Anna Karenina has two goals: to give readers a gripping story and to show us a few general observations about society through the lens of a small group of characters. The character that Tolstoy uses most to achieve this second goal is Constantine (or Konstantin) Levin. Tolstoy is really, really into Levin—if there's one thing Tolstoy admires in a guy, it's a drive to understand and resolve intellectual and existential concerns.
How do we know that Tolstoy admires Levin? Well, let's think for a few seconds about his character's development. Levin goes from a socially awkward, difficult young man who wants to help mankind to a well-liked, happily married man with a son he loves and a religious faith he embraces. His trajectory is the total opposite of Anna Karenina's.
Plus, whenever Levin gets into political or moral arguments with his pals (which he does all the time), the narrator gives us insights into his point of view and internal monologue and no one else's. The narrator's occupied with how Levin's mind works—a surefire sign that Tolstoy wants us to pay special attention to Levin's point of view.
Levin's not exactly a ladies' man—he crashes and burns the first time he asks Kitty to marry him, and is so upset that he has to run away to his country house to brood for a while.
The problem with Levin and love is that he's got this model of loving parents, whose lives seemed like "the ideal of all perfection" (1.27.1), and he just can't measure up. He thinks he should've been married by now, with a supportive wife and children, and the fact that he's not just adds to all that existential angst he carries around. He also thinks that the object of his affection should be—scratch that—is the model of perfection:
But Levin was in love, and so it seemed to him that Kitty was so perfect in every respect that she was a creature far above everything earthly; and that he was a creature so low and so earthly that it could not even be conceived that other people and she herself could regard him as worthy of her. (1.6.4)
Basically, Levin would never belong to a club that would allow a person like him to be a member.
Once Levin finally does marry Kitty, he discovers, sadly, that that "ideal of all perfection" he thought married life would be isn't true. He loves his wife, but they squabble all the time. And it gets worse until, when they're in Moscow and Kitty's pregnant, they have an intense argument about Anna Karenina (of all people!). While in Moscow, away from his simple country life, Levin has lost all sense of himself, and has fallen into spending and gambling and debts. When he meets Anna, she's so beautiful and educated that he falls for her immediately.
What saves Levin from disaster is that Kitty, soon after this fight (in Part 7, Chapter 16), gives birth. Levin sees her face filled with joy and is shamed by his bad temper the night before. He feels unworthy of Kitty's purity, and resolves to be a better man. In other words, it's Levin's wife doing what she's supposed to do (in Tolstoy's opinion) that keeps Levin walking the line. Without Kitty's presence at this crucial moment, he might have ruined himself with gambling and what-not.
Levin's family is also a big part of that religious realization he has at the end of the novel. After having resolved to live for good (more about this at the end of this "Character Analysis,") Levin sees that his wife and son are outside in the middle of a sudden lightning storm. In fact, the tree that they love to visit has been struck by lightning! Levin freaks out and realizes just how important his wife and son are to him. So his faith in both God and his family get reaffirmed at the same time. Win/win.
What doesn't Levin argue about? Sitting around, drinking a few vodkas with his half-brother, Koznyshev, or old friends like Stiva Oblonsky (his future brother-in-law), Sviyazhsky (a landowner with a an estate near his own in the countryside), or Katavasov (a university friend), Levin just can't help getting into it, arguing about all the major intellectual questions of the day.
There are a couple of reasons for this. First, it's because of Levin's character. He's a nobleman, the owner of a large estate with lots of peasants who rent his land to farm, so he's worried about issues like farm management, district administration. (Levin is like a mayor or a congressman, but he gets the position by birth instead of election). So when Levin gets together with his pals (who are pretty much all also noblemen and/or local officials), it seems natural that he'd talk about whatever's on the minds of the politicians and government workers of the day.
But the other reason that Levin's so interested in "the worker problem," local government, architecture, etc., is that Tolstoy needs him to be. Levin, more than any other character, is a tool that Tolstoy uses to raise a series of arguments about the stuff that's circulating in Russian politics in the 1870's.
After all, Russia in the second half of the 19th Century is a country in the midst of chaotic change. There's a huge difference between rich and poor, and the nation's still largely ruled by a land-owning aristocracy, a class of nobility who control large estates full of peasants. Yet, at the same time, there's a budding manufacturing industry that's drawing peasants from the country to the cities (where new factories are being established) in huge numbers.
