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University of Toronto · Academic Electronic Journal in Slavic Studies

Toronto Slavic Quarterly

Jerome H. Katsell

Anna Karenina:
Coordinates on the Labyrinthian Road

"Two bears in one den."

[ ,

Maksim Gorky (1901-1902)[1]

Edward Said wrote: choosing a beginning confers upon it a certain status based on its ability to intend the whole of what follows from it. [2]  Anna Karenina begins with a truncated epigraph: Мне отмщение, и Аз воздам. Truncated because the original sentence in Pauls Epistle to the Romans, 12/19, reads in full: Мне отмщение, и Аз воздам, говорит Господь. The biblical phrase is brought down to earth, challenged in its divine provenance, appropriated by a narrative voice of unfettered omniscience, the voice, perhaps, of Lev Tolstoy, the voice of a modern writer who is God in the universe of his creation, the novel Anna Karenina. And within that universe, as we know from Tolstoys letter to Nikolai Strakhov of April 23-26, 1876, its essence, the very essence of art, consists of an internal labyrinth of linkages, the sinews and fibers that bind the work together. [3] Thus, from the epigraph, from the very first five words of the novel there is a tension created about the ultimate arbiter of meaning in what is to come.

            The ex cathedra epigraph is followed immediately by an aphorism dripping with  prosaics. It posits a world of natural affinity, an un-systemized yet vital world of similar happy families, and a chaos of unhappy families, each of which has its own form of  unhappiness. That the Oblonskys, Stiva and Dolly, their children and the household staff, itself in part falling by the wayside because of the intense domestic discord, are illustrative of one form of family unhappiness, however transient it proves to be, is beyond doubt. In Chapter I a key word in the trussing together of the novel appears three times in a little over two pages. That word is положение, situation, or position.  

             There is in the first narrative-driven paragraph of the novel the use of положение to anchor everything that has gone into making the household wallow in confusion  worse confounded because of Stivas liaison with the French governess. Stiva escapes into his Il mio tesoro dream and stretches his toes for his wifely- embroidered gold-trimmed morocco slippers when: его воображению представились опять все подробности ссоры с женою, вся безвыходность его положения Now положение signifies more than the general situation affecting  everyone in the household, but rather Stivas specific desperate position portending the possible destruction of his marriage as a result of his sexual dalliance.  When Stiva is confronted by Dolly with the evidence of his infidelity he simply cannot prepare his face  к тому положению, в которое он становился перед женой после открытия его вины.  And here Stiva cannot do many things that foreshadow his sister Annas later behavior (оскорбиться, отрекаться, оправдываться, просить прощения, оставаться даже равнодушным) but can only muster his usual sweet, and, consequently, silly smile. [4]

            The family homestead, the place exalted ultimately as one of the supreme loci of value in the novel, the place where in the beginning Stiva cannot prepare a face to cover his guilt before Dolly, is suggested by nine references to the house, the household and the premises of the Oblonsky estate in the first event-narrative paragraph.  Thus, home and hearth, children and the expanded connections of family, extended family and society are part of the grounding, the situation which is postulated as true, authentic and violated by the falseness introduced into it by Stivas behavior, to which he can only offer that eternal Russian question, here rendered not in a societal-historical register but in the deeply prosaic Oblonskyan world: что делать? [5]

             The first soundings of major themes and key terms come in the early chapters of Anna Karenina. Thus marital infidelity, ones place in the world, falseness and lying to others and to oneself, attempts to skirt the law (Stiva selling off forested areas of his wifes estate to pay debts outside her knowledge), the wreaking of personal vengeance (Dollys thinking about Stiva here sounds a bit like Annas deep resentment at Vronsky in her last spiritual agony: она [Долли] должна предпринять что-нибудь, наказать, осрамить его, отомстить ему хоть малою частью той боли, которую он ей сделал) (8, p. 17); compare Annas heightened yet similar sense of revenge near the end (и я накажу его и избавлюсь от всех и от себя. ) [Vol. II, 388] Stivas recoil into himself to ward off an expected tirade from Dolly ([O]н втянул голову в плечи и  хотел иметь жалкий и покорный вид, но он все-таки сиял свежестью и здоровьем) (8, p. 18), is echoed by Anna at the end of Part VII (и, вжав в плечи голову, упала под вагон на руки и легким движением, как бы готовясь тотчас же встать, опустилась на колена. [6] These early pointers on the labyrinthian road appear before we have even met Anna, Vronsky, Levin, Kitty or Karenin! Richard Gustafson tells us, however, that when we first meet Anna at Moscows Обираловка station in Part I that : The tragedy of the watchman who does not watch is the emblem of that suppression of conscience which results in death. [7]

