Anna Karenina

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The Weaving and Interweaving of the Main Plot and the Sub-Plot in Anna Karenina.

Tolstoy is out of the category of writers who go through life without ever changing their once established view of life. In mid-life, he experienced a deep spiritual crisis which is reflected in Anna Karenina. If between 1865 and 1868 he wrote mainly ‘historical’ novel, during the period between 1889 and 1899 he choose to write the accusatory novel entitled Resurrection.

Anna Karenina is Tolstoy’s ‘Modern’ novel; in other words, it is his ‘novel of modern life’. The essence of Tolstoy’s spiritual crisis was, as he himself said in his famous Confessions, that he renounced “the life of his own circle” in order to “expose the rich and serve the cause of the poor.”

The exposure of the rich “grew particularly powerful on the eve of the first revolution of 1905. Tolstoy broke with the gentry and went over to the side of the people, “the Makers of life.” Tolstoy was portrayed by the artist Ilya Repin as a strong peasant sloughing his native soil. Such a figure is found in Anna Karenina where Tolstoy says of Levin, “now, almost against his will he dug himself deeper and deeper into the soil, like a plough and he could not pull himself out without turning a furrow.” It was just such a furrow that Tolstoy left in Russian Literature and life.

Anna Karenina is still regarded as one of the greatest social novels of the nineteenth century, written by a genius. Its merit is not just in the aesthetic significance of particular episodes, but in the perfection of the whole. Each and every idea in the novel can be grasped and correctly understood only in relation to the whole. Dostoevsky is said to have admired its tremendous psychological probing of the human soul, its incredible depth, power and realism of portrayal “unlike anything we have yet seen. The novel is highly autobiographical and voices Tolstoy’s view on Russian life and society—his denunciation of the life of the gentry and his praise of the people of the soil. Tolstoy’s name is inseparably associated with the revolutionary history of Russia and in one of his characters – Levin – he finds a spokesman for his views, opinions and ideals. The novel runs on two levels: the main plot and the sub-plot, which are delicately linked together by a dominant and recurring theme of the novel—the breaking down of the family ties. This theme had become a harsh reality, during Tolstoy’s time, in the higher classes of society. Everywhere the family life of the landed gentry was breaking up. Seemingly simple solutions were found to problems, but behind them loomed terrible consequences which Tolstoy found alarming. In Petersburg, children did not bother their parents. Children were put into schools to be educated. Tolstoy, in his Anna Karenina, was not a destroyer of the family; nihilist theories about marriage were repugnant to him. But he clearly saw the breaking up of the old Aristocratic family and it was in the life of the common people that he wished to find the springs of renewal of “the idea of the family”. Levin longs for a “pure life of toil”. Against the despairs of Anna’s story, Tolstoy pleads for a renewal of family life and its ties – stronger and healthier – a renewal symbolized by the love between Ivan and his young wife whom Levin meets at hay making time in the village. Tolstoy writes,

“Levin had often been struck with admiration for this sort of life. He had often envied those who lived it, but today for the first time, the thought clearly presented itself to him that it was within his power to change the idle, artificial, highly individual sort of life, that weighed so heavily upon him, for his pure life of common labour, that appealed to him so strongly.”

Levin’s dream was not just a personal whim of his own: In Tolstoy’s novel, thoughts about the family merge with the thoughts about the people. Tolstoy makes a veiled plea for stronger social bonds and ties because he is horrified at the destruction of basic social values around him.

The core of Anna Karenina is the story of the heroine’s adultery expanded into a consideration of problems of marriage in which the sub-plot of the love and marriage of Kitty and Levin underscores the tragic moral of the marriage: Mariage de Convenance of Anna and Karenin. However, in a feat of artistic planning little short of  miraculous, Tolstoy integrates with this core theme, layers of contemporary society observed in their manifold activities in the two capitals, in the countryside, and even aboard. And he peopled the domain he created with numerous characters (to be precise, 143), many highly individualized and all contributing to the development and illumination of the action of the story. Confronted with this amazing outpouring of knowledge and of human experience, one calls to mind Dryden’s comment on Chaucer’s portrait gallery.” Here is God’s plenty”, which is the hall mark of War and Peace too.

The main plot revolves around Anna and her self-destructive love for the young man, Wronsky. The affair with Wronsky shatters her relations with her husband, Karenin, and deprives her of her son. The recurring theme of breakdown of the family ties plays a dominant role here.

At the beginning of the novel, Tolstoy writes,” The Oblontsky home was in turmoil”. The sentence is full of meaning. It strikes the first note of warning of what the reader is expected to see later. It is highly ironic that Anna Karenina comes to Moscow to reconcile the Oblontskys for, at that time, her own life is in a shambles. Anna meets Wronsky and falls in love with him; she realizes that the loving home that she had built with her husband as the central figure was in reality a force. Her dream world slowly crumbles and to her consternation she feels stifled and claustrophobic in the presence of her husband. And Karenin, who had unhesitatingly voiced negative opinions about infidelity and divorce, sees his own marital life crumble to dust in front of him, despite all his efforts to hold it together, and though legal severance of families was possible and permissible, still he suffers defeat both in public and in private. Anna leaves home and chooses to live with Wronsky, but here, too, after the initial flush of passion, coldness creeps in. She does not feel as much as a mother should towards her daughter. Doubt, jealousy and egoism cause widening cracks in her relationship with Wronsky. Humiliated by the society and shunned by the man she loves (so she thinks), Anna commits suicide–—an unfitting end to such a heroine.

The prevailing mood, throughout the novel, is one of anxiety and confusion. Anna lives in the shadow of despair. The crisis of the old Russian order is well portrayed in the career of Levin. Having ruined his career, he turned for consolation to religion and mysticism. Against this background unfolds the story of the restless heart of Anna. Neither Karenin nor Wronsky could make her happy. She sped like a lawless comet through a world sinking ever deeper into chaos. Wronsky, ceased loving, or had never appreciated, Anna and her truthful, freedom-loving, fair-minded nature. This was amazing revelation. “She did not wish to hide from him the hardships of her position”, writes Tolstoy,”….. and her face had become severe, as if turned to stone. She was even more beautiful like this.” This is how Anna Karenina was seen by Levin for the first time. “She was an exceptional woman. It is her warm-heartedness that captivates even more than her intelligence. I do feel sorry for her.”

Tolstoy was neither prosecutor nor defence counsel of Anna Karenina. He neither excused nor accused her. He chronicled her appalling tragedy, relating it as “a historian of the human soul.” One of Tolstoy’s wisest contemporaries, the poet Afanasi Fet said, “This novel is a stern and honest judgement of our whole way of life.” And in the very epigraph to the novel, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay…” Fet saw not so much the religious as social and historical meaning: “Tolstoy pointed to the phrase, ‘I will repay’ not as to the cane of an angry teacher but as to the power things have to punish.” Tolstoy was writing the history of his own day, a history of his own day, a history of the decline and break-up of an entire social system, and in the chaos of everyday life he saw the direct and natural bonds of cause and effect.