Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 966

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.

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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 to show that all the adverse consequences of evil ultimately originated with God. In this context, then, Anna’s ostracism from polite society, for example, would have to be understood as a manifestation of God’s will—an interpretation consonant with Tolstoy’s mystical religious beliefs. There is no doubt that Anna sinned, and society’s punishment of her appears to confirm God’s guilty verdict. No matter how extenuating the circumstances, Tolstoy seems to say, God’s punishment of sinners is inexorable.

In developing this theme in Anna Karenina, Tolstoy minimizes the purely secular interest that society has in suppressing adultery as an act disruptive of the social order, although this aspect of the problem has been dealt with by other novelists writing about adultery. Two examples will suffice here. In The Scarlet Letter (1850), Nathaniel Hawthorne depicts Hester Prynne’s adultery as both a crime against society and a sin against God. Although Hester admits she is a sinner, she will not concede that she is a criminal. Thus, the spiritual strength that she derives from her admission of sinful guilt enables her to cope with her social isolation and ultimately to survive. However, Hawthorne, despite portraying Hester in a sympathetic light, does not clearly exonerate her, for he sees value in society’s standards, too. In effect, he declines to choose between the two. In Madame Bovary (1857), however, Gustave Flaubert presents Emma’s adulteries strictly as transgressions against society; theological considerations are virtually nonexistent. Obsessed with romantic fantasies, Emma has no conception of the real-life strictures of society. Her multiple infidelities carry her deep into debt with gifts for her lovers and with clothing, perfumes, and cosmetics for herself. When she is at last forced to accept the reality that she cannot pay her creditor, she is overwhelmed with guilt, remorse, despair, and the fear of discovery. She then takes arsenic and dies quickly but painfully, unable to face the punishment society is certain to exact. Flaubert thus underscores both the power and the primacy of society’s norms.

These three well-known novels about adultery—The Scarlet Letter, Madame Bovary, and Anna Karenina—differ in their emphases, but their treatment of adultery is essentially similar. On one hand, the emphasis in The Scarlet Letter is on the tension between the values of established society (religious and social) and individual values; in Anna Karenina, it is on the immanence of spiritual values and God’s will. On the other hand, all three novels disapprove of adultery, although their reasons vary according to their biases.

In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy wrote a moving story of human emotional needs conflicting with the dominant social mores of the time. Given Tolstoy’s religious mysticism combined with his incipient socialism, this elemental conflict could be resolved in no other way. The crucial factor in the equation revolves around what is usually characterized, euphemistically, as “the Russian soul,” a quality lacking in Hawthorne and Flaubert. This nearly ineffable quality amalgamates religious mysticism and nationalism into almost divine zeal, the pressures of which eventually drive Anna to suicide, since her sense of betrayal of moral imperatives is nevertheless acute for her having betrayed them. She is thus uniquely representative of “the Russian soul.” As such, she symbolizes Tolstoy’s genuinely Russian insistence upon the marrying of eternal verities with modern conditions. For this reason, many critics believe that Anna Karenina stands not second to but equal with Voyna i mir (1866-1869; War and Peace, 1886) in Tolstoy’s corpus, offering a profound insight into the relationship between the individual and the surrounding society.

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