On joy: a scene from “Anna Karenina”

When Levin had gone to Moscow to propose to Kitty, he had met her at the ice rink. He had tried “not to look at her for too long at a time, as one avoids looking at the sun”. But, as with the sun, “he saw her without looking at her”.

But Levin was rejected. Returning to his farm, he had tried to forget about her by throwing himself into his work. And he thinks he has succeeded. A simple life of toil on the land. Perhaps he might even marry a peasant woman. And the hurt he had received would be forgotten. But even as he thinks about such things, after a night spent out in the open, in the early hours of the morning, a carriage passes by. And inside the carriage is her.

Bright and thoughtful, filled with a refined and complex inner life to which Levin was a stranger, she was looking beyond him at the glowing dawn.

Just as the vision was about to disappear, her truthful eyes glanced at him. She recognized him, and a look of surprise and joy lit up her face.

He could not be mistaken. There were no other such eyes in the world. There was no other being in the world able to focus for him the whole world and the meaning of life.

Levin looks up at the sky which, that last night he had spent in the open, had seemed to him somehow sympathetic to his thoughts. But now, it seems different:

There, in that inaccessible height, a mysterious change had by now taken place … Over half the sky was spread a carpet of fleecy clouds growing gradually smaller and smaller. The sky turned pale blue, became brighter and answered his questioning glance always with the same tenderness and the same remoteness.

And Levin realises that living a simple life of toil, married to a peasant woman, however good and virtuous, is not for him: it is she he loves.


Of the many passages of Anna Karenina that have haunted my mind since my most recent reading, this one particularly haunts me. What I think particularly strikes me about it is that the sight of Kitty awakens in Levin a sense of joy, and also, at the same time, re-opens his wound, sharpens the pain.

And the two emotions do not, I think, contradict each other. We tend to think of joy nowadays as but as an excess of pleasure; we think the difference between the two is but a difference in degree, and label both with that banal and vapid coinage “feelgood”. But joy, true joy, is, as Tolstoy reminds us, something quite different: it is something that can strike us even as it causes pain. After all, one of the most heartfelt expressions of grief in the English language opens with the words “Surprised by joy”.

For Wordsworth too knew of the complexities of joy:

And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused

A joy can bring pain, and it can also disturb. Not much of the “feelgood” here. And it can take us also by surprise. In his sonnet “Surprised by joy”, Wordsworth does not tell us what had occasioned his joy – merely that he was “surprised” by it. And when he had turned instinctively to share his joy with his daughter, he remembered what he had known all along: the joy could not be shared with her, for she was dead. It is not her he had forgotten: far from it – she had been continually present in his mind. What he had momentarily forgotten was her absence from the real world.

Rabindranath Tagore, in one of his most famous poems, also meditates on this: if one is absent from this world, but present in one’s mind, then in what sense, if any, does she, can she, exist?

You are not before the eye,
You have made your home in the midst of the eye itself.
[Translated with startling inadequacy by myself]

And from here to the closing lines, the poem soars with a sense of ecstasy – with a sense sublime of something more deeply interfused. (And this I will not attempt to translate: the sounds and rhythms Tagore uses to communicate this ecstasy are not available in English, and to fall short would, to my mind, be to misrepresent it.) The joy that is depicted in the closing section of this poem does not wipe out the pain, nor even mitigate it: but it is a joy nonetheless. And similarly with Wordsworth’s sonnet: it is significant that this almost unbearably poignant expression of grief and pain is introduced with an evocation not of gloom or of despair, but of joy.

In our modern times, we tend not to believe in the concept of transcendence: if the material word is the only world there is, then there can be nothing to transcend to, and all feelings, all emotions, are either merely “feelbad” or “feelgood”: “feelgood” is what we should all strive for, as this, after all, is the sole purpose of living; and “feelbad” is what you take anti-depressants to ward off. This is perhaps why I come away from so many modern novels with the sense that I have witnessed merely small, insignificant people experiencing small, insignificant feelings. But with Tolstoy, I feel I am in a much bigger world. No other writer, I think, has depicted the physical surfaces of our lives so meticulously; but Tolstoy depicts also a sense of transcendence, even though we can but vaguely know what those regions may be that we are transcending to. He depicts that sense sublime of something that is more deeply interfused – something that refuses to be pinned down, but which we cannot ignore without diminishing ourselves. It is in that sense of joy we feel even as we grieve, even as we feel pain – even as we are disturbed. It is certainly what Levin feels when he unexpectedly catches sight of Kitty in the carriage.

