Character Journeys in Anna Karenina
Making an Entrance
Anna's demeanor is foreshadowed by a powerful (and sexual) description of her train pulling into the station. "The platform began to tremble, and, puffing steam ... the engine rolled past, with the coupling rod of the middle wheel slowly and rhythmically turning and straightening ... and, after the tender, slowing-down and shaking the platform still more ... finally came the passenger carriages, shuddering to a stop." (p. 60) Anna Karenina will be someone impossible to ignore.
We soon see that despite her status as a princess and a mother, Anna has a hard time controlling herself. Vronsky is instantly mesmerized by her attempt to hide her facial expressions. Anna interacts perfectly with the elderly Countess Vronsky but breaks social decorum upon seeing her brother. She doesn't wait to be helped out of the carriage, but with "resoluteness and grace," throws her arm around his neck and kisses him. (p. 62) Her actions betray her independent spirit.
In the Throes of Family Life
In the Oblonsky household, Anna holds an exalted position as both Stiva's and Dolly's confidant. She counsels Dolly into reconciling with Stiva; her nieces and nephew make a game out of sitting close to her; and Kitty falls under her influence "as young girls are capable of being in love with older married ladies." (p. 71) However, one night with Vronsky exposes Anna as a ball of contradictions.
Slowly, the depth of Anna's character begins to reveal itself. Torn between her growing feelings for Vronsky and what Kitty must think of her, Anna confesses to Dolly that she is leaving Moscow to stop Vronsky from falling in love with her. Secretly excited that he might, her confession wavers in its sincerity—sounding to Dolly like something Stiva's would say. Dolly, who's just recovering from her husband's infidelity, doesn't reprimand Anna—she delights in knowing that Anna has weaknesses of her own.
Conflicted and Confined
On the train ride back to Petersburg, Anna's inner conflict is reflected in a beautiful and terrorizing blizzard. She wrestles with her actions and her guilt, asking herself, "What am I? Myself or someone else?" Through this moment of self-exploration we see that Anna's attraction to Vronsky is part of her desire to live—to be more than she is now. When she risks the snowstorm to step outside and clear her head, she is surprised to find Vronsky on the same train. Although she rejects his advances, she loses herself in "joyful, burning and exciting" reveries about him the rest of the trip. (p. 103)
Despite her torment, Anna's spirit isn't completely broken. When Vronsky and Karenin meet in Petersburg, Anna handles her worlds colliding with a touch of humor. When she looks at her husband's new hair cut she thinks, "Ah, my God! What's happened with his ears?" To protect herself from further indiscretions or temptations, Anna falls back into her role as the dutiful wife and tries to stifle her disappointment with reality. When Karenin comes to her at night saying, "It's time, it's time," she follows him to the bedroom—still thinking about his ears—and Vronsky. Appearances are everything, and at this stage in her journey, Anna will go where she is expected and let her mind do the wandering.
Vronsky's path to love
A Man of Contradictions
For all of his past liaisons with women, Vronsky is not a man without conscience. For months Anna and Vronsky chase each other around Petersburg—Vronsky, not Anna, gushing endlessly of love and speaking to her in French. When Anna finally stops pushing him away, Vronsky feels "what a murderer must feel when he looks at the body he has deprived of life." (p. 149) He feels a loathing in himself—for Karenin, himself, or the world, he did know—and hates that he has to lie, deceive and scheme to conceal their love, all things Tolstoy describes as being "contrary to his nature." (p. 184) He is moral in ways we might not expect him to be yet he doesn't change his course.
Although Vronsky is concerned by the sacrifices Anna has to make for him, his career and social standing are starting to suffer. In his social circle, affairs are acceptable and even commonplace as long as they are kept light-hearted and hidden. His cousin Princess Betsy has a Turkish lover and even his older brother keeps a dancer. But Vronsky and Anna's behavior in public—especially in front of Karenin—becomes the source of endless gossip.
