“Anna Karenina,” my friend told me, “is one of the few books that have influenced how I live my life from day to day.”
This statement touches on a question I often wonder about: Can reading great fiction make you a better person? I don’t mean to ask whether it can improve your mental agility or your knowledge of the world, for it undoubtedly does. But can these books make you kinder, wiser, more moral, more content? The answer to this question is far from self-evident. And maybe we should be doubtful, when we consider how many disagreeable Shakespeare fans have probably existed. Nevertheless, I suspect that most of us are inclined to say yes, these books do improve us. But how?
Here are my answers. First, many great works of fiction tackle the moral question directly: What does it mean to be good? How do you live a good life? What is the point of it all? Dostoyevsky is the exemplary author in this respect, who was intensely, almost morbidly, preoccupied with these questions. Second, great fiction often involves a social critique; many well-known authors have been penetrating guides into the hypocrisies, immoralities, and stupidities of their societies. Dickens, for example, is famous for spreading awareness of the plights of the poor; and Jane Austen performed a similar task in her novels, though much more quietly, by satirizing the narrow, pinched social rules the landed gentry had to abide by.
Finally, we come to great literature’s ability to help us empathize. By imagining the actions, thoughts, feelings, desires, and hopes of another person—a person perhaps from a different time, with different values—we learn to see the world from multiple points of view. This not only helps us to understand others, but also helps us to understand ourselves. And this is important, since a big part of wise living (in my experience at least) involves the ability to see ourselves from a distance, as only one person among many, and to treat ourselves with the same good-natured respect as we treat our good friends. And the master of empathy is undoubtedly Leo Tolstoy.
Leo Tolstoy was a contradictory man. He idolized the peasants and their simple life, and he preached a renunciation of worldly riches; and yet he maintained his aristocratic privileges till the end of his life. He considered marriage to be of enormous importance in living a moral life, and yet his relationship with his wife was bitterly unhappy and he ended up fleeing his house to escape. And as Isaiah Berlin pointed out in his essay on Tolstoy’s view of history, he yearned for unity and yet saw only multiplicity in the world. I can’t help attributing this contradictoriness to his nearly supernatural ability to sympathize with other points of view, which caused him to constantly be pulled in different directions.
This is on full display in Anna Karenina, but I can’t discuss this or anything else about the book without copious spoilers. So if you are among the handful of people who don’t know the plot already, here is your warning.
Like so many authors, Tolstoy here writes about a “fallen” woman who ends up in a bad situation. But unlike anyone else, Tolstoy presents this story without taking any clear moral stance on Anna, her society, her betrayed husband, or her lover. It is, for example, close to impossible to read this simply as a parable of the immoral woman getting her just desserts. What was Anna supposed to do? She would have condemned herself to a life of unhappiness had she stayed with Karenin. And it can hardly be said that she was responsible for her unhappy marriage, since marriages in those days were contracted when women were very young, for reasons of power and wealth, not love. Tolstoy makes this very clear, and as a result this book can be read, in part, as a feminist critique of a society that severely limits the freedom of women and condemns them to live at the mercy of their fathers and husbands.
But this is not the whole story. If it is impossible to read this book as a parable of an immoral wife, it is equally impossible to read it as the heroic struggle of a wronged women against an immoral society. Anna is neither wholly right nor wrong in her decision. For in choosing to abandon her husband, she also chooses to abandon her son. Admittedly, it was only the social rules that forced her to make this choice, but the fact remains that she knowingly chose it. What’s more, unlike in Madame Bovary, where the deceived husband is not a sympathetic character, Tolstoy brings Karenin to life, showing us an imperfect and limited man, but a real man nonetheless, a man who was deeply hurt by Anna’s actions.
A similar ambiguity can be seen in the relationship between Anna and Vronsky. Tolstoy never makes us doubt that they do truly love one another. This is not the story of vanity or lust, but of tender, affectionate love—a love that was denied Anna for her whole life before her affair. For his part, Vronsky is also neither wholly bad nor good. He wrongs Karenin without any moral scruples; but his love for Anna is so deep—at least at first—that he gives up his respectability, his position in the military, and even his good relationship with his family to be with her. I cannot admire Vronsky, but it is impossible for me to condemn him, just like it is impossible for me to condemn Anna or Karenin, for they were all making the choices that seemed best to them.
The final effect of these conflicts is not a critique of society nor a parable of vice, but a portrayal of the tragedy of life, of the unhappiness that inevitably arises when desires are not in harmony with values and when personalities are not in harmony with societies.
The other thread of this book—that of Levin and Kitty—is where Tolstoy tells us how to be happy. For Tolstoy, this involves a return to tradition; specifically, this means a return to rural Russian tradition and a concomitant shunning of urban European influence. Levin and Kitty’s happy life in the countryside is repeatedly contrasted with Vronsky and Anna’s unhappy life in the city. Levin is connected with the earth; he knows the peasants and he works with them, while Vronsky only associates with aristocrats. Levin is earnest, provincial, and clumsy, while Vronsky is urbane, cosmopolitan, and suave. Kitty is simple, unreflecting, and pure-hearted, while Anna is well-read, sophisticated, and passionate.
The most obvious symbol of Europeanization is the fateful railway. Anna and Vronsky meet in a train station; Vronsky confesses his love to Anna in another train station; and it is of course a train that ends Anna’s life. Levin, by contrast, catches sight of Kitty as he sits in the grass in his farm, while Kitty goes by in a horse-drawn carriage. Anna and Vronsky travel to Italy to see the sights, while for Levin even Moscow is painfully confusing and shallow.
This contrast of urban Europe with rural Russia is mirrored in the contrast of atheism with belief. Like Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy attributed the growing disbelief in Christianity to the nefarious influence of the freethinking West. In Tolstoy’s view—and in this respect he’s remarkably close to Dostoyevsky—Russians were mistaken to gleefully import European technologies and modes of thought without paying attention to how appropriate these new arrivals were to Russia. Both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky wanted Russia to develop its own path into the future, a path that relied on an embrace of the Christian ethic, not an attempt to fill the vacuum left by religion with socialism and science.
The final scene of this novel—where Levin renounces his old free-thinking ways and embraces Christianity—is the ultimate triumph of Russia over Europe in Levin’s soul. But this is where the book rings the most hollow for me. For here Tolstoy is attempting to put up one mode of life as ideal, while his prodigious ability to see the world from so many points of view makes us doubt whether there is such a thing as an ideal life or one right way of viewing the world. At least for me, Tolstoy's magnificent empathy is the real moral lesson I have taken away from this book. His insights into the minds and personalities of different people is staggering, and I can only hope to emulate this, in my own small way, as I fight the lifelong battle with my own ego.