Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Saturday, March 11, 2017

TOLSTOY: Anna Karenina (Part 5)

Many of the most basic themes of life recur over and over in this story; love, marriage, work, money, education, politics and religion are all examples.  Religion means nothing to some the characters in the novel.  For others, such as Karenin, religion is seen primarily as a way to get social and political advancement.  The Countess Lidia Ivanovna takes religion very seriously, although the way it’s presented Tolstoy thinks she embraces a warped form of it.  The subject comes up again when Levin decides to marry Kitty.  Oblonsky asks a practical question: “have you a certificate of having been at confession?”  Apparently confession is necessary before a couple can be married in the church.  Levin is surprised by the question.  “Why, I believe it’s been nine years since I’ve taken the sacrament!  I never thought of it.”  He had given a lot of thought to subjects like love and marriage and work and money and education and politics; but “Levin found himself, like the majority of his contemporaries, in the vaguest position in regard to religion.  Believe he could not, and at the same time he had no firm conviction that it was all wrong.”  Levin wasn’t sure what he thought about religion.  But he knew one thing for sure; he wanted to marry Kitty.  And if he had to go to confession first, well, so be it.  Before going to confession Levin attended the church service and was baffled by all the ceremony and ritual.  “Yes, now it will soon be over, he thought.  No, it seems to be beginning again, he thought, listening to the prayers.  No, it’s just ending; there he is bowing down to the ground.  That’s always the end.”  Levin went to confession and got his certificate.  But his confusion persisted.  Once he got married he found out how confused he had been about marriage too.  It wasn’t at all like he thought it would be.  Even the marriage ceremony had come as something of a surprise.  The head-deacon intoned the words: “Vouchsafe to them love made perfect, peace and help, O Lord, we beseech Thee.”  These were just boilerplate words; part of the church’s routine ceremony and ritual.  But these weren’t just boilerplate words to Levin.  “Levin heard the words, and they impressed him. ‘How did they guess that it is help, just help that one wants?’ he thought, recalling all his fears and doubts of late. ‘What do I know?   What can I do in this fearful business,’ he thought, ‘without help?  Yes, it is help that I want now.’”  These were just the words Levin needed to hear when he was feeling insecure about fulfilling the duties of being a good husband to Kitty.  As for Kitty, the ceremony, the vows, the words, these were all just part of the way things are supposed to be.  She didn’t probe on an intellectual level.  They were just part of who she was.  Levin reflected that “Since their conversation about religion when they were engaged neither of them had ever started a discussion of the subject, but she performed all the ceremonies of going to church, saying her prayers, and so on, always with the unvarying conviction that this ought to be so.”  For Kitty religion wasn’t a problem to be solved; it was a way of life.  It was a certain kind of love developed within the context of a conventional marriage; in doing her own work and raising her own children.  That’s what Kitty wanted.  Levin’s brother Nikolay was different.  For Nikolay religion was merely an intellectual problem.  “Levin knew his brother and the workings of his intellect: he knew that his unbelief came not from life being easier for him without faith, but had grown up because step by step the contemporary scientific interpretation of natural phenomena crushed out the possibility of faith…”  Kitty believed, Levin wasn’t sure and Nikolay did not believe.  These three views intersected when Nikolay lay on his deathbed.  Kitty took charge.  She felt sorrow and pity, made sure Nikolay was as comfortable as possible, and arranged for him to receive the sacraments.  Levin “strange to say, felt utterly cold, and was not conscious of sorrow nor of loss, less still of pity for his brother.”  Meanwhile Nikolay’s “sufferings, steadily growing more intense, did their work and prepared him for death.”


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