Friday, November 7, 2014

Anna Karenina: Levin

This is a continuation from last time focusing in on the character of Levin in Anna Karenina. This post could be a spoiler for the book. So if you want to find out what happens for yourself stop right here.

Whereas the character of Anna degrades and is eventually destroyed as the book unfolds, the character of Levin grows and is enhanced. Levin seems to live out the words of Jesus in John 10:10, "I have come that they might have life and have it abundantly." Levin because of his pursuit of God grows and experiences blessing. One of the things I appreciate so much about Tolstoy is that this doesn't seem to be a "triumphant", "every-thing-is-rosy" life for Levin, but a realistic one filled with struggle, uncertainty and hardship alongside of the better things. 

I believe that the point of Anna Karenina is in the contrast between Anna and Levin. Levin is a landowner with high ambitions, morals, and dreams. However, he is a convinced agnostic/atheist. When the reader initially meets Levin he is unsuccessfully pursuing the woman of his dreams. Crushed and defeated he goes back to his country estate and immerses himself in working and trying to improve his agricultural position. Where Anna and Vronsky are successful, Levin is a failure, being rejected by Kitty (because ironically she thinks she loves Vronsky). The year it takes Vronsky to fully seduce Anna is a year of pain and suffering for Levin as he nurses a crushed self-concept and devastated dream after Kitty's refusal.

Throughout the book the character and compassion of Levin endear him more and more to the reader. Levin is a good man who wants the best for others. (Many have seen in him a self-portrait of Tolstoy himself.) He is always thinking about ways to improve the lives and work of the peasants who help him work his land. At one point he resigns himself to his ideals and almost determines to take up the life of a peasant worker because of the satisfaction which he believes he will find in that life. This is not to say that Levin is a Christian by any means until the very end of the book, (when I believe he experiences a conversion experience); rather he is fairly strong in his unbelief thinking religion to be ridiculous and silly. Levin's unbelief is seen when conversing with a priest...

"Do you believe in all the doctrines of the Holy Apostolic Church?" the priest went on, turning his eyes away from Levin's face and folding his hands under his stole. "I have doubted, I doubt everything," said Levin in a voice that jarred on himself, and he ceased speaking. The priest waited a few seconds to see if he would not say more, and closing his eyes he said quickly, with a broad, Vladimirsky accent: "Doubt is natural to the weakness of mankind, but we must pray that God in His mercy will strengthen us. What are your special sins?" he added, without the slightest interval, as though anxious not to waste time. "My chief sin is doubt. I have doubts of everything, and for the most part I am in doubt." "Doubt is natural to the weakness of mankind," the priest repeated the same words. "What do you doubt about principally?" "I doubt of everything. I sometimes even have doubts of the existence of God," Levin could not help saying, and he was horrified at the impropriety of what he was saying. But Levin's words did not, it seemed, make much impression on the priest.

At the end of the book Levin finds that he has largely been living the life of faith in God without trusting in God. He seems to experience what many would call a "conversion experience." 

"I know not by reason, but it (knowledge of right and wrong) has been given to me, revealed to me, and I know it with my heart, by faith in the chief thing taught by the church."

Levin has progressed from a moral agnostic to a true believer by virtue of trusting in what he calls the "chief thing taught by the church." Tolstoy doesn't define this and from his point of view this could be merely loving one's neighbor. However, I find a deeper meaning to be that this refers to the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ as a substitutionary sacrifice for sins. It is in this understanding and belief that the character of Levin finally comes to rest at the end of the book. 

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