Saturday, December 6, 2014


Note: Back when I was teaching at Miami University I developed 125 pages of lecture text (handwritten) on the novel "Anna Karenina." I've decided to present all of this long lecture on my blog.



Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" is often considered the greatest novel ever written. It was Chekhov's favorite novel, Bunin's favorite novel, Nabokov's favorite novel (after his own). It is the second of Tolstoy's great novels and continues with many of the same themes and the same literary methods as his "War and Peace."

He conceived the idea for the story of an adulteress about 1870 but began writing it only three years later. Certain events in his own life influenced how he came to begin writing the novel; his early conception of the work changed in the process of writing.

On Jan. 4, 1872, at 7:00 p.m. a woman called Anna Stepanovna Pirogova, the mistress of Tolstoy's landowner-neighbor A.N. Bibikov, three herself under a train at a small station, Yasenki, in the vicinity of Tolstoy's estate of Yasnaja Poljana. He was present at the autopsy, conducted in a barracks near the station [see Norton Critical Ed. of "A.K.," p. 745, Troyat biog. of Tolstoy, p. 419].

In March, 1873, Tolstoy was working on a novel (never completed) about the age of Peter the Great. By chance he picked up a book of stories by Pushkin, "The Tales of Belkin," which he had read some five-six times previously. He was so enthralled by the book that he read it all the way through again. One fragment, beginning, "The guests were gathered in the summer house," seemed to ring a bell in his head. "Unwittingly, unexpectantly, without myself knowing why and how it would come out, I began inventing people and events."

Tolstoy later thanked "the divine Pushkin" for giving him the inspiration to begin writing [Norton Crit. Ed., p. 746-47]. This is quite a common experience with writers, who often derive their impetus to write from reading other writers, and whose creative inspiration is often set off by the music and rhythms of a single phrase.

But Tolstoy took the broad foundation for "A.K." from a different, more important, Pushkin work, his novel in verse "Eugene Onegin." This brilliant work ends with a woman exactly in the same situation in which Anna K. finds herself near the beginning of Tolstoy's novel. The Pushkin heroine, Tatyana, decides to remain faithful to her stodgy husband. Anna does not. Tolstoy's novel treats adultery and the consequences of passionate love.

Of course, Tolstoy does not limit himself to the issue of passionate love. While his portrayal of the adulterous relationship (Anna and Vronsky) is central, it is really part of a much broader look at marriage and family, especially love between men and women.

Tolstoy begins with his usual didactic, preaching tone, the thing that still irritates those who don't like Tolstoy. His early Anna is called Tatyana, who is to be depicted as a coarse, vulgar woman. She was to be painted all black, and her wronged husband Karenin all white. But the artist in Tolstoy trumped the moralist, and, as the novel progressed the whole issue of Anna's guilt and her husband's fault (or lack of fault) became more complex.

Most importantly of all, as he wrote on in the early drafts, Tolstoy added the character of Konstantin Lyovin, his own alter ego and the spokesman for his moral messages. So we get, in effect, two overlapping novels, the story of Lyovin and Kitty and the story of Anna-Vronsky-Karenin. The novel shows what appears to be Lyovin's progress toward contentment in a sort of ideal family life, and Anna's progress toward perdition after she repudiates the conventionally accepted family life. But is all much more complex than this, and in the end there are implications that Lyovin's "near ideal" family life in communion with wife, children, and Nature is far from ideal.



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