Tolstoy's Use of His Characters to Bring Forth His Themes

     In his novel Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy makes successful use of his characters to illustrate his themes and moral vision. He most often accomplishes this through Anna Arkadyevna Karenina and Konstantin Levin, the two characters that provide the contrast that defines most of Tolstoy's themes. Anna and Levin interact with a variety of characters throughout the book, to illuminate the themes of sin, and society that Tolstoy wanted to present to his reader. Whether these issues were moral, religious or social, Tolstoy used these characters to convey his thoughts to his audience.

    Tolstoy's form also plays an important role in creating and upholding the contrasts between the two characters and the implications of their thoughts and actions. That is, the way the book is written, the actual layout and progression of the chapters and parts serves the definite purpose of establishing a pattern in the reader's mind.

    The form of the novel is designed to keep our feelings and thoughts continuously stirred and unsettled, especially with regard to the powerful figure who gives the novel its name. Anna is definitely superior to all others in her elite social set, but although we sympathize with her position, the novel's form exerts a steady pressure on our sympathy, creating disapproval and even condemnation. Tolstoy achieves this by means of an alternating double plot in which true love is counterpointed against immoral love: while one is blossoming, the other is disintegrating. This pressure is exerted at certain points or connecting links between the two plots as well as through the patterning of the segments themselves.

    For instance, in Part Five, Levin's fear of death strengthens his union with Kitty, leading, in Part Seven, to the birth of a son; Anna, in Part Six, having abandoned her son, exasperates [Vronsky[ to heighten his ardor. Fear of death tightens their union also, and leads, in Part Seven, to her suicide. Levin's jealous fits in Part Six express his vexation with Kitty for not being able to allay his fear of death; similarly, Anna rages at Vronsky for not allaying her despair. In the "right" union, jealousy is laughable; in the "wrong" union it is devastating.

    One discovers the moral vision of Anna Karenina by interpreting the design of the double plot and the narrator's point of view. Tolstoy speaks directly through authorial comment and similes and indirectly through the structure; that is, the points at which the two plots touch, characters are contrasted, etc. The action of the double plot contrasts the true and immoral love, just as it contrast the two characters. Edward Wasiolek touches on this in his novel Tolstoy's Major Fiction:

    While Anna is falling in love with Vronsky, Levin is being rejected by Kitty. When Kitty and Levin are falling in love, Anna is on her deathbed, attempting to reconcile herself to Karenin, struggling to give up Vronsky. As Anna and Vronsky leave Russia to begin their restless and aimless travels, Kitty and Levin are married. When Anna and Vronsky return to Moscow to make one desperate attempt to get a divorce and resolve their situation, Kitty is having a baby, finding new bonds of love and companionship with Levin. When Anna kills herself, Levin finds the secret of life in the words of an ignorant peasant. By and large, the novel describes the deterioration of Anna's and Vronsky's love and the growth toward maturity of Kitty's and Levin's love.
This pattern of passages sets up a structure that the characters flesh out; especially Anna and Levin. Tolstoy speaks to the reader through their thought and actions, allowing us to form a clearer idea of these themes as the novel progresses and we obtain an idea of the characters and what makes them tick.

    Tolstoy introduces Anna to us, through Dolly's eyes, as a sweet and beautiful woman who arrives to mediate a dispute between Dolly and her husband Stiva, also Anna's brother. She is presented as a sympathetic and loving character, worthy of the reader's adoration.

    Anna also befriends Kitty, the young woman Levin is in love with. Kitty looks up to Anna and finds a basis for behavior and conduct at this stage in her life when she is looking for purpose and is still malleable. Kitty, and thus the reader, see Anna as a maternal figure, full of moral dignity and the capacity forunconditional love.