[All passages quoted from Anna Karenina are taken from the translation by Kyrill Zinovieff and Jenny Hughes, published by Oneworld classics]

20 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Shonti Mukherjee on November 19, 2012 at 12:56 pm

    Levin sees Kitty in the carriage and realises all her significance to him: she changes his world. But he sees in this sighting his own deficiency, that he does not possess the quality of inner life that she does. He does not seem overly joyous at all about his realisation.

    ‘Joy’ only comes to him when he is able to discern that she has seen and recognised him as her carriage passes. It is not so much the sighting, as such, which is very tortuous for him, but the situation, although extremely minute, that evolves.

    The sky became ‘brighter,’ and ‘tenderer’ and yet still ‘remote’ not just because he saw her, but because her response was so slightly in his favour, or at least could have been, which poured some joy into the predominant distress.

    In a different situation he may have seen her, felt a revelation about it but still felt pretty unhappy, but she may, say, have smiled at him or even kissed him on the cheek. Her response is crucial to his feelings. The mere sighting didn’t bring any joy.

    This may seem pedantic, but my point is that he did not know joy in pain. They occured seperately to produce a higher medley of exaltations.

    Would it have been the same if she had not seen him at all??


    • Would it have been the same if she had not seen him at all?

      Yes, I think so. Kitty’s recognition of Levin does not rekindle hope (as we see when we read on): he is still resigned to having lost her. But the image of her that he carries around with him, and his recognition that it is she whom he loves, occasion both joy and pain at the same time.

      Joy and pain are not mutually exclusive.


  2. A lot of Nabokov’s work addresses the same ideas you do in your last paragraph. Sometimes from a slant angle, admittedly. Next time I read The Gift I will keep this passage of Tolstoy’s in mind.


    • That’s interesting – I haven’t read The Gift. I’ll have a browse through it when I’m next in a bookshop. I really need to read more Nabokov anyway,


    • A lot of Nabokov’s work is about the possibility of some sort of transcendence. Thus his interest in madmen – transcendence gone wrong, like in “Signs and Symbols.” Pale Fire includes both side – the madmen and the ghosts, simultaneous joy and pain.


  3. I am already getting annoyed by all the Anna Karenina hoopla surrounding the film. I still haven’t recovered from seeing Kiera Knightley in a Dangerous Method.


    • I have been avoiding the film, as I too find all the hoopla annoying. although, I must say, Ms Knightley is very easy on the eyes! 🙂


      • Posted by Malcolm on November 23, 2012 at 7:48 pm

        She is, but I always find it distracting to have very famous faces in these roles, and think directors should go to more trouble to find someone who can then be the ‘face’ of the character rather than the other way round.

        I did mean to reply earlier to this and say that ‘feelgood’ does not actually equate to ‘joy’ at all, in my opinion. Feelgood means gentle warmth rather than the strong emotions of that joy conveys. If I go to a feelgodd movie I don’t expect to come out feeling joyous. I expect to come out feeling pleased and mildly happy.

      • Hello Caro (I think this is you, isn’t it? – rather than your other half, whose name has appeared above!)

        I agree fully: “feelgood” is not the same as “joy” at all. “feelgood” is, as you say, “feeling pleased and mildly happy”, whereas “joy” is a feeling I would describe as transcendent, and not incompatible even with grief or pain. Too many contemporary works can depict the “feelgood” or the “feelbad”, but not something like joy; and the reason is, I think, that we tend not even to believe these days in the concept of transcendence. this is why, as I said, too many contemporary novels leave me feeling that I have only been reading about small, insignificant people with small, insignificant emotions.

