Plot Points and Themes in Anna Karenina
"All the history of mankind, since we have known it, is the movement of humanity to closer and closer unification." — Count Leo Tolstoy, from A Calendar of Wisdom
When we first meet Levin, he has come to the city to propose to a princess—a woman of high society and sophistication. When he is rejected in this pursuit, Levin returns to the work that sustains him and feeds his soul: farming. Unlike many landed "gentry" of this period in Russian history, Levin's philosophy of the engagement necessary to be a productive, fruitful farmer is somewhat revolutionary. Additionally, through Levin we learn a great deal of the Russian agrarian system and its state of crisis in the latter half of the 19th century.
In Levin's storyline, Tolstoy thoughtfully embeds a great deal of reform that would have not only been recognized by his readership, but also appreciated as something very powerful and meaningful. Contemporary readers often lament at the fissure between the tempestuous love affair on the one side, and the passages about farming on the other. The two story lines seem like two books to many readers. Yet, one of the things that made Tolstoy's text so powerful when it was first published (to wild success) and has helped it stand the test of time is the depth of its philosophy. Though the author certainly says a lot about marriage, family and fidelity as well, some of his most enlightened passages are related to Levin's struggle to live a wholesome, productive, fulfilled life in the course of his work as a farmer.
In a heated discussion with his brother Sergei in Part Three, Chapter III, Levin is incensed when Sergei says, "I don't understand what philosophy has got to do with it." Levin replies, "It's got this to do with it! I think that the motive force of all our actions is, after all, personal happiness." (p. 245) In many ways, it is exactly this concept that plays itself out through the rest of Levin's development—and that was, at the time Anna Karenina was published, so controversial. To Levin, all of his desires to help others and be of service circle back on a desire to walk a path of personal fulfillment. In this way, Levin understands the collaboration between himself and his workers, each of whom are also attempting to do right by themselves as well as their community.
In his commitment to renew the existing agrarian system in Russia (which Tolstoy also thought needed reform), Levin develops a model that includes three distinct features: (1) Work motivated by self-interest; (2) Labor that is given enough personal investment to feel engaged; (3) Advances in technology that meet the needs of the populous.
Levin speaks of these concepts, but he also lives them in a way that is consistent with his personal passions for his life and the success of his farm, community and country. He mows the fields alongside the peasants. He makes a commitment to support his family. He takes control of his farm, overturning the old methods and implementing new plans that he alone believes will be advantageous for all involved. He questions the world around him, and his engagement with it. In this way he is truly a reformer, and emerges as a man to be admired for his personal commitments and philosophical ideals. Through Levin, Tolstoy explores the voice of change and reformation—and leads the reader to do the same.
Part Four Plot Point: Marriage and Divorce Laws
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