His mother, who initially approved of Anna, fears her son's liaison is foolish since he refused a new position just to remain close to Anna. And his brother advises him to step down before he loses favor in the regiment. Vronsky feels angry because deep down he knows he has stepped outside of the game and is vulnerable—this "was not a momentary passion that would go away, as society liaisons do, leaving no traces." (p. 183)
Signs of the Aging Playboy
Admired by the young men in his regiment for who he has chosen to love, lectured by family for his recklessness, and removed from the camaraderie of his old life with friends like Yashvin, Vronsky's love isolates him from his former world. In a humorous scene, Vronsky's friends tease him: "You should get your hair cut, it's too heavy, especially on the bald spot." (p. 180) Even with his flirtatious charm, perhaps Vronsky's days of turning young girls heads are coming to an end.
When he's not with Anna or his regiment, Vronsky's other passion is his horses. In an ominous moment, Vronsky breaks his horse's back during a race but walks away unharmed. He will remember it always as the most heavy and painful memory of his life. Up until this point, Vronsky has led an easy life and only had to think of himself. But love changes everything.
A Family to Call His Own
When we first met Vronsky we learned that he had never known family life. A confirmed bachelor, he thought of family, especially a husband, as "alien, hostile and ridiculous." When he finds out that Anna is pregnant, he does not mention marriage, but he does want her to run away with him. "End the lie we live in... Leave your husband and unite our lives." (p. 188)
It is a selfish wish that a single man would make on a married mother. Vronsky can't fully grasp that Anna's fear of losing Seryozha—"that word 'son' she could not utter"—is what keeps her tied to Karenin. (p. 190) Now that Vronsky is faced with fatherhood, will he fight for his family? For now, he has to trust that Anna will leave Karenin and become his mistress—and that in doing so, some happiness will come of their union.
Stiva's wandering ways
Guilty but Not to Blame
Although he is guilty, Stiva doesn't regret his behavior—only that he had failed to hide it better from his wife. He is actually surprised how deeply his infidelity has hurt Dolly. He "vaguely imagined that his wife had long suspected him of being unfaithful" and because she was "a worn-out, aged, no longer beautiful woman, not remarkable for anything, simple, merely a kind mother of a family, ought in all fairness to be indulgent." (p. 3) He does not however pursue this argument when he speaks to her. Instead he sobs and begs her to think of their children. A cheerful and pleasant man, liked by everyone who knows him, Stiva can't stand anyone being mad at him.
Sweet Rolls and Marriage
He also can't stay focused in his own despair for very long and bounces back to his old self. At dinner with Levin, Stiva indulges in expensive tastes—that he can't afford—and their conversation reveals how simply Stiva views matters of the heart. For Stiva, having an affair is like stealing a sweet roll when he's already full. "Sometimes a sweet roll is so fragrant that you can't help yourself." (p. 40)
All joking aside, Stiva wants Levin to see how helpless he is when it comes to women and that he really can't be blamed for wandering outside his marriage. "The wife is getting old, and you're full of life. Before you have time to turn around, you already feel you can't love your wife as a lover, however much you may respect her. And here suddenly love comes along and you're lost, lost!" (p. 41) He returns to this line of reasoning again in Part Two. He tells Levin, "You don't accept that one can like sweet rolls when one has a daily ration of bread—in your opinion, it's a crime. But I don't accept life without love. No help for it, that's how I'm made." (p. 162)
The Sham of a Dutiful Husband
As soon as Stiva's sister Anna convinces Dolly to forgive him, he feels free to carry on as before. Although Dolly suspects he's started a new liaison, by forgiving Stiva she has agreed to keep her silence, tolerate his affairs and preserve their "family habits." (p. 121) Stiva becomes as absent from his family life as he is from the novel. In Part Three, only the repercussions of his actions can be felt. Using his government position as an excuse to avoid joining his family in the country for the summer, Stiva is not fooling anyone.
Try as he might to uphold appearances, Stiva fails miserably at his duties as a father and husband. When Stiva visited the estate in the spring to sell the wood, he said he had ordered all of the necessary repairs. "Like all guilty husbands he was very solicitous of his wife's comfort." (p. 259) He makes all of the cosmetic repairs but neglects the day-to-day necessities like food, bathing, and hired help. "He never could remember that he had a wife and children. He had a bachelor's tastes, and they alone guided him." (p. 260)
It seems the apple doesn't fall far from the tree in the Oblonsky family. Now that his sister's affair has been revealed, whose side will he take—Anna's for her passionate love or Karenin's for his rights as a husband? Caught between a sister and a friend, a freedom and a duty, you may see Stiva in a new light.
