Idle Minds and Wagging Tongues: Conversation in Anna Karenina
Length: 1828 words (5.2 double-spaced pages)
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Perhaps one of the most striking scenes in Anna Karenina is that of Kitty and Levin’s silent declarations of love to each other, etched out cryptically in chalk on a card table, with each understanding innately the exact words the other was saying (362). With the relationship between Kitty and Levin serving as Tolstoy’s model for a strong and successful love, it appears odd that such a relationship should be founded on silence, and in such sharp contrast to the chatter of Society surrounding the couple at the party. How then are we to understand the significance of conversation in the novel, if the most sincere relationships and understandings are not founded upon dialogue, but on unspoken knowledge? Entire subplots and themes are conveyed through conversations between the characters—the peasant problem and farm management, religion, marriage and faithfulness. Everyone is trying to grasp what a good life is, but the ideas expressed in conversation, however, appear quite often to contradict both the inner monologue of the characters and their actions, or fall pathetically short of expressing the power of the feelings of characters. For most of the characters, neither Society banter nor intellectual discourse does justice to their real passions, and even personal exchanges are steeped in insincerity. Unless they find a means to express their passions some other way, they are doomed to a life of dissatisfaction at best, or a tragic end at worst.
Within the opening conflict of the novel—Stiva’s affair with the French governess and his wife’s reaction when learning of it—Tolstoy first presents this tension between honesty and speech. Before Dolly and Oblonsky’s exchanges, Tolstoy interposes a short confrontation between Oblonsky and his son, Grisha. Oblonsky is “conscious of not caring as much for the boy as for the girl, but [does] his best to treat them both alike” (7). Although he says, “Good morning” to Grisha, Oblonsky’s words are insufficient to mask his inner feelings, and his actions betray him through a “cold smile” (7). Grisha, significantly, does not reply. To reply with some pleasantness would be to pretend that Oblonsky was sincere in his greeting, and Grisha is too naïve to use speech to do anything but to tell the truth. Short of accusing his father of not loving him, which he is already old enough to understand would be entirely inappropriate, he can only remain silent.
The use of a child as a symbol of what is natural and good contrasts sharply with the behavior of the adults in Society, even those who know each other most intimately as Dolly and Oblonsky do, but still do not use language to address each other’s real thoughts.
This scene, by contrasting the confrontation between Dolly and Oblonsky that follows it, emphasizes the artificiality of the exchanges between adults. Oblonsky, explains the narrator, “was incapable of self-deception” (3). Inwardly, he admits that he is unrepentant regarding the affair, that he does not love his wife, and that his pain stems not from guilt at his conduct, but at the disruption of his routine. Dolly too understands this, as the narrator explains after their first confrontation, she “[sees] in him pity for herself but not love” (11). Though they both understand each other, they persist in speaking as though oblivious to this knowledge. Oblonsky calls his affair a “momentary infatuation” as though he will not repeat it, and Dolly threatens that she is “going away to-day,” although before Oblonsky had come into the room she had admitted to herself that “she felt [leaving him] was impossible” (9-11). The exchange, as a result, accomplishes nothing because neither says what he believes or believes what the other says, and both see through each other.
While Dolly and Oblonsky can see beyond what the other says in such an intimate matter, the problem of conversation in Society is that its purpose is to mask genuine feelings, the expression of which, in an environment so far removed from natural life, would be shocking and incomprehensible. The conversations at Kitty and Levin’s wedding ceremony are perhaps the most touching example of this. The Society women discuss the advisability of wearing lilac and how many times a man can be best man before he curses himself, but each is really recalling her own wedding day (413-414). What they recall, however, are memories of their youthful innocence and their beauty and their love for their husbands, and such authentic passions have no place at a Society gathering. When they come close to revealing them, they manage only to retreat into silence. “’I was married in the evening too,’ answered Mrs. Korsunskaya, and sighed as she remembered how sweet she had looked that day, how absurdly enamored her husband then was, and how different things were now” (413). Unlike Dolly and Oblonsky, these women do not understand each other’s minds, although their thoughts are perfectly in tune. Again, conversation betrays the sincerity of what is really being felt.
