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«Abstract This article finds Lev Tolstoi’s Anna Karenina to be a scapegoat of her society and her narrative, in that worse transgressors suffer less ...»

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Double-Plotted Justice in Anna Karenina 1


This article finds Lev Tolstoi’s Anna Karenina to be a scapegoat of her society and

her narrative, in that worse transgressors suffer less than she, she is inconsistently

presented, her catastrophe is undermotivated, and submerged discrepancies between

her own and Levin’s situations undermine the ethical comparison which their parallels

seem to invite. Levin personally, however, does not scapegoat Anna; the contrasts between their lives are disrupted, and at times the novel suggests ethical pluralism. As a result Anna is semi-tragic, in a double-plotted novel which is imperfectly aware of its own contradictions.

Scapegoating, Double-Plotting, and the Justice of Anna Karenina Introduction The question which this article seeks to answer is one of the most vexed and persistent in the history of Anna Karenina’s reception: to what extent and how justifiably is Anna suggested to be deserving of her fate? It approaches this question through three issues: the possibility that Anna is used as a scapegoat; Anna’s status as tragic or otherwise; and the effect upon her of Levin’s existence in the novel. The last of these, which is the subject of the second half of the article, connects to the other main question of Anna Karenina criticism: how are the novel’s two central stories related? The three issues of scapegoating, tragedy, and double-plotting will be related to each other as they are raised; for example, to introduce Levin is also to introduce Double-Plotted Justice in Anna Karenina 2 the concept of comedy as a possible contrast to Anna’s tragedy. The argument is therefore cumulative.

Some critics have considered Anna to deserve her fate; others have found her not to deserve it; some critics in each category some have found the novel to concur with them. Early European critics such as Matthew Arnold and Melchior de Vogüé endorsed what they judged to be the novel’s condemnation of Anna, whereas Russian critics including Lev Shestov, Nikolai Strakhov, and Dmitrii Sviatopolk-Mirskii interpreted the novel in the same way, but criticized it. Critics including Amy Mandelker found the novel not to condemn Anna. Many critics, however, have found the novel to be internally conflicted with regard to her. Viktor Shklovskii, Mark Aldanov, Henri Troyat, Judith Armstrong, George Steiner, Mary Evans, and Harold Bloom all proposed variants of the idea that Tolstoi’s condemnation of Anna was contradicted by his love and admiration for her. D.H. Lawrence and Peter Jones found his condemnation of Anna to be subverted by the novel’s artistry. Thomas Mann found the novel’s attitudes towards the society which condemns Anna to be selfcontradictory. Isaiah Berlin, A.N. Wilson, and Sidney Schultze found a contradiction in the novel between what Mikhail Bakhtin would term the monologic and the heteroglossic: between condemnation of Anna, and agnosticism as to her guilt.

Vladimir Alexandrov found the whole novel to be polyphonic, with every issue capable of several different interpretations. A majority of the novel’s critics have found in the novel at least some impulse to condemn Anna, and of these, many have found other aspects of the novel which contradict it. The reading of Anna Karenina as internally contradictory has much to support it.

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Both the condemnation of Anna, and its subversion, may be clarified with reference to the concept of the scapegoat. The phenomenon of persecuting individuals as representatives of a category of supposed malefactors was analysed by René Girard in his 1985 book Le Bouc Emissaire.1 This book purported to disclose the concealed mechanisms by which scapegoats had been persecuted in history, myth, and fiction. In the context of narrative, it made a useful distinction between scapegoating in a text, and scapegoating by a text. (Girard, p. 30) In the former case, the scapegoat is shown to be the victim of a persecution of which the text itself disapproves. In the latter case, the text makes a character the victim of its own persecution.

Anna Karenina may be described as a scapegoat of both kinds. Men and women in the Saint Petersburg svet (high society) practice adultery and fornication with impunity. Anna is singled out for persecution because she commits adultery in a manner which befits her erstwhile membership of ‘the conscience of Petersburg society’ -- with deep consciousness of guilt, and (eventual) transparency towards Karenin and society.2 In this respect she is a scapegoat of her society (which punishes her on behalf of all adulterers), and in her text (which criticizes this society for its hypocrisy). On the other hand, many of the characters whose transgressions resemble or exceed Anna’s own are treated relatively benignly not only by svet, but by the narrative itself. Oblonskii is satirized in a manner which amuses and endears; as Alexandrov noted, he ‘is oddly and largely guiltless (even as he dissipates the René Girard, The Scapegoat, trans. by Yvonne Freccero (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1986).