Karenin's change of heart
What Happens Behind Closed Doors
Generous and fair-minded, Karenin tries at first to rationalize away his young wife's affair. He squashes his feelings of jealousy and instead pleas with Anna not to give anyone reason to gossip. As long as they can preserve the status quo, Karenin can feign ignorance of her infidelity and keep his—and her—reputation in tact. He tells Anna he loves her but Anna doubts that he even knows what love is.
Anna cannot live by his rules and tries to force him to let her go. Frustrated by her refusal to be saved, Karenin "closed, locked and sealed the drawer in which he kept his feelings for his family." (p. 201) Holding the fate of their son and their marriage in his hands, Karenin decides against divorce so that he may extract his revenge on Anna in private. When Anna calls Vronsky to their home Karenin's quiet indignation boils over. Usually so calm and cold that Anna often refers to him as a machine or a puppet, Anna is struck by Karenin's resolution and firmness. Immune to her insults, spurred on by her pregnancy, Karenin is driven to action. The only way he can hurt Anna now is to expose her as a criminal wife and take their son Seryozha away from her.
The Thin Line Between Love and Hate
A dark side of Karenin emerges as he puts his plans for divorce in motion and tries to break ties with Anna's family. From one duped spouse to another, Anna's sister-in-law Dolly pleads with him to forgive Anna. But Karenin's hate has left no room for forgiveness. "I am not a wicked man, I never hated anyone, but I hate her with all the strength of my soul, and I cannot forgive her because I hate her so much...Love those who hate you, but to love those you hate is impossible." (p. 394)
Torn between revenge and propriety, Karenin tries to keep his emotions in check. "Each time he had encountered life, he had drawn back from it." (p. 142) But his cold and reasonable nature actually masks his greatest weakness—tears! Other people's suffering produces an "inner disturbance" in his soul, which usually makes him angry. (p. 278) Standing at Anna's bedside thinking that she is dying, already feeling guilty for desiring her death, watching Vronsky cry, Karenin gives himself over to that feeling and finds not weakness or anger but inner peace. Instead of thinking that he should forgive and love his enemies, "the joyful feeling of love and forgiveness of his enemies filled his soul." (p. 413) Overcome with emotion, he sobs like a child.
Why Karenin forgives Anna and Vronsky
Impossible to Live as Three
As Anna's health improves, Karenin can feel her hatred for him grow. Soon Karenin feels powerless and like everything is against him. He can feel pressure from his wife, Stiva, Princess Betsy and "the crude force which guided his life"—social expectation— forcing him to divorce her against his better judgment. (p. 425) Karenin would rather allow Vronsky and Anna's relations to continue than deprive himself of the children he loves and ruin Anna in the eyes of the Church.
Staying in a loveless marriage is not an option for Anna. She abandons her son Seryozha—the one thing that kept her tied to Karenin—and takes little Anna to Italy with Vronsky. Will Karenin's newfound peace allow him to forgive Anna this time or will he revert to his cold-hearted ways and turn their son against her? This could be the moment the old man's heart breaks.
Kitty comes into her own
Lessons Learned the Hard Way
While she is stunned at first by Vronsky's rejection, it is impossible for Kitty to think of the insult she's received without thinking of the insult she's inflicted on Levin. She refuses her sister Dolly's pity about Vronsky, saying, "I'm proud enough never to allow myself to love a man who doesn't love me." (p. 124) But Kitty loses her composure when Dolly mentions Levin. Kitty knows she chose "happy prospects" with Vronsky and "hurt a man she loved and hurt him cruelly" with Levin. (p. 47) She realizes too late that she made the wrong decision and longs for Levin's forgiveness.
