The world of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is a world ruled by chance. From the very opening chapters, where a watchman is accidentally run over by a train at Moscow’s Petersburg station, to the final, climactic scenes of arbitrary destruction when Levin searches for Kitty in a forest beset by lightning, characters are brought together and forced into action against their will by coincidence and, sometimes, misfortune. That Anna and Vronsky ever meet and begin the fateful affair that becomes the centerpiece of the novel is itself a consequence of a long chain of unrelated events: culminating Anna’s sharing a berth with Vronsky’s mother on her way to reconcile Dolly and Stiva in Moscow. And yet, as an epigraph to this seemingly chaotic world of chance event, a seemingly amoral world that would seem to neither punish sin nor reward good, Tolstoy chooses a quotation that comes originally from the book of Deuteronomy’s song of Moses: “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” Originally (and somewhat narrowly) thought to refer to Anna’s final ostracism from the upper echelons of society that punish her for her misdeeds, the epigraph is the key to Tolstoy’s subtle and philosophically complex conception of morality that denies the existence of a universal and unavoidable justice and derives responsibility from the individual’s freedom to create and then bind himself to laws. Three of the novel’s characters, Stephen Oblonsky, Constatine Levin, and Anna Karenina, all in some way connected to the Shcherbatsky family, serve to illustrate the various ways that Tolstoy’s individual can be, or fail to be, “good,” the various ways in which a character can be moral, immoral or amoral through the use of thought, or reason, to create necessity outside of the confused demands of a chaotic reality.
Tolstoy’s world is indeed a servant to chance, and the plot depends so heavily on coincidence that Anna Karenina, taking into account the many elements of Menippian satire and Socratic dialogue that are integrated into its structure, may well be considered in part a carnival novel. The steeplechase scene during which Vronsky breaks Frou-Frou’s back is a perfect example of carnivalism — the tragic yet somehow slapstick and cartoon-like injuries that befall the riders is a parody of the grand battlefield that the steeplechase is supposed to symbolize and the crowds of observers present provide the necessary “public square” that Bakhtin outlines as necessary for the second key property of carnivalism, “free and familiar contact among people,” at the racecourse occasioned by the terrible accidents that generate a swarm of rumors that pass between the spectators regardless, for once, of class and gender — in the excitement of the event, Tolstoy writes, Anna’s shriek of fear at the precise moment of Vronsky’s upset passes the notice of those surrounding her usually so keen to find something inappropriate in Anna’s relation to Vronsky. Bakhtin’s theory of carnivalism, however, only goes so far in characterizing Tolstoy’s prose, and even though the reliance on chance as generator of events continues, the solipsistic mode of self-analysis and interpersonal distance returns almost immediately after the race is over and as the novel continues, becomes the dominant mode of ideological presentation so key to the essence of Anna’s relationship to Vronsky and to her reasons for suicide.
Stephen Oblonsky, the first character we encounter in the novel, is at home in the turbulent and unstructured world that Tolstoy depicts, and lives at ease with the often meaningless turns of fate that occur to him and others. “You wish all the facts of life to be consistent, but they never are,” he says to Levin in Part I. “You want the activity of each separate man to have an aim, and love and family life always to coincide — and that doesn’t happen either. All the variety, charm and beauty of life are made up of light and shade.”
Oblonsky is a materialist, although not in a formally philosophical way. He might better be said to be a pragmatist, or hedonist, although those labels, too, have their problems, since, as Anna remarks to Dolly, family life for him is sacred. He is not particularly religious but neither is he an intellectual such as Koznyshev or an nihilist such as Nicholas. Perhaps the best way to characterize Oblonsky is as a man who never held a coherent system of behavior, a man to whom the idea of thinking rationally about the way he lives his life would never occur.
“All the variety, charm and beauty of life are made up of light and shade.” Oblonsky’s aesthetic consciousness is devoid of the traditional ethical, religious and literary structures that man has created to understand and appreciate beauty. The poetry Oblonsky quotes when he remarks upon (and, importantly, empathizes with) Levin’s love for Kitty is more often than not misquoted, and in recalling his various adulterous escapades, he takes great pleasure in referring to the women he has loved outside of marriage using Levin’s metaphor of stealing rolls of bread. Oblonsky is far from Karenin’s dry inability to see clearly the beautiful and pleasurable in life, but yet how far also he is from Socrates and the ethical imperative of love in the Symposium, the religious eroticism of the Song of Solomon, the tortured analysis and reanalysis of Goethe’s Werther.
The two words Oblonsky yokes together with beauty are variety and charm, and beauty in life for him is just that — a rather incoherent series of inconsequential yet pleasurable encounters with a world that, through its own apparent random nature, never suggests any greater ethical obligation than to perceive and appreciate. That Oblonsky survives so intact a storyline that leaves the lives of others shattered implies that Tolstoy does not derive moral responsibility and the power to judge from nature, that he shares with Immanuel Kant the belief that the phenomenal world is separate from man and does not enter a man’s life to pass judgement upon his actions.