Also, thanks to major reforms by Tsar Alexander II, the ruler of Russia from 1855 to 1881 (check out this article on Alexander II), Russia's centuries-old feudal system—which made peasants basically slaves, or serfs, to their aristocratic masters—was abolished in 1861. Suddenly, this oppressed class of workers could acquire land of their own, and collect money. In other words, the more successful of them began to pose a real financial threat to the aristocracy. Add to that the importation of revolutionary ideas from Europe, including communism, equal rights for women, and new technologies like trains, and you've got a crazy, confused situation that, in forty years, will lead to the Russian Revolution.
But Tolstoy isn't a revolutionary. He's on board with the serfs being freed, sure, but all of this movement to the cities (by both noblemen and peasants) just seems to him like a recipe for idleness, gambling, and sin. He's got a bone to pick with the way Russia is going, and he wants all his readers to know it. Without further ado, here's a quick list of Levin's greatest hits: his views in several of the novel's biggest arguments.
The district council thing is an ongoing argument Levin has with Koznyshev about the reform of Russia's local administrative and judicial systems. See, Koznyshev is of the view that it is a landlord's responsibility to take part in these local governments, in which noblemen can participate for a small fee. These district councils are responsible for running schools, improving roads, and generally doing good.
Levin, though, thinks this is a bunch of baloney. Why should he bother to build schools that peasants don't want to attend or improve roads he'll never drive on? Levin doesn't see the point of "doing good" just for the sake of a "common cause." What's really meaningful to him is to do good that you have some kind of personal investment in. So instead of just generically "reforming," Levin wants to stay on his land and improve the farming of his own estate's tenants. He wants to work with people he knows to improve their lives on an individual basis.
What we've got here is an argument about abstract causes versus personal good works. Koznyshev makes lots of grand statements about helping his fellow man, but he doesn't really care about or know any individual peasants who might be in need of help. He's attracted to the idea of reform and wants to adopt a lot of French and German ideas about trials before a jury and better public schools, but he's never asked one of the people whose life he's supposed to be improving what they want.
Levin may sound selfish and mean when he says he won't build schools or hospitals as part of a zemstvo. Still, his perspective is that, if you just build new institutions, they won't work. Reform has to come from personal interest, or else no one will see it through to the end. People abandon projects that they don't have a real investment in, and politics has lots of fads. Levin thinks that the only things that last are the things you build for yourself and your family, like that fantastic farm that rich peasant guy built with his children's help in Part 3, Chapter 21.
Speaking of peasants, Levin has such intense views on this subject that this vague writing project he's been working on for much of the novel, a study of Russian agriculture, turns into a larger social study about the Russian peasant and his habits. Levin is big on the subject of The Peasant. Why? We'll get to that soon.
We're going to stop for a second to say that here's a moment when we, as 21st Century readers, have to remind ourselves that Tolstoy is writing in the 19th Century: his views on class difference probably aren't ours. So Levin's opinions seem dated and even offensive, but we need to put them in context in order to understand where he is coming from. Levin's ideas aren't as bad as some of the things that his friends say, so we do have the opportunity to do some comparing and contrasting.
Levin is a hands-on landlord. He has lots of new ideas for improving farming on his land through more careful plowing and more efficient fertilizing, so that the fields can be kept active for more of the growing season than is traditional. But his tenants don't take his advice. They drag their feet, and all of Levin's great works come to nothing. So he spends a lot of the novel wondering why his tenants are so resistant to his plans.
Koznyshev says that The Russian Peasant is laboring under all kinds of disadvantages. If the noblemen educated them and gave them hospitals and medicine, Koznyshev argues, they'd do better all around. But Levin feels that education just makes peasants even worse farmers: it gives them ideas that aren't appropriate to their "station." (This bit is really dated, but Anna Karenina is a product of its time).
On the other hand, an older landlord that Levin meets at a friend's house is nostalgic for the days before the serfs were freed. (To give you a sense of how dramatic this really is, it's kind of like someone in the United States in the late 19th Century saying they miss slavery). He feels that The Russian Peasant will never work without a tough authority figure standing over him, making him do something. (A lot of this discussion comes out in Part 3, Chapter 28, by the way).