The kind of banter that masks authenticity and keeps up appearances, is, by virtue of stemming from emotions and relationships really experienced, is still more simple and frank than the talk of intellectuals. Tolstoy presents Koznyshev as a man who is entirely cerebral, but while his life consists almost entirely of discussion, and his discussions are recounted at length and in detail, he never succeeds in making any real connection with another person, nor does he get any closer to understanding himself. This dilemma, like the tension between speech and thought, is introduced when Levin goes to visit Koznyshev, he arrives while his half-brother and a professor are discussing materialism, and, following the argument, realizes that “they connected the scientific question with the spiritual and several times almost reached the latter, but every time they approached this, which seemed to him the most important question, they at once hurriedly retreated” (22).
This then becomes the central problem plaguing all such theoretical discussion throughout the novel—it cannot explain the things which are real and innate in humans. The intellectuals themselves are constrained by their inability to simply experience without theorizing. When Koznyshev considers proposing to Varenka, he considers not whether he is in love with her, but whether he has sufficiently reasoned out the situation (510). In the end, he cannot bring himself to act—a natural tendency—because he has in fact over-thought the situation, and absurdly convinces himself that he is cannot be “unfaithful to Marie’s memory” (513). Inexperience and inaction prevent their theorizing from being relevant. Koznyshev argues with Levin over the problem of farm management, and the next day, when Levin returns sweating and exhausted from mowing the fields, he finds his brother luxuriously “drinking iced water with lemon” (233). The irony of this contrast cannot but discredit Koznyshev’s further theories on peasants and farm management. Even Sviyazhsky, who is himself a farmer and has experience, holds theories which are rendered irrelevant by his failure to act on them. He is, in Levin’s view, “one of those people…whose judgment was very logical though never original and was kept quite apart from their conduct” (298). Because the discussions of the intellectuals do not stem from a real need to find answers to the questions they address nor do they reflect the speakers’ own experiences, they are the result of what the narrator calls, “a desire to find some occupation for an idle mind” (302).
It is the stark contrast of Anna and Levin to these intellectuals that serves as one of their main similarities. Neither suffers from the malady of an “idle mind.” They spend the novel seeking to discover what a good life is, not in the abstract and detached manner that the intellectuals address, nor in the flippant and apathetic manner of Society, but through every means available from reading the books of intellectuals, to living the lives of Society, to deviating from societal norms to find the answer in some yet untested way. The question is quite literally one of life and death for them both, and they are the only two characters driven to seriously consider suicide (rather than impulsively and thoughtlessly attempt it as Vronsky does) when they cannot find the answer. They are both people of action, as Tolstoy frequently emphasizes by alluding to Levin’s physical activity and Anna’s physical characteristics—her energetic hands and her unruly hair give the impression of “excess of vitality” (56).
Their paths diverge, though, because Anna is a product of the constrained life of the city—unhappily married by a convention of Society to a man who does not understand her innately as Kitty and Levin understand each other. Lacking such understanding, and the access to the natural life of the peasants in the country that is such a beneficial guide for Levin, she has nowhere to channel her vitality but into the pure passion that is illustrated by her affair with Vronsky or headlong into the emptiness of conversation. When Levin first meets Anna, he notes that she speaks “carelessly, not attributing any value to her own ideas” and even reproaches herself when she does mention herself (632-633). She is so charming to others even while she is becoming increasingly more desperate inside precisely because she has come to understand the inability of conversation to convey her sincere thoughts, but she does not know how else to attempt to convey them. So she turns her conversations to the thoughts of others, thoughts they long to share but cannot, and so delight in Anna for her consideration of them. It is not just her beauty that seduces people, but her understanding of their minds. Her own mind, however, is never understood, and because she has exhausted all the means available to her of learning what a good life is without finding it, she gives up the search.
The only character who is able to understand the answer to that question is Levin, and he does so because he does not look to anyone else for the answers. Neither discussion with intellectuals nor even his relationship with Kitty is ultimately the source of his understanding because he most authentic knowledge in Anna Karenina is arrived at without words. Levin finds God in himself—from the spontaneous act of prayer at the birth of his son, his entire struggle to accept faith is an internal one. When he finally comes to accept it, he realizes that “the law of loving others could not be discovered by reason, because it is unreasonable” (722). Because speech is based on man’s power to reason, the truth of faith cannot be conveyed to others through it. The peasants words about living for one’s soul do not convince Levin, they trigger in him what was already there (719). When Levin comes to this realization, he too, is silenced. “[He] felt so sorry to lose the spiritual condition which he was evidently spoiling by his conversation, that recollecting his resolution, he ceased speaking” (727).