Oblonsky then, in the final analysis, is unconcerned with the human ability to create structures to filter and interpret experience. He is exempt from the tortures of doubt and guilt that descend upon the other characters whose experiences are intertwined with an inner moral sense. No where is this clearer than in his interactions with Levin, where his continual lack of caution and respect for language causes the love struck Levin such pain. Oblonsky’s tipsy quotations from Pushkin and Heine spoken quite innocently torment Levin, for if Oblonsky is the image of a man unconcerned with self-judgement, Levin is a man for whom structure is everything, a man who, driven by a search for moral order to place over a chaotic world that torments him (and yet pleases Oblonsky), alternately picks up and puts down different systems of morality and aesthetics in the search for truth. Levin is a man for whom words are powerful, dangerous, and sacred tools. Oblonsky’s casual and merry remark about Levin’s rival for Kitty’s affection, Vronsky, leaves Levin “desecrated.”
Perhaps one of the most famous scenes of Anna Karenina is the mowing at Levin’s estate. The first fully developed interaction between Levin and the peasant class that, at different stages of artistic development symbolized for Tolstoy the triumph of nature over the stained upper classes, the essence of Slavism that would save Russia from Europe’s fate of immolation by the intellectual class of nihilists and anarchists, and the core of a future religious utopia here appear in the narrator’s brief snatches of description in a very neutral, factual light. Characteristic of Tolstoy’s prose is the importance of point of view, and often Tolstoy will recount the same scene from many different vantage points — even to the point of including the inner monologues of Levin’s hunting dog during a shooting outing. In the fields so prosaically presented by the narrator, Levin’s view of the peasants that work his lands is nothing short of an exalted religious experience accompanied by an intense and driven rational analysis. Here, sickle in hand, Levin confronts in archetypal and symbolic simplicity the source of his unhappiness and a vision of how it may be overcome. The arbitrary twists and turns of the fields they mow and the uneven surface of the Earth that knock and trip the mowers are symbols of the unstructured world that Levin confronts and that is so indifferent to the intense and almost unspeakable love that draws him to Kitty. As he tears at the grass with such energy that he nearly collapses at the end of each length, next to him an old man slices easily through the thick stalks and Levin, forgetting his cares understands in that nonverbal Tolstoyan manner that peace is possible, that it is possible both to think and to live.
Nonverbal communication is for Tolstoy, as mentioned above, a major avenue through which characters interact with each other. Some scenes of interaction, notably Levin’s second proposal of marriage, occur almost entirely without words, and the intuitive understanding of someone else’s thoughts, whether occasioned by chalk marks on a leather table cover or by the subtlest nuance in someone’s eyes, in contrast to the falsehoods of social language that obscure and separate people, create a few brief and sometime ecstatic moments of “penetration” between usually separate conciousnesses, a transcending of interpersonal space. And yet words are still the tools by which, literally, men live or die. Levin’s search for structure, as mentioned above, may be considered a struggle to find a language of truth. Nowhere is this more evident than in Levin’s observation of the sky that occurs first at the end of the mowing scene and then much later in Part VIII, an example both of Levin’s development towards a language that can frame rationally what he knows intuitively to be true, and of Tolstoy’s autobiographical intent in the character of Levin.
In a conversation with the painter Kramskoy that occurred around 1875, Tolstoy remarked in answer to Kramskoy’s question what one is to believe, “Look, the sky’s cleared. It is pale blue. One has to believe that the pale blue up there is a solid vault.” Tolstoy’s phrasing occurs almost verbatim in Part XIV, Chapter XIII, when Levin thinks to himself while lying on his back and looking up at a cloudless sky, “Don’t I know that that is infinite space, and not a rounded vault? But however I may screw my eyes and strain my sight, I cannot help seeing it round and limited, and despite my knowledge of it as limitless space I am indubitably right when I see a firm blue vault.” The precise wording is key in both quotations — both Levin’s and Tolstoy’s experience of the sky is a synthesis of reason (or, more precisely, a belief necessitated by rationality) and experience. That the sky is a blue vault in this second encounter (presumably a naive vision of a Christian heaven “in the clouds”) is not experienced directly — just as the Kierkegaardian hero must take a leap of faith and through an effort of will believe in something which is not apparent to the senses, Levin must integrate experience and reason in order to see the sky as a vault. For both Tolstoy and Kierkegaard, God never descends to Earth to demand through experience alone that men believe, and thus Oblonsky can live amorally in a world of variety and charm without retribution.
Levin’s first encounter with the vastness of blue sky occurs in Part III, Chapter XII, before he has fully understood the necessity of relating experience to his own internal belief. At the edge of perception comes a mystic change to remind Levin of his duty to reason. Abandoning his dream of marrying a peasant girl (which for Levin would have been disaster because such a marriage would have been occasioned only by the beauty of experience of peasant life and thus would have been an abandonment of the search for rational structure and an admission of defeat) he realizes that he loves Kitty.
