Anna Karenina and the Givenness of Life

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I was in a serious slump this February, drowning in a sea of unaccomplished tasks all loudly condemning my laziness and inefficiency. I felt incapable of stirring up my own enthusiasm for life to get my head above water, no matter how well I organized my planner or how early I set my alarm. But now it’s March, and things are looking up! My long and daunting to-do list is finally beginning to shrink.

I’m not saying this to brag. On the contrary, I’m entirely clueless as to how I emerged from my unproductive hibernation. And that means the next time the inevitable wheel of life turns me back upside down in the dumps, I’ll be just as powerless then to pull myself up by my own bootstraps as I was last month.

Ironically, things started to get better this time when I got knocked flat on my back with the flu for two weeks. Unable to even sit at my laptop, I ended up with a lot of free reading time and was finally able to finish Anna Karenina, which had been sitting on my “current reads” shelf for– you know– over a year. There’s nothing like finishing a book larger than your head to make you feel accomplished!

After making my pilgrimage through all 800 pages of that story, I can finally confirm that Anna Karenina is indeed one of the Great Books of the Western World. What a story.

I had no idea going in that there was so much plot that didn’t concern the adulterous Anna. In fact, probably half of the pages are filled with the beautiful story of Levin and Kitty, who offer both a pretty stark contrast to and an interesting commentary on the book’s namesake. They are fitting February companions because they, like me, also spend a great deal of time trying and failing to get themselves in gear.

In the beginning of the story, Kitty refuses Levin’s proposal, believing that the dashing Vronsky is also about to ask for her hand. When Vronsky starts directing his attentions toward Anna instead, Kitty’s life is wrecked. One moment she is entertaining two suitors, and the next she has zero, feeling all the blame in her own terrible person for having created a future of loneliness for herself with her own two hands.

Seeing her despair, Kitty’s family offers to take her abroad as a distraction. It is on this trip that she falls in with the sweet and holy Varenka, who has dedicated her life to serving the poor, as well as the elderly Madame Stahl. Inspired by Varenka’s selfless acts, Kitty determines that she too will live this kind of sacrificial life. She too will become a better person. Virtue and God shall fill the void left by the absence of a man’s love.

For a while Kitty feels contented with her own goodness. But while trying to be the face of God to a poor married man, her patient confuses her godly service for earthly attentions, his wife becomes jealous, and things go downhill fast. She recognizes her failure to make herself good and godlike, explaining to Varenka:

“It serves me right because it was all pretense, because it was all contrived and not from the heart. What did I have to do with some stranger? And it turned out that I caused a quarrel and that I did what nobody asked me to do. Because it was all pretense! pretense! pretense!”

Kitty’s family leaves for home, and Tolstoy adds, “She did not renounce all that she had learned, but she understood that she had deceived herself in thinking that she could be what she wished to be.” In this moment Kitty recognizes the futility of changing her own nature. She has strived and strived to make herself a virtuous person by her own effort, and in the end she is powerless to do so with any kind of honesty. She does not renounce the lesson. Self-sacrifice and servanthood are noble traits and most to be desired, but she cannot will herself into them. She cannot force herself to be sincere.

The rejected Levin, on the other hand, throws himself into his farm work. Admiring the simple, undisturbed life of the Russian peasants, he tries to model himself after them. He considers giving up everything about his upper class and artificial life for their earthy routine of work and sleep. Unable to rationalize the Christian faith, he strives with his own hands to fill his life with meaning, theorizing about how he could organize Russian farming for the Greater Good of the People and so make his life important. He looks down on industrial, urban life and informs everyone he meets of his noble opinions. However, when he catches a glimpse of Kitty in a passing carriage, his self-constructed agrarian identity crumbles to pieces:

“‘No,’ he said to himself, ‘however good that life of simplicity and labour may be, I cannot go back to it. I love her.’”

Levin packs his bags and heads to the hated city to continue pursuing Kitty. He has failed to ennoble his own life, just as Kitty did. And even though Levin is happy as can be in his eventual marriage to Kitty and the arrival of his first son, he still feels unfulfilled. He still cannot reason himself into any kind of faith in God, and so desperately searches for something to give his life meaning. Even making a family for himself does not add importance to his life.

It is only at the very end of the novel, while talking to one of his peasant workers, that the truth of Christianity dawns on Levin. The peasant does not offer any kind of new theological arguments or ideas, he only expresses a simple faith in God that Levin has heard a million times before. There is no reason that this interaction should affect him differently than others. Entirely out of the blue, he sees that God fills the void he has been trying so hard to fill himself. Levin says:

“I sought an answer to my question. But the answer to my question could not come from thought, which is incommensurable with the question. The answer was given by life itself, in my knowledge of what is good and what is bad. And I did not acquire that knowledge through anything, it was given to me as it is to everyone, given because I could not take it from anywhere.”

Just as Kitty could not give herself virtue, Levin cannot give himself faith. In the end, he is left only to conclude that it is a gift. Everything in life is a gift, and even this newfound revelation cannot give him power to change his nature:

“I’ll get angry in the same way with the coachman Ivan, argue in the same way, speak my mind inappropriately, there will be the same wall between my soul’s holy of holies and other people, even my wife, I’ll accuse her in the same way of my own fear and then regret it, I’ll fail in the same way to understand with my reason why I pray, and yet I will pray – but my life now, my whole life, regardless of all that may happen to me, every minute of it, is not only not meaningless, as it was before, but has the unquestionable meaning of the good which it is in my power to put into it!”

How can Levin put good into his life if he is unable to change himself? I would argue by just living and being. Because of life’s givenness, he can rest in the assurance that he will have all he needs and that his own weakness will not prevent him from receiving that gift. After all, a gift that is given conditionally is not a gift at all, but only a reward.

So where does that leave Anna Karenina herself? Does she disprove what has been said? Should she have stirred up virtue in herself with her own hands and renounced adultery? Her sinful decisions and her horrible death lead many to consider this novel a moral against bad love. To some extent I think there is truth in that. Anna cannot escape the consequences of her actions. However, her final words put forward a startling conclusion to her life. Having already thrown herself on the railroad tracks, Tolstoy describes her last thoughts:

“‘Where am I? What am I doing? Why?’ She wanted to rise, to throw herself back, but something huge and implacable pushed at her head and dragged over her. ‘Lord, forgive me for everything!’ she said, feeling the impossibility of any struggle.’”

Anna shows signs of genuine regret and repentance here at the very end of her life when she could not fabricate such feelings before. What if all of her bad decisions and all of her suffering were necessary to bring her to this point? Would that not in itself be a gift to her?

It can be a helpless and terrifying feeling to think that one does not have the power in himself to change, improve, or fill his own life with meaning. What is the purpose of our lives if everything that eventually comes to us is a gift and is not a result of our own efforts?

But maybe that’s the wrong question. Maybe it needs to be turned on its head. If life itself is a gift– if our being is the gift– what if its purpose is the business of the giver and not of the gifted? If the changes that take place in me are a gift, then I am filled with all the more gratitude for my recent burst of productive energy, and I do not despair about my lethargic February. From Tolstoy’s perspective, that February was also a gift.

Our sufferings are part of this wild package of humanity that has been given to us from beyond the hills. This is not to say we are not responsible for our failings. I am certainly at fault for falling behind in my duties this winter. But if it were not for our sufferings and failings, we would never need the gift of redemption, and that is the most powerful gift of all. When it comes it is huge and implacable. A severe mercy, it drags over us and cannot be escaped. You might even say that the violent, entirely one-sided gift of grace is a little bit like being hit by a train.