Anna Karenina: Roman v vos’mi chastiakh, in L. N. Tolstoi, Sobranie sochinenii, 14 vols (Moscow: Gosudarstvennoe izdatel’stvo khudozhestvennoi literatury, 1952), VIII

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family’s wealth)’.3 Shestov wrote that ‘All the characters in Anna Karenina are divided into two categories. Some keep to the rules, and along with Levin find paradise (idut’ k blagu); the others serve their own desires, break the rules, and, in proportion to the audacity and decisiveness of their actions, suffer a more or less cruel punishment.’4 Yet this is not quite true: most of the characters in the latter category are permitted to satisfy these desires without suffering any kind of punishment. There is also a problem pertaining to Anna’s agency. She is presented as an exemplar as well as a victim of the faults of her society. Her religious and ethical education is shallow, and even by the end of the novel she is insufficiently percipient to criticize society for its responsibility for her faults. In comparison to Levin, she may be considered as having ‘bad moral luck’ (in Bernard Williams’s sense of the term).5 Moreover, her characterization is inconsistent. Her ethical and emotional decline after experiencing happiness with Vronskii is not predictable from her character as initially presented. Peter Jones finds Anna’s failure and Levin’s relative success to be ‘equally false conclusions in the light of everything else we have been shown in the novel;

they are conclusions apparently imposed by the author upon the implicit argument, Vladimir E. Alexandrov, Limits to Interpretation: The Meanings of ‘Anna Karenina’ (Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004), p. 211.

Lev Shestov, Dobro v uchenii gr. Tolstogo i F. Nitshe (St Peterburg: Izdanie M. V.

Pirozhkova, 1907), p. 4.

Bernard Williams, ‘Moral Luck’, in Moral Luck, ed. by Daniel Statman (New York:

State University of New York, 1993), pp. 35-56. Williams defines ‘moral luck’ as the kind of luck which allows one to behave in a more rather than less moral way.

Civilians in Nazi Germany had the ‘moral bad luck’ to be born in a time and place

–  –  –

and against its principal burden.’6 It is as though the progression which Anna’s character had made through successive drafts of the novel from a plump, crude, seductive coquette, to the woman whom Vronskii encounters at the station in Moscow, is partially reversed over the course of the novel -- Tolstoi’s earlier impulse to punish female adultery having come again to the fore. Vladimir Solov’ev, reviewing that part of the novel which had been published by 1875, had already found her characterization to bifurcate: ‘one [Anna] comes directly out of the novel while the other from the author’s own attitude to her. Therefore when he writes about her directly it seems that he is not speaking about the woman he is describing’.7 Anna’s presentation can even be inconsistent within the space of a few pages. When Anna appeals to Dolli to forgive her brother ‘Sympathy and love unfeigned were visible on Anna’s face’. (VIII, 76) Yet when Dolli has left the room: ‘“Stiva,” she said to him, winking merrily, making the sign of the cross on him, and indicating the door with her eyes, “Go, and God help you.”’ (VIII, 80) Bernard Williams argues that ‘however inevitable Tolstoy ultimately makes [Anna’s downfall] seem, it could, relative to her earlier thoughts, have been otherwise’; however, rather than attributing this to the author’s will, he attributes it to ‘a matter of intrinsic luck, and a failure in the heart of her project’.8 In fact, Anna’s downfall is partly the result of her scapegoating by her text.

Peter Jones, Philosophy and the Novel (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), p. 110.

