Update : 2019.12.16  Mon  No : 507
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Tolstoy’s Thoughts in “Anna Karenina”


December is definitely a month to settle down at home, wrap up in a warm blanket and read a novel. Wondering what to read? “Anna Karenina” by Leo Tolstoy would be a good choice. It is based on Leo Tolstoy himself and his deep insight of being in the aristocratic circles during the era of the modernizing Russian Empire. However, he well encompasses his ideas inside two interesting main characters in the book: Anna Karenina and Konstantin Levin. As we all know, Leo Tolstoy is known to suggest one of the most common questions of mankind, and “Anna Karenina” is one of the most renowned books. Thus, in celebration of Human Rights Day on Dec. 10., The Argus takes a glimpse into the philosophy of Leo Tolstoy, which proposes the reason for the existence of humanity through Anna and Levin, and goes on to analyze two characters’ psychological changes throughout the story.

“Anna Karenina (Анна Каренина)” and Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy (раф Лев Никола́евич Толсто́й) was a writer, revolutionist, educator and aristocrat at the same time. He was born in 1828 as the fourth son of Count Nikolai Ilyich Tolstoy. After his parents died when he was 9-year-olds, he was raised by his relatives. After encountering unbearable injustice and cruelty as a solider, he started writing books to discuss morality. In “Anna Karenina,” published in 1877, Tolstoy created “Anna,” under the theme of “infidelity” common among aristocratic women at the time. Meanwhile, the story completes with Levin, a character with more of Tolstoy’s philosophy and thoughts.

Anna Arkadyevna Karenina (Анна Аркадьевна Каренина)

Anna Karenina is described as a beautiful and charming lady, who appreciates art and knowledge. She marries a middle-aged man named Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin, a high-ranking government minister from St. Petersburg. However, Anna dislikes falsity the most, so she despises Karenin for his fakeness as he always emphasizes social conventions and duties only to uphold his reputation in society. After visiting Moscow to help her older brother Stiva reconcile with his wife Dolly, she falls in love with Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky, a dashing young military officer. However, after her adulterous affair with Vronsky is discovered by St. Petersburg’s aristocrat society, Anna becomes socially exiled. Not being able to withstand social exclusion and Vronsky’s false virtue, she throws herself to the railroad tracks and commits suicide.

Konstantin Kostya Dmitrievich Lëvin (Константин Дмитриевич Лёвин)

Levin is a rural aristocrat, who proposes to Princess Ekaterina “Kitty” Alexandrovna Shcherbatskaya at her engagement party, but is rejected. Levin then lives day-to-day in despair, farms like his peasants, and wonders how to improve agriculture in Russia. One day, his brother Nikolai, with a sick body, comes to stay with him. Not long after, Levin comes across Kitty in the train heading home. After confirming their love for each other, Kitty and Levin get married. Later, fed up with people’s pretensions surrounding his brother’s death, Levin decides to kill himself. However, he sees Plato, a farmer, showing generosity to his peasants out of his good will, realizes the true meaning of life and devotes his life to reforming Russia and improving lives of Russian farmers and people.

All happiness begins with family – Attachment theory

Family was everything to Tolstoy, and in even in Tolstoy’s autobiography “Tolstoy: A Russian Life” written by Rosamund Bartlett, he states, “After I lost my mother early in my childhood, the preciousness of the lost family was restored through my wife and children.” His thought about family are illustrated starting from his early novel, “Family Happiness,” and continues to “Anna Karenina.” The theme of every scenario in the novel eventually boils down to the importance of family and emphasizes that family bonds are the ultimate source of human happiness.

However, Anna and Levin appear as orphans who did not receive family affection when they were young. Surprisingly, like Tolstoy himself, Anna and Levin only have siblings and were raised by relatives. Likewise, Anna did not receive her family’s love, even from her one and only older brother, as he was far away in Moscow and married. As a matter of course, Karenin, her husband, was so stern and regimented that she could not feel any love from him.