            At the very end of the novel Levin in his inner monologue exclaims: вся моя жизнь не только не бессмысленна, как была прежде, но имеет несомненный смысл добра, который я властен вложить в нее! [8] This statement supports the idea of personal human power confronting the ultimate nature of existence and placing or positioning that power into life, for the good as Levin conceives it. The verb used to express this power, вложить, contains the same linguistic root (LEG), manifested as лож, as in the word положение, and various first cousins that appear to play an important role in the linkages that tie the novel together. (Egs.: принадлежность, предложение, предположить, пролежень.) Within its range of meanings in the novel, положение implicates social placement, the feeling of being in balance, in ones proper place, at one with or in discord with life, career, family, and with ones relationship to the ineffable, possibly to God.  Thus, for example, Vronsky loses his proper balance when he causes Frou-Frou to break her back: Вдруг положение его изменилось, и он понял, что случилось что-то ужасное. (II/xxv, my emphasis.)  The destruction of Frou-Frou certainly portends Vronskys contribution to Annas ultimate demise, but it more immediately suggests the changes taking place in their respective social positions and balance. Interestingly, Levin, in Part I, ix, almost loses his balance at the ice skating rink, but rights himself. На последней ступени он зацепился, но, чуть дотронувшись до льда рукой, сделал сильное движение, справился и смеясь, покатился дальше.

            A nearly homonymous verb root, (L/G, or LOZH) carries the meaning of untruth, lying, prevarication. It is closely associated with the falseness that dogs the relationship between Vronsky and Anna. It is her ложное положение in society, whether in Petersburg, Moscow, in Italy or at Vronskys country estate that wears Anna down, as if the retribution, human or divine, or divine and human, promised by the epigraph has already been meted out and her suicide is really nothing more than a confirmation of that fact.  Ложь, falseness, appears when truth is most needed, as when Levins brother Nikolai, in Part V, lies dying and everyone present knows his is dying, yet scurries about bringing him medicine and false hope while wishing he would simply die (V/xx):  Все это была ложь, гадкая, оскорбительная  и кощунственная ложь. И эту ложь, и по свойству своего характера и потому, что он больше всех любил умирающего, Левин особенно больно чувствовал. (Vol. 2, 83).  Here Tolstoy virtually beats a timpani of falseness, clearly a main thematic strain in this novel in which the search for true meaning is central. Ложь, ложь, and ложь.  (See VII/xxxi)  Interestingly, the same paragraph in which the falseness surrounding Nikolai Levin is so highlighted begins: Больной страдал все больше и больше, в особенности от пролежней [9] In Russian, Nikolais bedsores (the word contains the LEG root) point to mis-positioning, lying too long in one posture, and perhaps metaphorically to Nikolais radical social dislocation and decay, which in a minor key parallels Annas experience.

            The plight of Nikolai who has voluntarily taken himself outside the frame of conventional society into the realm of public lawlessness parallels that of Anna. Tolstoy in a masterstroke of linkage ties together their sufferings and lack of control at the moment of their deaths. Anna commits suicide at the Moscow train station, Обираловка, whose name is based on the verb обирать, to strip away, to rob.  Обирать takes us back to the slow agony of Nikolais death, to V/xx, when Maria Nikolaevna [Tolstoys mother and sister were named Maria Nikolaevna] tells Levin that Nikolai will die soon. Отчего вы думаете?спросил Левин ее, когда она вышла за ним в коридор.// -Стал обирать себя,--сказала Марья Николаевна. // --Как обирать? //Вот так, --сказала она, обдергивая складки своего шерстяного платья.[10] The verb is quite unusual. Levin at first does not understand what she means, and it is repeated, drawing our attention to it, and by synecdoche linking it to the final moments of Anna. Her ultimate physical location at Обираловка and the fate of Nokolais collapsing body are thus concatenated. They both die with their bodies and spirits stripped completely away. [This connection was pointed out to me by Vladimir Golstein of Brown University.]