The struggle to unify intuitive nonverbal communication with a philosophical theory necessarily framed in traditional verbal forms defines Levin’s character. Each new diversion — rational farming methods, his sociological essays on the “character of the Russian laborer” — are simply examples of Levin’s will to order. Anna Karenina, too, shares such a desire, devouring in the earlier chapters refined British novels that present experience but fail to fully frame it in reason, and in later chapters philosophical texts. But Anna, in part due to the confining life she has lived as a female in the oppressive Karenin household, where Christianity is used to justify the suppression of feeling and Karenin uses the Bible to try to convince Anna to lie about her affections, lives by a passion so strong that it wars against the carefully constructed social world in which she lives. Anna and Levin are, for all their differences, very similar in mental construction — both seek to create a moral structure for their lives, Levin in rebellion against the amoral epicureanism of Oblonsky and the hedonistic male world of Moscow billiard halls, gambling dens, kept women and causal adultery, and Anna in rebellion against the oppressive world of Karenin who demands above all proper “form” — blind adherence to the female role in society as childbearer, sexless platonic companion, and instrument of social advancement.
The epigraph, as pointed out by Boris Eikhenbaum, was found by Tolstoy first in a passage of Schopenhauer, who by Tolstoy’s wife’s account, occupied much of Tolstoy’s reading during the years he wrote Anna Karenina. While Schopenhauer, in contrast to the more spiritual Tolstoy, was a committed atheist, he had a great influence over Tolstoy’s evolving theory of the relationship between reason and reality, epistemology and ontology. For Schopenhauer, man is free from the imposed order that other philosophers saw as arising from the nature of reality — in such a way, Oblonsky can live naively in the world and never need recourse to morality. Yet, through use of reason, man can transcend the purely physical concerns of his life and choose to become moral and to identify moral laws. Anna must do this — without an effort of will to reason, she would never have realized how she is trapped by a social marriage into a drastically restricted life. Paralleling (although not, importantly, imitating, as happens in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary) the lives of women in fiction who break free of their situations by strength of mind, by the will to see what previously they had considered their necessary duties as falsehoods, she creates her own moral necessity — to be honest about her adulterous love of Vronsky to Karenin, and to embrace the difficult life of a woman who elevates the ideal of consummated romantic love above that of convenient social marriage.
Yet this very act that frees her also dooms her. In destroying the false idol of social order she must necessarily adopt a new set of rules. “Vengeance is mine: I will repay.” Schopenhauer, in his text The World as Will and Representation makes a distinction between punishment, which can only occur in the context of a society greater than the individual, and vengeance. Punishment is directed towards the future, and attempts to correct the individual’s actions to make them confirm to a certain system of laws held in common. Vengeance is dependent only upon the actions of the past, which may be seen in the Faulknerian sense of the past remaining in a new form in the present, and requires only the individual. Anna has not, as has been said, been punished by the upper class society in which she once lived — although her “social death” when she attempts to reenter Moscow life after her prolonged absence was painful to her, the people from which she was estranged are far from her thoughts during the last moments of her life.
The original source of the quotation, Deuteronomy, implies that God’s judgement, “eternal justice,” will correct the injustices committed by the imperfect societies of man on Earth. In Schopenhauer’s partly solipsistic conception, it implies that man lives and dies by the structures he places on the world. For Tolstoy, it performs a similar function — Anna makes an Faustian pact to free herself and to be defined by desire (paralleling Schopenhauer’s idea that freedom comes in definiting oneself in terms of freely chosen laws), and when Vronsky’s attentions begin to waver, her world falls apart according to the same logic as it opened up, as the belief that love brings life shows its corollary, that the absence of love brings death. Anna’s complete abandonment to her self-determined morality in denial of the pressures of reality shows in the interior monologue at the track a few moments before her suicide: “…a whole series of girlish and childish memories … broke, and life showed itself to her for an instant with all its bright past joys. But she did not take her eyes of the wheels.” Anna is immovable in the face of the purely pleasurable and uninterpreted aspects of life — “girlish delights” — that are Oblonsky’s daily bread.
Anna is thus a tragic hero in the strict Aristotelian sense of being destroyed by the logical evolution of her personality. Yet it is also true that Tolstoy resists the tragic form in the overall structure of his novel by continuing into Part VIII and into Levin’s life after Anna’s death. While Anna fails to sustain a life centered in “romantic morality,” the Goethian ideal of complete devotion, not to the loved one, but the condition of being in reciprocal love itself, Levin finds, at the end of the novel, a way to live that transcends the demands of reality. In the folk culture of the peasants that he encountered near the very beginning of the novel, he finds the peasant Theodore who understands Levin’s need to leave the mundane, to live not for his belly, but for “Truth,” a goodness that is beyond the chain of cause and effect that so binds the other characters in the novel — Dolly, for example, who, unable to apply reason outside of pragmatic thought to her life, continues to live, pathetically, with her unfaithful husband.