Leo Tolstoy was born on this day, September 9th in 1828. In his essay “What is Art?” Tolstoy tells the story of the Russian painter Karl Bryullov correcting a student’s sketch. “Why you only changed it a tiny bit,” the student marveled, “but it is quite a different thing.” Bryullov replied: “Art begins where that ‘tiny bit’ begins.” Tolstoy comments: “That saying is strikingly true not only of art but of all life. One may say that true life begins where the ‘tiny bit’ begins, where the infinitesimally small alterations of consciousness take place.”
John Mark Reynolds said this in his book, The Great Books Reader:
Can we really fix ourselves? Can we really see what needs to be seen and do what needs to be done? Tolstoy suggests we can, even though the road will be long and arduous. He is Orthodox enough to see that humans are sinners in need of mercy, but not Orthodox enough to get to the root of the problem.
The prophet does not plunge deeply enough into the human heart.
Tolstoy was Christian enough to see that evil exists but not holy or self-aware enough to know the depths to which a nation or a man could go. His romance is, therefore, more true to life than most of Hollywood’s chick flicks, but just as dangerous. Tolstoy can imagine an Anna, but not a Lenin. Many millions of Russians would die after the prophet’s failure to see how bad things could really get.
How can the small details of one’s life tip the balance between good and evil?
D I G D E E P E R
“Alexey Alexandrovitch,” said Vronsky, feeling that a statement of the position was coming, “I can’t speak, I can’t understand. Spare me! However hard it is for you, believe me, it is more terrible for me.”
He would have risen, but Alexey Alexandrovitch took him by the hand and said:
“I beg you to hear me out; it is necessary. I must explain my feelings, the feelings that have guided me and will guide me, so that you may not be in error regarding me. You know I had resolved on a divorce and had even begun to take proceedings. I won’t conceal from you that in beginning this I was in uncertainty, I was in misery; I will confess that I was pursued by a desire to revenge myself on you and on her. When I got the telegram, I came here with the same feelings; I will say more, I longed for her death. But . . .” He paused, pondering whether to disclose or not to disclose his feeling to him. “But I saw her and forgave her. And the happiness of forgiveness has revealed to me my duty. I forgive completely. I would offer the other cheek, I would give my cloak if my coat be taken. I pray to God only not to take from me the bliss of forgiveness!”
Tears stood in his eyes, and the luminous, serene look in them impressed Vronsky.
“This is my position: you can trample me in the mud, make me the laughing-stock of the world, I will not abandon her, and I will never utter a word of reproach to you,” Alexey Alexandrovitch went on. “My duty is clearly marked for me; I ought to be with her, and I will be. If she wishes to see you, I will let you know, but now I suppose it would be better for you to go away.”
He got up, and sobs cut short his words. Vronsky too was getting up, and in a stooping, not yet erect posture looked up at him from under his brows. He did not understand Alexey Alexandrovitch’s feeling, but he felt that it was something higher and even unattainable for him with his view of life.
Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is commonly understood as an adultery novel. Dolly Oblonsky suffers tremendously throughout on account of her husband Stiva’s affair. Kitty and Levin alternately experience deep jealousy and fear of betrayal, each when the other interacts with flirtatious members of Russia’s high society. Anna herself is one of the most notorious fallen women in literature, seduced by Alexei Vronsky but herself becoming the primary target of society’s wrath.
Unfaithfulness is all around; it is only a serious transgression when social conventions governing it are not observed.
Yet while marital infidelity—or the fear of it—is intricately woven into each thread of the plot, it is first and foremost a symbol of other kinds of unfaithfulness. Falseness, deception, and lies are endemic to Russian high society. Worse than being an unfaithful husband, Stiva deceives himself by justifying his unfaithfulness. Similarly, he justifies the graft by which he obtains his government position and his spendthrift squandering of his wife’s fortune. He maintains the external image of the perfect society man and follows all the rules of liberal society perfectly—but has no inner life or true self.
