I once made a passing remark about how nobody does deathbed scenes like Tolstoy. It happened again to me in the last half of “Anna Karenina,” with the death of Levin’s brother. Deep into that scene, I felt the book was gripping me more tightly than ever, and it’s actually hard to explain. Death is a thing that will obviously grab the attention of any person or reader; but here we’ve got Tolstoy showing us that all the people attempting to take care of Levin’s brother actually lost sympathy and patience for the man and all ended up wishing for him to die already.
So Tolstoy is unsentimental, and we knew that. What struck me, though, was that such an unsentimental scene could make you feel the mystery of death all the more. And I use the word ‘mystery’ because that’s what Tolstoy calls these events: he says that in death, some mystery is being accomplished. He speaks of it not as a final event, inexplicable in itself, but as a process being accomplished. And he gives us the process in as much detail as he can, describing the physical sufferings; the specific preparations made by others; and all their inner thoughts as they may progress, for example, from sympathy to impatience.
All this robs death of some conventional grandness, but Kitty gives the man something like the dignified death we wish to see, by cleaning up his bed and his immediate surroundings. Her faith in her own ability to help; her sense of duty in helping, which comes from her faith; even her personal fussiness, all come into play here. These things allow her to accomplish far more than her husband, who, having no faith, and thinking of death as the final word, despairs that anything could possibly help and is merely lost in the mystery.
Tolstoy uses the word ‘mystery’ both here and for the scene of Kitty giving birth. There, again, Levin feels hopelessly lost; and it’s Levin who explicitly compares the mystery of what is happening with his wife to the earlier death of his brother.
Tolstoy gives us a bit of a twist: we think for a moment, because Levin thinks it, that Kitty is going to die. This could otherwise be a cheap trick of the author to ramp up the drama, except that it’s perfectly believable.
All this takes place immediately after several chapters, which I struggled through, in which Tolstoy took us in minute detail through Levin’s social activities in Moscow. These activities left Levin bewildered, but I was befuddled myself. In these chapters we get conversations about ordinary matters, including local politics, that are only occasionally interesting; and I kept wondering whether Tolstoy was losing focus and merely indulging in personal interests.
Maybe these scenes are meant to help the reader feel Levin’s own confusion, which Levin confesses comically during a long argument with his wife:
The one thing he confessed most sincerely of all was that, living so long in Moscow, just talking, eating and drinking, he had got befuddled.Part 7, chapter 11, Pevear/Volokhonsky translation
Tolstoy’s depiction of all this aimlessness in ordinary life also sets the stage for the birth scene, which Tolstoy calls a “hole” in ordinary life.
As he helplessly witnesses Kitty’s labor pains and awaits the birth of his child –
All the ordinary circumstances of life . . . ceased to exist for Levin. He lost awareness of time. . . . [He did not] know why the princess took him by the hand and, gazing pitifully at him, asked him to calm down, why Dolly kept telling him to eat something and leading him out of the room, and even the doctor looked at him gravely and commiseratingly and offered him some drops.
He knew and felt only that what was being accomplished was similar to what had been accomplished a year ago in a hotel in a provincial capital, on the deathbed of his brother Nikolai. But that had been grief and this was joy. But that grief and this joy were equally outside all ordinary circumstances of life, were like holes in this ordinary life, through which something higher showed. And just as painful, as tormenting in its coming, was what was now being accomplished; and just as inconceivably, in contemplating this higher thing, the soul rose to such heights as it had never known before, where reason was no longer able to overtake it.Part 7, chapter 14, Pevear/Volokhonsky translation
Had Tolstoy given us the birth scene and merely stated that this was all so different from ordinary life, without having shown us what ordinary life was like for Levin just before Kitty’s labor began, it would have had little impact; it would have been close to a useless statement.
My takeaway is that it’s probably a good idea, when struggling with any passage, to look for a reason that the author may have had in offering the passage as it is.
The passages of this novel that I found the most moving are all, or almost all, connected with Levin: his head-over-heels reunion with Kitty; the death of his brother; the birth of his son. Levin really is the main character of the novel, which is a bit of a surprise.
But another passage was equally moving, and that was Anna’s suicide.
This is an event from literature that everyone knows about. I haven’t seen any of the adaptations, but I did have a picture in my mind. I expected something more theatrical. I saw Anna throwing herself on to the path of a train bearing down fast on her. But Tolstoy does something almost totally different. It’s a quiet scene in a hidden corner; and completely unromantic; but intimate and devastating.
I said earlier that the dream about the muzhik muttering mysterious French words while working over some iron, because Anna and Vronsky dreamed it simultaneously, indicated that Tolstoy was not a complete atheist, that he believed in some spiritual connections between people, some purely non-material events. At the end of the novel, we find out that this dream was also prophetic, which further argues that Tolstoy believed in some spiritual world. But he also says, in the final moment of Anna’s life, that her light, by which she was beginning to read the world accurately and unsentimentally, went out forever.
Tolstoy famously struggled between belief and unbelief. And as I learned recently by reading his “Confession,” written shortly after “Anna Karenina,” he struggled persistently with thoughts of suicide. That puts some light on the final chapters of AK, when he takes us deep into Anna’s thoughts and she concludes not merely that death is the only solution to her own situation but that human beings all hate one another and that we are put on this earth in order to hate. “Aren’t we all thrown into the world only in order to hate each other and so to torment ourselves and others,” she says.
Well this is a bridge too far even for the most unromantic rationalist; true skepticism would stop well short of such a conclusion. Anna is not only in the grip of desperation; she’s also become addicted to morphine. We know what such chemical dependence can do to our brains; yet Tolstoy says that in these final moments a certain “light” is allowing Anna to see clearly some things about human beings and their relationships.
Because we are so deep in Anna’s consciousness, we don’t know if it’s only Anna who regards this as clarity, or also Tolstoy mixing in his own thoughts. But to the extent that any of these thoughts are his own, one cannot help remembering that Tolstoy at this time was falling into a period of profound spiritual and emotional despair, bordering on suicide. You have to wonder to what extent he’s expressing his own despairing struggles in Anna’s final reflections. We know he put himself extensively into the character of Levin, who struggles with disbelief and even contemplates suicides but never concludes that humans are meant to hate one another.
Levin eventually reaches a kind of spiritual settlement, a hard-won spiritual peace; but we know that Tolstoy’s own spiritual struggle was just beginning. Levin’s experience has taught him, among many other things, the limits of human understanding; Tolstoy knows these limits too but he has a much harder time accepting it.
Levin has found – and this is not new knowledge, as he admits – that life has meaning in a revealed law of common good, “which it is in my power to put into it.” He’s going to live for this good, and that is no small breakthrough or commitment. Yet, because of those limits of human understanding that he’s coming to terms with, there are questions that remain unanswered for him; and he goes on still as a mortal seeing through a glass darkly, which Tolstoy himself would surely acknowledge.
Life is embraced at the end of this novel and eternity is glimpsed, but only briefly; and it remains haunted; which is partly why I’ve begun to think of “Anna Karenina” not just as a novel or tragedy, but as a book of painful mysteries.