19th Century Russian Literature


This is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but a whimper.

Levin’s visit to Anna has a striking effect on him, on Anna and on Kitty. You may choose to reflect on her power to impress people. Or you might examine her portrait. Finally, Tolstoi uses as he had in War in Peace his last pages to tell the reader what he feels he has not adequalty conveyed in his novel. Is his message, much like Dostoevsky’s, too important to be left to fiction?


  1. Alexandra Boillot
    April 29th, 2009 | 3:39 pm

    The impression Anna leaves on people is certainly very powerful and her ability to do this without fail very impressive. One obvious part of this impression is her striking beauty as is described time and again throughout the novel. However, I believe that even more important than this is the image she has learned to create for herself in front of others, as a result of a lifetime of seeking attention from strangers or acquaintances since she did not always get this attention from her loved ones. While married to Alexei Alexandrovich, he was clearly very caught up in his work and never really paid her as much as attention as she would have wanted. He probably also gave her a very singular kind of attention and never showed passion for her. Therefore, Anna made an identity for herself that allowed her to get the attention she yearned from others than her husband. This is, of course, how she attracted Vronsky. By that time, she had perfected her image and it came naturally to her so that even when with Vronsky happily, she still could not help but produce this effect on others. However, when things turned sour in their relationship, the attention she got from others was all the more important again as she thrived off of this attention, hoping her husband would notice it and either get jealous or simply admire her more. For example, Dolly is shocked by Anna’s flirting with Veslovsky and finds it inappropriate but to Anna, and Vronsky, it is completely normal. Anna looked for these relations with others to fill the void in herself caused by these incomplete relations.

    On a completely different note, I do not think the message Tolstoy puts into his last few pages is at all too important for fiction and I found that it added a lot to the book. My only criticism of this is that it could have been incorporated a bit more smoothly throughout the book instead of cramming it all into the last pages as almost as afterthought. I think that to leave ideas like this out of fiction would belittle fiction and ignore the power it has as a medium for expressing ideas to society. Incorporating important philosophical ideas in fiction spreads these ideas to a whole new public who might never get these ideas otherwise. Each type of literature has a different audience so that crossover between the material presented in different types of literature can only benefit a different audience and, therefore, present these ideas to a larger portion of society. Fiction definitely has the ability to influence people and authors should not hesitate to fill their fictional works with important messages, as many have done throughout history.

  2. Ben Tabb
    April 29th, 2009 | 6:35 pm

    Not only can I not say that Tolstoi’s point is too important for fiction, but I would argue his point is better delivered in fiction than it could be in any other way. To say that any message is too important or too lofty to be left to fiction would be a great underestimation of the power of fiction. Fiction is such a powerful medium for those who want to get their point across, because the author is allowed to mold the piece perfectly to their liking in order to make his/her point clear. It’s clear that in Anna Karenina the point of the story is Levin’s epiphany at the end. Assuming that Levin is based on Tolstoi, why couldn’t he have just told his own story and left us with his own thoughts? To some, the story may have seemed more believable, knowing that it actually did happen, but this advantage would not be over to overcome the great losses that such a strategy would have. For one thing, in telling a true story he would be tied to the facts as they occurred, as I mentioned before, and not have the freedom to perfectly mold the events of Levin’s life to make his point strongest. Everything about Levin’s life–his ups and downs, his thoughts and feelings, his loves and hates, his views of marriage before and after the fact–help us get a better feeling for the character and make his revelation both more believable and more meaningful to us. Tolstoi’s life could not possibly have turned out so perfectly as to create the maximum effect on the reader, but Levin’s did. The other great advantage that fiction has, is that in making his point, Tolstoi does not seem as preachy. If he made he were to express his message through nonfiction, his intentions would be too clear and people would see him as biased. No one would want to read some writer expound on his views of life for several hundred pages. Not only would it be terribly boring, but most would feel no reason to take into account what some writer has to say about life. Through fiction, Tolstoi is able to present his point in an entertaining and readable way that also allows himself to use Levin as a shield for any criticisms or claims of agenda; we can’t blame Tolstoi for the way that Levin feels to the extent that we could blame him if it were his own words. I hope this made as much sense in writing as it made in my head.

  3. Matthew Lazarus
    April 29th, 2009 | 8:56 pm

    First impressions are lasting impressions: this is the lesson I draw from the saga of relationships detailed in Tolstoy’s novel. As much as we like to say that the major relationships — between Anna and Vronsky, Kitty and Levin, Pevear and Volohonsky etc — have “developed” over time, they are all still in my mind largely and (some might say) disproportionately dependent on that first impression, and every new facet of the dynamic that follows is subconsciously (or not) related to that initial image one person has of the other, like in the middle of a novel flipping back to the first page to check if the font still looks the same. The question is, are people “themselves” when they first meet? Does the heightened game of mental ping-pong accentuate a person’s character, bring out the best in them, or does it provide a clouded image of what really lives on the inside? Is to know someone to know them to the point of no longer discovering them? Do people end up looking for new things in people they have known for years? I really don’t have an answer to these questions, but there are definitely some sparks, if not then a good amount of blushing, between Anna and Levin during their encounter. Is it the thrill of novelty? Is the grass greener on the adulterother side? Maybe it’s just Levin being Levin, going back to Stiva’s analysis, which I believe is true, that Levin finds women either angelic and pure or despicable and worthless. But you get the feeling that Anna knows the effect she has on men, and she plays it up, perhaps as a manifestation of her insecurities. She takes the opportunity to remind herself that she’s still “got it.” But Levin would never suspect that, no no. His female radar is on point, at least as far as he’s concerned. Why though Tolstoy would you say that since Anna in the painting is not alive thus she was more beautiful than any living woman can be? That’s just discouraging.

