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The Theme of Shame in “Anna Karenina” and The Idiot Essay


Natural sciences give various definitions of the concept of shame. The variety of scientific hypotheses corresponds to the variety of ways in which different people experience a feeling of shame. More often than not, this experience is connected with moral formation: the ability of a person to feel shame and be shy characterizes them from the perspective of moral qualities. For Russian literature that always thoroughly scrutinizes the spiritual self of a person with its various conflicts between the spirit and flesh, rational and emotional, mind, and heart, the theme of shame became one of the central problems.

Theoretically, the description of such basic emotion as shame should not be significantly different in various authors. Indeed, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky have something in common with their points. Perhaps, this may be attributed to the fact of the common philosophical and ethical paradigm that was based on Christianity. However, Tolstoy’s and Dostoevsky’s characters have different reasons for shame, and their display of this emotion is also different. Although the theme of shame is central to both Anna Karenina and The Idiot, the nature of this feeling is explained differently: Tolstoy regards shame as the result of a person’s actions, while Dostoevsky considers it as a part of the psyche.

Tolstoy starts his Anna Karenina with the description of the complicated feeling of Stepan Arkadyevitch Oblonsky. Stiva painfully recollects his reaction to his wife’s words: “[T]here happened to him at that instant what does happen to people when they are unexpectedly caught in something very disgraceful” (Tolstoy 6). This feeling becomes not only the opener but also a building line of the whole novel. All characters blush, suffer, and experience the sense of shame but only Anna’s tragedy becomes the meaningful center of the novel. The main character of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, Prince Myshkin, feels ashamed of those who surround him: “[H]e felt so ashamed for his visitors, that he was afraid at first even to look at them.” (Dostoevsky 430). In The Idiot, as in Anna Karenina, the feeling of shame serves as an expression of the moral make-up of a person. However, in Dostoevsky’s novel, this emotion is integrated into the psyche structure and is connected with aspects that differ from those of Tolstoy’s work.

The shame in Anna Karenina is a touchstone for a soul and, at the same time, the value criteria of the philosophical and ethical concept of the novel. Although the artistic phenomenology of shame is diverse, there is a direct connection not only between the actions and ethical self-analysis but also between the feelings and moral self-esteem. Anna blushes at shameful situations where lies and deceit occur: “[H]e doesn’t even know, she said, and suddenly a hot flush came over her face; her cheeks, her brow, her neck crimsoned, and tears of shame came into her eyes” (Tolstoy 413). The former is the beginning of the story’s climax when Anna talks to Vronsky about her husband.

When Anna told her husband about her relations with Vronsky, she did not want to tell the latter about this conversation, because “[S]he knew that she had been ashamed… She felt terrified at the disgrace, of which she had not ever thought before” (Tolstoy 628). Moreover, if Vronsky’s principle was “to abandon oneself without a blush to every passion” (Tolstoy 251), Anna blushed every time, even when her own thoughts were voiced by others: “a deep flush of pleasure came out on her face when she heard the idea” (Tolstoy 216). Tolstoy does not miss the opportunity to record the physical manifestation of shame: Kitty, Dolly, Levin, Stiva – all his characters blush. Even Vronsky – with the development of the plot and complication of his feelings to Anna – blushes more often.

Dostoevsky’s characters are not less endowed with the ability to blush and turn pale: the emotional side of the characters’ life in The Idiot is represented as vividly as in Anna Karenina. But if shame in Anna Karenina often catches the characters when they do and say the things that are in conflict with their true feelings or generally accepted moral standards and principles, in Dostoevsky’ world the feeling of shame may be caused by the actions and words of other people. Prince Myshkin is so susceptible to shame that can be easily embarrassed about others. Shame, as understood in Christian anthropology and represented by Dostoevsky is the inevitable basis of life that penetrates deep into the structure of the psyche, corroding its integrity. In this case, Dostoevsky describes shame not as an emotion, but as a state of mind. Tolstoy’s Anna loses the ability to reason because of the feeling of infinite shame, while Dostoevsky’s description of this emotion only boosts the self-consciousness.

Thus, Prince Myshkin in the famous scene of the Nastasia Philipovna’s birthday precisely defines the dominant setting of her personality as “shame”: “I am nothing, but you have suffered and have emerged purely from such a hell, and that is a lot” (Dostoevsky 297). Prince Myshkin, perhaps more than any other of Dostoevsky’s characters is capable of reading the soul of others. He believes that shame is the gravest punishment for a person, and yet he realizes the healing power of this feeling: “Oh, how ashamed you’ll be of what you’ve done!” (Dostoevsky 145). Unlike Tolstoy, Dostoevsky does not aim to depict all manifestations of shame in every detail. He highlights their effect only on focal moments, the so-called climaxes of important situations that appear in the plot. The concentration of philosophical and ethical meaning of Dostoevsky’s ideological novels is expressed in the thoughts of their characters. Thus, the reader sees that the author considers shame as a feeling that lies in the soul of a person.

Tolstoy’s shame is a result of the violation not only of the moral laws of society but also of internal moral norms and values. Tolstoy’s character lifetime in novels is devoted to ordinary life in which the natural expression of emotions is the basis of the sense of living. On the contrary, Dostoevsky’s characters are thrown into the world for the implementation of their ideas which are interrelated and connected with various phenomena of emotions and passions. Thus, Dostoevsky’s shame is not the resultant, final emotion that closes a number of behavioral and mental acts and recorded by the writer in a special way, but the original state of mind that motivates the behavior of characters. However, both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky considered shame as a feeling that is inseparably linked with guilt and conscience that humanize emotional abyss.

Works Cited

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Idiot. William Heinemann Limited, 1969.

Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina, 1961. Yale University Press, 2014.

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IvyPanda. (2020, October 18). The Theme of Shame in "Anna Karenina" and The Idiot. Retrieved from https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-theme-of-shame-in-anna-karenina-and-the-idiot/

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"The Theme of Shame in "Anna Karenina" and The Idiot." IvyPanda, 18 Oct. 2020, ivypanda.com/essays/the-theme-of-shame-in-anna-karenina-and-the-idiot/.

1. IvyPanda. "The Theme of Shame in "Anna Karenina" and The Idiot." October 18, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-theme-of-shame-in-anna-karenina-and-the-idiot/.


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IvyPanda. "The Theme of Shame in "Anna Karenina" and The Idiot." October 18, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-theme-of-shame-in-anna-karenina-and-the-idiot/.

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IvyPanda. 2020. "The Theme of Shame in "Anna Karenina" and The Idiot." October 18, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-theme-of-shame-in-anna-karenina-and-the-idiot/.

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IvyPanda. (2020) 'The Theme of Shame in "Anna Karenina" and The Idiot'. 18 October.

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