Tuesday, July 21, 2015

TRAINS IN "Anna Karenina"

The Meeting in Petersburg at the Moscow Station (illustration by K. Rudakov)

Tolstoy letter to Turgenev, 1857: "The railroad is to travel as a whore is to love."


"Two childish voices (Stepan Arkadyevich recognized the voices of Grisha, his youngest boy, and Tanya, his eldest daughter) were heard outside the door. They were carrying something, and dropped it.

'I told you not to put passengers on the roof,' said the little girl in English. 'Now pick them up!'

Everything's in confusion, thought Stepan Arkadyevich. Here the children are, running wild. And going to the door, he called them. They threw down the box, which served as a train, and came to their father" (Part I, Ch.3).

It's no accident that Stiva and Dolly's children are playing train in the opening pages of the novel, given the importance that trains are to play in the work as a whole. Late in the novel, not long before his mother is to throw herself under a train and commit suicide, the ten-year-old Seryozha speaks to Stiva about a similar game:

"'We play railways now,' he said in answer to his uncle's question. 'It's like this, do you see? Two sit on a bench--they're the passengers; and one stands up straight on the belts, and they run through all the rooms--the doors are left open beforehand. Well, and it's pretty hard work being the conductor!' (Part VII, Ch. 19)."

Anna Karenina is full of big important scenes on trains and in train stations, scenes that move the major plot levers of the novel. There's the scene when Anna and Vronsky's mother, coincidentally on the same train, meet and ride together from Petersburg to Moscow, where the fateful first meeting between Vronksy and Anna is to occur. The death of the man who falls under the train here foreshadows Anna's death under a train much later. There's the famous blizzard scene, when Anna and Vronsky (on the way back to Petersburg) each exit the train at a way station and let their feral emotions take control of them, thus sealing their fate. Then, of course, there is Anna, in Part VII, in a state of emotional collapse, riding trains, riding trains, then jumping under the wheels of a train.

At one point in the novel Lyovin and Karenin end up meeting by chance in a railway coach. In the scene where Lyovin proposes to Kitty (the second time) Lyovin jokingly describes this meeting (404). Coincidentally, this thing of major characters riding trains, meeting by chance on trains is repeated in another great Russian novel, Dostoevsky's Idiot.

The issue of railways and trains was a big sociological issue in Russia at the time AK is set. Lyovin, who is Tolstoy's alter ego and often speaks for him, blames the railways, a foreign import, in part for the "disastrous condition of agriculture in Russia" (508). Tolstoy himself, who was highly conservative about anything that intruded upon traditional Russian country ways, disliked the railways. Note that one of the most negative characters in the novel (in terms of his social behavior and his amorality), Stiva, ends up late in the novel getting a sinecure with the railways.

Here's a wonderful article about the train theme: Gary R. Jahn, "The Image of the Railroad in Anna Karenina," Slavic and East European Journal, No. 2 (Summer, 1981), p. 1-10.

It's more than a large irony that Tolstoy himself, in his famous final flight from home and his hysterical wife (1910), ended up riding trains to his death. He died in the small way station at Astapovo.

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