Anna Karenina, expatriate


“Tolstoy understood human consciousness better than anyone who ever lived.” That fearless claim comes from an authoritative source: Gary Saul Morson, one of the foremost American experts on Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and the author of books on Nikolai Gogol and Mikhail Bakhtin. Last week Morson, the Frances Hooper professor of Slavic languages and literatures at Northwestern University, traveled south to talk to Chicago students and faculty about Anna Karenina’s suicide in Tolstoy’s 1877 novel. Morson supported his superlative praise for Tolstoy and overturned some popular misconceptions about the novel, especially about Anna’s tragic heroism.

Calling Anna a “genre expatriate from romance who has been placed in a work antithetical to romance”—that is, in a thoroughly realist novel—Morson presented material from a book he is writing about the philosophical climate of Russian literature. In Morson’s reading, Anna’s “interpretive totalism” is what leads inexorably to her death. Her single-minded faith in love, which befits a romance character but is pure hell on one who resides in a realist work, plunges her into isolation and paranoia. Tolstoy, said Morson, rued all forms of totalism, from romantic love to utopianism, and Anna’s fate illustrates the dangers of such kinds of all-or-nothing thinking.

In standard readings, Tolstoy is thought to foreshadow Anna’s suicide with two other deaths: the watchman’s fall in the train station in Part 1, and the death of Vronsky’s race horse Frou-Frou in Part 2. Tolstoy believes in contingency, not fate, Morson argued, so these scenes can’t be said to prefigure anything. Frou-Frou’s death is pure accident; Anna’s is an act of will. As for the watchman, Morson warned against reading his death as foreshadowing—perhaps the most arresting insight of his talk. Noting that the narrator delves deeper and deeper into Anna’s own consciousness as the end of her life approaches, Morson pointed out that she explicitly recalls the incident and reacts with a choice—“she knew what she had to do.” The character, not the author, fulfills the omen. Anna provides her own foreshadowing, and fate has nothing to do with it.

Laura Demanski, AM’94

Photo: Morson after his talk.

November 16, 2005