If this is the case for Stiva, it also is true for a character the reader may not be ready to judge so hastily, Alexei Karenin. Laying aside Anna’s unfaithfulness, it is essential to examine Karenin as Tolstoy presents him. As Dolly welcomes her sister-in-law, perfect society woman and wife of the statesman, a hint is given that something is amiss in Dolly’s recollection that “as far as she could remember her impression of the Karenins’ house in Petersburg, she had not liked it; there was something false in the whole shape of their family life.” She smoothes over this memory as Anna ironically persuades Dolly to stay in her marriage.
Karenin is a politician at the height of his career, living an ordered, proper life in which each minute of his day is accounted for. For him, life is about duty. He moves in a social circle known widely as “the conscience of St. Petersburg.” Anna tells herself “he is a good man, truthful, kind and remarkable in his sphere.”
Yet here Anna is trying to convince herself. Karenin meets her with a “mocking smile”; she feels a vague dissatisfaction, an “old, familiar feeling, similar to that state of pretence she experienced in her relations with her husband; but previously she had not noticed it.”
Moreover, his associations with his religious friend, Lydia Ivanovna, now bother Anna for their hypocrisy. “All this was there before, but why didn’t I notice it before? . . . In fact, it’s ridiculous: her goal is virtue, she is a Christian, yet she’s angry all the time, and they’re all her enemies, and they’re all enemies on account of Christianity and virtue.”
The hypocrisy and self-deceit endemic to society life drive the plot about Kitty Oblonsky and Konstantin Levin too. Kitty refuses Levin’s proposal—although she is certain of his love—because she expects Count Vronsky, an elite society man, to propose to her after the upcoming ball; the narrator hints that this preference is problematic: “It was as if there was some falseness—not in him, he was very simple and nice—but in herself, while with Levin she felt completely simple and clear.” Although her father would prefer the simple, serious Levin as a son-in-law, Kitty’s mother, Princess Oblonsky, seeks a “brilliant match” for her daughter. Her mother deceives Kitty into preferring Vronsky despite feeling awkwardness about him, a sure sign of self-betrayal in Tolstoy’s code.
Anna is different from others in her milieu. Kitty observes of Anna “that there was in her some other, higher world of interests, inaccessible to her, complex and poetic.” Kitty later goes further, finding something “alien, demonic, and enchanting” in Anna. Yet Kitty does not yet understand herself or that she has been deceived by the hypocrisy and false values around her. For Kitty to find something otherworldly or alien in Anna and to first call it good and then evil suggests she does not yet understand her own relation to society. However, she points out that Anna is different.
Of what does Anna’s difference consist? It takes her a long time to understand this herself. Already a fallen women—but still able to maintain appearances in society—she compares herself with her friend Betsy, exclaiming, “How I wish I knew others as I know myself,” and asking herself, “Am I worse than others or better? Worse, I think.” Later, when she’s cast out from this society irrevocably and barred from seeing her son, Anna articulates her disgust with the pervasive hypocrisy around her, saying of Lydia, “She’s worse than I am. At least I don’t lie.” Anna’s special quality is her willingness to look into herself and not deceive about what she finds there.
Anna Karenina is no worse than others. True, she never seems fully to comprehend herself in relation to society. Her misfortune is that she understands the falsehood of high society but is bound tragically to this world by circumstance.
Amy Obrist, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of Russian and German Language and chair of the Modern Languages Department at Biola University.
John Mark Reynolds
John Mark Reynolds is the president of The Saint Constantine School, a school that aspires to preschool through college education. He is also a philosopher, administrator, and joyous curmudgeon. Reynolds was the founder and first director of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. He was provost at Houston Baptist University where he was instrumental in starting the graduate Apologetics program and a cinema and new media arts major. John Mark blogs at Eidos on the Patheos Evangelical platform and has written for First Things and the Washington Post. He is an owner of the Green Bay Packers.
John Mark Reynolds, The Great Books Reader: Excerpts and Essays on the Most Influential Books in Western Civilization (Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House, 2011).