    However, her growing love for Vronsky and distaste for Karenin begin to change the reader's opinion of her character. She becomes naive, gullible and even stupid in that she plunges her life into chaos on a whim, assuming that she will find comfort and support in Vronsky. She begins to lose the reader's sympathy when she pursues Vronsky, disregarding Kitty's feelings and both social and moral deportment; Tolstoy has injected sin and its repercussions into his tale. This is exemplified when Anna is mulling over her situation and thinks: "I realized that I was alive and that I was not to blame, that God had made me so that I need to love and live." She tries to shift the blame from herself and rationalize her position, even going as far as to lay blame at God's feet, when she has in fact sinned against Him.

    Is Anna sinful, or is she justified and thus absolved due to the fact that she is escaping a cold and indifferent husband who has subjected her to years of torment? This issue of sin and morality is a major theme in the book. Indeed, along with Levin's search for religious truth and fulfillment, it may be considered the major theme of the novel. In her search for contentment, the reader's opinion of Anna may sway, but the fact that she has sinned is always driven home. This can be seen in her inability to find happiness or true love. She choose passion and lust, both sinful, thus forfeiting the right and access to true love. She is never quite content with Vronsky and even falls back on morphine, attempting escape from the enormity of her situation and her sin.

    Levin on the other hand is a morally upstanding character who won't compromise his morals and values for social and materialistic gains. His ties to the peasants and their rural life makes him down-to-earth and realistic; more wholesome if you will. His clear and unstained conscience effectively balances out Anna's guilty one.

    Levin embodies the new Russian ideals; democratic and interested in the welfare of the people because he has realized that there is much good in them; they are pure in their simplicity. He also has very sound philosophical ideas, even though he is looked down upon by the 'true philosophers.' Combined with his good business sense, this makes him a well-rounded character capable of clear thought and well thought out actions.

    Working on and running a farm, obtaining what one needs from the earth, is similar to American Transcendentalist thought in the early 19th century. Levin exemplifies Emerson's words in his essay Self Reliance. "Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind." Levin's personal philosophy parallels these ideas to a great extent: this connection can be seen in Levin's quote: "I enjoy what I have and don't fret for what I don't have."

    Levin confesses that it is impossible for a rationalist and natural scientist like himself to believe in God, and yet his chief traits and actions testify to an unconscious longing for God--his hatred of city life, his rebirth of the soul when returning to the land, his efforts at chastity, his attraction to the sweet and innocent Kitty, and his guilt at being a landlord and exploiter. He ends by realizing that he had been seeking salvation all along; he had been living, without knowing it, as if life were exceedingly difficult without God.

    Anna, by contrast, dies because she's unable to sublimate her sexual passion. The double plot of the novel offers two alternatives for Levin and Anna, that is, for strong personalities who are forthright and passionate--faith or suicide.

    The choices these characters make represent the message Tolstoy is trying to convey to the reader. Levin is often seen as Tolstoy himself, as they share some of the same beliefs and values. Through both Anna and Levin, Tolstoy comments on Russian high society as both display a disgust for it. Anna because she has been severed from society due to her union with Vronsky and Levin because he has always rejected it.

    Tolstoy was regarded by Lenin as the "poet of the peasant revolt." Tolstoy mirrored this epoch of widespread social unrest, which lasted from the abolition of serfdom in 1861 to the revolution of 1905, faithfully recording the transformation of society caused by the growth of capitalism, as stated in the Encyclopedia Britannica. This interest, and the purpose of capitalism, which bureaucratized the Russian nobility, is the protection, by any and every means, even the most brutal, of the private property of the ruling classes. Levin personalized this change as he was the connection between society and the peasants, as far as the novel was concerned.

    In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy's representation of Levin's life as the right life, a life of moral dignity, is set in opposition to Anna's catastrophic passion. Levin embodies the morality that Anna violates; the double plot is a narrative device, a means of illuminating Anna's tragedy and Levin's salvation. Yet Anna's loveless marriage to a frigid husband compels our sympathy; we admire her and at the same time see that Tolstoy has no patience for the cultured society that judges her. Society has a negative effect on human nature; it is based on experience and represents the power of the majority over the individual. This is what angered Tolstoy, and what he conveyed to the reader through his characters.

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