Every classic story (or at least most) have that one noble character who is always seeking, always searching: for love. For life. And for meaning.
In Anna Karenina, that noble, everyday character is Konstantin Levin. He starts out as the young, hopeless romantic pining for the affections of Princess Katerina Shcherbatsky. As a landowner, Levin is part of the Russian aristocracy, and much of the book focuses on his life in the countryside, compared with the rowdy hustle and bustle of urban Moscow.
Through much of the book Levin is striving to find answers. As a landowner, he starts out living a world apart from his peasants. After Kitty’s rejection of him, Levin naturally falls into sadness: it seems he has lost his sense of purpose. He has heaped almost all of his worldly hopes on the love of a woman. But now he realizes he much find his sense of meaning in something deeper.
So Levin goes to work, joining his peasants in manual labor as they tend the land. Instead of working above them, he works among them, as one of them. At the end of the day, he gains a newfound sense of purpose. It’s work, not love, that fulfills him. And by not becoming dependent on Kitty’s affection, he comes to earn it over time.
Levin, as he courts Kitty, begins to formulate new theories on agriculture. This he puts into writing, as a sort of manual. Russia, at the time, is going through a very transitional period, and Levin wants to be a part of that change. He is always observing the world around him, from an intellectual point of view, almost excessively at times.
His over-analysis of things comes to be his one defining weakness at one point in the story. One scene illustrates this: when he and Kitty, now married, go to take care of dying brother Nikolai, Levin is astonished at the compassion his wife shows towards him. Not that he isn’t capable of it himself. But Levin often struggles with developing natural human connections with the world around him.
Why? Because he is man of books: a man of intellect. Levin is constantly “searching” to find the answer, rather than embracing the ones that lie in front of him. This human connection is not something that can be studied, but rather experienced.
Another inner conflict comes out through Levin’s marriage to Kitty: his faith. Or rather, lack of. This is encompassed in the scene where he goes to confession, shortly before his wedding. He must take the sacrament if he wants to be married. Throughout his conversation with the priest he is very tentative, expressing doubts in God. He admits to the priest that his chief sin is “doubt,” which even the most faithful can struggle with at times.
This is what makes his journey so relatable: the humanity. It is such a human thing to be curious and to question things. Like Levin, it is so natural to look ahead and see death inescapable and, as a result of this foresight, to seek everything that makes life worth living. But the seeking can drive you in circles, creating more doubts than answers.
Levin is afraid of not knowing “the answer”. And what’s even more puzzling: everyone else around him seems to have found it. Even the peasants. How many of us are in the same conundrum today: struggling with a sense of purpose. Why is it that everyone seems to know the secret to life, besides us? In spite of how much we try to fulfill ourselves through work and play, something always seems missing.
Levin only finds his purpose by letting go. At the end of the book his quest for faith comes to a head. He realizes he must either accept it, once and for all, or reject it. He learns to accept by letting go of his ego. Intellect has misguided him, confining his soul to books and parchments. As a result, Levin has bound himself down with facts and theories.
True happiness in life does not simply come from knowledge. It comes from wisdom. Levin gains that wisdom one day, not while he is reading or studying, but simply laying in the grass, looking up at the sky. The sky is something beautiful in its simplicity: you do not have to strain your eyes to try and see beyond it. All you have to do is see.
Tolstoy illustrates faith so perfectly in this scene. When Levin comes to joy, we can’t help but feel joy with him. He has finally found truth and a sense of purpose. We have followed his conscious, metaphysical journey to self-discovery. And reached a happy conclusion.
So much of today’s philosophy revolves around looking “beyond” the picture: digging deep to uncover truths. Tolstoy shows, through the character of Levin, that the noblest ones are the most elemental.
When we squint our eyes to read between lines, we can miss the whole page. That’s the Levin Conundrum. And, like him, we can overcome it by releasing ourselves.