Critical Essays Themes in Anna Karenina



Containing a discussion of at least three marriages, rather than just one as in Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina provides an authoritative and thorough, if not definitive, treatment of the subject.

Stiva's relationship with Dolly suggests the incomplete relationship between Karenin and Anna. The Oblonskys' problems only seem lighter because of the double standard: It is less serious for a husband to stray than for a wife, since family unity depends on the woman. Tolstoy shows us that men's primary interests are outside the home, whereas women, like Dolly, center their existence on the family. Stiva, Vronsky, and Karenin, unlike Levin, divide their lives sharply between their homes and amusements, and they are each startled, through the incidents of the novel, to confront the previously ignored feelings of their wives. The divided pattern of these marriages, moreover, allows the dissatisfied partner to seek outside fulfillment of social, emotional, or sexual needs. Anna exemplifies the divided nature of an unfulfilled spouse: During her bout of fever, she admits her affection for Karenin though another part of her soul desires Vronsky. Without solving these marital problems, Tolstoy develops his characters so they adjust to their incomplete relationships. Dolly dotes on her children, Anna gives Seriozha the love she cannot express toward Karenin (conversely lacking deep affection for her love-child Ani), while the husbands commit themselves either to work (like Karenin) or pleasure (like Stiva and Vronsky).

Tolstoy thus depicts the hopeless marriage patterns in urban society. Despite showing the blissful union of Kitty and Levin, Tolstoy ultimately states that marriage, and other sexually-based relationships, weaken the individual's quest for "immanent goodness." He prefigures this later doctrine as the love between Anna and Vronsky deteriorates and by the lighthearted intrusion of Vassenka Veslovsky.

While Tolstoy wrote Anna Karenina, however, he still exulted in the success of his own marriage. The result is that Levin and Kitty have the only mutually complete union of the novel. Their marriage is a fulfillment, not a compromise, because Levin's family represents an integral part of his search for essential reality. His outside interests and his love are vehicles which aid him to discover the truth of inner goodness. Because Levin's life is more meaningful than the succession of superficial interests which comprise the lives of Stiva, Vronsky, Karenin, his marriage is more meaningful.

From Tolstoy's scheme of Levin's salvation, we must conclude that women are secondary and not individuated. Since a woman's happiness derives from her family, then the wife of a soul satisfied husband will find emotional satisfaction. Tolstoy seems to say that if either Dolly or Anna loved Levin, they, too, would find personal significance in their marriage.

Historical Necessity

Although Tolstoy has provided an exhaustive discussion of historic causality in War and Peace, his concept of "historical necessity" informs the destiny of characters in Anna Karenina. The term expresses the conditions in which human consciousness operates: "necessity" provides the form, "consciousness" provides the content. This is merely to paraphrase the thesis that history describes the dynamics of personality (or culture) responding to environmental challenge.

"Historical necessity" is illustrated in Anna Karenina according to the personal destinies of the main characters as they react to changing circumstances. Anna's adultery, for example, provides the necessity — that is, the structure — in which Anna, Vronsky, Karenin must retrench their values to overcome the crisis they face. How they meet the challenge of their situation generates the dynamics of the story. Levin's "necessity," how to come to terms with death, forces him to evolve a personal philosophy — a "moral consciousness" — in order to fulfill his life demands.

The nature of each one's response to his particular challenge, however, is defined by the heredity, education, environment which limits his nature. These factors explain why Vronsky remains selfish and fails in love, why Anna commits suicide, why Karenin succumbs to Lydia Ivanovna's influence, why Kitty cannot be like Varenka.

Historical necessity, therefore, is merely a verbal construct which helps us to explain the context in which human awareness operates. In War and Peace Tolstoy gives special attention to the forces of mass consciousness and cultural change. Anna Karenina, on a much more intimate level, illustrates the forces which allow individuals to confront challenges. They must, like Levin, overcome the crisis, compromise through stagnation, like Karenin and Vronsky, or succumb through death, like Anna.

Minor Themes

The minor themes, as well as the major ones, all stem from Tolstoy's single-minded morality. His controversial anti-war views, expressed in Part 8, became formalized among the doctrines of Tolstoyan Christianity. A Christian's first duty, Tolstoy later stated, is to abstain from living by the work of others and from participating in the organized violence of the state. While all forms of violence are evil, any government compulsion shares this taint, since the individual must be free to follow his own inner goodness, seeking for himself what is right and wrong. These as yet unformalized doctrines motivate Levin's disinterest in the "Slavonic question" and make him challenge why Russian soldiers should murder Turks.

Despite Tolstoy's anarchic morality, he believes that God's judgment operates the sanctions of moral law. The Pauline epigraph which appears at the novel's title page expresses this fatalism: "Vengeance is mine and I shall repay, saith the Lord" (Romans, 12:19). In other words, the good character gains reward, the bad one is punished; Levin achieves salvation, Anna finds death. Only God judges, not men, says Tolstoy. Depicting the gossiping members of Anna's social set with pitiless irony as they glory in the scandal, Tolstoy chastises these human judges.