            Elisabeth Stenbock-Fermor, following Roman Jakobson, suggests the use of synechdochic details in  Anna Karenina to impart meaning over the large canvas of his novel. [11]  Thus, Annas little red handbag, (красный мешочек) introduced in Part I, an extension of her elegant femininity, her attachment to life in all its sensual abundance, and perhaps suggestive of the very core of her sexuality, suddenly, hundreds of pages later at the end of Part VII, delays her and makes her pause momentarily to throw it away, as she is about to throw away her life. One may hypothesize that Tolstoy wants his readers to understand from the slightest gesture or glance the whole arc of meaning and linkages implied in that glance or gesture. Thus, Vronsky at the train station in Part I when he first meets Anna: по одному взгляду на внешность этой дамы, Вронский определил ее принадлежность к выcшему свету. (I/xviii).  Her belonging (принадлежность is a fused double-prefixed deverbal abstract noun containing the root LEG and the idea of positioning, при spatially and temporally, and placing above, над,) comfortably to the highest reaches of society, her apparent unassailable положение in its midst is about to come under assault, and we witness Annas growing isolation from the possibilities of life, read as true communicative speech, within an organically social and familial context once she is involved with Vronsky.

            Annas situation is complex in part because of the extant laws regarding marriage in Imperial Russia in the 1870s.  While the great law Reform of 1864 had introduced trial by jury and civil procedure for all parties, it did not protect women from the harshest results where marriage vows were violated.  Marriage remained the judicial province of the ecclesiastical authorities, with pleadings and hearings often held in diocesan offices. Divorce could occur only because of physical defect of a spouse, complete absence of a spouse for five years, or adultery. Spouses incredibly were not to live apart subsequent to divorce under ecclesiastical law, a requirement flouted by Anna. This situation deprives her of any claim to custody of her legitimate child, Seriozha. The law required one spouse to take responsibility for the adultery, which Karenin ultimately offers to do.  Anna rejects the offer, perhaps realizing that it will not change what has truly offended Vronsky, the fact that all issue of an illegitimate union not sanctified by ecclesiastical law remained under the guardianship of the original husband for the remainder of his life.  Thus Annas child with Vronsky, little Ani, is legally Anna Karenina the younger. This legal fiction, carrying the full force of ecclesiastical law, remains for Vronsky as the biological father a spiritual and psychological положение, a negative in his relations with Anna, a forced divorce from his self, a legalized sanctioning of a deep, cruel and hurtful lie. The isolation and neglect of little Ani cannot help but link to the isolation of Anna Karenina whose compromised legal position is in turn reinforced by social ostracism and her dependence on her spurned husband because of the structuring of Russian ecclesiastical law. 