Correspondingly, Levin only has an older brother named Nikolai, but he was so drunk with liberalism and bohemianism in his life that he could not care less about his younger brother. Levin feels deeply in love towards Kitty as the book describes, “Levin did not remember his own mother, and his only sister was older than he was, so that it was in the Shcherbatskys’(Kitty’s) house that he saw for the first time that inner life of an old, noble, cultivated, and honorable family of which he had been deprived by the death of his father and mother.” The book also depicts, “Marriage ... for Levin ... was the chief concern of life, on which all happiness depended,” and so to fulfill his happiness, Levin eagerly wants to get married. However, Kitty refuses his proposal, leaving levin helpless and miserable. So, then what psychological flaws do these two characters have because they did not receive enough affection?

Their loss of parents seems to have a significant effect on their psychology. Ainsworth’s attachment theory suggests the nature of attachment varies depending on whether the self has received enough response from one’s parents; and if it has received enough response, it forms a “stable attachment” and, if not, an “unstable attachment.” The self who has formed a stable attachment has positive emotions such as trust or friendship, but the person who formed an unsteady ambivalent/avoidant attachment may, as an unfortunate consequence of being emotionally altered, be jealous and obsessively immersed in the partner. Likewise, Jang Hwi-sook, an honorary professor of the Department of Psychology at Daegu University said, “Attachment forms the basis for all human psychology. So, if the bonds with parents were insufficient during an early age, we attempt to fill this void later as adults, and we expect partners to meet our needs. But if the other person could not fill his or her deficiencies, we can feel deficient again and even feel anxious and depressed.” This attachment refers to a phenomenon in which a child tries to feel close to his or her parents and win love and recognition from them. Professor Jang further said, “Since Anna and Levin lost their parents when they were young, they show different types of insecure attachment. Anna seems to show the angry side as she expresses extreme jealousy and anxiety towards the end and constantly seeks connections with other people. Levin, on the other hand, displays the passive side as he could not approach others for comfort or intimacy.”

Humanity needs to take responsibility for their faults – Defense Mechanism

In Leo Tolstoy’s autobiography “A Confession,” he reveals that before writing “Anna Karenina,” he felt a sudden overwhelming fear and unspeakable terror in his sleep, and he realized that death was chasing after him. Tolstoy then finds enlightment that humans should take responsibility and repent for their sins as well, as all humans die in the end. Therefore, in the book, he shows different consequences of the two characters depending on whether they accepted their responsibilities or not.

“Anna Karenina” describes the social circles of St. Petersburg as, “The highest Petersburg society is essentially one: in it everyone knows everyone else, everyone even visits everyone else,” which indicates that news of Anna’s adultery was easily spread among the circle. Karenin tries to warn her of this, but Anna acts composed and says, “What’s the matter? If you’re sure to say something, just say it. I just want to sleep, if you don’t mind,” and thinks “He doesn’t care what happens to me, but it is just that people in the social world noticing, that gets on his nerves. I was already abandoned by him earlier.” Then she pulls out one of her hairpins with an agile gesture. Even when Karenin says, “I have no right to interfere, but your actions are useless and harmful, and this is a matter of your feelings, and of your conscience,” Anna responds as if it is not her fault, and quickly sweeps her head with one hand to find the remaining hairpin. Anna Karenina, as an irresponsible character who does not follow her duty as a mother nor as a wife, but only follows her instinct, pays the consequence by destroying her family.

In contrast, after getting rejected, Levin still loves Kitty as the book demonstrates, “But Levin was in love, and so it seemed to him that Kitty was so perfect in every respect that she was a creature far above everything earthly; and that he was a creature so low and so earthly that it could not even be conceived that other people and she herself could regard him as worthy of her.” He feels that he and Kitty are not of the same class as he perceives her as more noble and perfect than him. Nevertheless, Levin does not blame his social background or others for his situation. Rather, he returns to his land, starts thinking of what he could do as a lord, and experiments with agricultural reforms. Even when his peasants do not easily agree with his ideas, he tries to cooperate with them as the book portrays, “I’m awfully fond of it. I sometimes mow myself with the peasants, and tomorrow I want to try mowing the whole day.”

