Sunday, April 12, 2015


(20) Why Does Anna Have to Die?

Readers and critics have been debating this question ever since the novel was written, and will continue to debate it for as long as great literature lasts. Early on in their relationship Vronsky says to Anna, "There's a way out of every situation" (p. 200), but it seems there is no way out for Anna. The very artistic structure of the book has her doomed from the moment she first meets Vronsky.

Many readers and critics blame Tolstoy for Anna's relentless and inexorable path to perdition.The old man's fear and hatred of women (so they say), and, especially, of human sexuality is to blame. As one critic. Edward Wasiolek, has written, "Tolstoy sees sex as a massive intrusion on a person's being and a ruthless obliteration of the sanctity of personhood." Tolstoy's "views on sex were already extreme at the time he wrote "Anna Karenina;" they are bizarre today" (Wasiolek, Tolstoy, p. 154-55).

Among those shouting most vociferously in condemnation of Tolstoy's conservative morals was another Anna, the poet Anna Akhmatova: "Why should Anna have to be killed? As soon as she leaves Karenin. . . .  she suddenly becomes a fallen woman in Tolstoy's eyes, a traviata, a prostitute. Of course, there are pages of genius, but the basic morality is disgusting. . . .  Tolstoy is lying: he knew better than that. The morality of "Anna Karenina" is the morality of Tolstoy's wife, of his Moscow aunts" (cited in Isaiah Berlin, Personal Impressions, Viking Press, 1980).

I guess the big question here is whether the author's sense of aesthetics is hijacked in the writing of this novel by his moralistic impulses. In other words, is the novel ruined artistically by Tolstoy's insistence that Anna must die? Does Tolstoy prod her on to her death, or is her death motivated by the artistic logic of the composition. I think the latter.

It is made clear, time and again, that Anna's spirit is broken when she is ostracized by the corrupt society to which she belongs. She is stuck in a kind of limbo; her situation is undefined, and she is forced to live in this in-between for years. She is guilty over leaving her son Seryozha, she judges herself harshly, as "an immoral worthless woman."

Furthermore, in contrasting the Kitty-Lyovin relationship throughout the book to that of Anna-Vronsky, Tolstoy's main point seems to be that a marriage based almost solely on passionate physical attraction must inevitably self-destruct over time. World literature from time out of mind has dealt with the eros-thanatos business, the way that sexual ecstasy and death are boon companions. Suicide has been associated with romantic passionate love ever since passionate love has existed. So insisting that "Anna does not have to die" strikes me as somewhat ingenuous.

I believe that a good place to begin, for anyone setting out to read Tolstoy's greatest novel "Anna Karenina," is with a quotation from Rebecca West's masterpiece, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.This passage could even serve as an epigraph to Tolstoy's novel:

"Only part of us is sane; only part of us loves pleasure and the longer day of happiness, wants to live to our nineties and die in peace, in a house that we built, that shall shelter those who come after us.The other half of us is nearly mad. It prefers the disagreeable to the agreeable, loves pain and its darker night despair, and wants to die in a catastrophe that will set back life to its beginnings and leave nothing of our house save its blackened foundations."

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