”Tolstoy towered above his age as Dante and Michelangelo and Beethoven had done”
Sir Kenneth Clark
One hundred and thirty seven years have elapsed since Tolstoy completed the last instalment of Anna Karenina.It is a fact,but one that is hard to believe,so much so because the book was splendidly ahead of its time.Tolstoy in writing Anna Karenina was not only composing what would be one of the world’s finest works of art,but also pioneering never-seen-before techniques which future writers would benefit much from.Below are five such techniques that I found so peculiar that I wanted to write a whole article about them.
1.The Stream of Consciousness As a Way to Establish the Setting
Tolstoy pioneered the stream of consciousness,which would later be employed by Woolf,Joyce and Faulkner among others,but the way he used that technique is still unparalleled today.His stream of consciousness knows no limit,flowing from the minds of major characters like Levin,Anna and Vronsky to those of the lesser important Mikhailov the artist and Laska the dog.Mikhailov is the only character affected by the stream of consciousness who doesn’t know anything about the adulterous relationship between Anna and Vronsky; he sees them as regular clients and expects of them nothing but a validation of his work about Pilate and the Christ,which he considers his masterpiece.It was thus interesting to finally see the couple from another person’s unprejudiced point of view.It was likewise refreshing to see them for the first time in an environment other than Russia looking for something that doesn’t at all regard their main worry,which is Anna’s fallen status.For the first and only time in the novel,we see them as Anna and Vronsky, and not Anna and Vronsky the lovers.Besides they are,again for the first time,reduced to being secondary characters,with the artist being the main one.This short scene involving the artist and the couple is therefore full of novelties which,I suspect,were introduced by Tolstoy to highlight the difference between Russia and Italy.Through the means of his stream of consciousness,he didn’t need to describe Italy for readers to be aware that the story was now taking place in a different setting.
2.The Dog’s Perspective
I was surprised to see Tolstoy bestowing his stream of consciousness upon Laska,Levin’s female dog.There are two scenes in the book where we witness this.One is when Levin and Oblonsky are hunting for snipes, the other when they are again hunting but this time with Vasenka.In the second scene,Laska’s thoughts hold much importance as they shed even more light on Levin’s ongoing nervousness and irritation.He urges the dog to look for snipes in an area other than the ideal place.Similarly he asks Laska to bring him a snipe he thought he shot but which he didn’t.But Laska each time does as her master tells her in order to please him.Through Laska’s perspective we see how during his irritation,reason has completely deserted Levin’s mind.
3.The Immediate Shift in the Narrative
Here is a little extract from the scene where we see Vasenka flirting with the innocent Kitty who knows that her husband is suspecting her of infidelity:
She wanted from politeness to ask Vasenka whether he would come, and she did not ask him. “Where are you going, Kostia?” she asked her husband with a guilty face, as he passed by her with a resolute step. This guilty air confirmed all his suspicions.
In one short paragraph only,the perspective has shifted from Kitty to Levin.The former knows exactly what the latter is thinking and this is confirmed when we enter Levin’s mind.Tolstoy in using the stream of consciousness in such a way gives readers a certain ubiquity in everybody’s mind,hence making his characters more real than ever to us.That is why Anna Karenina is more than a book; it is a world in itself.
4.The Presence of the Supernatural
Even though he takes much care to lend greater verisimilitude to the events in his book,which he successfully does,Tolstoy never loses sight that Anna Karenina is only a story and must remain as such till its conclusion.To this end he makes use of supernatural elements which give his book the allure of a fable.At the beginning of the story,Anna,upon learning that a man has thrown himself onto the railway,is right in saying that this suicide is ominous,as a similar fate awaits her in the latter part of the book.Likewise during the period when Anna is pregnant,both Vronsky and she make the same terrifying dream about an old peasant.Shortly after her confinement Anna is on the brink of death,but she survives.After quite a while,Serezha’s wish to God that he may see his mother on his birthday is granted,for Anna has already planned to visit him on that very day.Finally Anna again have those nightmares about the peasant which foreshadow her death,only this time she will not survive.It is also worth noting that at the time of Anna’s death,a peasant is seen working over something at the railway station.The inclusion of such literary devices pertaining to the supernatural in this book is yet another evidence of Tolstoy’s genius,especially when the time at which the book was written is taken into account.
5.The Dramatic Use of the Letter
When Karenin writes a letter to Anna to inform her of his decisions following the revelation of her liaison with Vronsky,we not only see what is written,but also learn what might have been written.He carefully picks his words,anticipating all the time how her estranged wife will react to them.Moments after,readers feel their ubiquity when they see the reaction of Anna upon reading the letter.Being already aware of what is in the letter,we can tell whether Karenin is right in his expectations as to how Anna would react.But what I liked best in this scene is the way Tolstoy crosses the conventionalities that authors find hard to get rid of in their writings.While reading the letter,Anna cannot help but quote what is in the letter.Tolstoy purposely ignores the economy of words here,as there is the repetition of the same phrases we encountered a while ago when Karenin was composing the note.Even so,a sentiment of authenticity emanates from this scene.It is clear that Tolstoy doesn’t construe his story around the supposed requirements of a book,but rather around the realities of life.This is exactly why his novel is closer to life than to a work of fiction,while being as charming as ever.
Sir Kenneth Clark was right.Tolstoy truly did tower above his age.Even in this era of ours,the Russian writer,whom Virginia Woolf calls the greatest storyteller of all time,continues to mesmerise and intrigue people with his work of art which,I opine,is on par with the finest sculptures and paintings.He intrigues,yes,for it seems unbelievable to so many of us that he wrote this book more than a century ago.Yet his timelessness is but another proof of his indelible genius.