Critical Essays Plot Structure and Technique in Anna Karenina


In the middle of his work on Anna Karenina, Tolstoy experienced his own moral "conversion" just as Levin does at the novel's conclusion. This was the time when Russia's greatest artist begins to despise art for being an idle, voluptuous, immoral luxury; where Tolstoy discovered life's significance must be self-denying so that one lives "for one's soul" by loving others in the image of God.

With these anti-art commitments, Anna Karenina became a tiresome, repellent work for the author. The novel may never have been completed at all were it not that its serialized publication obliged Tolstoy to fulfill his contract with the publisher. Levin reflects Tolstoy's own moral struggle and the novel progresses according to its author's evolving philosophy.

Parallel Plot

The complexity and sweep of Anna Karenina derives from Tolstoy's use of the double plot. While Anna is the central symbolic figure of the story, Konstantin Levin is its hero. Anna and those around her derive their life experience from the highly developed standards of urban civilization, while Levin is a product of the less rigid, individualistic circumstances that obtain in the country. His values derive from his deep-rooted attachment to his ancestral property, while Anna's depend upon her social role as a high society matron. Despite their opposite backgrounds, both protagonists seek a deeper meaning for life beyond the socially defined restrictions of contemporary society. Primarily, Anna and Levin seek love as their basic fulfillment.

Through the vehicle of their parallel careers, Tolstoy seeks to relate and contrast the opposing values of urban life and country life. This dualism lies at the center of his art. For him, the distinction between city life and life on the land represents the fundamental tension between good and evil, between "the unnatural and inhuman code of urbanity" and the "golden age of pastoral life" (quoting Steiner). Developing Anna Karenina in terms of this duality, Tolstoy investigates two planes of human experience: the personal and the cultural. This allows him not only to provide insight into the day by day experiences of human beings, but to present a panorama of Russian life at that time.

Anna Karenina as Epic

Despite the basic structure of a multiple plot, Anna Karenina is essentially amorphic, lacking what Henry James called a "deep-breathing economy of organic form." Considering, then, the novel as epic prose, we must analyze its temper by contrasting Tolstoy with Homer, rather than his contemporaries like Flaubert or James.

Tolstoy's pagan spirit — his sensual immediacy, his primitive attachment to nature — reflects the Homeric more than the Christian spirit. He himself stated the comparison, remarking of his first works, Childhood, Boyhood, Youth, "Modesty aside, they are something like the Iliad." Tolstoyan and Homeric epic have these characteristics in common, writes Steiner: "the primacy of the senses and of physical gesture; the recognition that energy and aliveness are, of themselves, holy; the acceptance of a chain of being extending from brute matter to the stars and along which men have their apportioned places; deepest of all, an essential sanity . . . rather than those dark obliquities in which a genius of a Dostoevsky was most thoroughly at home."

As an epic intrudes "alien materials" among the main themes without disturbing the artistic equilibrium, Anna Karenina embraces excess details, ignoring novelistic form where particulars must all ramify into the main theme. "All things live their own life" in the epic, creating the "proper 'finish' and roundedness out of their own integral significance," writes Steiner. Anna Karenina provides many examples of this epic technique. Vividly describing Laska, Levin's pointer, Tolstoy shows an uncanny insight into a dog's experience. The detailed childbirth scene, his sensual awareness of Anna's "beautiful ring-adorned hands," the sympathetic narrative of Seriozha's daydreams, all testify to this voracious appetite for sensual experience — his "genuine epic temper" in other words. Minor characters also live independently, as do minor characters of Homer. Though Karenin's steward, Korney, for example, appears briefly, we sense he has a past and future as much as his master has. This reverence of life for its own sake, not for the sake of the novel, drives Tolstoy to describe with pagan matter-of-factness whenever his characters dine, sweat, bathe, or think sublime thoughts. These epic qualities generate the power of Tolstoyan novels, allowing them to elude the structural bounds which distinguish the "artistically successful" novel from the more imperfect one.

"The truth is we are not to take Anna Karenina as a work of art," Matthew Arnold concluded in a criticism; "we are to take it as a piece of life . . . and what his novel in this way loses in art it gains in reality." Tolstoyan epic, basically a reflection of life, seems a titanic re-creation of life that stands by itself.

Technical Devices

What inspires literary historians to classify Anna Karenina as a psychological novel is Tolstoy's use of "interior monologue." Each major character, through self-discourse, exposes his inner life by recapitulating his motivations, his previous experiences, his plans for future action. The interior monologue gives verbal definition to the semi-articulate processes of a character's consciousness. Anna's soliloquy as she drives to the place of her suicide is an example of this dramatic device.

By his use of stock epithets and recurrent phrases Tolstoy enables us to distinguish among the confusing number of characters. Anna's "dark curls" and "light step" appear frequently. Stiva's "handsome, ruddy face," Kitty's "truthful eyes," and Karenin's "deliberate, high-pitched voice" provide a few examples of this device. These verbal motifs not only suggest points of association, but provide us with indelible impressions of each person's appearance and character.

Tolstoy uses many symbolic devices throughout the novel, too many to enumerate. A partial list follows: the storm corresponding to the stormy state of one's soul; the symbolic value of the train station; the horse race as a working model of the Anna-Vronsky affair; the symbolism of the ball and the theater; Anna's "drooping eyelids" as the first sign of her witchery; her symbolic state of having a "double soul;" the "little man" of death in Anna's dream which echoes the ill-omened railway accident.

Watch for other symbols as you read. Use the Notes' analysis for a guide as you read the book. Notes are a supplement, not a substitute for the book. The Notes are an aid in the same way that an instructor's lectures are intended to enrich your viewpoint.