Levin believes that what's wrong with the current relationship between noblemen and The Russian Peasant is that the worker will work as long as it's in line with his character as a Russian Peasant. Levin thinks that The Russian Peasant can't be expected to labor according to the newfangled political ideas of equality and education that are coming out of Western Europe. The nature of the Russian Peasant is to work the land as he believes is best, and the noblemen have to respect that:
"Yes, I should have said to [the old landowner]: "You say our farming doesn't work because the muzhiks hate all improvements and that they must be introduced by authority. Now, if farming didn't work at all without these improvements, you'd be right; but it does work, and it works only where the worker acts according to his habits, like that old man half-way here" [...] We've been pushing ahead for a long time in our own way, the European way, without asking ourselves about the properties of the workforce. Let's try to look at the work force not as an ideal workforce but as the Russian muzhik with his instincts, and organize our farming accordingly." (3.28.34)
What Levin proposes is a new system in which peasant tenants wouldn't just pay a stable rent out of what they earn farming the landlord's fields. Instead, they would pay rent, but they would also get a share of the profits, so they would have an incentive to improve crop yields. They'd have a personal reason to adopt new methods of farming to try to make more money on their own behalf. And of course, the landlord would also get more profits from larger crop output, so everybody wins. This is basically a farm version of jobs that pay you with stock options. Even now, there are companies that believe that you'll work harder and more efficiently if you have a personal investment in the company. So Tolstoy's ideas are still relevant.
What might be a little harder for modern readers to swallow is all this talk about the character of the Russian Peasant, specifically. Levin uses zoology, the study of animals, to prove his points about the nature of the Russian Peasant. In other words, he's following the common 19th Century practice of using new scientific concepts like the study of evolution and of animal behavior and applying that to humans.
Levin, especially after his trip to Europe, uses science current at the time to claim that the Russian Peasant has an essentially different nature from the European worker. So all that rabble rousing in the West about democracy, equal representation in politics, factory labor is fine for Western Europeans, but Russians need to stick to what they're really good at. And Levin thinks that what Russians are really good at is farming the countryside.
You might wonder why there is so much French in a Russian novel? And why does Levin seem to get so heated up about it? Well, right up until the 20th Century, French was the language of the Russian Court. It represented good breeding and education, and it was the language of political and philosophical discussion. So not knowing French would have been a huge social disability to a member of the aristocracy or anyone who hoped to be part of high society in Moscow or Petersburg.
But Levin doesn't approve. He thinks that, by teaching her kids French, Dolly is spoiling their essential natures:
Levin saw she was unhappy and tried to comfort her, saying that it showed nothing bad, that all children fight; but, even as he said it, he was thinking in his heart: "No, I won't be artificial and talk French with my children; but my children won't be like that. All one has to do is not spoil children, not to distort their nature, and they'll be delightful. No, my children won't be like that." (3.10.51)
Remember that Levin thinks Russians need to stick to what they're good at. Well, that includes speaking Russian, and not another language. Levin thinks teaching children to express themselves in the social language of the Court is an invitation to dishonesty and hypocrisy.
In Part 8 of Anna Karenina, we see this huge movement of guys traveling south to fight for the Slavic cause. (The Slavs are a European ethnic group, by the way.) We get into what exactly this means in our "Detailed Summary: Part 8, Chapter 1" so we won't repeat it all here. Suffice it to say that "the Slavic Question" is the latest political fad. All of that stuff Koznyshev was spouting about educational reform is so last year for these guys. Now, all anyone can talk about is the oppression of the Serbs by the Ottoman Turks.
But, while everyone else, especially Koznyshev, is excited about this new cause, Levin seems to think that it's just the latest example of What's Wrong With Russia. All of this high-flying talk about following the cause of The People and fighting for The Greater Good seems too abstract and, frankly, irrelevant for Levin to tolerate:
In the circle to which Sergey Ivanovitch belonged, nothing was talked of
or written about just now but the Servian War. Everything that the idle
crowd usually does to kill time was done now for the benefit of the
Slavonic States. Balls, concerts, dinners, matchboxes, ladies' dresses,
beer, restaurants – everything testified to sympathy with the Slavonic
From much of what was spoken and written on the subject, Sergey Ivanovitch differed on various points. He saw that the Slavonic question had become one of those fashionable distractions which succeed one another in providing society with an object and an occupation. He saw, too, that a great many people were taking up the subject from motives of self-interest and self-advertisement. (8.19.21-22)
What about these men that are being shipped south for the war? They're not Great Men like Koznyshev's been saying. They're just guys who've run up debts in their hometowns or who are pointlessly searching for adventure. They're all a pack of hypocrites and liars, as far as Levin's concerned. The peasants have no interest in fighting for the Slavs. They'll fight if they're deployed there, but it's not some kind of popular uprising, like Koznyshev's been claiming. According to Levin and Tolstoy, what's really heroic is making a better life for your family by staying on your estate and living a frugal and productive life.
