Anna Karenina throws herself in front of a train at the end of the seventh part of the novel that bears her name. Yet Anna Karenina continues into an eighth part, as if Anna’s story could continue without Anna. Her death plays a strangely minimal role in the final chapters. Tolstoy focuses instead on Anna’s sister-in-law Dolly, Dolly’s sister Kitty, and especially Kitty’s husband, Konstantin Levin. Not all readers have been satisfied. Tolstoy’s initial plan to end with a short epilogue seems cleaner, and the final section has often been dismissed, in George Steiner’s words, as “the triumph of the reformer and pamphleteer over the artist.”
Yet Tolstoy’s final version makes artistic sense, since Levin plays a crucial role in the novel’s plot and thematic framework. Levin stands out awkwardly among the male characters. Socially clumsy, rustic and rural, a weight-lifter and gymnast, apolitical, he has little in common with his suave university friend Stiva (Dolly’s philandering husband) or with the dashing, supremely confident romantic lead, Vronsky, who is initially Levin’s rival for Kitty’s affections. Vronsky abandons Kitty to shamelessly pursue the married Anna, while Levin, his first proposal to Kitty rebuffed, retreats to the countryside to try out modernizing experiments, learn the ways of the peasants, and write what he hopes will be a revolutionary volume on agricultural reform. He withdraws, in short, to become Leo Tolstoy.
Gary Saul Morson has explained how Levin’s failure to complete his agricultural revolution expresses Tolstoy’s skepticism about grand programs of social change. But Levin’s role as a dissatisfied religious skeptic is more critical to the novel, especially to its last section. By elevating Levin in the closing pages, Tolstoy makes clear he wrote a religious novel as much as an epic romance. Our satisfaction with the ending of Anna Karenina depends in large measure on our assessment of Tolstoy’s radical brand of Christianity, which tends to reduce Jesus to his teachings and his teachings to his command, “Resist not evil.”
Though raised as a Christian, Levin’s commitment to science and post-Enlightenment reason makes it impossible for him to embrace Orthodox dogma. At the same time, he senses that rationalism is a dead end. It empties life of meaning. He delights in Kitty and their children and finds satisfaction in his work, yet he can’t trust himself near a rope, lest he be tempted to string himself up, and he won’t go out with his gun for fear of shooting himself. Divided between his mind and his life, Levin is a schizophrenic paradox, at once happy and suicidal.
Three experiences puncture his skepticism. Despite his indifference, he’s persuaded to have an Orthodox marriage service, which he finds hauntingly compelling. Later, Kitty accompanies Levin on a visit to his dying brother Nikolai. While Levin recoils at the dreadful sights, sounds, and smells, Kitty nurses Nikolai with relentless compassion. With Kitty at his side, Levin feels his despair and fear of death receding, the mystery of death displaced by the greater mystery of love. Most decisively, as Kitty’s labor goes on hour after hour, Levin prays, “Lord, have mercy on us and succor us.” He begins to blame God for Kitty’s suffering, but “at once he fell to beseeching God to forgive him and have mercy.” To his surprise, prayer comes effortlessly: “in spite of his long and, as it seemed, complete alienation from religion . . . he turned to God just as trustfully and simply as he had in his childhood and first youth.”
These clues converge in the final section of Tolstoy’s novel. A casual remark from the peasant Fyodor is the catalyst for Levin’s reflections: “He said that one must not live for one’s own wants,” but “for something incomprehensible, for God.” The obviousness of the comment captures Levin’s attention. He’s been on the lookout for a dramatic miracle to dispel his doubts and confirm the truth of Christianity. But that quest for spectacle has distracted him from the miracle in front of him, the millions of men and women throughout the ages—peasants and noblemen, beggars and kings, the ignorant and the learned—who have all agreed “we must live for and what is good.” This, he suddenly realizes, is “the sole miracle possible, continually existing, surrounding me on all sides.”
Levin doesn’t learn anything new, but becomes conscious of what he’s implicitly believed all along. Even when his head swirled with unanswered questions, Levin lived the faith he was taught as a child. He knows how to live well with a certainty that surpasses reason, a certainty given to him by his upbringing. It’s a revelation that reaches him from outside his head, and his life regains an integrity that has been lacking.
Levin hasn’t given up thinking. He thinks his way to a kind of Platonic idea of the Good. If goodness has a cause, he reasons, it cannot be goodness, for true goodness has no cause. If it comes with rewards, it cannot be goodness either, for true goodness doesn’t seek repayment. Thus, “goodness is outside the chain of cause and effect.” The only goodness worth devoting one’s life to is a transcendent goodness. Thinking matters, but thinking is right only when it yields to life. In recovering himself, Levin recovers the world. As he gazes at the sky, he realizes he’s regarded the visible sky as a deception, convinced by astronomy that the sky is not really a blue dome but an infinite void. Even the conclusions of astronomers are, he now realizes, founded on “observations of the seen heavens, in relation to a single meridian and a single horizon.” The world holds secrets, yet things are as they present themselves. Reborn, Levin is once again at home in the world.
Levin’s conversion is poignant and beautifully told, yet it’s finally as dissatisfying as Tolstoy’s own faith. In his conversion as in everything else, Levin is Tolstoy’s alter ego. He adopts an anti-dogmatic faith that reduces the creed to a single ethical principle: Live for God, not self. Tolstoy was surely right that it means little to confess Jesus as Son of God if you ignore his commandments, but he lurched toward the opposite extreme, a deeply-felt, demanding, but ultimately thin liberal Christianity. Dogma reduced to ethics implies a theology reduced to anthropology and a Jesus reduced to a challenging moral teacher.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.
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