initial mention of the fated train, Anna’s arrival to Moscow, begins the culmination of her relationship with Vronsky, ironically also the first time he is mentioned to her in the text. As he first enters the carriage to meet his mother, his attraction to Anna is obvious- so begins their fated alliance. However, this encounter is pursued by the gruesome death of a rail worker, leaving his mangled body under the train, a precursor to Anna’s death, and what she calls “an omen of evil” (Tolstoy, 63). This commentary is reflected not only in the fate of the man, but in herself; “her own personality was to be split in two in the next railroad scene, while she is reading a book. The tragedy was already in the making. The man ‘cut in two’ can become a symbol.” (Stenbock-Fermor, 69). Thus, Anna and Vronsky’s encounter is made dark with the presence of death, hinting at Anna’s imminent demise in the same way, as “the accidental death of a man at the time of their first meeting suggests…the manner in which to punish Vronsky and free herself” (Stenbock-Fermor, 65).
The scene is also made eerie with the mention of “a peasant with a sack over his shoulder” (Tolstoy, 58), the same haunting image that will appear throughout the course of the text. What’s more, the reader is left in suspense to whether or not the death was a suicide or not, as the voices in the crowd at the station are heard saying “What?…What?..Where?..Flung himself!..Crushed!..” (Tolstoy, 62), a definite premonition of Anna’s coming end. Furthermore, this beginning scene is also made important because “Anna’s first appearance is at a railway station, as is her last…[making] it possible to argue persuasively that the major railway scenes are the ‘pillars’ supporting the structure of the novel as a whole” (Jahn, 2). Aside from the development of the central romantic relationship in the text, the presence of the railroad here, in this crucial scene, can also act as Tolstoy’s particular social commentary on the all-powerful and destructive nature of the railroad, as this “expressed Tolstoy’s belief that the railroad served only to pander to and further inflame the already monstrous appetite of the idle and privileged” (Jahn, 1).
Following this first encounter, Anna and Vronsky’s next confrontation is pivotal in terms of the development of their relationship. As she escapes from his advances in Moscow, Anna flees back to her role as Madame Karenina in St. Petersburg, a literal migration of emotion as she yearns to rid herself from Vronsky’s advances and her own gnawing feeling of self-doubt. When the train stops midway and Anna finds Vronsky waiting for at the platform to confess his love, she is “seized by a feeling of joyful pride” (Tolstoy, 96). Again, the railroad has expedited her relationship with Vronsky, culminating in a new transition as their romance travels not unlike the ever mobile train. In addition, Tolstoy’s inclusion of “the bent shadow of a man glided by at her feet, and she heard sounds of a hammer upon iron” (Tolstoy, 96) also draws us back to the first railroad scene, highlighting the similarities between their first encounter and the present one in the imagery of the maimed worker trapped under the rails. However, this sentence is more literally translated from its native Russian to “ ‘slid under her legs’…more clearly suggesting a foreboding of violence in sexual union” (Browning, 527).
Moreover, this image is prevalent throughout the text, particularly a striking image in Anna’s repeated dreams of the bearded peasant. Strongly reminiscent of her reminder of sin and the likelihood of death, she tells Vronsky that she learns in the dream that she will die in childbirth. Although Vronsky too has a similar dream, he better “embodies the shadow” (Browning, 527) stooping under Anna and catalyzing her self-destruction. In the mention of this discrepancy, we can suggest that the image of the train is Vronsky himself, both a sexual innuendo and a description of the moral evil of modern society. As previously discussed, the inclusion of the railroad can be interpreted as a mechanism of the pitfalls and industrialization of Russia. Vronsky, with his new-age and elitist attitude of adultery and distaste of marriage exemplifies this, a symbol of the havoc and disruption of the structure of Russian society brought by the integration of the train into upper-class life. To supplement this, it can be noted that although the train that Anna travels in posh and warm, she finds it stifling rather than comfort, electing the bitter cold of the outside instead. Thus, she casts off the comfort and luxury of elite society that chokes, rather than nurtures her, choosing to partake in a taboo affair with her lover. As she exits the train, she visibly leaves the grasp of society, picking the radical and sentimental over what social structure has wrought for her.
Following the preliminary meetings of Anna and Vronsky at the railroad, we are brought to the conclusion of their love at and following the point of her suicide, the full circle of her predestined fate ending as she encounters self-annihilation. As she is crushed under the sharp metal of the train, “logic leads to the conclusion that Anna was killed by (or, more accurately, made herself the victim of) upper-class society” (Jahn, 3). Again, she sees “a misshapen-looking peasant covered with dirt, in a cap from which his tangled hair stuck out all around…stooping down to the carriage wheels” (Tolstoy, 704), the continuous reminder of her guilt and of the burden she is forced to bear, initiating her suicide. Furthermore, the scene following Anna’s death is also set on a railway, as the Vronsky’s meet with Stiva on a train full of soldiers headed to fight in the Russo-Turkish war. Despite Anna’s death, Tolstoy’s mention of the war, especially on the backdrop of the train, indicates the overlying notion that regardless of death and tragedy, life continues to go on and to progress. Anna’s death has not halted the motion of life; it has only resulted in the greater suffering of others. This is seen on behalf of Vronsky, who like Anna, seeks to end his life in the war to which he is carried to by train. Here, both halves of the illicit pair have reached the peak of ultimate self-obliteration, further fostering the image of the train as supremely caustic and harmful.
It is evident that the inclusion of the railway in Anna Karenina is meant to act as a general symbol of destruction and death, as seen through Anna and Vronsky’s initial encounter, their confrontation as Anna flees to St. Petersburg, and at the time of and following her suicide. In general, Tolstoy includes these components as a way to map the pair’s storyline as their relationship progresses, the train both a symbol for Russia’s rapid industrialization and the course of their liaison. The railroad was something that the author viewed as ugly and unnecessary, and so portrayed the interactions between Anna and Vronsky as such, posing a negative connotation of both adultery and the existence of the train. With this in mind, it is possible to say that the railway effects the ultimate demise of this heroine, exerting all of its brutal force and condemning her to suicide, the unfortunate end to her short love.
- Browning, Gary. “Peasant Dreams in Anna Karenina.” The Slavic and East European Journal 44.4 (2000): 525-36. JSTOR. Web. 21 Jan. 2015.
- Jahn, Gary R. “The Image of the Railroad in Anna Karenina.” The Slavic and East European Journal 25.2 (1981): 1-10. JSTOR. Web. 21 Jan. 2015.
- Stenbock-Fermor, Elisabeth. The Architecture of Anna Karenina: A History of Its Writing, Structure, and Message. Vol. 1.
- Lisse: Peter De Ridder, 1975. Print. Tolstoy, Leo, and Constance Garnett. Anna Karenina. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003. Print.
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