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Characterization in Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenin


By Vladimir Nabokov

All was confusion in the Oblonski household, but all is order in Tolstoy’s kingdom. A vivid array of people, the main characters of the novel, already start to exist for the reader in part one. Anna’s curiously dual nature is already perceptible in the double role she plays at her first appearance when she restores, by means of tender tact and womanly wisdom, harmony in a broken home but simultaneously acts as an evil enchantress by destroying a young girl’s romance. With his fond sister’s assistance quickly recovering from his despicable plight, the blond-whiskered, moist-eyed bon-vivant Oblonski is already—in his meetings with Lyovin and Vronski—acting the role of master of ceremonies which he will play in the novel. Through a series of deeply poetical images Tolstoy conveys the tenderness and fierceness of Lyovin’s love for Kitty, which is at first unrequited, but is to attain later, in the course of the book, what was to Tolstoy the difficult and divine ideal of love, namely marriage and procreation. Lyovin’s proposal comes at the wrong time and brings into special relief Kitty’s infatuation with Vronski —a kind of sensuous awkwardness which adolescence will live down. Vronski, a strikingly handsome but somewhat stockily built fellow, very intelligent but devoid of talent, socially charming but individually rather mediocre, reveals in his behavior toward Kitty a streak of bland insensitivity which may easily grade into callousness and even brutality later on. And it will be noted by the amused reader that it is not any of the young men of the book, but dignified Karenin of the homely ears, who is the triumphant lover in part one; we approach here the moral of the tale: the Karenin marriage, lacking as it does true affinity between its partners, is as sinful as Anna’s love affair is to be.

Here, too, in part one the dawning of Anna’s tragic romance is fore-glimpsed; and in thematic introduction and contrast to her case, three different examples of adultery or cohabitation are given by Tolstoy: (1) Dolly, a faded woman of thirty-three with many children, happens to find an amorous billet addressed by her husband, Steve Oblonski, to a young French woman who some time ago had been the governess of their children; (2) Lyovin’s brother Nikolay, a pitiful figure, lives with a kind-hearted albeit uncultured woman whom, in an ecstasy of social reform common to his time, he took from a lowclass brothel of which she had been a passive inmate; (3) in the last chapter of part one Tolstoy clinches it with the Petritski-Baroness Shilton case of cheerful adultery in which no deceit and no family ties are involved.

These three illustrations of irregular amours, Oblonski’s, Nikolay Lyovin’s, and Petritski’s, are traced in the margin of Anna’s own ethical and emotional troubles. It will be marked that Anna’s troubles start the minute she meets Vronski. Indeed, Tolstoy arranges matters in such a manner that the events in part one (which occur about a year before Anna actually becomes Vronski’s mistress) foreshadow Anna’s tragic destiny. With an artistic force and subtlety unknown to Russian letters before his day, Tolstoy introduces the theme of violent death simultaneously with that of violent passion in Vronski’s and Anna’s life: the fatal accident to a railway employee, coincident with their first meeting, becomes a grim and mysterious link between them through Vronski’s quietly helping the dead man’s family merely because Anna happens to think of it. Married ladies of fashion should not accept presents from strange gentlemen, but here is Vronski making Anna the gift, as it were, of that railway guard’s death. And it will also be marked that this act of gallantry, this flash of connivance (with a chance death for chance subject), is something that Anna regards as shameful in retrospection, as if it were a first stage in her unfaithfulness to her husband, an event not to be mentioned either to Karenin or to the young girl Kitty who is in love with Vronski. And more tragically still, Anna feels all at once, as she and her brother are leaving the station, that the accident (coincident with her meeting Vronski and her coming to arrange the affairs of her adulterous brother) is an omen of evil. She is strangely upset. One passerby says to another that such an instantaneous death is also the easiest one: this Anna happens to overhear; this sinks into her mind ; this impression will breed.

Not only is unfaithful Oblonski’s state of mind in the beginning of the book a grotesque parody of his sister’s destiny, but another striking theme is foreglimpsed in the events of his morning—the theme of significant visions in sleep. In regard to Steve’s fickle and carefree mind the dream he dreams has exactly the same value of characterization as has, in regard to Anna’s deep and rich and tragic personality, a certain fateful nightmare she will be made to see later.