        Cheers for now, Himadri

  4. Thanks for this interesting article. I agree with you on the basic “feelgood” vs “feelbad”. And also in our modern times, we are obsessed with fixing things and people. (and against their will sometimes)

    I’m afraid I was a bit annoyed by Anna Karenina when I read it, on the same level I was annoyed by Le Rouge et le Noir. All these passionate feelings don’t appeal to me that much. (I don’t like Wuthering Heights either)

    Perhaps I should try it again now that I’m older. I read it when I was a teenager.


    • Hello Emma, as you have probably guessed from the preponderence on here of posts about Anna Karenina, I am virtually obsessed with the novel. I really can’t stop thinking about it!

      I actually find myself very drawn to works of literature – and also of music, and of visual art – that communicate powerful emotions. It is interesting that you class Le Rouge et le Noir as a novel that does this: I read Stendhal in my late teens, and although i enjoyed his works, I haven’t revisited them.I should perhaps read Le Rouge et le Noir and La Chartreuse de Parme again, as i can’t remember much about them other than having enjoyed them at the time.

      (There are very famous translations of both by C. K, Scott-Moncrieff, the first translator of Proust.)


    • Posted by Caro on November 24, 2012 at 9:24 pm

      I seem to be with you in this, Emma. I read Wuthering Heights as a teenager and thought it was so romantic, read it about 15 years ago and was really disappointed – I didn’t think it would stand up to much modern writing at all. (Unlike most of the admired 19th C novels.) Himadri did remind me it was a Gothic style thing, which helped with the tone, but not the points of views and structure whipping all over the place.

      Anna irritated me at times – I thought the scene before she throws herself in front of the train was wonderful, but other scenes with her just seem like a spoilt silly child, trying to convince herself she had no options. (Appalling attitudes to her children!) I read Le Rouge and le Noir at university in French and studied it, but have absolutely no recollection of it at all!

      I don’t know why in this site (only after all ever accessed by me) my name should come up as my husband’s, but I suppose it is to do with the google account.


      • It’s OK, Caro, I knew it was you! 🙂

        On the matter of Anna Karenina, not liking her as a person, or finding her morally reprehensible, isn’t really a literary criticism, is it?

      • I read Wuthering Heights twice, once as a teenager and another time a couple of years ago. Same reaction on both times: I can’t see why Heathcliff is supposed to be a romantic hero and I found Catherine… childish would be a bit strong but spoilt and not very mature would more accurate.

        I agree with you Himadri, my disliking Anna Karenina or Catherine isn’t literary criticism. I never said the books aren’t good; they just don’t appeal to me.

      • It has long puzzled me also why Heathcliff is regarded as a romantic hero. Both he and Cathy are, by any reasonable standard, quite mad. Their madness fascinates me, but I can see why something so very odd – for the novel is an oddity – won’t appeal to everyone.But it’s the very oddity that I love: it’s among that handful of works that inhabits that vague borderline between sanity and insanity.

      • Why is Heathcliff regarded as a romantic hero?- this is an easy one. It is because he is a romantic hero in film adaptations of the novel, beginning at least with the 1939 William Wyler film featuring Laurene Olivier and Merle Oberon.

        How do the films make Heathcliff a romantic hero? Another easy one. They omit huge chunks of the novel, including all of Heathcliff’s worst behavior.

  5. PS: where did the rant on Indian Lit go?


  6. Help me! I’ve become obsessed with a quote I read past without so much as a dog-ear a few nights ago.. On joy, the weight of joy.. the crushing weight of [potential] joy.. >? Something like that. I was taken aback and without a pencil when I came across it’s meaning. It was either Levin reaching union with Kitty; Anna reaching union w/ Vronsky or vice versa.. Sigh


    • Hello,

      First of all, I owe you an apology I do try to respond to everyone who posts, but, for reasons can’t quite fathom, I missed out on this one.

      The line you quote sounds as if it could easily come from Anna Karenina, but I honestly can’t remember a line like this, and, having rummaged round the book for a while, can’t really see anything like it. Sorry – I’ve drawn a blank on this one!

      All the best,


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