07 October 2015

Of Anna and Levin

Much of the little I have read concerning Konstantin Levin in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina does not speak highly of him: he is considered for the most part a bore. Somewhere in my annotations in this almost 800-page novel I have called him a social conservative, and at the time I meant this description as a criticism. But I am sure that the novel is as much about his search for identity as it is that of Anna’s, and whereas she fails tragically, I now suspect that he succeeds happily and in a fashion for which I have respect. Levin is the book’s hero.
    In fact, Tolstoy’s novel ends not with the description of Anna’s suicide at the end of Book VII but with Levin’s acceptance at the end of book VIII of his imperfections that he acknowledges will never ever end. The book ends, in fact, not in defeat and death but in triumph and life. Though the novel says that Levin has in the end discovered faith, it is not a traditional one that promises him ultimate salvation and hope. “Faith—or not faith—I don’t know what it is—but this feeling has come just as imperceptibly through suffering, and has taken firm root in my soul.” His is not the excitement of the convert nor the rapture of the spiritually devout; neither is it the simple faith of the believer or the redemptive conviction of the returning penitent. Levin’s is the simple faith that the world has meaning and it has derived from his living a life defined by contradictions, confusions and diverse concerns.
     Levin’s faith will not change him very much. “I shall go on in the same way, losing my temper with Ivan the coachman, falling into angry discussions, expressing my opinions tactlessly; there will be still the same wall between the holy of holies of my soul and other people, even my wife; I shall still go on scolding her for my own terror, and being remorseful for it; I shall still be as unable to understand with my reason why I pray, and I shall still go on praying . . .” No, Levin’s faith has not affected a single detail of his daily life. Rather, in the grander scheme, perhaps, Levin’s faith is an acceptance that even in his irrationalities there exists meaning: perhaps this acceptance becomes what faith means: the knowledge, even in the absence of evidence, that there is meaning in the world.
     Anna could not accept that the world had meaning. She was prepared to give up the world for her passion: indeed, there was no meaning in the world outside her passion. To satisfy her passion Anna abandoned her marriage, her son, and with her death, her daughter and Vronsky. With her death she confirms the world has no meaning outside her passion! Indeed, her actions have effectively removed her from the world: she existed in a life of veritable isolation without purpose or meaning. Outside of her love for Vronsky and her demand that he join in her isolation, for Anna there was no world!
     And so I appreciate Levin’s acceptance of his faith and himself. In fact, his faith will not change dramatically his daily life and his relationships with others—not even with his wife, Kitty, whom he dearly loves. “I shall go on the same way” he acknowledges,” but perhaps his faith offers Levin the idea that life possesses meaning by the act of giving to others and not in the simple satisfaction of his own desires. Levin learns from his faith the idea of community, Despite the novel’s focus on the heroine—the book’s title insists on her place—Anna Karenina is a novel that affirms daily life.  


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