Anna Karenina: Characters and the Life Novel
By examining the character list, one immediately notices the value
Tolstoy places on character. With one hundred and forty named characters and
several other unnamed characters, Tolstoy places his central focus in Anna
Karenina on the characters. He uses their actions and behavior to develop the
plot and exemplify the major themes of the novel. In contrast to Flaubert’s
Madame Bovary, Tolstoy wishes to examine life as it really is. Both novels have
relationships and adultery as a central theme. However, Tolstoy gives us a much
more lifelike representation in Anna Karenina by creating characters, both
major and minor, that contribute to the sense of realism.
The most striking feature of Tolstoy’s minor characters is that although
they may only appear briefly, they still possess a sense of lifelikeness. When
a character is introduced, Tolstoy provides the reader with details of the
characters appearance and actions that give a sense of realism. For example,
the waiter that Stiva and Levin encounter at their dinner, although a flat
character is definitely presented in a manner which allows him to have a sense
of lifelikeness and fullness. From the speech patterns the waiter uses to the
description of the fit of his uniform, one is presented with the details that
allow the waiter to contribute to the novel in means beyond simply the presence
of a minor character. His description and actions provide the novel with a
sense of “real life”.
Another way in which Tolstoy gives the minor character a sense of life
is by making them unpredictable. One sees this in the character of Ryabinin.
When initially discussed, the reader is told that upon conclusion of business,
Ryabinin will always say “positively and finally” (p161). However upon
conclusion of the sale of the land, Ryabinin does not use his usual tag.
This tag would normally be characteristic of the flat, minor character
such as Ryabinin.
However, Tolstoy wishes to add to the lifelikeness of even his minor
characters and allows them to behave as one would expect only major, round
characters. The detail Tolstoy gives to all of his characters, including the
minor characters, contributes to the realism of both the novel and the
Perhaps the most realistic of Tolstoy’s major characters is Konstantin
Levin. Throughout the novel, the reader witnesses the trials of Levin’s life
and his response to them. Unlike Flaubert, Tolstoy reveals Levin in a manner
which gives him a sense of roundedness and lifelikeness. On his quest for
meaning in his life, Levin is essentially a realist, just as Tolstoy wishes to
be in writing Anna Karenina.
We first encounter Levin when he arrives in Moscow to propose to Kitty
Shtcherbatsky. When Kitty refuses his proposal, Levin has been defeated in the
first step he feels is necessary for personal satisfaction. After the refusal,
Levin returns again to the county in hopes of finding personal satisfaction in
the country life style. He turns to farming, mowing with the peasants and other
such manual work to fill his time, all the while still searching for meaning in
his life. This desire for meaning remains unfulfilled until he finds happiness
and a sense of family happiness in his marriage to Kitty.
However, even in this state of happiness, Levin must face tragedy. Soon
after the marriage, Levin’s sickly brother, Nicolai Dmitrich Levin, is dying of
tuberculosis and Levin must confront his death. This death adds to Levin’s
sense of the reality of life, realizing that life now not only centers on living
but on not living. This event, combined with his previous search for meaning,
brings Levin to the conclusion that one must live for their soul rather that for
a gratification through things such as marriage and family.
It is this epiphany that gives Levin his sense of roundedness. Levin has
grown from the beginning of the novel when his search for happiness was centered
on personal fulfillment through marriage. By the conclusion of the novel Levin
has reached a sense of personal satisfaction as well as personal salvation
through his realization that love not only entails physical love, as that for
his wife, but also in a love of God and living for God.
In contrast to the growth that Levin experiences is the stagnation of
the life of the title character Anna Karenina. At the beginning of the novel,
the married Anna is confronted with a new suitor, Count Alexy Kirillovitch
Vronsky. At first Anna rejects Vronsky, but at the site of her husband upon