Anna Karenina

by Leo Tolstoy

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The life of the writer Leo Tolstoy was one of enormous paradox. Born into the Russian nobility with copious landholdings, he desired nothing more than to live the simple life of a peasant. A great intellectual, he mistrusted the mind, favoring instead what he felt were the more genuine workings of the heart. A devout Christian, Tolstoy had serious doubts about religion as it was practiced by the Russian Orthodox Church. A sensualist who as a young man cherished his gambling as well as his alcohol, tobacco, and hunting, he would later give these things up, just as he would the copyrights to his work and his title of Count. A contented family man who spent the happiest, most fulfilling times with his wife and children at his country estate, Yasnaya Polyana, he would at the age of 82 flee what had become a bitter home life in search of a more peaceful existence.

According to Tolstoy, the genesis of Anna Karenina was derived from three specific occurrences. The first was an idea for a story Tolstoy developed in 1870 about a woman who deserts her husband for another man, which was based in part on the life of his sister, Marya. The second was a newspaper story about the mistress of one of Tolstoy's neighbors, who, in despair at being abandoned by her lover, hurled herself under a train. The third was a sentence from Pushkin's Tales of the Balkin that Tolstoy had read by chance one day in 1873: "The guests were arriving at the country house..." This direct statement succeeded in fueling Tolstoy's imagination so much that he finished a rough first draft of the novel in three weeks; although it took from 1873 to its publication in 1878 for Tolstoy to perfect his novel.

Narratively, Anna Karenina is a novel about a married woman's adulterous affair with another man, Count Vronsky – an affair that ends with her and the Count being ostracized by society. Unable to bear being an outcast, as well as her growing perception that the Count has ceased to love her, Anna, in a feverish state, throws herself under the wheels of an oncoming train – an event mirrored in the early pages of the book. Set against this drama, Anna Karenina is also the story of Constantine Levin, a gentleman farmer of sorts, whose search for happiness and meaning in life culminates, not with his long-desired marriage to Kitty Shcherbatskaya (the event he hoped would secure his happiness), but with the simple advice of a peasant about "living rightly, in God's way." From these melodramatic elements, Tolstoy fashions a profound novel which deals with stark questions of religious faith as seen through the eyes of the unbeliever Levin. Anna Karenina is a morality play that deals with the damaging effects of morality on Anna and Vronsky. It is also a novel about the meaning of life and the place happiness does or does not play in it, and a meditation on death and the lessons it teaches.

In many ways, Anna Karenina is Tolstoy's most personal work in that many of its scenes mirror Tolstoy's relationship with his wife, Sonya; in particular, Levin's courtship of Kitty (expressing his love for her by writing with chalk on a table, as well as the wrenching scene where he gives her his diaries to read). The writing of the final scenes of the novel, specifically Levin's fevered search for an answer to his questions about the meaning of existence, reflect Tolstoy's own process of religious conversion, enacted dramatically in his memoir, A Confession, which was written on the heels of Anna Karenina and is considered by many to be one of the most soul-searching statements of spirituality.

The publication of Tolstoy's novel Anna Karenina, which his contemporary, Dostoyevsky, considered to be "a perfect work of art," was an end to the life he had known, one of material and emotional luxury, and would signal the beginning of a deeper quest for the meaning of existence. Furthermore, this break with the past would manifest itself in Tolstoy's moral and religious writings and his rapid movement toward social reform. Although he would go on to publish other novels, such as Resurrection, and numerous stories like his masterpiece, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Tolstoy's career as a novelist in many ways reached its pinnacle – its perfect balance of drama, morality, and philosophical inquiry – with the character of Anna Karenina and her (seemingly) irrational embrace of death. Equally compelling is the character of Anna's husband, Karenina, as portrayed by Tolstoy with all his complexity and emotional denial over the loss of Anna and his subsequent (brief) embrace of Christian forgiveness. Finally, there is Vronsky's startling realization when Tolstoy writes: "It showed him [Vronsky] the eternal error men make in imagining that happiness consists in the realization of their desires."

