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Structure of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenin


By Vladimir Nabokov

What is the key to an intelligent appreciation of the structure of Tolstoy’s huge Anna Karenina The key to its structure is consideration in terms of time. Tolstoy’s purpose, and Tolstoy’s achievement, is the synchronization of seven major lives, and it is this synchronization that we have to follow in order to rationalize the delight that his magic produces in us.

The first twenty-one chapters have for their main subject the Oblonski disaster. It helps to introduce two budding subjects:

(1) the Kitty-Lyovin-Vronski triangle, and (2) the beginning of the Vronski-Anna theme. Mark that Anna, who (with the grace and wisdom of a bright-eyed goddess Athena) brings on the reconciliation between her brother and his wife, simultaneously and demoniacally breaks up the Kitty-Vronski combination by captivating Vronski. The Oblonski adultery and the Shcherbatskis’ heartbreak prepare the Vronski-Anna theme which will not be so naturally resolved as are the Oblonski-Dolly trouble and Kitty’s bitterness. Dolly pardons her husband for the sake of their children and because she loves him; Kitty two years later marries Lyovin, and it proves to be a perfect match, a marriage after Tolstoy’s heart; but Anna, the dark beauty of the book, will see the destruction of her family life, and shall die. Throughout the first part of the book (thirty-four chapters), seven lives are abreast in time : Oblonski, Dolly, Kitty, Lyovin, Vronski, Anna, and Karenin. In the case of two pairs (the Oblonskis and the Karenins) the pairing has been impaired at the start: it is then patched up in the Oblonski pair, but it is just beginning to break up in the Karenin pair. A complete break-up has taken place in the two possible pairs, in the vestigial Vronski-Kitty pair and in the likewise vestigial Lyovin-Kittypair. In consequence, Kitty is mateless, Lyovin is mateless, and Vronski (tentatively paired off with Anna) threatens to break up the Karenin pair. So let us mark the following important points in this first part: there is a reshuffling.of seven relationships; there are seven lives to take care of (between them the little chapters shuttle); and these seven lives are abreast in time, the time being the beginning of February 1872.

Part two, which consists of thirty-five chapters, starts for everybody in mid-March of the same year, 1872; but then we witness a curious phenomenon: the Vronski-Karenin-Anna triangle lives faster than the still mateless Lyovin, or the still mateless Kitty. This is a very fascinating point in the structure of the novel —the mated existing faster than the mateless. If we follow first the Kitty line we find that mateless Kitty, who is wilting away in Moscow, is examined by a famous doctor around March 15; despite her own woes she helps to nurse back to health Dolly’s six children (the baby is two months old) who are down with scarlet fever; and then Kitty will be taken by her parents to Soden, a German resort, in the first week of April 1872. These matters are taken care of in the first three chapters of this part two. Only in chapter 30 do we actually follow the Shcherbatskis to Soden, where time and Tolstoy completely cure Kitty. Five chapters are devoted to this cure and then Kitty returns to Russia, to the Oblonski-Shcherbatski country place a few miles from Lyovin’s place, by the end of June 1872, and this is the end of part two as far as Kitty is concerned.

In this same part two Lyovin’s life in the Russian countryside is correctly synchronized with Kitty’s existence in Germany. We read of his activities on his country estate in a set of six chapters, 12 to 17. He is sandwiched between two sets of chapters dealing with the lives of Vronski and the Karenins in St. Petersburg; and the very important point to be marked is that the Vronski-Karenin team lives faster than Kitty or Lyovin by more than a year. In the first set of chapters of this part two, from chapters 5 to 11, the husband broods and Vronski perseveres, and by chapter 11, after almost a year of pursuit, Vronski becomes technically Anna’s lover. This is October 1872. But in Lyovin’s life and in Kitty’s life, the time is only spring 1872. They lag behind by several months. Another leap forward is taken by the Vronski-Karenin time-team (a good Nabokovian term — time-team; use it with acknowledgments) in a set of twelve chapters, 18 to 29, in which the famous episode of the steeplechase, followed by Anna’s confession to her husband, takes place in August 1873 (with three years to go to the end of the whole novel). Then again the shuttle: we go back to the spring of 1872, to Kitty in Germany. So that at the end of part two we have a curious situation: Kitty’s life, and Lyovin’s life, are about fourteen or fifteen months behind that of the Vronski-Karenins. To repeat, the mated move faster than the mateless.