You just know that religion is an important concept in a novel when the final chapter is dedicated to a religious experience on the part of one of the main characters. But Levin doesn't talk much about God per se. His issues are spiritual in a broader sense. In fact, he thinks of himself as an unbeliever for most of the novel. But he also feels some kind of lack, some problem that he just can't solve. He wonders throughout the novel what the best way is for him to be a good man.
Levin starts out thinking that the best way is to improve agriculture on his estate. But that doesn't solve his existential angst. Levin tries to find other routes to enlightenment. He throws himself more actively into his studies of The Russian Peasant. He reads a lot on the subject and he goes to Europe (in Part 4) on a kind of fact-finding mission. He wants to know how noblemen in Western Europe deal with their peasants. He comes back sure that he's right, and that there should be a Russia-specific answer to the widespread poverty and poor quality of life of The Russian Peasant. But that still doesn't satisfy him.
Levin has a real confrontation with religion during his marriage to Kitty in the beginning of Part 5, when his in-laws, the Shcherbatskys, insist that he take Russian Orthodox communion. He's up front with the priest about the fact that he's an atheist, and the priest is more or less okay with that. Levin's at least proud that he has managed to get through this religious ceremony without lying.
His next glimmerings of a religious epiphany also come in relation to Kitty, actually, at two points. First, when he sees her nursing his dying brother, Nicholas, and then when she's giving birth to their son, Dmitri. In each case, Levin observes a kind of divine natural beauty about Kitty.
While Levin can barely stand to be around his sick brother (because it makes him worry about dying too much), Kitty just sits with Nicholas and comforts him. She seems to know instinctively what to do. And when she's giving birth, she's calm and her face is glowing. In both cases Kitty is in touch with what Tolstoy considers to be her nature as a woman, and she commits herself to doing what's natural to her (i.e., looking after people). Levin doesn't have that kind of easy access to his nature. For some reason, he can't just do what his instincts tell him to do.
This lesson that Levin's groping for is that doing what is in your nature is both 1) the best thing you can do for yourself and the world around you, and 2) an expression of your God-given soul. This point finally comes home to Levin when he's talking to an old peasant, Theodore (or Fyodor) in Part 8, Chapter 12. Levin realizes that it is in our nature to look for profit (to "fill our bellies"), but what we should really be doing is "living for good":
"Fyodor says that Kirillov the innkeeper lives for his belly. That is clear and reasonable. None of us, as reasonable beings, can live otherwise than for our belly. And suddenly that same Fyodor says it's bad to live for the belly and that one should live for the truth, for God, and I understand him from a hint! And I (Levin) and millions of people who lived ages ago and are living now, muzhiks, the poor in spirit, and the wise men who have thought and written about it, saying the same thing in their vague language – we're all agreed on this one thing: what we should live for and what is good. I and all people have only one firm, unquestionable and clear knowledge, and this knowledge cannot be explained by reason—it is outside it, and has no causes, and can have no consequences." (8.12.6)
Levin feels, in his heart, the natural instincts that he observed in Kitty. But he was never sure what to do with those instincts or how to follow them. Now he knows that the spirit of man is essentially good, and if you live for this truth which is inside of you, then you're doing the best thing that you can as a human being.
There are two interesting side notes with regard to Levin's epiphany. First, Levin's epiphany is pretty even-handed. He specifies that, while he came to this realization through Christianity, he has no right to judge whether others might not also be "living for good" in other religions.
The second thing that's interesting is that this is a private epiphany. Throughout the whole book, Levin has been struggling with the fact that he can never quite express what he feels, especially to his gifted brother, Koznyshev. He's also tried to read a lot of philosophy and church history to guide his thinking, but while he's found truths in many of these works, none of them wholly fill his needs.
In the end, though, it's not important that Levin learn to communicate more effectively. What is important is that he has followed a spiritual quest from his early days in Moscow to his religious epiphany on his own estate. Early on, Levin wanted to make all of Russia the best that it could be, but by the end of the novel, Tolstoy reassures us, it is perhaps enough for Levin (and each of us) to make ourselves the best that we can be.