A Winding Garden Toward Enlightenment or Despair: How Anna Karenina Cultivates the Mind, Bears Relevance, and Leads to Existential Crises

Foreword: Here follows a short paper I wrote for a university class on Tolstoy which attempted to answer the question: Is 150-year-old literature such as Tolstoy’s still relevant to a contemporary reader’s every-day life, and if so, how? I have edited it some, and have removed all major spoilers of the novel Anna Karenina, but there are some mentions and hints of plot points major and minor.

The questions posed to the readers of Russian fiction are “left to sound on and on after the story is over in hopeless interrogation that fills us with a deep, and finally it may be with a resentful, despair.”1 Thus wrote Virginia Woolf of a feature which readers find, whether to their vexation or fascination, especially in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. His “endless labyrinth of linkages,”2 as Tolstoy himself referred to it, leads the reader through a winding garden, such that the reader must look at scenes, characters, and ideas from different points of view and in varying shades of light, and thus question what a thing is—if it is what he may have thought beforehand, or what this character says, or that one—for Tolstoy has certainly not given a clear-cut answer. These questions in Anna Karenina range from birth-control to existentialist questions of life and its purpose. These pertain to the reader so long as sex and the desire for fulfilling happiness exist. And in an age of easy access to information far surpassing that of even 40 years ago, Tolstoy’s stratagem of not only asking questions but forcing the reader himself to ask questions helps stretch the mind, challenge the intellect, and cultivate today’s reader. 

Anna Karenina contains a multiplot story, enticing the reader to look for parallels, comparisons, and contrasts between characters, story arcs, and plot points. And indeed these permeate the novel: Anna and Dolly’s switched roles in advising someone whose spouse has been unfaithful, Levin and Vronsky’s contrasting treatment of horses, Kitty and Anna’s opposing paths away from and toward the arms of Vronsky, and Anna and Levin’s mutual suicidal contemplations make just a few of these. However, while a novelist might well lay out a clear expression of an ethical, social, or theological view with the multiplot device, Tolstoy uses it to cause the reader himself to ask questions. When Dolly is en route to see Anna at Vozdvizhenskoe, she conjures up a scenario in which she herself has an affair, calling into question whether she, the virtuous mother, is any better than Anna, the adulteress who neglects her children. The strange encounter between Levin and Anna, and their similar existential crises, despair of language, and contemplations of suicide call into question whether or how much these two protagonists of the novel really differ in moral character—even though plot-wise one seems to choose the path of love, purity, and righteousness, and the other the path of lust, impurity, and death. Tolstoy’s construction of the novel not so much asks questions outright as it puts the reader face to face with apparent contradictions and bemusements while he is already trying to look for connections and links due to the multiplot nature of the story. This forces the reader to ask himself: What makes a person “good,” or can anyone be good? why do Anna and Levin’s fates differ so despite their similar struggles? could anyone have helped Anna in part seven of the novel? should anyone have? Tolstoy thus teaches the reader, not didactically so much as socratically, so that he may come to a right understanding (or at least his own way of thinking) through critical thought and mental struggle. That a student be taught to learn and think, rather than have information spoon-fed to him, has been held as good education for millennia; and now in the age of Google, Wikipedia, and online libraries, the persistent and deliberate struggle to knowledge that Tolstoy aids his readers in has become even more important. 

Not only does Tolstoy’s general approach in Anna Karenina help cultivate the mind, but many of the questions he forces the reader to ask bear relevance, in some way or another, today. Anna’s implied choice of using birth-control in conglomeration with her move to Vozdvizhenskoe intimates a self-centered use of birth-control, and a separation of erotic love from procreation that really means a detachment of the sexual from the erotic (since “sexual” by nature has to do with reproduction). As Russian literature scholar Liza Knapp wrote, “Anna thus separates the erotic from the reproductive.”3 One must then consider the purpose of birth-control, both in general use and for oneself, not just in terms of what it does but in terms of why or when it should be used. That the fruit of sex—life, which it naturally produces—and the love which inspires sex ought not be separated in order to maintain the teleological integrity of the sexual act is still heard today, from a voice quite different than Tolstoy’s: that of the Catholic Church,4 which remains relevant to both its lovers and its haters. 

The questions Anna and Levin ask themselves—where am I? what am I doing? what am I? why am I here?5—have inspired existential crises, conversions, despair, and books about these things since ages past, and we do not see a reduction in this today (at least from those who would take a pause from their day to ponder). Hardly the fool is he who would ask these questions, and seek heartily for the answers. For if the question of “What am I” were not relevant, universities would not attempt to form liberal arts educations to create fully formed human beings—for what would it mean to be a “well-rounded individual” if one didn’t know what it was he were trying to round well? If questions of what I am doing bore no importance, there would not be thousands of therapists trying to help us attain or reattain mental states in which one is capable of accomplishing not only ordinary tasks, but great feats. If “Why am I here” were a dated query, the Church would not produce martyrs, and religion would be passé. Art that addresses these questions well—one thinks of centuries-old sacred paintings, of great cathedrals, of works by Dostoevsky and Chesterton—has a way of hanging around far longer than its author, since it attends to that which is human, and relates to that which is greater. 

A labyrinth of hidden linkages in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina leads the reader to question and consider the world in which he finds himself and to make his own judgements. This semi-socratic, sometimes maddening method helps to cultivate the reader not into another container of information or opinion poured out like a shot of liquor, but into a thinker himself who can open his mind in order “to shut it again on something solid.” Tolstoy’s problems posed in the novel, from controversial topics such as birth-control to age-old questions of the meaning of life, bear weight and relevance to the one who wants to engage not only the world around him, but himself, his own existence, and the potential thereof. To remain forever in this labyrinth will lead to despair; and that is why we must seek the truth, the light which the shadows and images incite us to find. 

  1. Liza Knapp, Anna Karenina and Others: Tolstoy’s Labyrinth of Plots (Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2016), 208.
  2. This is from a letter which Tolstoy wrote to N. N. Strakhov on April 23rd, 1876, in which he wrote that meaning in Anna Karenina is imbedded in a “labyrinth of linkages” whose task to discern and interpret belongs to the reader; ibid, 84. 
  3. Ibid, 36. 
  4. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC; United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 2366-2379. 
  5. Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (New York, NY; Penguin Group, 2002), 768, 792.

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