In order to restore her health (and escape harsh societal judgment), Kitty and her mother travel to a German spa where Kitty hopes to make herself over into a "perfect being." (p. 216) There Kitty befriends Varenka—a young woman who selflessly tends to the needs of her elderly companion as well as other patients at the spa—hoping to emulate her altruistic habits. Kitty pretends to care for a sick gentleman painter at the spa, but he mistakes Kitty's kindness for love and she suffers the embarrassment. Humiliated once again by her failure to be true to her heart, Kitty berates herself to Varenka. "It was all pretense...so as to seem better to people, to myself, to God—to deceive everyone. No, I won't fall into that any more! Be bad, but at least don't be a liar!" (p. 235)
Time Heals All Wounds
When Kitty and Levin reunite, it takes less than 24 hours for their fates to be united. At a dinner party Dolly and Stiva have orchestrated, Kitty and Levin are so much in each other's thoughts that they become engaged without speaking. Overjoyed to have Levin's forgiveness, Kitty has no doubts about their union. Levin, on the other hand, seems to need constant reassurance of her love. He offers to call off the wedding twice—first after she reads his diaries and then after his "bachelor night." The content of the diaries horrifies Kitty but makes her love Levin for all his faults; having to put his fears to rest closer to the wedding makes her see him as "pathetic." (p. 446) A pattern has been set for their relationship—when Levin is groundless Kitty will be her most rational.
Kitty as wife and mother
In their home in the country, Kitty and Levin experience the growing pains many newlyweds feel. Levin blames Kitty's presence and fussing over the house for his inability to work, but he fails to realize that Kitty is nesting—preparing for the time when she will be his wife, mistress of the house and mother to their children. Kitty is rapidly maturing and asserts her authority when she takes over the run of the household from Levin's old nurse and housekeeper Agafya. As Kitty learns to temper her fancies with practicalities, she feels scrutinized and mocked by the servants at every turn. Eventually, she wins Agafya over by simple, respectful acts—like asking Agafya to sit down for tea.
We begin to see the depth of Kitty's character when Levin's brother Nikolai becomes deathly ill. Kitty again asserts her position when Levin says she can't accompany him to see Nikolai because Nikolai's companion, former prostitute Marya, will be there. Kitty argues, "I do not wish to know anything about who or what is there. I know that my husband's brother is dying, and that my husband is going to him...I feel it's my duty to be with my husband when my husband is in distress." (p. 488) Kitty gets her wish and does not disappoint. She swings into action, calling the doctor and pharmacy, and making over the dingy room. Divorcing herself from social rules, she even walks the halls unescorted and talks to the taboo Marya.
While Levin wrestles intellectually with death and how to be around his dying brother, Kitty draws on the lessons she learned at the spa to bring real comfort to Nikolai in his final days. Levin marvels at Kitty and Agafya's grasp of life and death. "The proof that they knew firmly what death was lay in their knowing, without a moment's doubt, how to act with dying people and not being afraid of them." (p. 496) As life and death are intertwined, so are Nikolai's final days and the beginning of a new life. We've seen Kitty's instinct and ease when faced with her brother-in-law's passing...now we will discover how she will welcome her first baby into the world. From all her nurturing in Part Five, it's hard to imagine that she won't rise to the challenge of motherhood.
Dolly, one of the first Desperate Housewives
The Great Pretender
The quintessential "mother hen," Dolly drowns her private grief by tending to the needs of her family. Dolly barely has a chance to dry her tears before a drama greater than her own heartache demands her attention: her sister Kitty and Anna find themselves in a love triangle with Vronsky. Surprisingly, Dolly smiles at Anna's admission of weakness, dismisses Vronsky's attraction for a married woman as Kitty's good fortune, and rushes off to console her sister. Although the entire Shcherbatsky clan knows about Stiva's infidelity, they offer Dolly little or no support. "Painful as it was for [Princess Shcherbatsky] to see the unhappiness of her eldest daughter, Dolly ... her worry over the deciding of her youngest daughter's fate consumed all her feelings." (p. 45) Dolly stoically bears her father calling Stiva her "trump" and Kitty's contempt for her staying with a man who doesn't love her, but she doesn't hide Stiva's behavior. She says, "He goes out all the time, I almost never see him." Though she has already begun to suspect him of another affair, believing it would jeopardize her family stability, "she allowed herself to be deceived, despising him and most of all herself for this weakness." (p. 121)
Not only does Dolly's power of self-deception numb her heart, it also protects her family. All along, Dolly has believed in Anna's innocence but when Karenin confesses that Anna has consummated her relationship with Vronsky, Dolly lies to Karenin about her own experience to protect Anna from ruin. "My husband deceived me. Angry, jealous, I wanted to abandon everything ... Anna saved me. ... My husband comes back to the family, he feels he wasn't right, becomes purer, better, and I live." (p. 394) All this, she says, after Stiva has abandoned her and their six children in the country for the summer.
