Turgenev once remarked that the hounds of thought hunted Tolstoy's head to exhaustion. He had hardly finished 'War And Peace' when he plunged into a study of German philosophy. Hegel's works he dismissed as a "collection of empty phrases," and he preferred Schopenhauer. But Tolstoy's wife informs us that he soon dropped German philosophy, for it literally gave him a headache. He next turned to a formal study of classical Greek which he learned in three months, a claim certified by his Moscow professor in the subject, and like an arrogant schoolboy he boasted of his prowess in letters to friends. Then for some time a vast epic novel on Peter the Great claimed his attention, but after months of research he abandoned the project because of an inability to enter fully into the spirit of the people of this remote period. Besides, as he said, he had come to the conclusion that Peter was a "drunken fool" and a "syphilitic," which dampened his original enthusiasm for the subject.
As early as 1870, however, Tolstoy had told his wife that he had a new theme for a novel which would concern a married woman in high society who had lapsed morally.
"His problem," he explained, "was to represent this woman as not guilty but merely pathetic."
An intense and prolonged reversion to his earlier pedagogical interests prevented him from beginning 'Anna Karenina' until 1873. By the next year he had the first of its eight parts ready for print. Then the whole thing suddenly became disgusting to him and he again took up his educational work, declaring to a friend:
"I cannot tear myself away from living creatures to bother about imaginary ones."
An additional factor that interfered with progress on the novel was his mounting spiritual illness so clearly reflected in the last part of 'Anna Karenina', which was finally published in 1878.
The working drafts of the novel, as in the case of 'War And Peace', underscore Tolstoy's infinite concern for artistic questions of form, style, and the realistic presentation of characters. The theme that had deeply concerned Prince Andrew and Pierre — the function of moral responsibility - encompasses the whole action of 'Anna Karenina'. And the planned thematic juxtapositions and alternating contrasts of the earlier novel recur in the new one. The central alternating contrast, of course, is the love story of Anna and Vronsky with that of Kitty and Levin. Within this framework the action involves alternately contrasting scenes of Petersburg high society and that of Moscow, of city life and rural life.
The publication, in Russia, of the several drafts of 'Anna Karenina' enable one to follow the fascinating genesis of the novel, with its various transformations and modifications, as it developed in the mind of the author. In the drafts it appears that the prototype of Vronsky was the well-known poet and cousin of Leo Tolstoy, Aleksei Tolstoy, who married his mistress. The story element in the first variant concerns only a husband, his wife, and her lover. And in the second part of the novel in the early form, Anna assumes some of the traits of Leo Tolstoy's wife — both women, one in fiction and one in real life, fear not so much possible rivals, but losing the love of their men because of the disgraceful scenes to which they subject them. The turning point in the genesis does not take place until the third draft when Levin is introduced for the first time. Thereafter the novel becomes the story of two married couples. In fact, Tolstoy's title for the work at this point is " Two Marriages ." As was true in the case of the wife of Aleksei Tolstoy, Anna commits suicide because of the persistent opposition of Vronsky's mother to his having married his mistress. Eventually, in the drafts the correspondences with Aleksei Tolstoy fade and Vronsky and his relations with Anna take on the form that we now find in the novel.
Unlike 'War And Peace', 'Anna Karenina', despite its considerable length, is limited in scope and subject matter, has a definite beginning and end, and preserves an inner unity. All the action is securely tied to the main theme, from the opening, when Anna arrives at the station platform in Moscow, hears of the railroad worker's death under a train, and murmurs that it is a bad omen, to the end, when she commits suicide under the wheels of a train, the helpless victim of a fate foretold by the novel's epigraph: " Vengeance is mine, I will repay ."
In an interesting letter to a critic who failed to discern the novel's architecture, Tolstoy seemed deliberately to avoid indicating the main theme of the work:
"Quite the contrary, I'm proud of the architecture — the arches have been built in such a way that it is impossible to discover the keystone. That is what I most of all wished to achieve. The structural connection is not the plot or the relationship of the characters (friendship), but an inner link."
