Personal Happiness Versus Duty as the Two Conflicting Concepts in Tolstoy's Novel Anna Karenina

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  • Topic: Love, Anna Karenina, Marriage
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  • Published : November 1, 2010
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There is a constant conflict between personal happiness and duty throughout the course of Leon Tolstoy’s novel, “Anna Karenina”. Thematically, the novel parallels its heroine's, Anna Karenina, moral and social conflicts with Constantine Levin's internal struggle to find the meaning of life.

Each of the three couples in the novel: Stephen and Dolly, Constantine Levin and Kitty, and Anna and Vronsky, seek to find personal happiness through different means. Each of the couples in some way serve to illustrate the various ways that Tolstoy's individual can be, or fail to be, good, the various ways in which a character can be moral, immoral or amoral through the use of thought, or reason.

Levin grows from the beginning of the novel when his search for happiness was centred on personal fulfillment through marriage. By the end of the novel Levin has reached a sense of personal satisfaction as well as personal salvation through his realisation that love not only necessitates physical love, as that for his wife, but also in a love of God and living for God.

Kitty is young, innocent, virtuous woman – everything that Anna is not. Kitty's happy, wholesome marriage with Levin contrasts in every way with Anna's unhealthy relationship with Karenin and the tortured passion she shares with Vronsky.

In contrast to the growth that Levin experiences is the stagnation of the life of Anna Karenina. Anna begins her search for fulfillment in her affair with Vronsky with a sense of "all for love", just as Levin had begun his pursuit for happiness in a relationship with Kitty. Anna never moves beyond the idea of fulfillment through the physical satisfaction of love. Because Anna's husband, Alexy Alexandrovitch Karenin, cannot satisfy the ideal of love that Anna has set for herself, she must turn elsewhere for the satisfaction that she feels will provide her with a sense of personal fulfillment. For this fulfillment she turns to Vronsky, who she feels because of status can provide the physical fulfillment that she so desires. Ironically, it is the things that draw Anna to Vronsky that eventually lead to the downfall of their relationship and Anna's eventual suicide. Anna was drawn to Vronsky because of the life he led. She found his carefree lifestyle and military involvement to be desirable. However, at the end it is these exact things that doom the relationship. Vronsky's political duties limit the time he spends with Anna and she begins to doubt his faithfulness. The end of the relationship occurs when Vronsky must leave on business and Anna doubts his true motivation for leaving. As she contemplates the fight that has transpired, Anna realises that she has now lost everything, her lover and her child, because of her tainted view that physical love could provide her with a sense of personal fulfillment.

One learns from Vronsky’s initial characterisation that he is also concerned with a search for personal satisfaction. Like Anna, Vronsky feels that this satisfaction derives from physical pleasures. For Vronsky, these pleasures include such things as politics, horse racing and women. Vronsky depends on the everyday pleasures of life to give him satisfaction with no concern as to what the final end of his satisfaction may be. It is his desire for self satisfaction only that limits his response to others. Although Anna sees the relationship as a way of fulfillment through love, Vronsky's capacity in the relationship is only a sense of self-satisfaction. Because he lacks any sense of love, a fulfillment he will never be able to love Anna in a way that will provide her any fulfillment.

Stephen Oblonsky is a materialist. Perhaps the best way to characterise Oblonsky is as a man who never held a consistent system of behaviour, a man to whom the idea of thinking realistically about the way he lives his life would never occur. Oblonsky's consciousness is devoid of the typical ethical, religious and literary structures. In recalling his...
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