Category Archives: Anna Karenina

Levin and the Zen Downgrade

Some recent Twitter chat has me reflecting on Levin in Anna Karenina and his politics. First let me start by saying that I am trying to draw from the text only, and not from external sources. I want my responses to be from the pages, not from some kind of Barthesian ‘death of the author, birth of crud-on-the-interweb’ transaction.

Tolstoy, in all likelihood modelling Levin on himself, devotes pages and consecutive pages to agrarian political and philosophical rumination. And you know what? It never gets old.

Levin/Tolstoy craves the ascetic life, but has no disillusions about the economic systems needed to support his choice. He has highly contemporary views about class that make academics today seem insensitive. I have labelled Levin as a kind of libertarian anarchist, refusing to take part in any politics outside the scope of what will affect him. Not to label him as uncaring, he describes his views on class in this wonderful way:

“To say that he knew the peasants was tantamount to saying that he knew human beings. He continually observed and learnt to know all sorts of human beings, among them human beings of the peasant class, whom he considered interesting, constantly discovering in them new traits and altering his opinions accordingly (238)”.

There’s something a bit Zen about that passage, don’t you think? He considers people as they present themselves. I think libertarian anarchism gets a bad rap, but Levin really shows that if you’re rich and loving and live in the Russian countryside…ok well my politics are a work in progress.

Tolstoy, Leo. 1877. Anna Karenina. Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics.

Image: English Russia.

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Nor Hell a Fury, like a Woman Scorn’d

I’ve known this phrase for so long and had never really thought about what it meant. I didn’t realise that the theme of the sexually slighted woman was so ancient. Medea’s speech predates the famous words of Congreve, saying “wronged in her marriage bed, no creature has a mind more murderous (265-266).” The speech in its entirety seems a remarkably feminist, contemporary voice.

“since we have learnt nothing of such matters at home, we need prophetic powers to tell us specifically what sort of husband we have to deal with. And if we manage this well and our husband lives with us and we bear the yoke of marriage lightly, then life is enviable. But if not, death would be welcome (239-244.)”

Poor Dolly in Tolstoy’s (much, much later) Anna Karenina echoes this speech when she says to Anna “With the education Mama gave me, I was not merely naïve , but silly! I knew nothing..You will hardly believe it, but up to now I thought I was the only woman he had ever known” (67).

Dolly’s pain is so real and almost palpable. Describing how she sacrificed her looks, life and youth for Stiva, she adds “They (Stiva and his lover, the children’s governess) probably talked about me, or worse still, avoided the subject” (69). Tolstoy seems to know so well that sickmaking feeling. I felt truly humiliated for Dolly when I read that sentence.

Which brings me to my rumination. How did Euripides and Tolstoy both know this feeling so well? It appears as a gendered theme in both texts. Again, is it a biological fact? Men exercise breeding vitality right into old age. And I know this is going to an an oh-so-obvious lowbrow observation, but I can’t help feeling sad for Demi, our favourite nouveau-Cleopatra. Her suffering is sure to be reduced to a ‘fallen cougar’ story. Even though written by men, I am glad for the sensitivity that Tolstoy and Euripides exhibit in the describing of gendered pain.

Euripides. 2008. Medea and other plays. Translated by James Morwood. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
Tolstoy, Leo. 1877. Anna Karenina. Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics.

Levin and Oblonsky – Facebook friends

If Levin and Oblonsky in Anna Karenina were friends today, they probably wouldn’t bother hooking up. Facebook would provide all the contact they needed to maintain the friendship. Tolstoy describes the friendship in a contemporary way, that I am sure most readers would recognise: “they were fond of one another as friends who have come together in early youth often are, in spite of the difference in their characters and taste.” He continues saying that “Each thought that his own way of living was real life, and that the life of his friend was – illusion” and that Oblonsky knew that Levin “did something, though what it was Oblonsky could never quite understand or feel any interest in (17).”

Of course we all have lots of these friends, and Facebook has allowed us to stay in touch without the irrepressible “sarcastic smile (17)” that Oblonsky gives Levin on seeing him in person. It allows us to keep a much more superficial contact, with those we are fond of because of a shared history alone. It will be interesting to see how novelists of the future deal with technology, given that a lot of our interactions now do occur online, and our interpersonal contact is becoming so shaped by new media.

Tolstoy, Leo. 1877. Anna Karenina. Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics.

Image by Tereza Zelenkova. It’s how I imagine Levin’s country to look. Lonely.