Brother of the Symbolist philosopher Vladimir Solov’ev, quoted in A.V. Knowles, ed., Tolstoy: The Critical Heritage (London, Henley, and Boston: Routledge and

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There exists an overlap between Anna’s scapegoating in and by the text, since the narrative not only criticizes those who censure Anna for, and only for the openness of her adultery, but also implicitly supports them in condemning open adultery more than discreet adultery. Newton comments that ‘it is difficult to think of any other novel that convincingly suggests that a bad marriage is preferable to an extra-marital affair in which there is genuine love on both sides; Anna Karenina is such a novel’.9 It also suggests that had Anna remained with Karenin whilst conducting her affair, she would have wronged Karenin and Sergei less, and not have destroyed Vronskii and herself. (The only detail which suggests the contrary, is Sergei’s depiction as largely unscathed by his mother’s disappearance.) The implication that Anna’s hubris lies in her attempt to ‘spit in Mother Grundy’s eye’ is supported by Tolstoi’s comment to Kramskoi in the summer of 1875 that ‘One thing’s certain. Anna’s going to die -- vengeance will be wreaked on her. She wanted to rethink life in her own way.’10 His answer to Kramskoi’s question: ‘How should one think?’ is: ‘One must try to live by the faith which one has sucked in with one’s mother’s milk and without arrogance of the mind’.11 Betsi Tverskaia’s circle has K. M. Newton, ‘Interpreting Tolstoy’s Intention in Anna Karenina’, in In Defence of Literary Interpretation: Theory and Practice (London: Macmillan Press, 1986), pp.

153-72 (p. 170).

D.H. Lawrence writes that ‘all the tragedy comes from Vronsky’s and Anna’s fear of society. The monster was social, not phallic at all. They couldn’t live in the pride of their sincere passion, and spit in Mother Grundy’s eye’. Study of Thomas Hardy and Other Essays, ed. by Bruce Steele (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), p.

–  –  –

absorbed neither mother’s milk nor faith, but nonetheless collaborates with the narrative in punishing Anna’s double transgression.

The tension between Anna’s scapegoating in, and by, her text can be explored in relation to the divergent interpretations of the novel’s epigraph. ‘Mne otmshchenie, i az vozdam’ is the standard Slavonic translation of one of God’s prophecies quoted by Paul to the Romans. The passage from the King James Authorized translation of

the Bible (italicized below) is:

Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him [...] Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.12 The second sentence makes clear that Paul cites in the spirit of the passage from

Leviticus in which God tells Moses:

Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the Lord.13 However, Paul is not quoting this passage, but is slightly misquoting from Moses’ song in Deuteronomy (the degree of misquotation is similar in Hebrew, Russian and


–  –  –

To me belongeth vengeance, and recompence; their foot shall slide in due time:

for the day of their calamity is at hand, and the things that shall come upon them make haste. For the Lord shall judge his people.14 An emphasis on the Levitican and Pauline senses points to the novel’s censure of scapegoating in the text, and the injustice of Anna’s suffering. Kropotkin found that ‘it was the opinion of the Betsies -- surely not Superhuman Justice -- which brought Karénina to suicide’, and Shklovskii concurred that ‘not God, but people, those people who hated Tolstoi himself, pushed Anna under the wheels of the train’.15 These interpretations are supported by Tolstoi’s admiration for four books by other authors, at around the time of writing Anna Karenina. In March 1872 Tolstoi wrote to Pisemskii in praise of his novel B vodorovote (1871), which refrains from judgment of an adulteress who commits suicide.16 In 1891 he stated that between the ages of thirty-five and fifty (1863-78) Mrs Wood, Trollope, and George Eliot had had a great influence on him. (TL II, 486) Taking these authors in the order in which Tolstoi listed them: in East Lynne (1861) Carlyle quotes Romans 12.20 in order to explain why he will not take action against a man who has wronged him.17 In Phineas Redux (1876) Deuteronomy 32. 35-36.

Prince Peter Kropotkin, Idealy I deistvitel’nosti v russkoi literature (London:

Duckworth, 1916), p. 135, and Viktor Shklovskii, Lev Tolstoi (Moscow: Izdatel’stvo Ts K VLKSM, 1967), p. 349.

Tolstoy’s Letters [TL], trans. and ed. by R.F. Christian, 2 vols (London: The Athlone Press, 1978), I, 241-42.

Ellen Wood, East Lynne, ed. by Andrew Maunder (Ontario: Broadview, 2000), p.

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