The Monotony of Moral Life
When Dolly decides to visit Anna on her own, she feels as if she has been released from prison. Free to think, uninterrupted, during the four-hour ride, Dolly is consumed by a mother's fears: How will she send her children out into the world with no support from Stiva, burdening her aging parents or the newly-wedded Levins? She is haunted by the possibility that she may become pregnant again and worse yet, bury another child. "And all that for what? That I, having not a moments peace, now pregnant, now nursing, eternally angry, grumpy, tormented myself and tormenting others, repulsive to my husband, will live my life out and bring up unfortunate, poorly educated and destitute children." (p. 607)
The Secret of Motherhood
The reality of Anna's lifestyle turns out to be a disappointment for Dolly. She is uncomfortable with Vronsky's candid conversation, ill-at-ease with the maids, and, by the end of the first night, she has grown to dislike the playful banter between Anna and Vasenka she initially found flattering. Out of step in Anna's world, Dolly decides to cut her visit short. "Those painful cares of motherhood that she had hated so on her way there, now, after a day spent without them, presented themselves to her in a different light and drew her to them." (p. 635)
Already disillusioned by her foray into the unknown, Dolly is completely caught off-guard by Anna's late night confessional: "I won't have any more children. I won't, because I don't want it." (p. 637) Instead of becoming ill and pregnant with unfortunate children—Dolly's own fear—Anna has decided to be a beautiful companion to Vronsky for as long as he'll have her. Dolly is horrified by a seemingly simple solution to a complicated problem, and her admiration of Anna comes to an end. Dolly cannot imagine her life would be better without any one of her children, nor can she imagine that if Anna's beauty is what "attracts and keeps" Vronsky now that he won't eventually seek out another beauty. (p. 638) Though Dolly said she'd always love Anna as her best friend, she has never felt further away from her than she does as their visit ends.
Yet there is still light at the end of Dolly's tunnel. She uses her gift for storytelling to tell everyone about how wonderful her visit with the Vronskys was "with perfect sincerity, forgetting the vague sense of dissatisfaction and discomfort she had experienced there." (p. 642) Is Dolly putting up another brave front for her family? Will she turn her back on Anna? Has she given up her dreams of real love?
Anna's final journey
There's Something About Anna
Anna is used to being admired. Her family adores her, young men fall in love with her, and people are struck by her natural beauty as much as her elegance and grace. Even the high-society Princess Miagky defends her, saying, "She's so dear, so sweet. What can she do if they're all in love with her and follow her like shadows?" (p. 136) But the most alluring thing about Anna is something that lies just beneath the surface. "It was as if a surplus of something so overflowed her being that it expressed itself beyond her will, now in the brightness of her glance, now in her smile." (p. 61) Anna is conscious of the effect she has on people, but wonders "why people have all decided to spoil me. What have I done? Each of us has skeletons in his soul." (p. 97)
And Anna's own skeletons start to rattle when Vronsky enters her life. He opens a world of passionate love that her marriage is lacking, and an exciting life, both frightening and happy, born from the pages of the novels she reads. Anna stubbornly pursues her right to live and love freely. "Karenin never thought that I was a living woman who needed love. God has made me so I must love and live. I cannot repent that I breathe, that I love." (p. 292) When she tells Vronsky she has told Karenin about their love, she hopes he will save her from the humiliation of living as a criminal wife. "If at this news he should say to her resolutely, passionately, without a moment's hesitation: Abandon everything and fly away with me! — she would leave her son and go with him." (p. 315) But life is not as neat as fiction and Anna's emotions swing from extremes as she reels from one disappointment to the next.