    And, to hastily balance this dichotomous post, a word on the end. Good for Tolstoy I say. Who is really honestly going to defecate on him for shimmying in a meaning-of-life message at the end? After 800+ pages of a painstakingly accurate account on human interaction, isn’t that what we have to expect? Fiction does have a message, but we’re used to it being a lot more artsy and ambiguous than this one, so we’re caught off-guard as readers. Leave it to Tolstoy to set the bar that ridiculously high (or that low…?) for living a happy life, using only the simplest and most postcardy of images: a guy lying in a field, staring at the sky.

  4. Zachary Harris
    April 29th, 2009 | 9:26 pm

    I think the way Tolstoi ends the novel fits in perfectly with how the rest of the book is written. The fact that the book doesn’t end when Anna dies or soon after, attests to two things: that the book truly is equally about Anna and Levin, and that it is a book that attempts to portray reality. Even though Anna dies, the other characters must continue living their lives just as they would have to in real life.

    Levin’s existentialist crisis at the end of the novel fits in perfectly with real life. Levin, like many well off people, has a very boring life. He has settled down with his family and only has his family, estate, and a few hobbies to occupy him. He doesn’t seem to be doing anything very meaningful, and thus feels purposeless and bored. The fact that he is an educated man allows him to use his reason to rationalize that his existence seems ridiculous, which undoubtedly makes him depressed. He seems to be going through a mid-life crisis, and even considers suicide. He does however get through his predicament by rationalizing his way out of his depression to basically tell himself he is thinking too much and that in order for him to be happy he must simply be a good person and trust that his life has a purpose.

    This way of thinking I feel is extremely common, especially amongst middle class people who are neither threatened with hardship nor are doing anything particularly interesting or profound. Tolstoi is able to state his ideas on the matter of human existence perfectly in this novel because it is a novel representing real life, and existential crises are a part of life. In general, I think that these issues can easily be portrayed in both fiction and non-fiction. I also think that representing the existential predicament of man in this novel about realism is a better than average medium to express it in because it allows the ideas to come forth in their most natural context, that of a person dwelling on the problem of their existence in the context of their normal everyday lives.

  5. Brett Basarab
    April 29th, 2009 | 10:18 pm

    Tolstoy’s ending message is perfect for a work or fiction. As a few people have said previously, fiction is one of the most effective means of getting a message across. If Tolstoy were to express these views in any other way instead of through a brilliant story, the message would not have been nearly as strong. Tolstoy’s point comes across so clearly because we can take what he says and look at it through the lens of the story he has just presented us. By having the entire storyline to reflect on, we are able to develop a complete understanding of Tolstoy’s thoughts.

    Levin’s epiphany demonstrates why Levin and his family are able to survive and achieve happiness while Vronsky and Anna’s relationship self-destructs. Levin and Vronsky and Anna especially live in the lap of luxury. They are leaving their younger days, reaching middle age, and really have no serious problems to contend with (for Vronsky and Anna, this is before their affair). Not only are these three of the upper class, but even among the upper class they are very well off (compare Stepan Arkadyich’s horrible financial problems). Lack of struggle leaves time for thinking but degenerates into immense boredom. Anna handles this boredom in the most destructive way possible, while Levin handles it the right way and achieves immense happiness. Anna realizes she is unhappy and has an affair with Vronsky. This affair, of course, alleviates her boredom but only leads to even greater suffering. Anna slowly destroys herself and eventually resorts to suicide to alleviate her pain. Levin also faces extreme boredom and suffers greatly as he searches in vain for his purpose in life. Levin considers acting rashly as Anna did; he contemplates suicide, seeing that his life may have no purpose. However, Levin takes a step back and through much troubling thought, convinces himself of his purpose in life. Once Levin has his epiphany he can live his life passionately and to the fullest. In the end, Anna finds her life meaningless and boring and cannot handle it. Levin encounters this same problem but is able to overcome his issues. It just so happens that Levin’s conclusion on his purpose in life coincides with the message Tolstoy wants to get across.

    As others of have mentioned, however, I do think Tolstoy struggled a bit with how best to incorporate his message into the rest of the story. The overall plot line really ended with Anna’s death, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who found the last forty pages a bit dry.

  6. Sophie Clarke
    April 29th, 2009 | 10:26 pm

    Any feminist-driven hope I had that Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina would portray woman truthfully and accurately was beaten over the head and killed in part eight.

    In parts one to seven, Anna had a mesmerizing effect on everyone in her life, including the readers. She was able to convince Dolly to stay with her husband, she captured the attention (both good and bad) of the society ladies, and she immediately won the allegiance of Kitty in the beginning, and despite loosing it, won it back through pity at the end. The effect Anna had on the men was more obvious- she was beautiful and mysterious. Her brother admired her, Levin was enthralled by her, and Vronsky was in love with her.

