Reason

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reason



The world of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina is a world ruled by chance. From the very opening chapters, where a watchman is accidentally run over by a train at Moscow's Petersburg station, to the final, climactic scenes of arbitrary destruction when Levin searches for Kitty in a forest beset by lightning, characters are brought together and forced into action against their will by coincidence and, sometimes, misfortune. That Anna and Vronsky ever meet and begin the fateful affair that becomes the centerpiece of the novel is itself a consequence of a long chain of unrelated events: culminating Anna's sharing a berth with Vronsky's mother on her way to reconcile Dolly and Stiva in Moscow. And yet, as an epigraph to this seemingly chaotic world of chance event, a seemingly amoral world that would seem to neither punish sin nor reward good, Tolstoy chooses a quotation that comes originally from the book of Deuteronomy's song of Moses: "Vengeance is mine; I will repay." Originally (and somewhat narrowly) thought to refer to Anna's final ostracism from the upper echelons of society that punish her for her misdeeds, the epigraph is the key to Tolstoy's subtle and philosophically complex conception of morality that denies the existence of a universal and unavoidable justice and derives responsibility from the individual's freedom to create and then bind himself to laws. Three of the novel's characters, Stephen Oblonsky, Constatine Levin, and Anna Karenina, all in some way connected to the Shcherbatsky family, serve to illustrate the various ways that Tolstoy's individual can be, or fail to be, "good," the various ways in which a character can be moral, immoral or amoral through the use of thought, or reason, to create necessity outside of the confused demands of a chaotic reality.
Tolstoy's world is indeed a servant to chance, and the plot depends so heavily on coincidence that Anna Karenina, taking into account the many elements of Menippian satire and Socratic dialogue that are integrated into its structure, may well be considered in part a carnival novel. The steeplechase scene during which Vronsky breaks Frou-Frou's back is a perfect example of carnivalism -- the tragic yet somehow slapstick and cartoon-like injuries that befall the riders is a parody of the grand battlefield that the steeplechase is supposed to symbolize and the crowds of observers present provide the necessary "public square" that Bakhtin outlines as necessary for the second key property of carnivalism, "free and familiar contact among people," at the racecourse occasioned by the terrible accidents that generate a swarm of rumors that pass between the spectators regardless, for once, of class and gender -- in the excitement of the event, Tolstoy writes, Anna's shriek of fear at the precise moment of Vronsky's upset passes the notice of those surrounding her usually so keen to find something inappropriate in Anna's relation to Vronsky. Bakhtin's theory of carnivalism, however, only goes so far in characterizing Tolstoy's prose, and even though the reliance on chance as generator of events continues, the solipsistic mode of self-analysis and interpersonal distance returns almost immediately after the race is over and as the novel continues, becomes the dominant mode of ideological presentation so key to the essence of Anna's relationship to Vronsky and to her reasons for suicide.
Stephen Oblonsky, the first character we encounter in the novel, is at home in the turbulent and unstructured world that Tolstoy depicts, and lives at ease with the often meaningless turns of fate that occur to him and others. "You wish all the facts of life to be consistent, but they never are," he says to Levin in Part I. "You want the activity of each separate man to have an aim, and love and family life always to coincide -- and that doesn't happen either. All the variety, charm and beauty of life are made up of light and shade."
Oblonsky is a materialist, although not in a formally philosophical way. He might better be said to be a pragmatist, or hedonist, although those labels, too, have their problems, since, as Anna remarks to Dolly, family life for him is sacred. He is not particularly religious but neither is he an intellectual such as Koznyshev or an nihilist such as Nicholas. Perhaps the best way to characterize Oblonsky is as a man who never held a coherent system of behavior, a man to whom the idea of thinking rationally about the way he lives his life would never occur.
"All the variety, charm and beauty of life are made up of light and shade." Oblonsky's aesthetic consciousness is devoid of the traditional ethical, religious and literary structures that man has created to understand and appreciate beauty. The poetry Oblonsky quotes when he remarks upon (and, importantly, empathizes with) Levin's love for Kitty is more often than not misquoted, and in recalling his various adulterous escapades, he takes great pleasure in referring to the women he has loved outside of marriage using Levin's metaphor of stealing rolls of bread. Oblonsky is far from Karenin's dry inability to see clearly the beautiful and pleasurable in life, but yet how far also he is from Socrates and the ethical imperative of love in the Symposium, the religious eroticism of the Song of Solomon, the tortured analysis and reanalysis of Goethe's Werther.
The two words Oblonsky yokes together with beauty are variety and charm, and beauty in life for him is just that -- a rather incoherent series of inconsequential yet pleasurable encounters with a world that, through its own apparent random nature, never suggests any greater ethical obligation than to perceive and appreciate. That Oblonsky survives so intact a storyline that leaves the lives of others shattered implies that Tolstoy does not derive moral responsibility and the power to judge from nature, that he shares with Immanuel Kant the belief that the phenomenal world is separate from man and does not enter a man's life to pass judgement upon his actions.
Oblonsky then, in the final analysis, is unconcerned with the human ability to create structures to filter and interpret experience. He is exempt from the tortures of doubt and guilt that descend upon the other characters whose experiences are intertwined with an inner moral sense. No where is this clearer than in his interactions with Levin, where his continual lack of caution and respect for language causes the love struck Levin such pain. Oblonsky's tipsy quotations from Pushkin and Heine spoken quite innocently torment Levin, for if Oblonsky is the image of a man unconcerned with self-judgement, Levin is a man for whom structure is everything, a man who, driven by a search for moral order to place over a chaotic world that torments him (and yet pleases Oblonsky), alternately picks up and puts down different systems of morality and aesthetics in the search for truth. Levin is a man for whom words are powerful, dangerous, and sacred tools. Oblonsky's casual and merry remark about Levin's rival for Kitty's affection, Vronsky, leaves Levin "desecrated."
Perhaps one of the most famous scenes of Anna Karenina is the mowing at Levin's estate. The first fully developed interaction between Levin and the peasant class that, at different stages of artistic development symbolized for Tolstoy the triumph of nature over the stained upper classes, the essence of Slavism that would save Russia from Europe's fate of immolation by the intellectual class of nihilists and anarchists, and the core of a future religious utopia here appear in the narrator's brief snatches of description in a very neutral, factual light. Characteristic of Tolstoy's prose is the importance of point of view, and often Tolstoy will recount the same scene from many different vantage points -- even to the point of including the inner monologues of Levin's hunting dog during a shooting outing. In the fields so prosaically presented by the narrator, Levin's view of the peasants that work his lands is nothing short of an exalted religious experience accompanied by an intense and driven rational analysis. Here, sickle in hand, Levin confronts in archetypal and symbolic simplicity the source of his unhappiness and a vision of how it may be overcome. The arbitrary twists and turns of the fields they mow and the uneven surface of the Earth that knock and trip the mowers are symbols of the unstructured world that Levin confronts and that is so indifferent to the intense and almost unspeakable love that draws him to Kitty. As he tears at the grass with such energy that he nearly collapses at the end of each length, next to him an old man slices easily through the thick stalks and Levin, forgetting his cares understands in that nonverbal Tolstoyan manner that peace is possible, that it is possible both to think and to live.
Nonverbal communication is for Tolstoy, as mentioned above, a major avenue through which characters interact with each other. Some scenes of interaction, notably Levin's second proposal of marriage, occur almost entirely without words, and the intuitive understanding of someone else's thoughts,

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