The question of judgment and sympathies in Anna Karenina is one that seems to become more complicated each time I read the novel. The basic problem with locating the voice of judgment is that throughout the novel, there are places where we feel less than comfortable with the seemingly straightforward, at times even didactic presentation of Anna and Vronsky's fall into sin alongside Levin's constant moral struggle. As Anna's story unfolds in its episodic manner within the context of the rest of the novel, Tolstoy seems to be trying to make the fact of her guilt more and more clear to us; at the same time though, we have more and more difficulty in tracing out the specific locus of that guilt. In a novel as consummately constructed as this one is, we are tempted to look for places where the undercurrents of the text, the places where the text takes on its own life and force, run against, or at least complicate, the discernment of authorial judgment. By closely examining Tolstoy's treatment of Anna's moral crisis as compared with his handling of Levin, we might attempt to unravel the book's rather layered and complex system of condemnation.
The novel's epigraph sets a certain tone for us before we even begin reading; the biblically inflected "Vengeance is mine; I will repay," plants in our heads the idea that wrong will be done and punishment exacted. Indeed, we come across a wrong in the very first lines of the opening chapter, in Stepan Arkadyich's dalliance with the French governess, which has thrown the Oblonsky house into "confusion."(1) Tolstoy's descriptions of Stepan Arkadyich as a pleasant, honest, well-liked bon vivant seem at times to drip with contempt. He is "lazy and mischievous"(14), his life "dissipated"(14), and
"the distributors of earthly blessings, in the form of positions, leases, concessions and the like, were all friends of his and could not pass over one of their own; ...Oblonsky did not have to try especially hard to obtain a profitable post; all he had to do was not refuse, not envy, not quarrel, not get offended, which, owing to his natural kindness, he never did anyway."(14)
Stiva is basically a totally harmless, even likable character, but at the same time we are made very aware that he is one of the novel's moral weaklings. There is something very resonant about the "stupid smile"(3) Stiva gives Dolly as she confronts him with the evidence of his philandering‹he is made to seem constitutionally incapable of an appropriate response.
In an irony almost too glaring to call irony, Anna enters on to this scene in the role of restorer of her brother's familial harmony. Before she is off the train from Moscow though, before her name even appears in the text, the seduction has begun. From the moment Vronsky sets eyes on her, the narrator makes it abundantly clear that the attraction and flirtation are, on Anna's part anyway, genuine and involuntary. When she looks back at...