Anna Karenina and Levin’s Quest for Meaning

13 Aug

anna karenina

I finished Anna Karenina a few weeks ago. I didn’t write about it right away because, honestly, I didn’t know where to begin. It was one of those books, similar to Middlemarch, that had been on my list for a while – one of those books I knew I should read, but kept putting off for more accessible, contemporary options. Even though it took me about two months to finally work my way through, to my pleasant surprise, I loved it! Tolstoy writes with such…I don’t know…humanity. There are so many passages about life and love and insecurity that I felt I could relate to–like I had felt the same feelings –even though Tolstoy wrote from such a different time and place.

For example, even though Anna’s situation is so far from anything I have experienced, there’s a universal sense of paranoia or insecurity that comes from being being in love and vulnerable. Tolstoy has an amazing ability to place universal themes in plain, beautiful language, and apply them to a very concrete place and story while developing specific, dynamic characters.

I guess that’s the goal of most novelists; Tolstoy’s just really good at it.

Levin’s Obsession with Death

Aside from Anna, who’s a fascinating character with much more depth than I’m going to get into here, I found Levin intriguing, especially his philosophical search for the meaning of life and faith, and his obsession with death.

As I read, I like to underline passages and annotate pages. When I’m finished, I go back and review the scrawlings in the margins and revisit the underlined passages. As I combed through the pages looking for useful marginalia, I noticed many passages about death: reflections about death, the afterlife, the purpose of life. Each of these passages, I noticed, came from the chapters about Levin. (I’ll ignore what it says about me that I’m drawn to the death passages…).

You can tell right away that Levin is not a content man. When he fantasizes about having a wife and reflects on what he must do to achieve his goals, he thinks:

“I must struggle to live a better, a far better, life.”

At the same time he’s worrying about how he can live a better life while he’s alive, he’s wondering if it’s all for nothing since it all ends in death:

 “‘I am working, I want to do something, and I had forgotten that it will all end in Death!”

For Levin, death is the ultimate problem that cannot be solved by living:

“Just when the question of how to live had become a little clearer to him, a new insoluble problem presented itself – Death.”

And so, he wonders during a conversation with Oblonsky:

“And so one passes one’s life finding distraction in hunting or in work, merely not to think of death.'”

In other words, is everything we do in life for the sole purpose of distracting us from death?

Oblonsky (I love Oblonsky’s character) responds matter of factly to Levin’s nihilistic question:

“Well, of course! So now you have come round to my notion. Do you remember how you used to fly at me for seeking enjoyment in life? Do not be so severe, O moralist!…”

In other words, of course we’re just distracting ourselves in life so we don’t have to think about death! Might as well do a good job distracting yourself and really enjoy life rather than waste time thinking about death.

While I don’t completely agree, I love Oblonsky’s confidence, vigor, and determination to enjoy life and live in the present.

Levin Finds Faith 

As Levin struggles to enjoy life with the reality of death always lurking, he also questions faith and religion. He’s not a believer, but he wants to be. Wouldn’t that be comforting? Not always having to wonder, but just knowing or believing: “What is it all for?” (718)

In his Commentary Magazine article, “The Moral Urgency of Anna Karenina,” Gary Saul Morson suggests that when Levin finds faith and contentment in the everyday at the end of the novel, Tolstoy expresses his own belief that the everyday act of living a good life is more important than philosophizing about abstract intellectual topics or politics: “In his daily work, Levin comes to appreciate the importance of the ordinary and prosaic. If one lives rightly moment by moment, and trusts that daily practice has its own wisdom, then the questions troubling Levin are not exactly answered, but they disappear.”

I’m not a Tolstoyan scholar, but I generally agree with Morson’s point about Levin. He’s continually in a state of discontent – when he’s working on his book, when he’s engaging in politics, when he’s philosophizing about the state of the peasants on his farm – it’s exhausting! But he finally finds a sense of “spiritual tranquility” when he appreciates the magic in simply existing:

“I was looking for miracles, regretting that I had not seen a miracle that might convince me. But here is a miracle, the sole miracle possible, existing continuously, surrounding me on all sides, and I didn’t notice it!…I have discovered nothing. I have only recognized what I already knew….I have been freed from falsity, I have found the Master.”

Can faith really be so simple? Maybe it can, suggests Tolstoy.

Final Thoughts 

I didn’t get to touch on some of my favorite characters–Dolly and Kitty–and I didn’t even scratch the surface of Anna’s complicated relationships: to Vronsky, to Karenin…to her daughter who she seems unable to love. But, that’s why this book is so rich and why you should read it, not because you should read it, but because it’s deeply moving, surprisingly personal, and just flat out enjoyable.

Photo credit: Stefan Kunze via Unsplash

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