In part three, which consists of thirty-two chapters, we stay for a little while with Lyovin, then we visit Dolly with him on the Oblonski estate just before Kitty arrives, and finally in chapter 12, summer 1872, Lyovin has a charming glimpse of Kitty arriving in a coach from the railway station, back from Germany. The next set of chapters takes us to Petersburg to Vronski and to the Karenins just after the races (this is the summer 1873), and then we move back in time to September 1872, to Lyovin’s estate, which he leaves in October 1872 for a somewhat vague journey in Germany, France, and England.

I wish now to stress the following point. Tolstoy is in difficulties. His lovers and betrayed husband live fast—they have left single Kitty and single Lyovin far behind in time: it is mid-winter 1873 in Petersburg during the first sixteen chapters of part four. But nowhere does Tolstoy give us the exact length of Lyovin’s stay abroad, and the difference of more than a year between the – Lyovin-Kitty time and the Vronski-Anna time hangs only upon one chronological remark in chapter 11, part two, concerning Anna’s becoming Vronski’s mistress: for about a year Vronski had been courting her before she fell—and this is the gap of time by which Lyovin-Kitty lag. But the reader does not keep a keen eye on the timetable, even good readers seldom do so and so we are misled into thinking and feeling that the Vrsonski-Anna episodes are perfectly synchronized with the Lyovin and Kitty episodes and that the various events in the two sets of lives happen at more or less the same time. The reader is aware, of course, that we shuttle in space, from Germany to Central Russia, and from the countryside to Petersburg or Moscow and back again; but he is not necessarily aware that we also shuttle in time—forward for Vronski-Anna, backward for Lyovin-Kitty.

In the first five chapters of part four we attend the developments of the Vronski-Karenin theme in St. Petersburg. It is now mid-winter 1873, and Anna is going to have a baby, Vronski’s child. In chapter 6 Karenin visits Moscow on political business, and at the same time Lyovin comes to Moscow too, after his visit abroad. Oblonski in chapters 9 to 13 arranges a dinner at his house, first week of January 1874, where Lyovin and Kitty meet each other again. The chalk writing scene occurs, as this time-keeper will tell you, exactly two years after the beginning of the novel; but somehow for the reader, and for Kitty (see various references in her conversation with Lyovin at the card table while they fiddle with the chalk) only a year has passed. We are thus confronted by the following marvelous fact: there exists a tell-tale difference between the Anna physical time on one side and the Lyovin spiritual time on the other.

By part four, exactly in mid-book, all the seven lives are abreast again as they were in the beginning, February 1872. It is now January 1874 by Anna’s and my calendar but 1873 by the reader’s and Kitty’s calendar. The second half of part four (chapters 17 to 23) shows us Anna in Petersburg almost dying in childbed, and then Karenin’s temporary reconciliation with Vronski and Vronski’s attempt to commit suicide. Part four ends in March 1874: Anna breaks with her husband; she and her lover go to Italy.

Part five consists of thirty-three chapters. Not for long have the seven lives been abreast. Vronski and Anna in Italy again take the lead. This is quite a race. Lyovin’s marriage in the first six chapters takes place in early spring 1874; and when we see the Lyovins again, in the country and then at Lyovin’s brother’s deathbed (chapters 14-20), it is the beginning of May 1874. But Vronski and Anna (sandwiched in between these two sets of chapters) are two months ahead and somewhat insecurely enjoying a southern July in Rome.