            Harriet Murav in her study of the limits of law in Anna Karenina states: Levin and Karenin encounter the law as language, but Anna encounters it as a force constraining who she is. The law defines her as a criminal. The first act of adultery takes away her voice; she fails to put into words what she feels, and she never recovers this capacity. The loss of voice amounts to a loss of agency. [12] But Vronsky, in his suicide attempt in Part IV, and Karenin, in Part II, as he begins to understand in his bones that Anna has deceived him run up against an abyss that language cannot overcome: он чувствовал, что стоит лицом к лицу пред чем-то нелогичным  и бестолковым, и не знал, что надо делать. Теперь он испытывал чувство, подобное тому, какое испытал  бы человек, спокойно прошедший над пропастью по мосту и вдруг увидавший, что этот мост разобран и что там пучина (II/viii). Karenins need is to hide, to ameliorate то тяжелое положение в которое она поставила семью, [he is worried about his положение в свете III/xiii] leads him in Part III, xiv, to write Anna a letter proposing they remain together and in which he invokes a higher, presumably divine law, я не считаю себя вправе разрывать тех уз, которыми мы связаны властью свышеYet in that same letter Karenin threatens Anna with the full force of his position within the law.  Я вполне уверен, что вы раскаялись и раскаиваетесь в том, что служит поводом настоящего письма, и что вы будете содействовать мне в том, чтобы вырвать с корнем причину нашего раздора и забыть прошедшее. В противном случае, вы сами можете предположить (--suppose--) то, что вас ожидает и  вашего сына . The Pevear and Volokhonsky translation has imagine what awaits, (p. 284), translating the verb предположить not incorrectly, but missing the root лож, again the posing, the positioning of ones life, here within the socio-cultural and historical context of Imperial Russia of the 1870s. 

            The cornering of Anna by the language of the ecclesiastic law of divorce, itself perhaps the enforcement arm of the truncated biblical epigraph, is further highlighted by Tolsoy the ironist through the name of the Vronskys estate to which he and Anna escape at the end of Part V, Воздвиженское.  The estate name brings to mind the Exaltation of the Cross festival (Воздвижение Креста Господня) that celebrates for the faithful the alleged finding in 326 A.D. of the Cross on which Christ was crucified, buried for centuries under a pagan temple in Jerusalem, yet still capable of performing miracles, such as bringing a corpse to life and healing a mortally ill woman. St. John Chrysostom, Иоанн Златоуст, Patriarch of Constantinople circa 398-404 A.D. sermonized about the Cross: [It] affirmed the commandment of chastity and rooted out voluptuousness; [the Cross] consecrated the rule of abstinence and deposed the dominion of lust.  At Воздвиженское, in addition to reading, agricultural, and architectural pursuits, up to and including жатвенные машины and устроенная вентеляция новой  системы, a life rooted in voluptuousness, lust and adultery is moving towards a difficult future (VI/xxi). 

            The artificiality of the situation is becoming increasingly exacerbated, especially for Vronsky, who explains to Dolly: У нас есть ребенок, у нас могут быть еще дети. Но закон [ecclesiastic law,] и все условия нашего положения таковы, что являются тысячи компликаций, которых она теперь отдыхая душой после всех страданий и испытаний, не видит и не хочет видеть. И это понятно. Но я не могу не видеть.  Моя дочь по законуне моя дочь, а Каренина. Я не хочу этого обмана! (VI, xxi.)  Vronsky goes on to despair about bringing further children into the world with Anna, especially a son, because: между мной и ими нет связи. Вы поймите тягость и ужас этого положения!  The exalted language register of  Воздвиженское is brought thundering to earth during the dinner conversation when Sviiazhsky comments on the smooth working relations between Vronsky and his architect, calling them American methods.  The Pevear-Volokhonsky translation then has the architect say: Yes, sir, buildings done rationally there [13] (630), Да-с, там воздвигaются (my emphasis, J.K.) здания рационально (VI, xxii), missing the sense of onrushing movementдвигthat will eventually sweep away Anna and Vronsky, and the ironic allusion to a higher calling, the exalted state, the inner movement towards spiritual attainment implicated by the estate name, Воздвиженское.  [The dinner talk then waxes positively post-modern when the narrator comments:  Разговор перешел на злоупотребления властей в Соединенных Штатах.] The use of the root dvig here might be called after Vladimir Alexandrov a hermeneutic index since it can be thought of as an interpretive vector, a detail by which one gains a window into the wider text. [14]

            Levins ancestral estate is Покровское. It is his core, the shelter from which he builds his character and explores the world. Here he brings his bride, Kitty. She is the mother of the new Levin family.  Покровское is named for a uniquely Orthodox religious holiday, Покров Пресвятой Богородицы, The Veil (or) Protection of Our Lady.  Fedotov tells us that the Покров celebration became one of the most venerated and favorite with the people. [15] The holiday celebrates the deliverance of Constantinople, ironically from besieging Slavs, through the prayers of the Holy Virgin. Fedotov continues:

