Anna Karenina and Levin—Intersecting Lives
One possible answer is to regard Dolly and Stiva as the link between them. Indeed, although Anna and Levin aren't related themselves, they do have relatives in common: Anna is Levin's sister-in-law's sister-in-law. But is this connection strong enough to hold the novel together? This indirect kinship does seem to keep Anna and Levin in the same orbit. Much as Anna begins the novel by coming to the rescue for Stiva and Dolly in their time of crisis, Levin ends the novel by bailing them out—Dolly and the children are spending their second summer with the Levins, and Levin steps in for the dead-beat Stiva.
No matter how many ways Anna and Levin are related by family, Tolstoy hints at another kind of connection between them—one of a more mysterious nature. Are they living parallel lives or with the wrong partner? Are they kindred spirits? Levin's faith saves him; was Anna completely faithless or was it simply a matter of too little too late?
Anna and Levin's mysterious kinship
Our sense that there is some unspoken, invisible bond between Anna Karenina and Levin may in fact be what creates a sense of unity in the novel. Since Anna and Levin meet only once, this other kinship that binds them (and their halves of the novel) mostly operates beneath the surface of the plot. It is part of the hidden structure that Tolstoy was so proud of: at one point he spoke of the "hidden labyrinth of linkages" that operates in Anna Karenina; at another point Tolstoy explained that in Anna Karenina "the unity in the structure is created not by action and not by relationships between the characters, but by an inner continuity." If that is the case, then what inner connections bind Anna and Levin? Is there a natural affinity between them? Are they soul mates or antitheses? On the surface, they are so different and lead very different lives. For much of the novel, their lives appear to go in different courses: Levin moves into marriage, family life and meaningful activities, whereas Anna takes the opposite course. We often may feel that Tolstoy is simply using the double plot to divide the world into those who make the right choices (Levin and Kitty) and those who make the wrong ones (Anna and Vronsky). When, for example, we see Levin in action with his milk cow Pava and Vronsky in action with his racehorse Frou-Frou (in Parts One and Two), it may seem as though Tolstoy is using these parallel episodes to establish a simplistic opposition of two kinds of masculine behavior, one nurturing and the other destructive. But Tolstoy at times definitely seems to be doing something more than simply polarizing the two plots.
In fact, Tolstoy was forever developing binary oppositions only to deflate them, whether in his own life or in his fiction. Opposites turn out to be twins, each of which feels incomplete. Thus, even while Tolstoy has been opposing Anna's plot and Levin's, he has been hinting at mysterious convergences of their lots in life.
Anna and Levin converge—and the plot thickens—in two critical episodes late in the novel. One occurs when Anna and Levin come together for the first time in Part Seven, the other when Levin is found in Part Eight asking the same question—Why live?—that haunted Anna and drove her under the train.
These convergences may change how we respond to the novel. Distinctions that seem clear may become murky.
What are the parallels in their identities?
Until Part Seven of the novel, the Levin-Kitty and the Anna-Vronsky plots have been engaged in parallel stages, but with totally different results. In Part Five, they each have honeymoons, but Kitty and Levin emerge from the solipsism of this state to embrace familial responsibility whereas Anna and Vronsky flounder in their indulgence and grow further apart. In Part Six, the couples each set up housekeeping on their country estates for the summer, but Tolstoy stages every mundane detail of life on each of the estates so that it all adds up to diametrically opposed existential solutions.
In Part Seven, Tolstoy does something very different with the two plots—he intersects the plotlines, in what many see as the nexus of the novel. To carry this off, Tolstoy relies on symmetry and opposition, two of his favorite principles of construction. He starts by stationing everyone in Moscow. First, he stages a meeting between Kitty and Vronsky, their first since the opening scenes of the novel. This meeting reminds us of past pairings and other plot possibilities. It also draws into question the barriers between the two plots by reminding us of some common ground between them. Is Anna really so different from Kitty? Their lives couldn't seem more different right now, but reminders of the past make us wonder why their paths have so diverged.
Secondly, since Tolstoy has trained us to expect symmetry, we know that Anna and Levin's meeting must happen next. Readers aware of Levin's status as a kind of alter ego for Tolstoy will perhaps be especially watchful during this scene. It may offer some clues about Tolstoy's response to his adulterous heroine. Tolstoy has already shown that society is merciless to Anna, whether it's her Petersburg friends or her neighbors in the box at the opera. Everyone is ready to cast a stone at Anna—but not Levin.
