Anna Karenina

The characters in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina are not allegories or didactic figures that project the dogmas of Tolstoy’s Christian thought (as he does in The Kingdom of God is Within You). They are fully formed human beings, living in their place and time on stage where Tolstoy creates them. Their background gives them life, not an excuse, each having a moral place in the aristocratic social order of Russia in the 1860s. None is without sin, but one who seems to come close to Tolstoy’s Christian ideal is a minor character called Mademoiselle Varenka.

Varenka shows up at a summer spa with her invalid guardian, Madame Stahl. She appears serenely content taking care of Madame Stahl and other invalids who need her help around the spa. Her physical presence – “handsome rather than plain, in spite of the sickly hue of her face. She would have been a good figure, too, if it had not been for her extreme thinness and the size of her head, which was too large for her medium height” – was a fascinating attraction to “Kitty” Shtcherbatsky.

Kitty was in torment, having squandered her moment of high vitality, beauty and potential by rejecting the marriage proposal of the idealist Konstantin (Levin) Dmitrievitch Koznishev in expectation of a better proposal from the dashing military officer Vronsky. Kitty loved both, but in different ways that she failed to understand in the bloom of her innocence. Her rejection of Levin, and Vronsky’s rejection of Kitty (though nothing was said by either, Vronsky fell hopelessly in love with married Anna Karenina at that fateful ball in Moscow) left Kitty both empty (thinking of Levin) and humiliated (thinking of Vronsky). She fell sick, and so was at the spa, where Varenka’s appearance seemed to offer an answer to Kitty’s emptiness and humiliation. Kitty was obsessively attracted to Varenka.

As many Christians today might recognize, Varenka was in the perfect position to take Kitty’s desire to know Varenka’s secret as an opportunity to “share the Gospel.” Varenka related to everyone with friendly ease, showing her social polish, musical skill and education with Kitty’s circle but also responding gracefully to any duties or demands from the hideous invalids. The watering-spot scene conjures Jesus’s miracle on the Sabbath at the pool in Bethesda in John 5, where the invalid was unable to reach the pool whenever the water was troubled. (I have seen similar watering spots in Rockbridge Baths and Hot Springs, the Virginia equivalent in the 1870s of that Russian scene).

But Varenka doesn’t preach. She doesn’t seem to be burdened with some gospel obligation, other than her duties as an adopted orphan of the sickly Madame Stahl. With amazing intuition, Varenka tells Kitty not to be ashamed of her experience with men in her earlier days, because all of that is unimportant. Kitty wonders then, well, what IS important? She asks in passionate silence with her eyes: “What is it, what is this of such importance that gives you such tranquility? You know, tell me!” Varenka doesn’t say, as if she can’t hear the question and maybe has no answer, but goes on doing her duty with “the calm and dignity so much to be envied.”

About Doug Cumming

Writer, W&L journalism professor emeritus
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