    Even the readers were spellbound by Anna. The facts we were presented should have made the us hate her: she left her husband, was insanely jealous, manipulating, and controlling in her relationship with Vronsky, found pleasure in attracting married men like Levin, felt no love for her daughter, and left her son for her lover. However, we couldn’t help but pity her and admire her tenacity; and as she walked along the platform at the end we urged her to get back on the train and winced as the wheels crushed her body.

    Maybe the male readers in the class felt less sympathy for her, but she was the hero of the novel for me.

    Part eight ruined this. Instead of ending the novel on a tragic note, Tolstoy chose to essentially ridicule and diminish the importance of Anna’s death. Anna becomes insignificant, and instead it is Levin’s religious epiphany that the reader is left with. One of the only mention of Anna in part 8 was a description of her as “mean.” In contrast with Levin’s religious awakening to live life for something greater than oneself, Anna’s suicide looks selfish and childish.

    Despite the superficial feminist nature of this book, despite Ashley’s insistence that this book is “real” and shows the complexities of “real relationships,” and despite the fact the book is named after Anna, the females in this book turn out to be no more 3-dimensional than the female hero’s we complained about in the short stories. Dolly and Kitty are mere housewives and have shown no personal development throughout the story.

    And Anna is, like it seems most Russian lit heroines are (Sonya for example), merely a catalyst for the “amazing” development of the male characters. It is in part eight that Tolstoy makes this conclusion and declares Levin, and thus the masculine race, as the winner between Anna’s and Levin’s 800 page parallel battle.

  7. Harry Morgenthau
    April 29th, 2009 | 10:27 pm

    In his post, Zach brought up the idea of an existential crisis for Levin, and I have to agree with him. As Levin meandered through his twenty page freak out on how to find the meaning in his life, I was immediately reminded of the existentialist philosophy, and I badly wished that Levin could read some Kierkegaard and calm down. Kierkegaard pioneered the idea of Christian existentialism; life, on its outer surface is essentially meaningless, and there is no real proof of God. However, to provide ourselves with our own, personal meaning (which is all we have), we must make a “leap of faith” and believe in God. Our faith in God will provide us with the meaning that we need. So, is this not exactly what Levin is trying to figure out? As Levin understands, a life void of meaning is practically not worth living. He can think only that he will die, and that he will do nothing important, nothing that will be remembered. He wants desperately to find this meaning, but he does not know where to find it; he does not even really know where to look. He has a notion, and tries to convince himself, that he can find meaning through Christianity. But when he begins to think about the church, he sees it only as a corrupt system of man, and wonders how they could know the answers. What he needs, of course, is Kierkegaard’s separate, personal peace with God. To succeed, Levin needs a faith that has nothing to do the church, and everything to do with himself. In the end, he is the only one that can make himself happy; true meaning cannot be provided by others.
    By the end of the novel, Levin seems to have reached this personal understanding. He knows that his faith can lie only within himself; he cannot even explain it to Kitty. His final decision to work for “good” comes only from himself, only because he believes that it is the right thing to do. It is his way of finding meaning, and he is content.
    In regards to the final question (was this long explanation worth it?), I think Tolstoi gave us enough of it in his novel. 785 pages down the line, I was worn out from everything that had happened, and I felt like already had a pretty good idea of where Levin was philosophically. I think some concluding explanation of Levin’s thoughts is important to provide closure for the novel, but it did not need to be nearly as long as it ended up being.

  8. Ashley Quisol
    April 29th, 2009 | 10:44 pm

    The notion that such a message is “too perfect to be left to fiction” is quite the opposite of what I believe to be true; such a perfect message can only be left to fiction.

    I have always found the issues of perfection and fiction to be fascinating because I feel that, sometimes, a real notion of life, in its most perfect form, can only be expressed in a fictional context.
    Love for example. No one, I don’t care who you are, can give me a perfect love story that has happened in real life, but I’m sure that you can write one. Since real life situations are so tainted with the other objects, experiences, and people that they come in contact with, the purity of the situation (the love story) is tainted by factors that prevent it from reaching perfection. On the other hand, in a fictional world, the variables are controlled and the love story can pan out without unexpected interference.
    Now, since this love story has been contrived in a fictional setting, is the feeling of love any less genuine?
    No, it is not.
    Because although the setting is contrived, the emotions are pure and identifiable. People need these forms, these models of human nature (love, hate, despair, tragedy, etc.) to relate to; without a pure form portrayed in fiction, aspects of that pure form cannot be identified in real life.
    For example, Levin’s conversion is all too perfect and logically illustrated to be realistic. The events that follow are also too convenient to be believable. But without these pure, clear thoughts that Levin articulates, without the follow through of his conversion, the perfect interactions with all facets of his daily life within a short time-span, Tolstoy would not have been able to convey the entirety of his message. If the conversion of Levin to a believer had been tainted in some way, the ending would not have been so powerful and therefore its message would have been useless to the reader; we do not need more pieces of what such a message might look like, since those can be found in daily life experiences. No, this message is too perfect not to be left to fiction; otherwise, we might never experience such a message in its perfect form, and thus would not be able to reconcile the sum of its collected pieces.

  9. Kara Shurmantine
    April 29th, 2009 | 10:53 pm

    I disagree with Sophie’s post, in which she claimed that Levin’s moral triumph, at the end of the novel, represents a masculine triumph. I think, instead, it represents a human triumph.

