Anna Karenina: Understanding Levin’s Meaning of Life

A short analysis by Melody

Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is described as a love story, set in 1870s Russia, about Anna who leaves her husband in an adulterous relationship with Count Vronsky and because of the hardships such a situation causes her, eventually throws herself under a train. The story is rich and it does not do it justice to simplify it as I have just done. As much as it follows Anna’s journey, it follows another character Levin, an agricultural landlord who struggles with philosophical and moral questions. Tolstoy does not end his long novel with the character Anna or her lover Vronsky, but with Levin. Unlike Anna, who finds no reason to continue living, Levin concludes the novel by discovering meaning in his life and the last chapters are devoted to his inner struggle with nihilism and death. The conclusion he arrives at is enlightening and transforms his inner self with purpose. It is interesting to think about how this positions us to regard Anna’s plight.

After much searching in the teaching of philosophers and religion, Levin uses reason to arrive at the conclusion that life has no meaning. It is brief and then it is non-existent. He likens himself to a “bubble” broken off from “infinity”: “that bubble maintains itself a while and then bursts, and that bubble is – I!” (929). Life is a short span (mostly full of suffering) and then it inevitably stops. Reason, he says, has taught him that he must pursue his desires in his one short “bubble” life, and that it does not matter what he does to secure his desires (939). These thoughts torment him when he thinks about them so that he is afraid he might kill himself (933).

Later, it is not reason that leads him to his final insight. In fact, he says that reason cannot answer the question of life’s meaning because it is insufficient: “I looked for an answer to my question. But reason could not give me an answer – reason is incommensurable with the question.” (939) Instead he says that the answer comes from the very fabric of life; the things we know instinctively. He says: “life itself has given me the answer, in my knowledge of what is good and what is bad. And that knowledge I did not acquire in any way; it was given to me as to everybody, given because I could not take it from anywhere” (939). The true meaning of life, that “could not be discovered by reason, because it is unreasonable” is “the law of loving others” (939).

We are left with his excited and private thought: “my life, my whole life, independently of anything that may happen to me, is every moment of it no longer meaningless as it was before, but has an unquestionable meaning of goodness with which I have the power to invest it.” (963). Tolstoy has brought us to the conclusion that a meaningful life is one which is devoted to loving others and doing good, and that we have the power to create this meaning for our lives.

Are we then to assume Anna threw herself under a train because she pursued her desires (for Vronsky) and forsook goodness? Or did she die because she did not understand the power to create meaning for herself? I cannot accept that view. In fact, Levin is positioned appositely to accept such a ‘meaning of life’ as he does. He is married happily with a baby son, is fairly wealthy, is respected and loved by his friends and society, and finds purpose in his work. Had he been a ‘fallen’ woman like Anna, he may not have been able to come to such a conclusion. She is deprived of everything just listed for Levin. There is certainly importance in loving others and doing good, and Anna does practice goodness in the form of her taking in an orphan, encouraging Vronsky to build a hospital and writing. However, such things prove insufficient for Anna. Perhaps her suffering would have been avoided had she squashed her desire for Vronsky in the beginning of the novel, but this is harsh: if she did, she would probably have been as good as dead, living a dead life.

How can Anna escape the oncoming train and her death? I doubt that Anna really has the power to “invest” her life with the “meaning of goodness” as Levin says he has. I can admire his purpose-finding ideas about love and goodness, but I cannot impose such things on Anna’s character. Perhaps there is little more to say than some are ‘blessed’ and others are ‘cursed’ – some find meaning, and some find it better for the “bubble” of their lives to pop.

Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina.Trans. Louise and Aylmer Maude. London: Vintage, 2010. Print.


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