This link, which is really the main theme, is not hard to guess against the background of Tolstoy's experiences shortly before and during most of the writing of the novel. It is the link that connects the opposing situations of Anna's tragic experience with marriage and the relatively happy one of Kitty and Levin. The whole story of Kitty and Levin — courtship, marriage, the birth of their first child, and their family existence — is in many respects the story of Tolstoy's early years of happy married life. The theme is that the sanctity of the family can be preserved only by the mutuality of pure love of husband and wife which is achieved, as Kitty and Levin demonstrate, by sacrifice, pardon, and the desire to make each other happy. On the other hand, the family is destroyed when either husband or wife indulges in the egotistic love of affinity, which leads to complete preoccupation with one's personal happiness and, as in Anna's case, to the ruin of her life as well as that of her lover Vronsky.
Anna's tragedy unfolds slowly, naturally, remorselessly, before a large audience of the social worlds of two capitals, of the countryside, and elsewhere. But nearly all the fully realized characters, including the brilliantly portrayed Oblonsky and Shcherbatsky families, are involved in one way or another with the fate of these two star-crossed lovers. For Tolstoy, himself a bit in love with his heroine's large, generous, radiant nature, endeavors to show that she is as much a victim of the hypocrisy of this high society as of her own passion. If Anna had had an affair with a handsome, socially desirable army officer, high society would not have condemned her provided she was discreet and abided by conventions that were supposed to make such affairs permissible. The only one hurt would have been her husband, but this was the generally accepted order of things. Above all, appearances must be kept up. Vronsky's mother thought it entirely 'comme il faut' that her son should have a liaison with a charming woman such as Anna; it added a degree of social polish to a rising young careerist. So are Stiva Oblonsky's easy adulteries accepted by his society; only in the case of his wife do they cause a bit of pain, but not disaster.
Anna, however, is no casual adulteress. Her love for Vronsky is a deep and lasting passion for which she is prepared to flout convention, sacrifice her security, leave her husband's home, and compromise him openly. She places herself beyond the pale of her social class, but only because of the manner in which she transgresses its hypocritical moral code. Her real suffering begins, not when she deserts her husband, but when she receives the snubs of her friends. In a happy mood just before the birth of his child, Levin is moved to visit Anna. She receives him with the gracious manner of a woman of good society, self-possessed and natural. He immediately becomes at ease and comfortable as though he had known her from childhood. But after he returns home he suffers a revulsion of feeling and, encouraged by Kitty, he thinks of Anna again as a fallen woman. She is the outsider, shut off from the self-confident life of the family. Indeed, the contrast between the marriage of Levin and Kitty, which moves ever outward to include more and more of society, and the affair of Vronsky and Anna, which leaves Anna in her carriage looking out on a city that has finally exiled her socially, only serves to intensify our sympathy for her plight. It is a measure of the moral balance Tolstoy preserves in his portrayal of Anna that he persuades his readers to judge her severely, but with compassion.
Some critics assert that the one flaw in the characterization of Anna is Tolstoy's failure to motivate her seemingly sudden passion for Vronsky. The charge is that he fails to tell readers anything about her emotional nature before she arrives in Moscow to mediate the family quarrel caused by her brother Stiva Oblonsky's adultery, only to be caught in the web of circumstances that leads to her own adultery. Her falling in love, however, is not sudden, and a careful reading reveals how what Anna regards as a harmless flirtation slowly develops into an irresistible passion, a process which in no sense contradicts anything we know of her character up to that point. The process, as in 'War And Peace', involves the use of subtle details that advance the action and psychologically suggest the emotional transformation taking place in Anna. The first real sign of attraction is seen at the Moscow ball, indirectly, through the eyes of Kitty who is infatuated with Vronsky. Another at the beginning of the novel occurs when Anna mounts the stairway of her brother's drawing room to fetch a picture of her son from her bedroom. At that moment Vronsky is shown into the hall. She looks down from the landing and for a moment their eyes meet. An inexplicable uneasiness troubles both of them. She is caught, as it were, on a staircase between the safety of the family drawing room and the safety of the bedroom where her son's picture is. But she quickly dismisses the feeling as of no consequence. On the train back to Petersburg Anna firmly rejects Vronsky's expression of devotion. She treats the matter lightly, but, significantly, she is vaguely disturbed. Then on arrival she notices for the first time the large ears of her husband who is waiting for her on the platform, and a strange feeling of dissatisfaction comes over her as she introduces Vronsky. That first day home she contemplates telling her husband of Vronsky's declaration, but recalling her rejection of it she decides she has nothing to tell, again a refined psychological detail. That night, however, as she hears the familiar measured tread of the slippered feet of her stiff and pompous husband approaching their bedroom, annoyed with herself she begins to wonder what right Vronsky had to look at him the way he did at the station. Then, as she goes to bed, Tolstoy pointedly remarks:
"there was not a trace of that animation which during her stay in Moscow had sparkled in her eyes and smile, but on the contrary the fire in her now seemed quenched or hidden somewhere very far away."