    I’ve been wrestling with the urge to read the novel through a feminist lens also. Sometimes it’s been difficult to reconcile my beliefs with an acceptance of Anna Karenina as a truly great novel, even one of the best, which is what I felt it was when I was fourteen and read it for the first time, and what I feel again, now, eighteen and finished with it for the second time. When I was fourteen I wasn’t a feminist and now I am, but Anna Karenina still, ultimately, presents to me one of the most insightful, emotionally resonant, profound, broad, and honest portraits of the human condition that I’ve ever encountered. True, it has some limitations—namely the limitations of its author’s gender, social class, and era—but its message still reverberates powerfully, with (I think) perhaps unparalleled grandeur and clarity.

    What Tolstoy set out to do when writing Anna Karenina was present humanity, in all its complexity and error, all its joy and suffering. And by the end I was struck, as I was four years ago, with how majestically he accomplishes this, with such remarkable insight. He encompasses not only the horror and emptiness of Anna’s life, a life ruined and destroyed by passion, pride, and social forces, a feverish decline into meaninglessness, delusion, and spiritual death; but also the beauty and spiritual fulfillment of Levin’s life, with all its suffering, perseverance, love, and communion. The novel cannot be written off as anti-feminist, because just as Levin is a complex, tortured, radiant, thoughtful figure, so is Anna. They both live and breathe; though one must fall in order to ___ the other’s ascent, they both pulsate with life. The gender is not important. Both are human. Perhaps Tolstoy’s depiction of other women (Dolly, Kitty) is dissatisfactory, and I would certainly never try to argue that Tolstoy was a feminist; but just as female writers are limited by their gendered knowledge of the world, so are male writers.

    At the end of the novel gender is irrelevant. What is not irrelevant, however, is the crucial importance of spiritual transcendence. Anna envelops herself in a tortured world of egoistic obsession, disconnected from all people, even from herself. Levin plunges into a world of compassion and connection, concerned with all people and all things in God’s world. Anna is defeated by the evil of hatred; Levin is uplifted by the goodness of love. The message is clear, and through it Tolstoy encompasses the whole of human existence.

  10. Susanna Merrill
    April 29th, 2009 | 10:59 pm

    I don’t understand the question. Are you, Prof. Beyer, asking if Tolsoy’s message is too important to be left to fiction because you think he did, or because you think he didn’t, and the last part about Levin’s conversion/ acquiesce to the faith of his childhood isn’t really part of the story at all, but just tagged on? I can’t figure it out because I’m not sure what Tolstoy thinks he’s doing. Levin’s conversion is fictional in that it’s in a work of fiction, but on the other hand, the story has pretty much ended. It seems like the story could just as well have ended without it, and everyone would still answer the question “How does Anna Karenina end?” the same way: “Anna gets run over by a train.”

    I’m not saying I was not very pleased that Levin is content in his soul at the end of the book, or that the last few chapters don’t contain many memorable images, I’m just curious as to how much this is actually part of the story and how much this is just stuck on at the end because Tolstoy likes Levin enough not to leave him in his doubt. Levin’s inner monologue seems a lot more like a creative work of theological apologetics than like part of a work of fiction: the plot, interaction of the various characters, even Levin’s own character seem to have very little to do with it. Levin sort of becomes an Everyman. I think, I guess, that Tolstoy did consider his message too important to be trusted to the relativity and ambiguity of fiction, though he did take advantage of the fact that his readers were hooked enough on the proceeding work of fiction to read and feel emotionally invested in the theological/philosophical treatise he included at the end.

  11. Stewart Moore
    April 29th, 2009 | 11:06 pm

    Anna certainly has a aura about her that draws in most people, well at least she often has this aura. Vronsky and Levin fall under her spell at first glance, as surely other people have as well. However Anna’s magnetic qualities are only on the surface. When one does not know someone, one can think of all types of great, fantastic qualities for that person. This is the case with Anna and most people. For example, Dolly who ‘loves’ Anna is soon repulsed by her.

    In Anna’s portrait, the artist somehow captured Anna’s mysterious and enchanting qualities. A painting, unlike an actual person, can keep the whole world guessing always pondering; take the Mona Lisa. One can get to know a person and all the mystery can be uncovered, but a painting can correct ‘flaws’ and pause the mystery in time, forever holding it still.

    Had Tolstoi given it more thought, he could have woven Levin’s revelations into the story better than he did. Although Tolstoi always writes wonderfully, it seems like Levin’s revelations were rushed and not built up by any of the past action. They all of a sudden just happened. Bam he’s a Christian. I believe Tolstoi, in all his talent, could have used the event of his story to build up and support Levin’s change. Tolstoi touched upon the Death of Nikolai and its influence on Levin, but he could have used the other 800 pages as well.

    I don’t think the final messages are too important to be put into fiction; I think they are difficult concepts to put into a sotry, and to say exactly what he wanted to say, Tolstoi had to put the last chapters bluntly to take away from other interpretations.

