Anna Karenina Essay - Critical Essays

Leo Tolstoy

Critical Evaluation

After Leo Tolstoy first conceived of Anna Karenina it took him seven years to finish the novel, the last four of which were spent in the task of writing. According to his wife Sonia’s diary, the idea of writing a novel about adultery first occurred to Tolstoy in 1870. It was not until three years later, however, as Tolstoy remarked in a letter to a friend, that the impetus to begin work on the book was provided by Tolstoy’s rereading of a fragment in Alexander Pushkin’s Povesti Belkina(1831; The Tales of Belkin, 1947). Tolstoy attributed the inspiration to a line that conjured in his imagination the scene of a reception in fashionable society—the scene manifests itself as Princess Betsy Tvershaya’s party. Pushkin’s influence, however, was perhaps greater than Tolstoy realized, for, in some aspects of character and appearance, Anna Karenina resembles Pushkin’s protagonist Zinaida Volsky. Nevertheless, Tolstoy’s work on the novel proceeded at an agonizingly slow pace, leaving the writer endlessly frustrated by what he described as a “block” that hampered his progress. Although the opening chapters appeared in 1875—the novel was first published in installments—the last chapters did not find their way into print until 1877. Tolstoy’s perfectionism was such that he would allow nothing less than his best writing to be published, regardless of the personal anguish that the constant rewriting caused him.

The epigraph to Anna Karenina—a quotation from Romans 12:19, “’Vengeance is mine: I will repay,’ saith the Lord”—is suggestive of its theme, for Tolstoy, like his contemporary Fyodor Dostoevski, was deeply concerned with sin (or crime), guilt, punishment, and atonement. Moreover, the epigraph implies, along with its express prohibition of human retribution, that judgment, too, is a divine prerogative. It thus furnishes a key to Tolstoy’s treatment of characters in the novel. He does not, for example, explicitly praise or condemn Anna, since such a value judgment would usurp a godly privilege. This is also true of the other characters. Tolstoy does not evaluate, he describes. However, it is difficult to avoid drawing some conclusions because the plot revolves around adultery, an offense with both social and theological ramifications. Nevertheless, Tolstoy maintained that his intent was...

(The entire section is 966 words.)