Understanding Birth & Comprehending Death: Levin’s Shifts in Self-Knowledge
Constantine Levin’s pair of pivotal experiences contribute significantly to Anna Karenina’s psychological tapestry because these moments of crisis draw out and highlight the subjectivity of the protagonist’s life experience. The novel’s overarching theme of emergent moral consciousness is thus foregrounded in these scenes that feature prominent shifts in self-awareness. The reader is instructed to compare these scenes first by their differences in symbolic content, then on the narrative grounds of subjectivity. Levin’s changing patterns of assumption, projection, and understanding convey to the reader the foundations for the character arc that will result in his religious conversion.
Throughout the novel, Levin and other characters are frequently described as having “unconscious” attitudes and “involuntary” actions, so the presence of language drawing specific attention to missing self-awareness is not a very conspicuous or specific link between the death and birth scenes. But because there are other, more obvious similarities and contrasts in the descriptive elements of these scenes, the reader is already taught to relate the text in these parallel scenes, and may thus examine deviations between narratological elements when they arise.
The settings of the two scenes provide the most immediate distinctions in symbolism. The “dust and slovenliness” of the Levins’ hotel is also noticed in “the dirty little room” in which Nicholas wastes away, whereas little focus is given to the material environmental of the Levins’ home where Kitty gives birth, apart from references to the rooms’ lighting. When Levin wakes up, he first sees that “a light was moving behind the partition,” and Kitty emerges holding a “candle in hand” (639). On his way out, he notices a footman “cleaning lamp-glasses” (642). These details are made metaphorically significant by Tolstoy’s reference to the baby as a new life that flickered “like the flame of a lamp” (648). It is a peculiarly telling detail that the first reference made to the child’s successfully delivery is not a realistic view of its body, but an abstract representation of its living light. At least from Constantine Levin’s perspective, birth is not tied directly to physical existence, it is an event that transcends its immediate environment.
The intangibility of the setting is further designated by Levin’s lost sense of time, again spatially represented by candles: “He was surprised when Mary Vlasevna asked him to light a candle behind the partition, and he learnt that it was already five o’clock in the evening” and “he did not know whether it was late or early. The candles were all burning low” (645, 646). Tolstoy’s focus on light gives the birth scene a symbolic identity connoted by the non-physical, in contrast to the way death is presented in corporeal detail.
The gloomy setting of the pre-death scene is introduced by concrete background imagery, such as “a dirty uniform,” “a dirty dress coat,” “a dusty bouquet,” and a “dado filthy with spittle” (445, 446). This material focus is made especially significant by Kitty’s transformation of this filthy atmosphere with “beds made, combs, brushes and looking glasses laid out, and covers spread” (452). The physical reality of “folded linen” and other atmospheric improvements is enough to give the dying man who “lay between clean sheets in a clean shirt” a “new look of hope” (450). Through either misery or joy, the moral outlook of the dying man is bound irreversibly to his physical condition. This is shown most distinctly at the moment of his passing, when the last indicator of Nicholas’ diminished will to exist is found in his mannerism of “catching at himself as if wishing to pull something off” (458). While this chapter centers most of its narrative and dialogic commentary and on the metaphysics of death, the descriptive action of the scene concludes with Nicholas literally coming to grips with “the reality of his sufferings” (454). Just as the abstract depiction of the child at his moment of birth epitomizes the birth scene’s non-physicality, the physical climax of the death exemplifies the symbolic significance of the whole fatal episode.
The dichotomy of physical versus non-physical symbolism is just one of the many links that polarize the meanings of these scenes, letting us know that they are directly comparable. The shared language of consciousness, however, is a more subtle connection between scenes than binary symbolism. As in much of the novel, the focalized narration explicitly states what the characters do and do not know, what they can and cannot comprehend, and how they interpret one another. Levin, particularly, expresses a great deal of self-consciousness toward his understanding of others’ thoughts and intentions. The death scene introduces many of these neuroses, and the birth scene resolves one, but leaves others to torment him until the end of the novel.
