Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina

Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina

Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina

Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina

Synopsis

Written during Tolstoy's great mid-period, in which he also wrote War and Peace, Anna Karenina is the story of one woman's love and her passionate struggle against the constraints of bourgeois convention. Yet Anna's desire transcends Vronsky, her lover. Clearly her love stems from a deeper source, the object of whose drive is not only the opposite sex, but all of life. Tolstoy, however, gives us an account on how her desire flies past life and leads her inevitably and ironically to suicide.

Excerpt

Schopenhauer’s fierce vision of the ravening Will to Live found a receptive sharer in Tolstoy, whose ferocious drives hardly needed guidance from Schopenhauer. Anna Karenina can be called the novel of the drives, since no other narrative that I have read centers so fully upon its protagonist’s being so swept away by her will to live that almost nothing else matters to her. Anna’s love for Vronsky may have its few rivals in Western literature, but I can recall no similar representation of erotic passion quite so intense. Tolstoy, with enormous shrewdness, explains nothing about Anna’s object-choice to us, whether in idealizing or in reductive terms. What he does show us, with overwhelming persuasiveness, is that there is no choice involved. Anna, vital and attractive in every way, is someone with whom most male readers of the novel fall in love, and Tolstoy clearly loves her almost obsessively. He would not have said that he was Anna, but she resembles him rather more than Levin does, let alone Vronsky or Kitty.

Why does Anna kill herself? Would we find it as plausible if a contemporary Anna emulated her? Could there be a contemporary Anna? The questions may reduce to: Why did Tolstoy kill her? Did he mean to punish her? I think not. Anna’s suicide saddens us, but it also relieves us from shared suffering. Doubtless it relieved Tolstoy also, who was suffering with her. Other legitimate questions would be: How would Schopenhauer have received Anna’s death? Is it an heroic release, or a failure in endurance?

Tolstoy read Schopenhauer in the interval between War and Peace and Anna Karenina, an uneasy interregnum in which he was defeated by his attempt to write a novel about the era of Peter the Great. His enthusiasm for Schopenhauer was essentially a reaffirmation of his own darkest convictions, since he had always been both an apocalyptic vitalist and a dark moralist appalled by some of the consequences of his own vitalism. Schopenhauer’s Will to Live, with its metaphysical status as the true thing-in-itself, is simply the Tolstoyan natural ethos turned into prose. The Will to Live is unitary . . .

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