The conclusion of “Anna Karenina”

What, will this line of Anna Karenina posts stretch out till the crack of doom? One more, and this the last, I promise. It’s hard to stop thinking about this novel.

The conclusion of Anna Karenina continues to puzzle. After all Tolstoy has taken us through, Levin discovers God. And that, more or less, is it. Many have considered this a most lame and impotent conclusion. I too have not understood in my past readings – nor even, perhaps, in this one – why Tolstoy should choose to end this stupendous work in such a manner. However, it is unlikely that a writer who could scale such extraordinary heights would at the very end make so elementary a blunder; so it is best to try to understand.

The eighth and last part of the novel is much shorter than the other seven, and is, in effect, an epilogue. The aftermath of Anna’s tragedy is dealt with in a few superb pages. (Contrary to popular perception, Tolstoy’s art was actually very concise: his major novels were long not as a consequence of unwanted prolixity, but because he had much to convey.) The last words on Anna are delivered by the Vronsky’s mother, an unintelligent, insensitive, and somewhat spiteful woman. She describes, without betraying the slightest understanding of nature of the trauma her son was going through, how Vronsky had responded to Anna’s death:

For six weeks he didn’t speak to anyone and only ate when I begged him to. And he couldn’t be left alone for a single minute. We took away everything he could have killed himself with…

…and so on. Although she doesn’t understand it, we can: Vronsky had, after all, identified the body, had seen the mangled corpse of the woman he had loved. But to his mother, Anna was merely a “bad woman”, and that’s all there was to it. “And why such desperate passions?” she asks. Why indeed.

Then, we see Vronsky himself. He is suffering from toothache. On one level, this is a marvellous Flaubertian touch: even when one’s soul has been ripped out, one is still subject to such everyday distractions as toothache. On another level, we remember that Vronsky had been described throughout this novel as possessing fine, white, regular teeth: that had become, as it were, his leitmotif, the label attached to him. The symbolic implications of his now having toothache hardly need emphasising. And Tolstoy doesn’t emphasise: he merely mentions it, and moves on.

Vronsky is going to the wars. He might as well: there’s nothing for him to live on for. We see him on a railway platform, gazing on the wheels of a passing train.

And all at once an entirely different feeling – not of pain, but of a general, agonizing inner discomfort – made him forget his toothache for an instant.

The memory of seeing her mangled corpse suddenly floods back into his head. He remembers also the first meeting he had with her, also at a railway station. He tries to remember also their best times, “but those moments had been poisoned for ever”. His toothache now forgotten, his face is now “distorted by sobs”. This picture of Vronsky only takes up a few paragraphs, but one wonders whether mental agony has ever been depicted with such vividness and immediacy. Anna, after all, is not the only tragic protagonist of this novel.

These remarkable chapters now done, we turn once again to Levin and to Kitty. Guests are arriving at their estate – just as guests had arrived at the estate of Nikolai and Maria at the conclusion of War and Peace.

In these closing chapters, Levin, a man who, despite his happiness, is still searching for some meaning, has a moment of revelation – an epiphany, as Joyce might have called it. A peasant speaks of someone living “for his soul’s sake”, and these simple words set off in Levin’s mind a train of thought. All that he understands about what is good and what isn’t, about what is kind and what is cruel, he reflects, he has not learnt through exercise of reason: this sense has come to him by some other means. But how could this be? What possible means of comprehension can there be other than that of reason? He reaches the conclusion that those things which matter most enter our consciousness through some means other than that of reason. This is not to discard reason, but to accept that there are other important aspects to our being.

All this may seem hopelessly naïve to the modern reader, used as we are to scoffing at anything that we may suspect to be sentimental. But Levin’s spiritual crisis is real enough, and this possibility – for it is no more – this possibility that dawns on him that there may be a way out is similarly real. It is not an instant transformation: Levin realises full well that he will go on living more or less as he does now, and that he will continue, as before, to lose his temper at minor things. But the possibility of a new approach to life has dawned on him: and on this note – a note not by any means of certainty – the novel ends.

We may take this to be a false dawn: we are entitled to do so. It is indeed possible that nothing at all will come of this, and that Levin will go on searching. But it is equally possible that this is the first step towards a moral and spiritual regeneration. We cannot tell. But this ending, problematic though it is, is not, I think, quite as simplistic as is often made out.

There is one final surprise before the final page. Kitty is in the midst of her domestic bliss: she is bathing her baby. And after bathing him, she “put[s] back on her slender fingers the rings she had taken off”.

Now, slender fingers bejewelled with rings had been a leitmotif associated throughout this novel with Anna: and suddenly, and quite shockingly, it is applied to Kitty, who in the very midst of her domestic happiness. This is not to suggest that Kitty is another Anna in waiting: such an interpretation would be crude, and quite contrary to the nature of Tolstoy’s art. But it is, I think, to suggest that the shadows cast by Anna’s tragedy do not depart so easily; that the forces that had driven Anna to her destruction are with us all, even in our earthly happiness.


[All excerpts quoted are from the translation by Kyril Zinovieff and Jenny Hughes]

10 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Caro on October 7, 2012 at 3:50 am

    This is a great analysis, thank you,Himadri. I am not very good at noticing leitmotif.


  2. It’s also worth noting that Levin’s thoughts about finding meaning in the world are the opposite of Anna’s in her final moments of life, when she sees only ugliness and coarseness in everything.

    I’ve been enjoying your thoughts about the novel, sad to see they’re over.


  3. sad to see they’re over

    It’s been an outstanding series, Himadri. It will be a pleasure to return to it the next time I read AK.


  4. So yes, we appreciate that the novel is bigger than one woman’s downfall, but, if we accept Tolstoy’s didacticism, what is he saying when many characters are unfaithful, but only Anna is punished? Why does no one, not even her adulterous brother Oblonsky (who appears smilingly talking to Vronksy after his sister’s death) have a line of defence for her? And even if we embrace Levin’s religious conversion, don’t his conclusions feel painfully workmanlike? To commit to something higher than oneself; to live for God and goodness; to avoid selfishness (and therefore punishment like Anna, but not her brother).


  5. Levin’s realisations at the end were confusing to me as well. However, the detail about Vronsky’s toothache that you mentioned is yet another powerful way in which Tolstoy expressed life itself. I am not very good with grasping leitmotifs though. Thanks for writing this one! 🙂


    • I think the strand with Levin is open-ended. Levin thinks this is a first step towards transformation, but he cannot be sure, and neither, of course, can we. Shortly after the publication of Anna Karenina, Tolstoy wrote A Confession, and from that, it seems apparent that Levin’s situation was Tolstoy’s own: they were both uncertain. We expect the conclusion of a novel to be conclusive, but this, I don’t think, is.


      • I will have to read A Confession to better grasp this but yeah, it makes sense. Even so, I do like Levin’s monologues in the book. Gave an interesting peek into Tolstoy’s brain 🙂

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