Likewise, according to Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, we unconsciously try to project humiliation and guiltiness onto others. However, this makes the subject fall into the state of self-pity as they believe the others are trying to put them down. Therefore, people who project their shame onto others tend to make their lives and others’ more miserable. However, further study by psychiatrist George Eman Vaillant indicates that those who use defense mechanism to optimize success in society, seperate their feelings from others and try to fulfill one’s responsibilities, like Levin, individuals can develop into even greater selves. Shim Young-sup, the former president of the Korea Society for Image-cinema said, “Most people utilize various psychological systems to avoid feeling guilt or shame. They also use defense mechanisms to shift their responsibility to others and try to rationalize and nullify their wrongness. So, Anna’s action of pulling out a hairpin can be interpreted as the act of “Displacement,” and Tolstoy symbolically portrays Anna’s behavior in every corner, and delicately conveys to the reader the various social emotions that Anna has derived from her love affair with Vronsky.” The former president also said, “On the other hand, for Levin, the rejection from Kitty came to him as a shame, as it was recognized as a social gap between them. However, instead of projecting blame towards his background, he would rather work with peasants, try to abandon prejudices and develop himself.”

Goodness wins against reason - Narcissism

The story of “Anna Karenina” takes place during the Russian Empire when it was ruled by the Emperor Alexander II. The emperor executed radical reforms to assimilate Russia into European society and; he also brought “salon culture,” which was popular among Europeans at the time, to Russia. As time passed by, a salon became a place where aristocrats went to for unproductive, devious meetings. Living during the era, through the book, Tolstoy criticizes Russian aristocrats for their falsity and fakeness, and denotes how Anna and Levin realize the falsehood and pretension of the nobility and try to escape from it. By the end, through differentiating the process and epiphany of their enlightenments, he stresses that we should live for mankind through love and goodness.

In the book, Anna thinks, “…[B]ut I don’t like lying, I can’t endure falsehood, while as for him (her husband) it’s the breath of his life—falsehood. He knows all about it, he sees it all; what does he care if he can talk so calmly? ... No, all he wants is falsehood and propriety.” This shows that Anna abhors falsehood, and this was part of the reason for leaving Karenin. However, her love life with Vronsky was also a series of hypocrisies and contrived attitudes. Anna tries to imitate his attitude, but eventually sees herself falling into falsehood. Confronted by her action, she happens to read Hippolyte Tain’s book, “De l’Intelligence” and the quote, “Reason was given man to help him escape his anxiety.” Then following her reason, she decides to escape from a world full of deceit and falsehood by ending her life.

“Everybody was hoping he would die sooner or later. However, everyone hid their thought and gave him a bottle of medicine and went around looking for drugs or doctors. And Levin felt this falsehood very painful, as of his unique personality, he loves the sick man more than anyone else.” As seen from the quote in the book, Levin has a strong distaste for hypocrisy. He feels sick and tired of the manner of abominable people’s heartless affectation towards the death of his brother. However, his mind changes as he sees a farmer named Plato, who does not collect fees from peasants who could not afford to pay. Levin learns that what matters the most is not rationality but true love and good will. After that, he lets go of his “rationality,” unlike Anna who committed suicide, but instead becomes a true Russian reformer and dedicates his life to his country.

The two different endings depended on how much the two characters relied only on themselves. According to Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis, we all have libido—instinct energy for psychological activities or force— towards ourselves and it transfers to others as we grow up. However, if it is not accepted or retrieved, the self keeps libido to oneself and the state is called “Narcissism,” which means only “loving” oneself. Anna and Levin, who lost their parents, have unstable attachment and mostly have libido for themselves. Growing up, they respectively feel affection towards Vronsky and Kitty. In the case of Anna, she retrieves her libido from him as she gets tired of his fakery. She instead develops strong interests in herself, which put her into narcissism. By the end, she chooses death. Levin was attached to his only family, Nikolai, and he feels skeptical about his own life due to Nikolai’s death and the pretensions of his neighbors. Nevertheless, with his attachment to peasants and his attachment to Kitty, he chooses to live for others rather than remaining a narcissist.

Anna and Levin, they are the two figures that represent the mind of Tolstoy in “Anna Karenina.” Anna pays her price through death, but Levin overcomes psychological factors and becomes a humanitarian activist, realizing his dream. Tolstoy kept Levin alive, as he also wanted to be like him, and Tolstoy did so as well by living as a reformer for the rights of Russian serfs after he finished writing the book. Therefore, The Argus hopes that readers get one step closer to realizing the value of life through this book.

By Mun Ji-hyun
Staff Reporter of Theory & Critique Section

2019.12.16  No : 507 By Mun Ji-hyun esther9082@hufs.ac.kr
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Tolstoy’s Thoughts in “Anna Karenina”