  12. Elise Hanks
    April 29th, 2009 | 11:37 pm

    I’m interested in Tolstoi’s inclusion of art into this novel in Book five. We see that Vronsky is clearly an astute student and is able to mimic great works and styles and learn most techniques. We also observe that he is unable to understand the difference between talent and technique and between creation and imitation. He begins to paint Anna and everyone can agree that it is coming along quite beautifully- and then Tolstoi hints that it was the wet nurse’s head he painted onto what was to be Anna’s body. This is a classic example of not being able to paint a subject strictly as it is seen: Vronsky, having only technique, can only translate the shapes he knows to be present (underlying anatomy) and therefore his painting is fine when a substitute for the subject is used.
    The painter who they meet in Russia, however, is a completely different story. He does not know Anna and he doesn’t wish to know her. He comes, sits, and paints. He is able to translate what he sees- not what he thinks he knows or what logic dictates he paint. He is able to capture the nuances of Anna by REALLY looking at her- and I would say that although everyone in the novel is always stunned and enthralled with Anna, he is the only one who really seems to SEE her. He can see the emotion on her face, the way she holds her body. He would have been able to see the look in her eyes as she sat for hours while he painted- her thoughts drifting to her son, her husband, and to her predicament. No one else really saw this- or if they did (such as Dolly) they quickly cast what they “knew” to be true or present into the mix. For example, Dolly can see that Anna is unhappy, but surmises that because she is such a good person and has what appears to be a passionate affair, the love must be worth the struggle. It is also important that Tolstoi goes out of his way to reveal that the portrait of Anna, although breathtaking and very accurate, does not capture her entirely- only the real Anna will suffice. To me this makes it seem as though even though the painter SEES her, no one can truly communicate or confine or translate what is within Anna.

    Side note:
    I find it interesting that the painting that moves Vronsky is not the one of the death of Christ, the ultimate sacrifice for love that he should perhaps be extra sensitive to in this time of his life, but of two little Russian boys fishing. It was this paragraph and then later learning that he went out of his way to buy the painting for his house, that made me dislike Vronsky. So lame.

  13. Gabriel G Suarez
    April 30th, 2009 | 12:51 am

    Anna and Levin’s first and only meeting showed us not only how enchanting Anna could be (a breath of fresh air after hundreds of pages of a jealous and explosive Anna,) but also how charming and stable Levin could be when he is not worrying about a million ridiculous things (Does she love me? What have I done? I’ve ruined this! Where is God? How can I live a life without meaning? My peasants!) Tolstoi’s merger of his two principal storylines was a long time coming. But it wasn’t until the end of the scene that I realized this was the first time that we have seen Levin and Anna together–that is how seamless, how well-timed, how sublimely poetic the encounter was. Tolstoi has a way, it seems, of getting us to subconsciously realize the beauty of a moment. Anna was never described as overtly stunning in this scene, but how else should we imagine her? How else can we imagine her? We know that Tolstoi has been unfair to his heroine for the bulk of this book, but there are scenes where he makes sure we understand just why she is the protagonist–her beauty, her effortless grace, the depth of character! Anna’s last scene, in the train station, despising everyone, even herself, for their shallowness, and their falsity, and their airs,*(see footnote) was the scene which convinced me: Tolstoi might find Anna insufferable, but he loves her. I would never call this book a great work of feminism, but this was the first time in this course where I read a woman thinking–really thinking and feeling and doing–all at the same time! Anna’s suicide is the most active thing a woman’s done this semester, rivaled perhaps only by the hug in Notes from the Underground.

    Oddly enough, the entire last Part of the novel is absent Anna. It concerns Levin, and several pages of his philosophical treatises, which he entertains and rejects over and over, until he finds God. Unlike Dostoevsky, however, I don’t think Tolstoi faced a problem of simply not being able to incorporate it into the story. I think that Levin’s problems are much less poignant (and much more real,) than Raskolnikov’s, and so it is easier to place them into the narrative structure, which Tolstoi did well. My only grudge would be that it seems as if this was where Levin was headed for quite some time. Tolstoi unnecessarily kept this resolution from us for several hundred pages, perhaps because he wished to sync this parallel plot with Anna’s in the meeting–which he did brilliantly.

    Finally, Levin realizes something that most of will, one day. There is no logical proof for God. But life for life’s sake–actually, that might be tricky for Levin, let me rephrase–life for self’s sake, is empty and unfulfilling. Why not believe? Why not devote? I know, it feels cheap and empty, to CHOOSE to believe. Indeed, it feels counterintuitive. But don’t atheists choose to be atheists? Levin reached a point where he saw that charity and love are greater than leisure and laughter, and he couldn’t ignore the allure of God. Of course he didn’t tell his wife! “Honey, I think I’m going to be a Christian.” What? You don’t choose that! Oh, but most of us do. Call it what you will, but that’s what I call faith. Just take that leap, as Kierkegaard (and Harry,) pointed out.

    *footnote: I felt relieved and fulfilled and vindicated when I was reading this scene (Anna at the station,) many things that these books were bringing up during the beginning of the semester, which were driving me crazy, were addressed. I don’t think Tolstoi resolved them, per se, but the fact that someone as brilliant as Tolstoi couldn’t sum up a solution to these issues is enough for me to be O.K. with my inability to answer.

  14. Patrick O'Neill
    April 30th, 2009 | 1:13 am

    I would like to agree with Zach that the novel had a very fitting end, although like Sophie, I was disconcerted with the fact that Anna was all but removed and even assumed a sort of baser role in these last couple pages. However, after some consideration I do not think the novel could have ended any other way. Like Dostoevsky and many other writers of the time, Tolstoy himself had doubts about faith and its importance and centrality to life on earth. I think that he was able to tie up the book nicely by reaffirming that the rather self-centered living displayed by the characters in the previous several hundred pages could only lead to very little, especially in the more sincere characters of Anna and Levin. The contrast between Anna’s ultimate downfall and suicide and Levin’s acceptance of a higher faith and thus a greater purpose to life than his own personal ends really drives Tolstoy’s point home.