In the Name of Love
Anna's greatest happiness is the source of her greatest self imposed shame. From the moment she enters into her relationship with Vronsky, Anna seems to be the only one who knows she will have to sacrifice her son. She tells Stiva, "I feel I'm flying headlong into some abyss but I mustn't try to save myself." (p. 427) Her words became a self-fulfilling prophecy. When Karenin agrees to a divorce, she says she doesn't want it and flees to Italy. She reproaches herself, saying, "I did a bad thing and therefore I do not want happiness, I do not want a divorce, and will suffer from my disgrace and my separation from my son." (p. 464) However sincerely Anna wants to suffer, she does not. In Italy, she doesn't think of Seryozha at all and falls more in love with Vronsky.
Like a mother's mantra, Anna says over and over again that she can't live without her son, but in the end, Anna realizes that it was all supposition. "I thought I loved [Seryozha] and used to be moved by my own tenderness. But I did live without him, exchanged him for another love, and didn't complain of the exchange as long as I was satisfied by that love." (p. 764)
Anna comes undone
When Anna thinks she has lost Vronsky's love, she fears it will be replaced by respect, a feeling that reminds her of Karenin. "Respect was invented to cover the empty place where love should be." (p. 739) Alone in Moscow, Anna becomes convinced she's reliving everything she had rebelled against in Petersburg. She feels abandoned, unloved and inactive.
Just as she ridiculed Karenin and faulted him for everything bad she could think of when she was feeling guilty about Vronsky, so she eventually turns on Vronsky. While she is shunned from society, he is free to live a bachelor's life. Her greatest fear, now that she has lost Seryozha, is that Vronsky will abandon her. "For me, everything is in him alone, and I demand that he give his entire self to me more and more. If he is kind and gentle towards me out of duty, without loving me, and I am not to have what I want—that is a thousand times worse even than anger. It's hell! And that is what we have." (p. 763) Her envy and desperation turn into uncontrollable jealousy, pushing him further away and her to the breaking point.
She's Come Undone
Resolved to be a mistress and not a wife, Anna had told Dolly, "Thinking of marriage could drive me mad." (p. 640) And it does. After she spends one night romanticizing the pity, love and suffering Vronsky will experience if she dies, Anna fails to recognize herself in a mirror. "I'm losing my mind." (p. 753) But the flame of life still flickers inside. She decides to visit Dolly to clear her head. In the carriage, death doesn't seem inevitable and Anna reproaches herself for stooping to such humiliation. At Dolly's, a telegram from Stiva reconfirms that Karenin is still refusing a divorce, leaving Anna with neither of her loves. Anna's world begins to grow dark and dirty. Once radiant and cheerful, Anna leaves Dolly's feeling utterly alone. "Is it really possible to tell someone else what one feels? Levin thought he knew me. I don't know myself. We all hate each other." (p. 760) The deeper into her depression she sinks, the worse the world around her seems. As she rides to the train station in a vain attempt to reach Vronsky, she imagines houses full of people who hate each other, distrusting couples trying to escape themselves. The train station itself is soiled and nasty, filled with "pathologically ugly" people. (p. 767) And though she once delighted in attention from young men, she feels pawed at by their stares now. Death is the release from the pain and revenge for a love that's been denied her.
Throughout the novel, Anna has been dramatically self-aware. Feeling like a tightened string about to snap, Anna repeatedly told the men in her life that death was the only way to end the pain and shame of her situation. But Vronsky and Stiva won't hear of it. If only someone had listened to her, her fate might not have been so tragic.
Levin's life lessons
Tolstoy's Guide to Everyday Living
During periods of confusion in my life, I often turn to my family for emotional support, to my God for faith, and to Tolstoy for insight and inspiration. I believe Anna Karenina is one of the greatest guidebooks to positive, everyday living I have encountered. Tolstoy doesn't simply give us the answers. Like any great teacher, he encourages us to seek out the answers on our own. Who am I? Why am I here? What will make me happy?
As a man who loves this book, I hope that when other men read this book, they might recognize themselves in at least one of the male characters, and take Levin's lessons to heart—it could lead to improvements in the quality of their intimate relationships for years to come. Tolstoy gives readers more than advice. He gives vivid and stirring portraits of individual human beings caught in specific, yet highly recognizable, life situations.
