Moments of doubt were continually coming upon her, when she was uncertain whether the train were going forwards or backwards, or were standing still altogether; whether it was Annushka at her side or a stranger. “What’s that on the arm of the chair, a fur cloak or some beast? And what am I myself? Myself or some other woman?” She was afraid of giving way to this delirium. But something drew her toward it, and she could yield to or resist it at will (Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, p. 78).
Levin spent that evening with his betrothed at Dolly’s, and was in very high spirits. To explain to Stepan Arkadyevitch the state of excitement in which he found himself, he said that he was happy like a dog being trained to jump through a hoop, who, having at last caught the idea, and done what was required of him, whines and wags its tail, and jumps up to the table and windows in its delight (308).
I finished Anna Karenina in the air, on a small jet heading south. The heroine had died by the time I got on the plane, and the last section was devoted to Konstantin Levin coming into his final understanding of the Divine. Tolstoy might have associated himself mostly with this character, an estate owner who goes from being a socially awkward young man wanting to cure society’s ills into finding happiness in marriage, fatherhood and Christianity. Out of all the characters, we get the most insight into Levin’s thoughts. The last fifty pages or so culminate in his realizing that wrong and right had always been givens that had been “sucked in with…mother’s milk.” He finds peace in the “joyful knowledge, shared with the peasant,” of God. That this is an ultimately private epiphany makes it all the more poignant.
As I hurtled through the air somewhere over Georgia, finishing the last “page” on my kindle, there was a bothered fluttering in my chest despite the beautifully wrought text. I thought, of course Levin has found God, he was born into the position of a nobleman who got to boss his peasants around, thus everything was right for him. But what of the peasant? What of Anna’s recurring dream about the “stooped peasant” who pounds futilely on iron throughout the entire book, and who appears at the scene of her death, still pounding, muttering nonsense in French, with no regard for her. For her, this figure born into a system that still oppresses him despite its modern reforms is terrifying. Anna could not accept the joyful knowledge of Levin, of the complacent peasant, that the innate order of things is, has always been and will continue to be, right, because this was the same order that told her that she, being a woman, is, has always been, and will continue to be, subordinate to a man, a vessel for him, no matter what new developments (trains, education) modernity brings.
And because of this, I missed her trouble, and her oscillating musings, my favorite being quoted above. She fantasizes briefly that the fur cloak becomes a beast, with teeth and hunger again, maybe with potential to injure those who would transfigure it into some article of clothing for human comfort. Or, the fantasy recalls that the cloak is not simply a given; it was once wild, and had been made into what it now is. And it could, through imagining, become once again an untamable beast.Here we are stuck in the creative energy of simultaneous forwardsness and backwardsness, the place of contradiction, hot kernel of doubt. Levin’s own animal metaphor, likening his happiness to that of a trained dog jumping through a hoop, perfectly opposes Anna’s in its sureness, its linearity. I am charmed by him always and glad that he finds peace, yet still I am left with a simple, gnawing question:
What if she did not die? She might have gone on yielding to and resisting her delirium at will, a seeming contradiction in itself, refusing to give up her social positionwhile calling its validity into question. The peasant in her nightmares was not necessarily pounding on the tracks where she, a categorically bad woman, must die. It was just a dream made from the stuff of her strange life. The peasant might have yet put down his hammer. Or used it as a weapon. Or written with it. Or melted it down into another shape that never fit into the schema of history, exactly. That was the core of Anna’s subversion, that her position was intolerable for both Church and State, was inconsistent with their social blueprints. At the end, she has to die to make room for those who find peace with the natural order. But in my mind she still pushes, questions what un-trainable forces her will is capable of producing, creates formidable beasts out of comfortable cloaks. And she somehow finds another kind of peace, living sustainably in unpardonable happiness, unsanctioned love.