In Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy examines the psychological makeup of Konstantin Levin. On one hand, he is a symbol for the educated landowners and aristocracy that is prevalent in Russia. Conversely, he represents the struggle in searching for the meaning of life. Although part of the Russian Aristocracy, Levin finds contentment in farming and manual labor. It is in the agricultural environment that Levin discovers his purpose when viewing the blue sky and experiencing nonverbal communication.
One of the most famous scenes of Anna Karenina is the mowing at Levin’s estate.
The first fully developed interaction between Levin and the peasant class symbolizes the triumph of nature over the stained upper classes, the essence of Slavism that would save Russia from Europe’s fate of nihilism and anarchism, and the core of a future religious utopia. They here appear in the narrator’s brief snatches of description in a very neutral, factual light. Characteristic of Tolstoy’s prose is the importance of point of view, and often Tolstoy will recount the same scene from many different view points, even to the point of including the inner monologues of Levin’s hunting dog during a shooting outing.
In the fields so prosaically presented by the narrator, Levin’s view of the peasants that work his lands is nothing short of an exalted religious experience accompanied by an intense and driven rational analysis. Here, sickle in hand, Levin confronts in a classic and symbolic simplicity the source of his unhappiness and a vision of how it may be overcome.
The arbitrary twists and turns of the fields they mow and the uneven surface of the Earth that knock and trip the mowers are symbols of the unstructured world that Levin confronts and that is so indifferent to the intense and almost unspeakable love that draws him to Kitty. As he tears at the grass with such energy that he nearly collapses at the end of each length, next to him an old man slices easily through the thick stalks and Levin, forgetting his cares understands in a nonverbal manner that peace is possible, that it is possible both to think and to live.
Nonverbal communication is for Tolstoy, as mentioned above, a major avenue through which characters interact with each other. Some scenes of interaction, notably Levin’s second proposal of
marriage, occur almost entirely without words, and the intuitive understanding of someone else’s thoughts, whether occasioned by chalk marks on a leather table cover or by the subtlest nuance in someone’s eyes, in contrast to the falsehoods of social language that obscure and separate people, create a few brief and sometime ecstatic moments of penetratiom between usually separate conciousnesses. And yet words are still the tools by which, literally, men live or die. Levin’s search for structure, as mentioned above, may be considered a struggle to find a language of truth.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Levin’s observation of the sky that occurs first at the end of the mowing scene and then much later in Part VIII, an example both of Levin’s development towards a language that can frame rationally what he knows intuitively to be true, and of Tolstoy’s autobiographical intent in the character of Levin. In Part XIV, Chapter XIII, when Levin thinks to himself while lying on his back and looking up at a cloudless sky, “Don’t I know that that is infinite space, and not a rounded vault? But however I may screw my eyes and strain my sight, I cannot help seeing it round and limited, and despite my knowledge of it as limitless space I am indubitably right when I see a firm blue vault.” The precise wording is key to the quotation. Levin s experiences of the sky is a synthesis of reason (or, more precisely, a belief necessitated by rationality) and experience. That the sky is a blue vault in this second encounter is not experienced directly, just as the Kierkegaardian hero must take a leap of faith and through an effort of will believe in something which is not apparent to the senses, Levin must integrate experience and reason in order to see the sky as a vault.
Levin’s first encounter with the vastness of blue sky occurs in Part III, Chapter XII, before he has fully understood the necessity of relating experience to his own internal belief. At the edge of perception comes a mystic change to remind Levin of his duty to reason. Abandoning his dream of marrying a peasant girl (which for Levin would have been disaster because such a marriage would have been occasioned only by the beauty of experience of peasant life and thus would have been an abandonment of the search for rational structure and an admission of defeat) he realizes that he loves Kitty. It is through the struggle that Levin manages to save himself. Instead of the industrializing, aristocratic upper class, it is the agricultural an peasant society in which Levin is able to discover his purpose in life.