Plot Points and Themes in Anna Karenina
"There is something in the soul which cannot die, or which cannot be affected by death. Sometimes we can understand this, and sometimes we cannot." — Count Leo Tolstoy, from A Calendar of Wisdom
Death, like love, is a pervasive force in all of Tolstoy's major works—but it has a special power in Anna Karenina, where the death of our heroine takes place under tragic circumstances at a critical point in the novel. We have already come through the prolonged illness and death of Levin's beloved brother Nikolai. We have also been privy to the decline of Anna and Vronsky's relationship. But nothing fully prepares us for the sweeping, aching turn of events that closes this section of the novel. Over the course of Part Seven, we come to realize that Anna is too fragile, her fears too great, the stress on her from months of uncertainty too taxing. Even still, for many of us, the fact that she actually throws herself under the train seems impossible to fathom.
The very language Tolstoy uses to describe Anna's death makes it seem like a dream-state she has floated into by accident. It all happens so quickly. In one paragraph, Anna "realizes what she must do" (p. 768) and then, in the very next she has done it. While she seems to have considered this outcome for her life in several key moments, she never seems to have entertained it seriously. She doesn't think about what death means for her—and because of that it feels almost frivolous, a momentary fancy. She even asks at the last moment, "What am I doing? Why?" (p. 768)
Interestingly, Tolstoy chooses to frame Anna's last moment as a fiction: "And the candle by the light of which she had been reading that book filled with anxieties, deceptions, grief and evil, flared up brighter than ever." (p. 768) Her book is filled with only the darkest, most troubling things about her life. The candle by which she reads it burns brighter than it ever has, and then goes out. In this way, Tolstoy is reminding us that Anna is herself a fiction. More than that, he is saying that every life, no matter whose, is a book that can be read in the way its reader chooses. So much of Anna's day-to-day life, the breakdown of her relationships and her resolve, and her choice in the face of losing everything are a direct result of the way she chooses to read her story. Even at her death, Tolstoy will not let us forget this critical fact.
Whether or not to consider Anna's death a tragic unfolding of unfair circumstances, the logical fruition of a squandered life or something else entirely depends on how we choose to "read" Anna. At the very moment Anna is dying, her creator is reminding us of our own reading candle. Because of her complexity as a character, we have the opportunity to reflect on the ending of her life based on what we believe the core of her truth to be. In his rendering of death, Tolstoy seems to swing the door open, to give us more room to find the empathy and heart of Anna's story. Just as Anna believes death is the only way to make Vronsky love her again, death seems the only hope for Tolstoy to redeem his troubled and beloved heroine. Perhaps he says, too, that death can be a sweet redemption—one that, at the end, we may also claim for ourselves.
Part Eight, The End: A New Beginning
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