Study Guide

Anna Karenina Religion

By Leo Tolstoy

Religion

"But [Princess Shcherbatsky's] daughter said nothing in reply; [Kitty] only thought in her heart that one could not speak of excessiveness in matters of Christianity. what excessiveness could thee be in following a teaching that tells you to turn the other cheek when you have been struck, and to give away your shirt when your caftan is taken?" (2.33.8)

This moment of contemplation on Kitty's part takes place when she is still friends with Madame Stahl. How does her belief that "one could not speak of excessiveness in matters of Christianity" change after she realizes Madame Stahl is kind of a bully? How does Kitty's thoughts about faith change after this episode in the novel?

"I beg you to hear me out, it's necessary. I must explain my feelings to you, those that have guided me and those that will guide me, so that you will not be mistaken regarding me. You know that I had decided on a divorce and had even started proceedings. I won't conceal from you that, when I started proceeding, I was undecided, I suffered; I confess that I was driven by a desire for revenge on you and on her. When I received her telegram, I came here with the same feelings – I will say more: I wished for her death [...] But I saw her and I forgave. And the happiness of forgiveness revealed my duty to me. I forgave her completely. I want to turn the other cheek. I want to give my shirt when my caftan is taken, and I only pray to God that He not take from me the happiness of forgiveness! [...] That is my position. You may trample me in the mud, make me the laughing-stock of society, I will not abandon her, I will never say a word of reproach to you." (4.17.54)

How does Karenin's forgiveness for Anna work as an example of spiritual epiphany? Spiritual feeling and society seem absolutely opposed for Karenin in this scene. Does this opposition stand more generally throughout the novel?

The sight of his brother and the proximity of death renewed in Levin's soul the feeling of horror at the inscrutability and, with that, the nearness and inevitability of death, which had seized him on that autumn evening when his brother had come for a visit. The feeling was now stronger than before; he felt even less capable than before of understanding the meaning of death, and its inevitability appeared still more horrible to him; but now, thanks to his wife's nearness, the feeling did not drive him to despair: in spite of death, he felt the necessity to live and to love. he felt that love saved him from despair and that under the threat of despair, this love was becoming still stronger and purer. (5.20.55)

It seems like Kitty and Levin have an almost spiritual or religious component to their relationship in comforting Levin in the face of his brother's death. How does this moment in the book represent an intellectual crisis for Levin? What is Tolstoy saying about reason versus emotion in the face of the great unknowns of life?

Countess Lidia Ivanovna kept her promise. She did actually take upon herself the care of the organization and management of Alexey Alexandrovitch's household. But she had not overstated the case when saying that practical affairs were not her strong point. All her arrangements had to be modified because they could not be carried out, and they were modified by Korney, Alexey Alexandrovitch's valet, who, though no one was aware of the fact, now managed Karenin's household, and quietly and discreetly reported to his master while he was dressing all it was necessary for him to know. But Lidia Ivanovna's help was none the less real; she gave Alexey Alexandrovitch moral support in the consciousness of her love and respect for him, and still more, as it was soothing to her to believe, in that she almost turned him to Christianity – that is, from an indifferent and apathetic believer she turned him into an ardent and steadfast adherent of the new interpretation of Christian doctrine, which had been gaining ground of late in Petersburg. It was easy for Alexey Alexandrovitch to believe in this teaching. (5.22.26)

Countess Lydia gives Karenin love and respect at a time when the rest of society gives him neither. Even though both her domestic help and her brand of Christianity seem to be dubious, Karenin relies on them both.

"I understand that perfectly," Levin replied. "One cannot put one's heart into a school or generally into institutions of that sort, and that is precisely why I think these philanthropic institutions always produce such meager results." (7.10.35)

Here, Levin is commenting to Anna on the value (or lack thereof) of charitable schools. We see again Levin's view that good works are only really meaningful if they arise from personal needs or emotional investment in a particular person or family. Do you think this view remains the same once he's had his religious transformation at the end of the book?

"That is, you mean to say that sin prevents him?" said Lydia Ivanovna. "But that is a false view. There is no sin for believers; sin is already redeemed" (7.21.46)

Countess Lydia believes that, once a person has accepted God as her savior, she cannot do anything wrong. This holds true because she believes that the moment a person accepts God, all of her sins have already been forgiven. What kinds of moral problems does Tolstoy find with this view?

And in that same instant she was horrified at what she was doing. "Where am I? What am I doing? Why?" She wanted to rise, to throw herself back, but something huge and implacable pushed at her head and dragged over her. "Lord, forgive me for everything!" she said, feeling the impossibility of any struggle. A little muzhik, muttering to himself, was working over some iron. And the candle by the light of which she had been reading that book filled with anxieties, deceptions, grief and evil, flared up brighter than ever, lit up for her all that had once been in darkness, sputtered, grew dim, and went out for ever." (7.31.21)

Anna's final call to God to forgive her reminds us of her earlier pleas to Karenin, when she thinks she's going to die in childbirth. How do the two themes of forgiveness and religion mix and match each other throughout the novel?

"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)

This is the moment of Levin's great, novel-ending religious epiphany. What is the knowledge that is clear, unquestionable, but also outside of reason? How does this "knowledge" relate to doing what is good? Where does it originate? Is this knowledge the soul, is it human nature, is it God?

"Yes, the one obvious, unquestionable manifestation of the Deity is the laws of good disclosed to the world by revelation, which I feel in myself, and by acknowledging which I do not so much unite myself as I am united, whether I will or no, with others in one community of believers called the Church. Well, but the Jews, the Mohammedans, the Confucians, the Buddhists – what are they? […] Can these hundreds of millions of people be deprived of the highest good, without which life has no meaning? […] I'm asking about the relation to the Deity of all the various faiths of mankind. I'm asking about the general manifestation of God to the whole world with all these nebulae. What am I doing? To me personally, to my heart, unquestionable knowledge is revealed, inconceivable to reason, and I stubbornly want to express this knowledge by means of reason and words." (8.19.5)

This passage seems to suggest the possibility that other faiths can also find a revelation of truth within their own belief structures. In developing his own spiritual path, how does Levin deal with organized religion? And with other religions? He seems to accept a limit on the amount that he can know, as a human being, about the deity.

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