    I do think Stewart raises an interesting question about whether Tolstoy could have built more upon/foreshadowed more what would in the end become Levin’s acceptance of faith in the 800 pages to kind of smooth out the transition. Again, though I think the abruptness of the change really forces the reader to contrast this aspect of Levin’s story-line against Anna’s, as well as the fact that it would have driven me crazy if Tolstoy wrote any more.

    A final question that I would like to raise concerns the 800 pages and I was wondering if perhaps Tolstoy could have achieved such a work using only half of that. Of course the numerous discussions on issues of agriculture, serfdom, patriotism, and other aspects of Russian life would definitely need to be curtailed if not eliminated. However, my personal opinion is that the contrasting narratives of Anna and Levin could still be maintained perfectly well in addition to the larger philosophical issues of the novel. Thoughts?

  15. Casey Mahoney
    April 30th, 2009 | 7:17 am

    While I don’t think that Tolstoy’s message is necessarily “too important” to be left woven into a story, left to the interpretation of the reader to figure it out, I think that by adding the process of Levin’s religious conversion at the end of the novel, Tolstoy wished to supplement the message he felt was only able to be conveyed through fiction. That is, to relate it to the first sentence of the novel, I think that Tolstoy’s belief about happy families looking alike is heavily tied with such families’ religious devotion. It is interesting that although Tolstoy and Dostoevsky have somewhat different approaches to morality, life’s meaning, and so on, I still found that the sin of pride was what Levin had to (and was able to) conquer by the end of the story.

    However, I don’t think that Levin’s conversion can be completely summed up as a non-fiction, philosophical discourse. The part about the storm coming up and the tree falling is nearly as dramatic and almost fantastical as Anna’s suicide under the train. Personally, I really enjoy Tolstoy’s style in wanting to “explain” his fiction at the end of his epics, because I feel that I’m at least that much closer to understanding some of the author’s intent–even if it does nominally take away from the flow of 750 pages of plot.

    Finally, it was really interesting to me how relatively not important Anna’s suicide was to the resolution of the story for the rest of the characters. It is hardly mentioned after the fact, which leads me to believe that as much as Tolstoy may have admired the ever complex character of Anna Arkadyevna, he nonetheless acknowledged her as an inherently troublesome and even immoral person; I realize this goes against much of the literature/criticism that praises Tolstoy’s female hero, but that was my impression after a first reading.

  16. Lisa Eppich
    April 30th, 2009 | 7:28 am

    I think my opinion of Anna changed in the scene where Levin looks at her portrait. I tend to have a hard time feeling bad for characters like Anna because although it was great that she made a decision to change her life and I felt for her with regards to there being so little options for women at this time. I guess I just find it frustrating that ultimately she’s just another woman who was overcome by blind love and passion, and not a Nora Helmer who decides to leave and become her own woman despite what society says or thinks. The portrait scene changed my opinion because I realized how much Anna is the embodiment of passion, as if it’s something that is inherent to her as having brown eyes, something that she couldn’t get rid of even if she wanted it. It was her very soul that could not stop loving. I only really understood Anna when I drew the extremely bizarre connection to her and Vladimir Mayakovsky, a Russian poet who lived his life wanting everyone and everything to love him, and ultimately met a similar end as Anna, as such love is impossible. In the end it isn’t really blind love and passion that kills Anna at all, but love as a terminal illness that destroys her soul, something she could not control.

    I have to agree that although Levin’s conversion was really interesting, it felt way too tacked-on. I also agree with Susanna that when asked how the book ends, people will say that Anna killed herself, not that Levin got converted. I almost wish Levin’s part came before Anna’s death just because it was a crucial comparison, and I felt that it was overshadowed by Anna’s death and wondering why nobody was really talking about her in the final part. In the end it wouldn’t have made sense for Levin’s part to come first, as the contrast needed to be shown that despite all of his problems and doubts, he went on living, so I guess it’s neither here nor there. I’m not sure what you mean by whether or not this should be left to fiction, but I think it was important that Tolstoy concluded Levin’s story rather than leave people to their own imaginations about what happened afterwards. I was expecting the ending of this book to be all about how the characters dealt with Anna’s death and for those closest to her, the path of recovery. What was striking was realizing how much life does go on for all of them, even in the face of so striking a person as Anna.

  17. Natalie Komrovsky
    April 30th, 2009 | 8:57 am

    Okay, I have a number of things to address. First:
    Sophie, I have a small problem with your post.
    a) This isn’t supposed to be a work of feminism. Also, I think you would be hard-pressed to find any variant of a true feminist in 19th century Russia. There is no way. The reason why this is a “feminist” book is because Anna is a 3-dimensional, central character. We see her thinking, reasoning, and acting, not just responding to what the men around her do.
    b) Tolstoy doesn’t diminish the importance of Anna’s death. The book is named after her. She was the main part of the story for 761 pages. In part eight, we see how Vronsky has completely fallen apart. He doesn’t eat. He can barely talk without breaking out into sobs. The importance of Anna has been so apparent throughout this book that there is no WAY that the fact that she’s in only seven, instead of all eight parts, of the book means that her importance has been “diminished”.
    c) Third, Anna is charming, and captivating, and etc etc etc. I really do think that though Tolstoy disagrees with her actions, that he really fell in love with her as a character. But LETS NOT FORGET that she did leave her husband, abandon her child, act insanely and unreasonably jealous, didn’t love her daughter, and acted incredibly selfishly.