Though the seed had been sown, the affair might have ended there if it had not been for the fact that from the very beginning Vronsky's love for Anna is represented as profound and entirely sincere, and it is made clear that he has dedicated his whole existence to securing her love. Nurtured by his endless attention the seed slowly grows and eventually flowers. Yet Anna's passionate capitulation comes only after long heart-searching into the lost cause of a conventional marriage to a man whose colossal egoism is matched by his utter unrelatedness to the human factors involved in the daily business of living. In devoting his entire life to duty, Tolstoy says of him, he even lacks the human weakness necessary to fall in love.
If there is nothing abrupt or illogical in Tolstoy's handling of the early stages of Anna's love for Vronsky, neither is there anything inconsistent with her total personality in the disintegration of their love, so aggravated by her unreasonable but understandable jealousy. In the midst of a reconciliation, another of those small details signals the uselessness of going on:
"She took her cup, sticking out her little finger, and raised it to her mouth. After a few sips she glanced at him, and from the expression of his face clearly realized that her hand, her movement, and the sound made by her lips were repulsive to him."
Nor is there much point in arguing that Vronsky is inadequate to his allotted destiny of creating so powerful an impression on a woman as fine as Anna. Love, after all, is neither rational nor analytical, and besides, the story of the novel is Anna's and not Vronsky's. Dostoevsky reported that someone compared Vronsky to a " stallion in uniform ," an observation that may be regarded as a measure of Tolstoy's failure in the characterization. The passionate nature of Tolstoy's realism may have led him at times to reflect a personal bias in the portrayal of certain characters, such as Karenin, or Napoleon in 'War And Peace'. But there is no reason to suppose that he denigrated Vronsky in order to extol Anna. Though he personally disliked the code by which Vronsky lived before he met Anna, he faithfully describes the charm of Vronsky's life, its sense of accepted rules, and the self-confidence that made him so much more agreeable in society than Levin. If Vronsky lacks the life-affirming qualities that Tolstoy so much admired in his heroes, he is portrayed as chivalrous, noble-minded, loyal, and extraordinarily gentle, the kind of perfect cavalier who was initially attractive to such different women as Kitty and Anna.
Although 'Anna Karenina' is one of the great love stories of world literature, it is a tribute to Tolstoy's infallible instinct for reality that he so successfully keeps overt manifestations of love out of the novel. For profound love between two such mature and refined people as Anna and Vronsky is a secret thing, expansive only in hidden ways. The moral and physical effects of their guilty passion are constantly before the eyes of their world, but verbal expression of it is carefully restrained. Their affection for each other is suggested by some kind of mental telepathy in their chats on indifferent topics, or it is conveyed by hints or implications, but rarely by direct declarations.
Tolstoy's art of individualizing his numerous characters, so evident in 'War And Peace', loses none of its effectiveness in 'Anna Karenina'. If anything, he adds to his psychologizing a deeper, more searching moral probing. And even more so than in 'War And Peace', he creates in 'Anna Karenina' the baffling impression, which is the quintessence of his realism, that somehow the characters are telling their own stories without the author's interposition beyond that of acting as an occasional commentator. At times this effect seems to be something less than illusory. That is, characters appear to retain their freedom of action and behave in ways not anticipated by their creator, or they act a new part in a new situation without ceasing to be themselves. Tolstoy, for example, relates how once a visitor remarked that he had been too harsh on Anna in letting her be run over by a train at the end. Tolstoy replied:
"Pushkin once said to some friends: 'What do you think has happened to my Tatyana? [the heroine of 'Bugene Onegin'] She has gone and got married! I should never have thought it of her!' So it was with my 'Anna Karenina'; in fact, my heroes and heroines are apt to behave quite differently from what I could wish them to do!"