In Russia [Bogoroditsa] has no abstract, theological flavor, but is full of emotional power. It speaks directly to the heart because it touches the very core of the Russian religion: divine Motherhood. The Russian Mary is not only the Mother of God or Christ but the Universal Mother, the Mother of all mankind.  she isMother in the moral sense, a merciful protector, an intercessor for men before heavenly Justice, the Russian version of redemption. But in another ontological sense she was really believed by the folk to be the Giver of life to all creatures [16]

It is the fecundity, the naturalness, the protected shelter of Покровское, in the presence of  Kitty, from which issues Levins contemplation of the universe and his place within it. 

            Levin has had thoughts of suicide because he cannot find the answers to his questions: Что же я такое? и где я? и зачем я здесь? (VIII/xi)  He leans on the railing of the terrace at his estate home in Покровское, contemplates the Milky Way and admires the stars which are как будто брошенные какой-то меткой рукой. This is a moment of exaltation and inner movement when love and the good erupt in an unprecedented manner in his consciousness.  Movementдвижение the complex, perhaps inexplicable movement of the human soul also erupts off the page. Движение in one form or another is repeated six times in the middle paragraphs of the novels final chapter.  [Compare, Schopenhauer: REALITY=WILL, life as ceaseless motion.]

            Now, without irony, the inner movement towards spiritual attainment undercut at Воздвиженское, is tied to Levin and Покровское. Let us not forget Anna and her  легким движением (VII/xxi) as she falls to her knees in her moment of final despair, or our first meeting with her: И, как только брат подошел к ней, она движением, поразившим Вронского своей решительностью и грацией, обхватила брата левою рукой за шею, быстро притянула к себе и крепко поцеловала (I/xviii). Unlike Levin, Anna could not find the answers to her similar questions: Где я? Что я делаюЗачем? (VII/xxxi) Finally, Levin asserts to himself his conviction that life: имеет несомненный смысл добра, который я властен вложить  в нее (VIII/xix).  Levins power for the good is personal to him, and not like the unconvincing власть свыше (III, xiv) with which Karenin tries to hold onto his marriage with Anna. Like the truncated epigraph, none other than Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy and his лабиринт сцеплений stand behind both of them.


1.    Горький, Максим, Собрание сочинений в тридцати томах, (Москва: ГИХЛ,  1951), Том 13, С. 261.

2.    Said, Edward, W., Beginnings: Intuition & Method, (Baltimore & London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975), p. 50.

3.    Донсков, А.А., редактор, Л.Н. Толстой и Н.Н. Страхов: Полное собрание переписки, (Toronto & Moscow: Slavic Research  Group, 2003), Том 1, С. 268.

4.    Толстой, Л.Н., Собрание сочинений в двадцати томах, (Москва: ГИХЛ, 1963), С. 9.

5.    Там же. С. 9.

6.    Там же. Том 9, С. 389.

7.    Gustafson, Richard, F., Leo Tolstoy: Resident and Stranger (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), p. 121 and passim.

8. Там же. С 445.

9.    Там же. С. 83.

10.  Professor Vladimir Golstein kindly pointed out this linkage to me.

11.  Stenbock-Fermor, Elizabeth, The Architecture of Anna Karenina, (Lisse: Peter De Ridder Press, 1975).

12.  Murav, Harriet, Law as Limit and the Limits of the Law in Anna Karenina, in Approaches to Teaching Tolstoys Anna Karenina, Eds. Liza Knapp and Amy Mandelker, (New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 2003), p. 80.

13.  Pevear, Richard and Volokhonsky, Larissa, trans., Anna Karenina, (New York: Penguin Books, 2002).

14.  Alexandrov, Vladimir E., Limits to Interpretation: The Meanings of Anna Karenina, (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2004).

15.  Fedotov, G.P., The Russian Religious Mind: Kievan Christianity, The Tenth to the Thirteenth Centuries, (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1946), p. 361.

16.  Ibid., p. 361.

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