"Karenin." Illustration of the novel by K. Rudakov, 1940-1945
(6) Karenin's Ears
Tolstoy's habit of viewing his characters through certain physical characteristics is best exemplified by his treatment of Aleksei Aleksandrovich Karenin, who is, in the literal sense, "all ears." Here is how Anna, his wife, sees him upon her return from Moscow:
"At Petersburg, as soon as the train stopped and she got out, the first person who attracted her attention was her husband. "Oh, my God, why do his ears look like that?" she thought, looking at his frigid and distinguished figure, and especially at the cartilage that struck her at the moment as propping up the brim of his round hat. Catching sight of her, he came to meet her, his lips falling into their habitual mocking smile, and his big tired eyes looking straight at her. An unpleasant sensation gripped at her heart when she met his obstinate and weary glance, as though she had expected to see him different. She was especially struck by the feeling of dissatisfaction with herself that she experienced on meeting him. That feeling was an intimate, familiar feeling, like a consciousness of hypocrisy, which she experienced in her relations with her husband. But hitherto she had not taken note of that feeling, and now she was clearly and painfully aware of it" (Part I, Ch. 30, p. 110).
"Akh, Bozhe moi! otchego u nego stali takie ushi?" ("Why are his ears like that?") Why is this an especially appropriate thing for Anna to think at this particular point in the novel? Because she has returned from Moscow, where she met Vronsky, and is now a different person. As she is completely absorbed by her new passion for Vronsky, it is only natural for her to take notice of a rather discordant physical feature in her dry and passionless husband.
Karenin's ears have always stuck out the same way, but only after she falls in love with Vronsky do they really stand out that way for her! In reading the rest of this chapter, female readers often identify positively with Anna; they may even be prepared to condone her adultery. Note the way that Karenin receives his wife back home, after her absence. In his dry, lifeless way he is anticipating enjoyment of the conjugal bed. But duty calls, and first of all he is off to the ministry on business. Then, upon his return home, he signs papers, receives petitioners. He does not even deviate from his usual habit of reading before bed.
"Precisely at twelve o'clock," he comes to Anna and informs her that (in accord with his daily routine) it is now time for bed (and, presumably, conjugal pleasures)--p.119. Anna's revulsion at the thought of her duty is clearly implied, and most readers, at this juncture in the novel, would sympathize with her.
From this point on Anna views her husband no longer as a human being, but as a big pair of ears. Just before the famous steeplechase scene (p.216) Karenin drives up in his carriage, and Anna, glancing out the window, "caught sight of the carriage and the black hat of Aleksei Aleksandrovich, and the ears she knew so well, sticking up on each side of it." When you make a person into a thing, or a pair of ears, you dehumanize the person. Then it is easy to justify your acting in an unconscionable way toward that thing or those ears. When those ears say, "I am your husband and I love you," the natural reaction is "How can a pair of ears know what love is?"
The actual conversation goes a bit differently, but the point is the same. Anna thinks, "Love? Can he love? If he hadn't heard there was such a word as love, he would never have used the word. He doesn't even know what love is" (156).