Men at Work
Take it from me that most men have great work ethics except when it comes to matters of love. When we do put work into building relationships, we tend to concentrate our energy on finding love rather than giving it. We focus on the qualities that we believe will make women love us—like Karenin, Vronsky and Stiva, who focus on power, popularity and success—rather than on the qualities that will make us truly loving partners—like Levin, Lvov and, to some extent, Prince Shcherbatsky, who are attentive, emotionally open and self-sacrificing. The situation was not so much different in Tolstoy's time. Most of Tolstoy's male characters, who work so hard at advancing their careers, upholding their social images and impressing their peers, are much less disciplined, even lazy, when it comes to working at love.
In holding up a mirror to his time, Tolstoy holds up a mirror to ours as well. Men today can probably discover themselves in at least one of the male characters. However, only Levin finds happiness, because—by nature and by choice—he has what it takes to build a loving, committed relationship. His many years of emotional and spiritual struggle have served him well. They have taught him the values of patience, openness, commitment and self-sacrifice. Throughout the novel, Levin seeks a higher meaning in his life, and that meaning is often bound up with his ideals of love and marriage.
The Good Husband
From the very beginning of the novel, as a woman and as a person, Kitty is sacred to Levin. When he sees her ice-skating early in Part One, he is overwhelmed by joy and fear: "The place where she stood seemed to him unapproachably holy and there was a moment he almost went away—he was so filled with awe." (p. 28) Levin never loses his belief in Kitty's sacredness. Though they argue and have daily struggles like all couples, Levin remains eternally grateful to be in such a deeply satisfying relationship with the woman of his dreams.
The hope of a man
Unlike most of the other men in the novel who keep their emotional life and their married life separate, Levin brings all of his inner resources to his relationship with Kitty. He lays himself bare before her and invests his heart and soul into the bond they build together. "He understood not only that she was close to him, but that he no longer knew where she ended and he began." (p.482) As a husband, Levin doesn't just take on the "manly" responsibilities of working and earning a living. He also strives to be responsive to his wife's needs. "Her petty fussing and cares several times offended him. But he saw that she needed it. And loving her as he did, though he did not understand why, though he chucked at those cares, he could not help admiring them." (p.480). Levin provides a model of what it means to be a man of courage, ideals and heart. Levin finds happiness in love because he is not afraid to make himself emotionally vulnerable and to put his love for Kitty higher than his love for himself.
The Hope of a Man
More than any other man in the novel, Levin struggles desperately to find faith and meaning in an uncertain world. This is the source of much of his suffering. None of the "solutions" provided by organized religion or the other social institutions of his time satisfy Levin. Yet despite Levin's moments of confusion, hurt and loss, I believe he embodies a message of hope. Consider the many moments of bliss and wonder that he experiences: the sublime love leading up to and during their marriage, his terrified rapture during the birth of his son, his feelings of ecstasy while mowing with his peasants in the fields. Even by the end of the novel, Levin never becomes a purely religious believer, but realizes that his life does have a higher purpose: "...my whole life...is not only not meaningless, as it was before, but has the unquestionable meaning of the good which it is in my power to put into it." (p. 817) Happiness and meaning, Levin discovers, come from within.
Just as Tolstoy describes vice and frailty, he also describes the courage of the human spirit. In Levin, Tolstoy expresses his faith in the human potential for self-transformation. Tolstoy came to this faith the hard way. More than once in his life, the author was on the verge of suicide. In fact, the scene in Part Eight in which Levin hides the ropes and rifles so that he won't kill himself was actually taken from the pages of Tolstoy's own life. "But Levin did not shoot himself or hang himself and went on living." (p. 798) So did Tolstoy.
What was the powerful inner spark that brought both of them back from the brink of despair? It was Tolstoy's (and Levin's) conviction that, no matter how difficult things can sometimes become, life is always worth living. Remember, the novel doesn't end with Anna's tragedy, but with Kitty and Levin's productive family life in the country. Both of these truths—the suffering and the joys of life—are perfectly intertwined in Anna Karenina. One cannot exist without the other. But the balance tilts towards happiness in the end. As Levin's journey shows, no matter how badly human beings stumble and fall, the strength and beauty of the human spirit always shines through.
Examine plot points and discussion questions in Oprah's Book Club guide to Anna Karenina.