    Let’s observe something for a second. Anna lived for herself. She abandoned her husband, her son, and eventually, her daughter and lover. She is miserable and driven to suicide. Levin is searching for his meaning, and discovers religion and goodness. If he lives for others, and for what is good, his life is fulfilling. WHAT A FABULOUS MESSAGE. This couldn’t have been any other way. Anna’s demise proves that throwing your life away on a selfish, passionate affair is NOT WORTH IT. Those that live for themselves (Anna) will not be happy, whereas those that live for others (Levin) will be.

    I don’t think that this message is “too important” to be left to fiction (also, there is so much more to Tolstoy’s message than what I mentioned above). In fact, I don’t even know what that means. Fiction is a fabulous medium, why should anything be “too important” for it?

  18. Kaylen Baker
    April 30th, 2009 | 9:14 am

    Who is Anna
    Bring me her portrait
    It was painted by Mikhailov, you know, full-length
    Bare shoulders and arms, a pensive half smile on her lips
    (And what we hear of these notorious shoulders!
    So broad, broad like a man’s, holding up what?)
    It gazed at Levin triumphantly and tenderly
    With troubled eyes.

    And why not judge her from this portrait?
    Not alive but more telling. More beautiful here and less dazzling in reality.
    Anyway, she would have wanted you to judge her,
    Flat as she saw herself, a judge before her mirror.
    Mirror Mirror on the wall,
    Is Anna the fairest of them all?
    Certainly with those white hands that black hair
    and Vronsky will remember when he comes back to her.

    In fact, no more children will tarnish her beauty
    Too bad Vronsky’s blind when he looks at her now
    Hating the little right-handed pinky that wants love with coffee.
    His empty egg-shell head,
    Balding Fabergé, the Russian way
    Makes jealousy a wicked torment
    Anna’s gone

    Don’t feel bad that you don’t feel bad
    When she threw herself under the train.
    Revenge is easy, instantaneous.
    The opium, the rushing shadows, the Muzhik dream
    ‘A bad omen’ she said
    “And the candle by the light
    Of which she had been reading that book…”

    Anna picked the wrong book to read
    Love isn’t a reflection
    but that’s how she used it, hate too, loneliness too,
    tant pis pour elle!
    “Who is that”
    Looking in the mirror at the inflamed face
    strangely shining eyes, fearfully looking at her.
    “Ah, it’s me,” she realized
    then raised her hand to her lips and kissed it.

  19. Catherine Ahearn
    April 30th, 2009 | 9:24 am

    The Levin’s appraisal of Anna’s portrait becomes another of a series of allusions to her impending death. Levin is naturally drawn to the portrait and is entranced by the paining, forgetting where he is. The portrait comes to life before him, “stepping out of its frame in the brilliant light,” and yet he also notes that, “Only because she was not alive, she was more beautiful than a living woman can be.” The portrait then becomes a symbol of Anna in death, dazzling, tender, triumphant and troubling all the same.
    I believe that, contrary to what the prompt suggests, there are some messages that are too important to convey in any other form other than fiction. Hypothetically, had Tolstoy decided to write an article that tackled and expressed his opinion on the same issues he addresses in Anna Karenina, I doubt that we would still be reading it today. I say this because fiction has a quality about it that, when done well, allows the author to show his readers what he believes within the world he creates upon the page. Non- fiction can become didactic and overly opinionated, turning away readers and losing in sincerity. Tolstoy’s characters have a way of expressing opinions as if they are really their own, as if you are overhearing a real-life argument, so that the opinions expressed in the novel do not come off as Tolstoy’s but as Anna’s or Levin’s, for example. Fiction has the ability, if done correctly, to leave its reader with the opinion the author intended them to have, while thinking that it’s their own.
    Chapter XXXI, in which Anna commits suicide (yay, I’m finally allowed to say it!!) has a very authentic thread about it. When reading it, you can feel her anxiety and get a very real sense of the mayhem of the ignominious world around her, on the platforms and on the train. Only in fiction could you enter into the mind of an individual committing suicide. The last few moments of Anna’s life, when she has already thrown herself in front of the tracks and then regrets her choice is one of, if not the most, compelling and emotionally charged passages of the entire novel. No other form of writing, and maybe even of art, can convey that in the same way.

  20. Adam Levine
    April 30th, 2009 | 9:56 am

    Many people have chosen to blog about Tolstoi’s ending and its relation to fiction and an “ideal ending.” Ben Tabb, Brett Basarab, Ashley Quisol, and Susanna Merrill all appear to believe that the strongest way to convey such a culminating message is to use fiction to relay it. I also agree with this perspective – I think blatant, transparent, and direct addresses of a particular feeling or idea can (depending on their context, of course) be “preachy” as Ben mentioned, and thus ineffectual. I also admire Ashley’s point about the “perfection” of fiction, although I am not sure that it is necessarily true – fiction can present emotions like love in an “impure” or “mixed” form, and in fact, I believe that Tolstoi delivers such perceptions of affections in Anna Karenina. Levin’s balance between loving Kitty and distrusting her seem to be a combination of feelings, not two different and untainted sentiments.