The most frequent and torturous attitudes to afflict Levin’s self-consciousness are those that are overtly “incomprehensible” or come on “involuntarily.” In both scenes, Levin encounters an insurmountable inability to understand his fellow humans, and in both scenes the recognition of this fundamental disconnect arises against his will. While gazing at his dying brother, Levin is said to have “involuntarily meditated upon what was taking place within his brother at that moment, but, in spite of all the efforts of his mind to follow, he saw . . . that something was becoming clear to the dying man which for Levin remained dark as ever” (455). If we are to believe the narrator, Levin’s unintended contemplation of others’ mental processes enables him to detect when one is having an epiphanic moment, but it does not extend far enough for him to see what that profound insight entails.
The frustration produced by this innate mental divide between self-knowledge and understanding of the other applies to any gap in understanding, but Tolstoy demonstrates it most dramatically with Levin’s “envy of that knowledge which the dying man now possessed and which he might not share” (456). Of all the human experiences which are agonizingly incommunicable, none is as impossible to share as the feelings brought on by death. Levin gains a painful consciousness of his general inability to fully understand his fellow man when he is unconsciously confronted by his specific inability to share his dying brother’s epiphany.
The same consciousness is produced, also by an unconscious shift in empathy, when he considers the sufferings of his pregnant wife. While “involuntarily seeking a culprit to punish for these sufferings,” and realizing there is none, Levin sees “that something beautiful was taking place in her soul, but . . . it was above his comprehension” (641). In this scene, Levin again realizes that he can recognize, but not feel another’s joy that is borne out of pain. Again, Tolstoy makes a more universal point by illustrating an extraordinary case: Levin seeks to understand an experience he cannot possibly know in his lifetime, for childbirth is even more inaccessible to him than death. But, as they fit into the novel’s refrain of “involuntary” thoughts and “incomprehensible” feelings, these extraordinary experiences are made to represent the most extreme cases of the human condition’s general barrier to empathetic experience.
Levin is ultimately thwarted in his attempts to relate others’ perspectives to his own. He only comes to peace with his consciousness of that impossible dream on the last page of the novel, when he learns to express it religiously: “there will still be a wall between my soul’s holy of holies and other people . . . but I shall still pray” (740) . He does, however, learn from the death and the birth to better relate his own perspective to others. In the death scene, Levin worries greatly about the misery his brother’s condition might bring to Kitty. He assumes that she would unnecessarily suffer from his presence, reflecting, “Why should she too be tortured as I am?” (447). It turns out, however, that she approaches the dying man’s suffering with greater ease. Kitty is more worried about Levin’s own reaction to death than her own, and she has faith in her ability not only to persevere but also to comfort Nicholas, proving Levin’s assumption wrong. She expresses this in dialogue: “Try and realize that for me to see you and not to see him is much more painful. There I can perhaps be of use to him and you” (447). Here, Levin has inaccurately projected his own fear of death onto his wife, assumed she knows what he feels, and further demonstrated his inability to grasp another human perspective.
By the time of his son’s birth, however, Levin’s consciousness has grown to include an understanding of that essential failing. He avoids projecting further by coming to the conclusion that “no one knew or was bound to know his feelings” if he did not express them carefully (642). It’s important to note that this realization is “immediately” reached, without a voluntary attempt to come by it, in accordance with Tolstoy’s insistence that consciousness is generally expanded in an unconscious fashion (642). And, because this is one of the few lessons Levin learns – he gains some faith in God, but otherwise holds onto his incomprehension of the situation – we also see Tolstoy’s suggestion that even in the most advanced cases of self-conscious behavior, moral realizations are generally incomplete.
Levin’s journey to greater self-knowledge is essentially the ‘successful’ result to the novel’s experiment, with Anna’s journey to the absolute depths of delusion standing as the negative control. The birth and death scenes are pivotal not just in terms of plot progression, but also because they provoke expansions to the protagonist’s mind. Once they have been established as thematically linked, the scenes yield a profusion of evidence for Tolstoy’s subtext on the fragmentary nature of human consciousness.
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Constantine Levin’s pair of pivotal experiences contribute significantly to Anna Karenina’s psychological tapestry because these moments of crisis draw out and highlight the subjectivity of the protagonist’s life experience. The […]