In his novel Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy creates a conflicting portrayal of a woman who becomes the victim of the social conventions established in Russian society during the second half of the nineteenth century. The author makes the protagonist commit suicide, and in this way, he tries to evoke empathy for this character. Nevertheless, at the same time, Tolstoy is very critical of Anna because she often acts impulsively; moreover, she does not try to find any internal reason to live. To a great extent, he has a very mixed attitude towards the protagonist and her final decision to commit suicide. So, it is critical to demonstrate how the writer explores this issue in the novel.
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Overall, Tolstoy wants to show that Karenina lives in society, which is governed by hypocritical norms. For instance, her brother Stiva is known as a womanizer and a wayward person. Nevertheless, his behavior is never criticized by others; in fact, it is taken for granted. In contrast, the adultery committed by Anna is immediately regarded as something outrageous. Moreover, she quickly becomes a social outcast. Admittedly, the writer does not try to justify adultery as a social phenomenon; nevertheless, he highlights the idea the existing ethical principles could be flawed. At the time when the novel was written, the tradition of arranged marriages still had profound effects on many Russian families because many married couples were a force to live together even though they felt no attention for one another (Rosslyn 227).
This is one of the reasons why adultery was a very widespread phenomenon, especially among aristocratic families. So, while analyzing this character, one should consider the social environment in which the characters of this novel lived because it profoundly influenced their values and worldviews (Rosslyn 227). In particular, many of them became more concerned with prestige or respectability, rather than personal integrity.
Additionally, Anna is extremely critical of people who lay stress on respectability and turn a blind eye to the true feelings or thoughts of an individual. This is why she says that “respect was invented to fill the empty space where love ought to be” (Tolstoy 692).
The main tragedy is that even Vronsky cannot understand her feelings. He is also worried about the social response to his relationship with Anna. So, the main character is extremely disappointed with Vronsky because she believes that love and passion are more important to him than overt responsibility. At this point, the protagonist sees that she profoundly misunderstood his motives. Apart from that, the main character does not understand why her lover attaches so much importance to the opinion of his mother (Tolstoy 692). In her opinion, he should be committed only to her needs. This is one of the details that should be taken into account by the readers.
Additionally, the author strives to highlight the idea that Anna is often treated just like an object that does not have a will of its own. The following quote illustrates Vronsky’s attitude toward the protagonist, “He looked at her as a man might look at a faded flower he had plucked, in which it was difficult for him to trace the beauty that had made him pick and so destroy it” (Tolstoy 324). It does not occur to him that he should take some responsibility for her wellbeing. In turn, her husband does not try to understand why she committed adultery. Instead, he pays more attention to the social response to this scandal.
Nevertheless, one should not suppose that Tolstoy justifies Anna’s suicide. The protagonist chooses to end her life, at the time when she understands that Vronsky no longer loves her. However, the author does not try to show that her despair is a sufficient reason for suicide. It should be noted that Anna perceives herself as a loving mother and remains with her husband only because she does not want to leave her son. Nevertheless, she eventually abandons thoughts about her son when she decides to commit suicide. Thus, one can argue that her behavior is rather impulsive, and it is completely devoid of any long-term planning. So, Tolstoy tacitly accuses Anna of this weakness. Overall, this impulsiveness shapes many of her actions.
To some degree, Tolstoy contrasts Anna with Konstantin Levin. This man is able to understand the hypocrisy of the existence of social norms. He is able to perceive the behavior of other people in a critical way. He also considers the idea of suicide, but he eventually rejects it because he is able to find consolation in his family life. In turn, Anna views her family life as a form of torture. Overall, she regards death as a way of escaping her suffering.
Nevertheless, she does not attempt to resolve her problems in any. Additionally, she can only find an external reason to live. In this case, the external reason is Vronsky’s love. However, she does not try to find any internal motive for continuing her life (Orwin 170). To some degree, she lacks such a quality as self-sufficiency, which is vital for any successful individual who can face hardships and take responsibility for his/her mistakes. This is one of her weaknesses that the readers should take into account.
It should be mentioned that Tolstoy does not explicitly express his opinion about Anna’s behavior. Instead, he meticulously depicts the thoughts that could influence her behavior. Moreover, the author includes various details that can illustrate the hypocrisy of different social conventions. To a great extent, this approach is very effective because it prompts the readers to form their own conclusions about Anna, Vronsky, or Levin.
One can argue that Tolstoy acts as a very keen observer who knows the thoughts of each character and identifies the contradictions of their behavior. To a great extent, this style is rather difficult to imitate because the author is able to look through the eyes of people with different worldviews.
Overall, Leo Tolstoy adopts a very conflicting attitude towards this protagonist. He definitely feels empathy for her because her suffering can be explained by the social conventions which emerged in the community. Furthermore, many other people are not willing to understand the causes of her emotional suffering. However, the writer also shows that she takes the wrong path because she does not try to find any internal motivation to live. She is not able to become a self-sufficient person who does not try to depend on the views of others. However, the author is able to avoid moralizing; instead, he encourages the audience to make their own assessment. This is the main strength of this novel.
Orwin, Donna. Tolstoy’s Art and Thought, 1847-1880, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013. Print.
Rosslyn, Wendy. Women in Nineteenth-Century Russia: Lives and Culture. New York: Open Book Publishers, 2012. Print.
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Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina, New York: Courier Corporation, 2012. Print.