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Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910). Anna Karenin.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.

Criticisms and Interpretations. II. By Charles Edward Turner

THE GERM of Count Tolstoy’s novel “Anna Karenin” is to be found in one of his earlier tales, entitled “Family Happiness.” In both we have the sole basis and surest guarantee of home-life set forth, and both teach the necessity of recognising the prosaic seriousness of life, and the danger of abandoning ourselves to the vague dreams and unsubstantial illusions of youth. The happiness of Marie Alexandrovna, the young wife of the staid Sergei Michaelovitch, is as nearly wrecked through the childish idea that marriage is nothing less than an idyll, a perpetual song of love, as the peace of poor Anna Karenin is completely destroyed through her wilful forgetfulness that human nature requires more solid nourishment than mere passion can afford, and that love, so far from being a blessing, becomes a hindrance to our spiritual development, from the moment we allow it to usurp the place of duty, and make it the one paramount law of our being. We should do wrong to attribute the disenchantment that gradually came over the life of Marie, and made her fretful and discontented, to the disparity of years that existed between the child-wife, with the unknown world lying before her, and the comparatively aged husband, who has tasted its pleasures and proved their hollowness, and is consequently the better able to protect and shield her from the temptations and thousand dangers that beset a young and inexperienced wife. In the same way, we shall equally err if we try to trace the miseries of Anna Karenin to the disparity of tastes, ideas, and inclinations, that rendered it so hard for the dreamy, passionate, impulsive wife to understand or sympathise with the cold, formal, precise nature of her bureaucratic husband, with the eternal portefeuille under his arm, and the dry, prosy government returns and reports, that formed his exclusive reading and occupied his every thought. It is, rather, in their mistaken conception of the true work of life—to discover which is the end and purpose of all Count Tolstoy’s elaborate studies of human character—that we shall find the real source of their disappointments and disillusions. Pure passion is an exotic, that can grow naturally and flourish only in a sphere different from our own. They who would transplant it in the cold, hard soil of earth, may for a brief moment find delight in its ethereal beauty, but the frail plant, lacking its native nourishment, will quickly perish and decay.

As we have already seen, Count Tolstoy’s moral theory is based on the mutual relation between human happiness and the eternal, all-powerful laws of Nature. By obedience to them man can alone attain to his highest felicity. The violation of these laws as infallibly brings with it misery and ruin. And never has this lesson been taught with sterner and more unpitying force than by the author of “Anna Karenin.” “Vengeance is mine, and I will repay,” is the motto prefixed to the novel. And as we read the story, we feel throughout the overhanging presence of an inexorable power that shapes out the lives of men, allotting to them peace or discord, according as they submit to or rebel against their fate. Not that we are to suppose, as M. Vogüé and certain critics appear to think, that Count Tolstoy is, in the ordinary acceptation of the term, a fatalist. In his view of life the Parcae do not spin the threads of each concrete, individual existence, but the threads of those general, abstract laws which envelop and surround universal human life. We can bring our own lives, if we will, into harmony with those laws. We are not, like dipus, the blind slaves of a fate that has ordained beforehand the crimes we are to commit, and the punishment those crimes involve, and from which there is no hope or possibility of escape. Anna Karenin could have escaped her ruin; it was within her power to control the wild impulses of her nature; but in yielding to lawless passion, and sacrificing everything to its satisfaction, she necessarily and inevitably brought upon herself the vengeance with which any outrage committed against the high laws of Nature is justly and righteously repaid.—From “Count Tolstoy as Novelist and Thinker” (1888).