The synchronizing link between the two time-teams is now the mateless Karenin. Since there are seven major people involved and since the action of the novel depends upon pairing them, and since seven is an odd number, one person will obviously be out and bound to be without a mate. In the beginning Lyovin was the outcast, the superfluous one; now it is Karenin. We go back to the Lyovins in the spring of 1874 and then we attend to Karenin’s various activities, and this brings us gradually to as late as March 1875. By now Vronski and Anna have returned to Petersburg after a year in Italy. She visits her little son on his tenth birthday, say, March 1, a pathetic scene. Soon after, she and Vronski go to live on Vronski’s country estate which very conveniently is in the same district as the Oblonski and Lyovin country places.

Lo and behold, our seven lives are abreast again in part six, which consists of thirty-three chapters, from June to November 1875. We spend the first half of the summer of 1875 with the Lyovins and their relatives; then in July Dolly Oblonski gives us a lift in her carriage to Vronski’s estate for some tennis. Oblonski, Vronski, and Lyovin are brought together in the rest of the chapters at some country elections on the second of October 1875, and a month later Vronski and Anna go to Moscow.

Part seven consists of thirty-one chapters. It is the most important one in the book, the book’s tragic climax. We are now all abreast in Moscow, end of November 1875: six of us are in Moscow, three pairs, the insecure, already embittered Vronski-Anna, the breeding Lyovins, and the Oblonskis. Kitty’s baby is born, and in the beginning of May 1876 we visit, with Oblonski, Karenin in St. Petersburg. Then back again to Moscow. Now begins a series of chapters, from 23 to the end of part seven, devoted to Anna’s last days. Her death, by suicide, is in mid-May 1876. I have already given my account of those immortal pages.

Part eight, the last one, is a rather cumbersome machine, consisting of nineteen chapters. Tolstoy uses a device that he has used several times in the course of the novel, the device of having a character move from one place to another place and thus transfer the action from one set of people to another.* Trains and coaches play a significant part in the novel: we have Anna’s two train journeys in the first part, from Petersburg to Moscow and back to Petersburg. Oblonski and Dolly are at various points the traveling agents of the story, taking the reader with them wherever Tolstoy wants the reader to be. In fact, Oblonski is finally given a soft job with a big salary for services rendered to the author. Now in the first five chapters of the last, eighth, part, we have Lyovin’s half-brother Sergey travel on the same train with Vronski. The date is easy to establish because of the various allusions to war news. The Slavs of Eastern Europe, the Serbians and Bulgarians, were fighting the Turks. This is August 1876; a year later Russia will actually proclaim war with Turkey. Vronski is seen at the head of a detachment of volunteers leaving for the front. Sergey, on the same train, is on his way to visit the Lyovins, and this takes care not only of Vronski but also of Lyovin. The last chapters are devoted to Lyovin’s family life in the country and to his conversion when he gropes for God with Tolstoy giving directions.

From this account of the structure of Tolstoy’s novel it will be seen that the transitions are far less supple, far less elaborate, than the transitions from group to group in Madame Bovary within chapters. The brief abrupt chapter in Tolstoy replaces the flowing paragraph in Flaubert. But it will be also noted that Tolstoy has more lives on his hands than had Flaubert. With Flaubert a ride on horseback, a walk, a dance, a coach drive between village and town, and innumerable little actions, little movements, make those transitions from scene to scene within the chapters. In Tolstoy’s novel great, clanging, and steaming trains are used to transport and kill the characters—and any old kind of transition is used from chapter to chapter, for instance beginning the next part or next chapter with the simple statement that so much time has passed and now this or that set of people are doing this or that in this or that place. There is more melody in Flaubert’s poem, one of the most poetical novels ever composed; there is more might in Tolstoy’s great book.

This is the moving skeleton of the book, which I have given in terms of a race, with the seven lives at first abreast, then Vronski and Anna pressing forwards, leaving Lyovin and Kitty behind, then again all seven are abreast, and again with the funny jerking movement of a brilliant toy Vronski and Anna take the lead, but not for long. Anna does not finish the race. Of the six others, only Kitty and Lyovin retain the interest of the author.