Plot Points and Themes in Anna Karenina
"If I were to try to say what it is that I meant by Anna Karenina, I would have to write the entire novel all over again." — Count Leo Tolstoy
The novel that began with the idea of family happiness comes to its greatly anticipated end with a personal goal of goodness. In the finale of the novel, Russians go to war, Levin's baby recognizes "his own people," and Levin discovers a new faith and philosophy of life—a faith he realizes he has been living all along without fully recognizing it. For Anna, the experience of love led to death; for Levin, the experience of death has led him to a new love of life. Levin is no stranger to the despair that overwhelms Anna and even contemplates suicide for himself, yet he goes on living—and making a life for himself that seems incredibly full.
Levin's meditations follow pages that detail the sorrowful aftermath of Anna's death. The same characters who opened the novel are once more gathered at a train station: Vronsky, reduced to misery and despair, still sobbing over Anna's death, seeks his own end in military glory, hoping to die on the field of battle. Anna's brother has already forgotten his distress at his sister's suicide; like so many of us, he is caught up in his own career advancement and the excitement of a new war. Levin's brother Sergei has discovered that the world takes little notice of a book into which he poured six years of hard work. To forget his disappointment, he throws himself into the war effort with the same vigor as many of his fellow countrymen. In the end, the war seems to serve many of the characters' needs.
But Levin, living with his family in the countryside, does not find it so easy to discover a greater cause to live for. Alone in the meadow, he grapples with the questions that disturb us all: What am I living for? What meaning does life have if it will all end in death? His discovery of faith in God fills him with joy and gives him a new hope to go on with. Returning home after his mountaintop experience, Levin finds it hard to maintain his inner peace when faced with the irritants of daily life—he snaps at his driver, he grows irritated with his brother, and reprimands his wife. He realizes that his actions will not be perfect, that "I'll fail in the same way to understand the reason why I pray, and yet I will pray," and commits to finding the good he can do in the here and now. (p. 817)
And what of Anna? Tolstoy gives us one last glimpse of his heroine the way Vronsky saw her after her death at the train station. With the terrible image of Anna's death head seared into his memory, Vronsky can no longer recall Anna as she was when he first knew her—beautiful, loving, hoping for happiness, and ripe with promise. But we can pay appropriate homage to Anna if we so choose.
When first editing the book for publication, Tolstoy's editor refused to publish Part Eight—Tolstoy incurred the cost of publishing the last section of the novel himself. Even though Anna's book was closed, Tolstoy's was not. He still had something to say about the inner peace that eluded his tragic heroine but inconspicuously surrounded his unassuming hero. By the end of this great novel about the family, the family idea expands to include tragedy and exaltation, just as Levin's sense of relatedness enlarges to encompass all humanity.
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