When the novel began, Levin was certainly quite judgmental about women who have affairs: "They're vermin for me, and all fallen women are the same." (p. 41) But, lo and behold, Levin finds himself having a totally different response in Anna's company. "He listened, talked, and all the while thought about her, about her inner life, trying to guess her feelings. And he who had formerly judged her so severely, now, by some strange train of thought, justified her and at the same time pitied her, and feared that Vronsky did not fully understand her." (p. 701) Although there may well be some sexual tension between them (we are told that Anna did her best with all young men to "arouse a feeling of love for her"), what is remarkable in this description is the fact that Levin is entering her "inner life," "trying to guess her feelings." Maybe it's not all about physical attraction, maybe he is responding to her as a lost soul. He is making the empathetic leap of trying to feel along with her, trying to see things from her point of view. This is a revolution for Levin, and also for the novel itself.
What does Levin feel for Anna?
Once home, he is greeted by reminders of his various familial responsibilities, first and foremost, of course, to his pregnant wife. But Tolstoy can't resist also having Levin get two letters, one about how his crops are doing back on his farm and the other about his sister's business affairs, which he is in charge of. All this is a Tolstoyan reality check: Levin, a married man, about to become a father—Kitty's labor begins that very night—has no business being out keeping company with the likes of Anna. There are other demands on him and her tragedy is not his concern. So much for Levin's compassion! Kitty is convinced that Anna has bewitched him, but the birth of their child reins Levin in. Whatever energies and emotions he can muster should now focus on his son.
All this makes it clear that—at least according to the logic and values of the Levin plot—it was inappropriate for him to pity the likes of Anna Karenina.
How Levin continues Anna's story
If Levin isn't able to pity or help her, where does this leave Anna? This is the question that tormented Tolstoy. He had to have Levin retreat, but there is still a certain cruelty to what happens thereafter. Anna dies alone. No doubt, Anna is at fault here, because she rebuffs Vronsky and alienates him. Anna, at this point in the novel, is cold-hearted, manipulative, a bad mother, an adulteress, a dope addict, a jealous shrew and a sex fiend. Anna becomes all those things, and yet, just before her death we learn from her inner monologue that for all the hatred she feels, she still yearns for love and understanding. Anna dies making the sign of the cross and begging God for forgiveness.
Tolstoy doesn't have any solution to the problem of Anna beyond having other people's lives go on. In Part Eight, we find that Anna is out of sight and out of mind. Readers, still reeling from Anna's death, may wonder what to make of Anna's absence from the minds and hearts of those who knew her. Vronsky may still remember her, but he's on his way to oblivion in Serbia. Stiva, who sobbed desperately over his dead sister's body at the train station, goes about his business and sees Vronsky only as a "hero and an old friend." (p. 774) When Dolly notes that Stiva met Vronsky at the train station, the general conversation goes to the war, not to Anna. We are left to wonder what Dolly has been feeling about Anna's suicide, especially since Anna had come to her that day. Why has Tolstoy let everyone seem ready to forget Anna, especially in a novel that is still called Anna Karenina?
Tolstoy does plant reminders of Anna's life and death in the last part of the novel. He does so by having Levin go through a spiritual crisis, which is very different and yet eerily similar to what Anna went through. Levin wants to know, "What am I? And where am I? And why am I here?" (p. 792), much as Anna asked, "Where am I? What am I doing? Why?" before throwing herself under the train (p. 768). Much like Anna, Levin starts to see only one means of "deliverance" from the torment of his questions: death. Thus we find that "happy in his family life, a healthy man, Levin was several times so close to suicide that he hid a rope lest he hang himself with it, and was afraid to go about with a rifle less he shoot himself." (p. 789) At this point, Levin and Anna emerge as kindred spirits and Tolstoy achieves the inner continuity that holds the novel together.
Yet we will be reminded of a difference between what happens to Levin and what happens to Anna...
At this point, because the plots do interact, Tolstoy seems to be inviting us to apply this wisdom to Anna's plot. Levin's existential crisis gives us another possible perspective on Anna's tragedy. Instead of seeing them as being worlds apart (the faithful husband vs. the evil adulteress), we can see them as on the same path—both are seeking answers to the question "Why live?" and both wanting to find meaning in their life on this earth. Perhaps the main difference is that Anna failed to remember God until it was too late, the train was already upon her.
Examine character journeys and plot points in Oprah's Book Club guide to Anna Karenina.