    However, of all the posts about this issue, I think I must agree most with Susanna. This ending does not strike me as entirely “fictional”: yes, the novel concludes with a fictional character speaking fictional dialogue and referencing fictional past events, but “fiction” – to me – means more than this. Levin’s final statement is: “I’ll get angry in the same way with the coachman Ivan…but my life now, my whole life, regardless of all that may happen to me, every minute of it, is not only not meaningless, as it was before, but has the unquestionable meaning of the good which it is in my power to put into it!” (817). This revelation is powerful, and deriving from Levin, who struggles throughout the whole book to arrive at this epiphany, this declaration is fitting and provides closure. However, the directness of the thought and the effort taken to define itself make the conclusion appear less artful. When a reader can gather information about an idea or a theme from images, dialogue, narrative, but nothing direct, than the author has done a fantastic job producing fiction in a way that makes it most poignant: the reader should not notice, “Oh – I am moving out of the story and into philosophy.” Of course this is acceptable and many times even artful as well (some authors are very attracted to switching between literary and philosophic styles), but I believe that Tolstoi’s ending breaks the frame of the novel slightly by allowing Levin to speak directly to how he feels. If the reader had to uncover the epiphany or figure out the significance of an event or action that implied a specific realization, the discovery might be stronger for him, and the writing might be more artful to all.

  21. Hannah Wilson
    April 30th, 2009 | 10:06 am

    Perhaps I am being naïve, however I do not think that there is any message to important to be left to fiction. However, by adding in Levins conversation at the end of Anna Karenina and placing short essays at the end of practically every part and a rather long essay regarding themes like history, love and religion, Tolstoi undermines the power of fiction.

    By making the reader cognizant of the authorial intention, the overarching themes, Tolstoi’s books lose some of their magic. It makes it difficult for the reader to decipher their own meaning from the text. Natalie point out a very interesting conclusion at the end of the book, that since Anna dies and Levin lives, living for others will make you happy. While I agree that the end of the novel does glorify Levin, I do not think that it as simple as she claims. While Levin is still alive, he is constantly tormented by questions of religion, love, and meaning on earth. Throughout the novel Levin retains a constant level of happiness. Unlike Anna he is neither ecstatic (okay, fine maybe after his marriage) nor does he fall into deep depression throughout the book.

    Anna lets her emotions get the best of her; however she feels more than Levin. Sure she dies, but is it better to live life to the fullest or to play it safe and live a continually unfulfilled life? Anna finds complete love and fulfillment at different points in her life, but there comes a point at which she realizes her lifestyle if going to destroy her.

    One of the most interesting things about Anna’s suicide is that she actually thinks it is the right way to punish Vronsky. While Anna has always had a strong impact on those around her, this is one of the first times where she her not only acknowledging this power, but over exaggerating it. Perhaps her power only exists if she is unaware of it. When her relationship with Vronsky is falling apart, she attempts to use her power to win him back, however it consistently fails. Even after her death Anna has a great impact on those around her. The countess talks about her and she will forever live on in the minds of those that knew her. Perhaps her suicide allowed her to regain her position in society.

    Levin never has this power. He is constantly marginalized, but doesn’t really care. Is Tolstoi making a comment about happiness and power? That you cannot have both at the same time? That power ultimately torments you and leads you to death? While Tolstoi’s answer is clear, I am not sure if he convinced me of it. Maybe this is a change in the times, or maybe it is the nature of his writing.

  22. Will Van Heuvelen
    April 30th, 2009 | 10:53 am

    The ending of the novel reinforces the idea that the story is not one of Anna and a tragic love story, but rather a complex look at family, love, religion, and even the meaning of life. The final chapters recounting Levin’s thoughts and feelings as he discovers the meaning of life are more abstract then plot driven. The result is that Anna is hardly mentioned in the last part of the novel that bears her name. Although, Tolstoy clearly intends this omission, but in doing so he is perhaps bypassing a significant person; a character we have grown to pity yet love. Perhaps his omission of her death is exactly his point. We are not supposed to dwell on her tragic death but rather search for higher meaning, or in Levin’s case a higher being.

    Indeed, though Levin never actually mentions Anna in his revelations we inevitably think of her. Levin rejects the idea of living a life to simply satisfy one’s own desires. The reader immediately contrasts this strict ideology with the manner to which Anna lived. Her life may have been admirable in her own choices but it ends tragically, she has destroyed everything, her own being, in the pursuit of pleasure. Anna is the negative example of what Levin positively illustrates—the ability to live one’s life in commitment to something higher than oneself.

    The question of the meaning of life confronts not only Levin, but Vronky comes up with quite different answers to the question than Levin does. Vronsky’s response is the simpler of the two: he concludes that life has no meaning whatsoever—a notion that Levin fleetingly embraces during his thoughts of suicide. Ironically, this pessimistic idea fuels Vronsky’s courageous show of valor in traveling to fight in the Serbian war.

    Is this a good ending? Yes, if the reader intends to understand the novel as a greater arena for social and philosophical issues. However, for the story of a family saga, for a romance of love an lust, it fails. Yet that is what makes it a great novel. It does not abide by desire wishes of the reader. It draws them in more than to just a happy or tragic ending but to thinking they themselves approach life and death.

  23. Jennifer Ridder
    April 30th, 2009 | 10:55 am

    That was my post. Not will’s (he’s not even in the class)

Leave a reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Sites DOT MiddleburyThe Middlebury site network.