Saturday, January 3, 2015


(8) Karenin's Compassion

Following the metaphor of the crippled dog (see previous post), we are given some insight into why Karenin is the way he is (p. 532-33). He has lived a life of almost utter solitude, growing up as an orphan. The only person he was ever close to was his brother, who died shortly after his marriage to Anna. Like Ivan Ilich, in the story "The Death of Ivan Ilyich," Karenin uses his official duties as a substitute for human warmth and intercourse. Those unmoved by such explanations for Karenin's cold nature will continue asking the question many readers ask: is a beautiful and vital woman such as Anna obliged by the vows she took in an arranged marriage at an early age (she was 18, he about twenty years older) to devote the rest of her life to such a dry and unloving man?

Karenin changes over the course of this long novel, moved by feelings that originate in Anna's betrayal. He has spent his whole life holding in his emotions, afraid to open up to anyone. But at the bedside of his dying wife (after she gives birth to Vronsky's child), for the first time in his life, he lets feelings of compassion flow out, and, in so doing, he experiences love for, and forgiveness of, his enemies--a moment of true Christian joy that brings him to a "blissful spiritual condition" (p. 434).

Of course, just a few pages before this "he felt distinctly how intensely he had longed for her death." But now he says to Vronsky, "I pray to God only not to take from me the bliss of forgiveness" (436). There is an amazing irony in this. Karenin, who throughout the novel is portrayed as dry and unfeeling, the man with the cold manner and the desiccate soul, suddenly experiences an inner harmony and a spiritual peace that none of the other characters attain to. Tolstoy's alter ego Lyovin has his moments of spiritual bliss, but nothing quite on the level of Karenin's feelings here.

In forgiving his dying wife and her lover, Karenin finds a peace he has never known. There is only one big problem: Anna does not die; she recovers. One emotional moment of forgiveness is possible, but maintaining such feelings on a day-to-day basis is a near impossibility. Late in the novel Tolstoy shows how, under the pressures of his society and the ridicule that surrounds him, Karenin's Christian forgiveness degenerates into a hypocritical observance of religious formulas, and, finally, under the influence of the fatuous Lidia Ivanovna, into mystical quackery. In his last appearance in the book (Part Seven, Ch. 22, p. 766-68), Karenin has become ludicrous in his belief in a French psychic, and he bases his final decision not to grant his wife a divorce on the mutterings of this man in a trance.

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