And on another occasion he warned critics of the inadvisability of concentrating on separate ideas in a work of art without taking into account their essential connection. An obvious proof of this, he pointed out in a letter, was the suicide attempt of Vronsky:
"The chapter describing how Vronsky accepted his part after the interview had long since been written. I began to correct it, and quite unexpectedly for me, but beyond any doubt whatever, Vronsky prepared to shoot himself. Then it appeared to me that this was organically indispensable for what followed."
In the novel no deviations are made from human nature's exacting and often cruel demands. Anna has a premonition that she will die in childbirth. By her bedside at this solemn and crucial time her sour, formal husband and her lover are reconciled. Karenin's forgiveness has an air of finality and Vronsky's conscience seems deeply moved by the realization of the sin he had committed. At this point another novelist might have made a concession to the public's fondness for a happy ending. Dostoevsky thought it the greatest scene in the work, one in which guilt is spiritualized and mortal enemies are transformed into brothers before the spectre of death. Had he been writing the story, this experience would no doubt have profoundly altered the lives of the participants for the rest of the novel.
But Tolstoy knew that life does not resolve intense human passions in this manner. Karenin returns to his office routine and his big ears continue to stick out as before. Vronsky conveniently forgets the still small voice of conscience. As for Anna, who had already sacrificed so much for her illicit love, it was too late to turn back. She had already closed the door to her past life, and besides, a woman with her pride would never have permitted herself to knock at that door.
Throughout 'Anna Karenina' one perceives Tolstoy's ability to combine a sense of the accidental and inevitable which is the result not of happy chance, but of the novelist's art. He uses a variety of technical procedures, some of them designed to create a kind of symbolic atmosphere, such as the divorce lawyer who catches moths or the pattern of significant actions that take place at railway stations or in trains. Failure to savor this atmosphere is to miss an important unifying factor in the narrative schema. To some, the symbolic effects may seem too obvious, as in the case of the candle whose light, before Anna's suicide, helped her to read the book of her life and then wavered and went out forever. The force of the passage is not in the rather commonplace image, but in the rhythm and depth of the language, the words of which seem to be uttered for the first time. For rugged and solid grandeur there are few passages to compare with it in Russian literature.
Though each of the contrasting couples, Anna and Vronsky and Kitty and Levin, pursues its separate existence, their stories are closely interwoven, and from the contrast emerges the moral repudiation of society's marriage of convenience. This contrast involves still another one, with moral implications already broached in 'War And Peac'' — the superiority of the natural life of the country over the unnatural life of the city. Levin has in him Nicholas Rostov's passion for the land and for agricultural activity plus a large increment of the soul-searching and questing mind of Pierre Bezukhov. Kitty is the patient, tolerating wife who accepts life's blessings and sorrows as something ordained by heaven. Though she generously sympathizes with Anna's cruel situation, she believes that there are conventional limits beyond which a married woman could not go without risking the condemnation of society.
On the land, Levin's complex nature flowers, and the urgent language of the description of his activities could have emerged only from Tolstoy's remembered experiences. There is hardly a passage in fiction more poetic than Levin's meditation in the harvest field. But there is nothing of dream or fantasy about it. It is the poetry of fact, and its imaginative quality, its freshness and youth, again derive patently from Tolstoy's own experiences with nature. However, Levin cannot become a peasant any more than Olenin could become a Cossack. The false education of their level of society prevented this. The desire of such characters to transform themselves, to recover a kind of innocence and to achieve the status of the natural man, was one of the central problems of Tolstoy's life, as already suggested, but the answer to it always evaded him. Indeed, one has merely to read Tolstoy's 'A Confession', written after 'Anna Karenina', to observe how much of himself and his life at Yasnaya Polyana are reflected in the characterization of Levin — his dislike of hypocritical high society and government bureaucracy, his love of outdoor work, and his brooding search for spiritual truth. Levin's strident argument with Koznyshev and Katavasov at the end of the novel, in which he roundly blames the government for forcing the Russo-Turkish War on people who know nothing of the issues, was also Tolstoy's position in this struggle. However, there is a patent incompleteness about the characterization of Levin, for his persistent self-examination, guided by a rejection of conventional moral values, seems at the conclusion of the work to be leading him along the path of a new way of life. And Levin's premises indicate quite clearly that he was groping for the kind of solution that Tolstoy himself sought and eventually discovered in the spiritual crisis that overtook him about the time he finished 'Anna Karenina'.