Large in scope and magnificently poignant in its use of details, Anna Karenina poses the question of how we are to live our lives when the illusions and denials that we hold dear are stripped away. As well, there is the question to what extent we are happiest (perhaps a suspect word here) living the "examined life" as opposed to the "unexamined life." With its insistence on drama over mere argument, Anna Karenina embodies the timeless struggle to make more than mere spectacle of our lives.


On August 28, 1828, Leo Tolstoy was born into the nobility at Yasnaya Polyana, the family estate 130 miles south of Moscow. Yasnaya, where Tolstoy spent much of his youth and certainly the happiest days of his life, was in many ways a self-sufficient community, a place where clothing as well as furniture was fashioned. It was on these grounds (where Tolstoy would later be buried) that the Tolstoy children formed a group known as "the Ant Brotherhood." Together they played a game whose purpose was to guess the secret key to human happiness. The answer to this question (destined to remain a secret) was written on a green stick and buried on the grounds of the estate. This childhood game, along with the early deaths of his parents, left its imprint on young Tolstoy's imagination and would prove decisive in the young man's life - and in many ways, his themes as a writer. The meaning of life and the lessons of death, in no small part, found their genesis in these formative experiences.

When he was a teenager, Tolstoy kept a journal in which he listed his thoughts as well as what he perceived to be his spiritual and moral transgressions. He kept this notebook for the purpose of self-improvement. In 1847 he made the entry: "Don't change your way of life, even if you become ten times richer." That same year, the 18-year-old Tolstoy wrote: "I would be the unhappiest of men if I could not find a purpose for my life."

In 1855, Tolstoy was a soldier in the Crimean War and a witness to many atrocities. One that would stay with him was the image of two children killed in a shelling. His experiences during the war made up the contents of his work The Sebastopol Sketches, many of which he drafted on the battlefield.

During this time, the young Count Tolstoy gave himself over to the decadent life that was common for men of his class, catching a venereal disease as well as drinking heavily and sustaining enormous gambling debts which included the loss of some of his prized property at Yasnaya.

In the early 1860s, mistrustful of state-sponsored education, Tolstoy organized a school for the peasants at Yasnaya, creating educational primers for them as well as a magazine that addressed pedagogical matters. This desire to reform and educate, perhaps stemming from Tolstoy's early self-improvement lessons, remained an integral part of his life.

In 1862, he proposed to and married Sonya Behrs. In the early years of their marriage, the couple was, by all accounts, deliriously happy. Sonya proved to be an efficient helpmate, editing Tolstoy's writing, correcting his grammar, and copying over the many drafts of his manuscript. For his novel War and Peace (1869), Sonya copied the manuscript seven times in its entirety. Though their marriage would grow discordant following the publication of Anna Karenina and Tolstoy's subsequent religious conversion, the first fifteen years of their union were generally happy ones, marked by the births of seven children.

During the writing of Anna Karenina, Tolstoy deepened his spirituality and practiced the rites of the Russian Orthodox Church. After the completion of Anna Karenina, he embarked on the next phase of his career in which he concentrated his efforts on social reform and religious thinking, and founded a press to distribute much of this literature at an affordable price to the people.

These final decades saw him devote himself to social service such as work on famine relief in Russia, as well as protest against the death penalty punishment. Because of his extensive questioning of the Orthodox Church, Tolstoy was excommunicated in 1901. Due to the fact that he was by now a world figure, almost with the status of a prophet, the Russian government could do precious little about Tolstoy and opted instead to suppress his writings when they proved too controversial.

At the age of 82, Tolstoy fled his home and headed for the Optina Monastery, a place he had visited often and where he felt comfortable. Optina was a haven where he felt he could finally achieve the simplicity of life he had spent the better part of his days searching for. During the train trip he became ill, catching pneumonia. Taken to the stationmaster's house at Astapovo to recuperate, he died on November 7, 1910, surrounded by journalists and family members. His funeral, attended by 4,000 people and conducted without church rites, was the largest ever in the history of Russia.

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