Competing Conceptions of the Good Life in Anna Karenina

Published: March 16, 2014

The main characters in Anna Karenina all strive to attain their conception of the good life. Their ideas about what this life entails differ drastically: some seek personal happiness, some endeavor to serve the public good, and others try to strike a precarious balance between these two goals. This paper briefly describes four influential philosophical theories about the good life—hedonism, desire fulfillment theory, the deontological theory of ethics, and Aristotelian perfectionism—and then discusses how the lives of Oblonsky, Anna, Vronsky, Karenin, and Levin provide salient examples of these theories.

By portraying the consequences of these diverse approaches to the pursuit of well-being, Tolstoy explores and implicitly rejects each of these philosophical systems in turn. He shows that the good life cannot be compartmentalized and systematized; true happiness eludes most of these characters because they strive for well-being in narrow, misguided ways. Ultimately, Tolstoy demonstrates that the good life comprises not only happiness and virtue, but also—and most importantly—a strong sense of existential purpose. Moreover, Tolstoy suggests that if we want to be happy, we would be wise not to consult philosophy, as it is inadequate to the task of offering genuine answers to life’s most essential and perplexing questions.

Classical hedonists posit that “pleasure, and freedom from pain, are the only things desirable as ends” (Mill, as quoted in Sumner 84). A hedonistic view of well-being consists in maximizing enjoyment and minimizing suffering. Stiva Oblonsky, brother of the eponymous heroine of Anna Karenina, claims that “[t]he aim of civilization is to enable us to get enjoyment out of everything” and lives his life by this principle (Tolstoy 33).[1] Oblonsky is a bon vivant and an inveterate philanderer. When he first appears in Anna Karenina, he is embroiled in domestic strife, as his wife has just discovered his affair. Oblonsky, although sorry to have caused Dolly’s suffering, feels no moral qualms about his conduct: “He could not feel repentant that he, a handsome amorous man of thirty-four, was not in love with his wife” (3). In fact, he only regrets that he was unsuccessful at deceiving Dolly (3). Aside from his passion for women, he enjoys fine dining, drinking, cigars, socializing in high society, and generally living beyond his means; he accumulates exorbitant debts without remorse.

Oblonsky suffers no repercussions for his hedonistic dissipation and therefore does not have any incentive to live differently. His moral shortcomings do not decrease his enjoyment in any way: “[I]n spite of his dissipated life, his unimportant service rank, and his comparative youth, he occupied a distinguished and well-paid post as Head of one of the Government Boards in Moscow” (13). Universally liked for his “kind and joyous nature” and for his cheerful, robust appearance, Oblonsky has well-connected friends who lavish upon him “earthly blessings” (13). Despite his overt amorality, Oblonsky is far from a villainous character. Tolstoy takes pains to describe him as warm, likeable, agreeable, and even honest (13). Nonetheless, Tolstoy demonstrates that Oblonsky’s hedonistic conception of happiness is fundamentally flawed in three important ways.

First, Anna Karenina vividly illustrates the moral consequences of such an egotistical way of life. Oblonsky does not want to cause pain to anyone; he is most joyous when everyone else is happy. Nevertheless, the novel reveals the difficulty of maximizing individual enjoyment without incurring considerable collateral suffering; someone must pay the price for Oblonsky’s pleasures, both emotionally and financially. That person is Dolly, who is deeply unhappy with her marriage. She loves Oblonsky, but is aware that he does not reciprocate her love and that he continues to cheat, despite his promises to reform. Oblonsky is also largely absent, leaving her to raise and educate their children with little assistance. Moreover, although Dolly comes from a wealthy family and is accustomed to a comfortable life, Oblonsky’s extravagant spending habits have decimated her dowry. He first sells her forest, and then her estate, to finance his debauchery. Meanwhile, Dolly is subjected to the humiliation of having to rely on Levin’s generosity to support herself and her family. Despite Oblonsky’s likability, it is impossible to approve of his hedonistic conduct, given his reckless disregard for the travails of his long-suffering wife and his generally indifferent attitude toward his children.

Second, Tolstoy strikingly juxtaposes the personalities of Oblonsky and Levin, who are good friends despite their diametrically opposed views on almost every topic, in a way that is implicitly unfavorable to Oblonsky. Even though Oblonsky is more graceful, well-liked, and socially adept, his pleasure-seeking life comes across as vacuous in comparison to Levin’s relentless search for meaning. When Levin discusses death with Oblonsky, the latter misses the point. Levin tells him, “If you once realize that to-morrow, if not to-day, you will die and nothing will be left of you, everything becomes insignificant! … And so one passes one’s life finding distraction in hunting or in work, merely not to think of death” (342). For Levin, the realization that his mundane pursuits constitute a meaningless distraction from the fact of mortality is deeply problematic; he cannot live without constantly seeking a purpose for his existence. Oblonsky, by contrast, is entirely unmoved by such considerations. Smilingly, he replies, “Well, of course! So now you have come round to my notion. Do you remember how you used to fly at me for seeking enjoyment in life? Do not be so severe, O moralist!” (342). For Oblonsky, the imminence of death—insofar as it is a relevant consideration at all—only justifies his pursuit of hedonic gratification. Mortality does not motivate him to seek meaning, but to renounce the quest altogether, and instead to occupy himself with sensory pleasures.

Third, Tolstoy shows us that Oblonsky’s sources of enjoyment in life are not sustainable. Oblonsky finds pleasure in a string of liaisons with young, attractive women, but his success as a womanizer is contingent on his own youth and attractiveness, which are inevitably starting to fade: “[H]e sometimes noticed some grey hairs; fell asleep after dinner; stretched himself; walked slowly upstairs, breathing heavily; felt dull among young women; and did not dance at balls” (660). Other sensory pleasures, such as fine dining, require money, and Oblonsky’s debts have been mounting (660). Eventually, Oblonsky is fated to become—in the words of the terse yet insightful Prince Shcherbatsky—a “shlyupik”[2] (626). Moreover, despite the fact that Oblonsky is indifferent to the thought of death that obsesses Levin, he too will die, and death will divest him of the pleasures that form his sole reason for living.

Desire fulfillment theory diverges from hedonism by giving precedence to preference over pleasure. According to this view, it is inconsequential whether or not a desire results in a positive net balance of enjoyment over suffering. Instead, proponents of desire fulfillment theory maintain that an individual’s life goes well insofar as his or her desires are satisfied (Parfit 494). This theory characterizes the way that Vronsky and Anna strive for happiness. As soon as Vronsky meets Anna, she becomes the sole and exclusive object of his desires: “He felt that all his powers, hitherto dissipated and scattered, were now concentrated and directed with terrible energy toward one blissful aim” (96). Vronsky doggedly pursues Anna; for him, the only happiness and meaning in life now consist in his encounters with her. “Don’t you know that you are all my life to me?” he tells her (127). Anna reciprocates Vronsky’s desire with equally single-minded intensity. She soon realizes that, contrary to her belief that she is dismayed by his impropriety, “his persecution supplied the whole interest of her life” (116).

Anna and Vronsky’s mutual desire is so strong that it overpowers the social obstacles that obstruct their quest for happiness. Notwithstanding the fact that she is a married woman with a young son and notwithstanding the malicious interest with which high society follows her indiscretion, Anna succumbs to Vronsky’s advances: “That which for nearly a year had been Vronsky’s sole and exclusive desire, supplanting all his former desires: that which for Anna had been an impossible, dreadful, but all the more bewitching dream of happiness, had come to pass” (135). The consummation of this desire, however, is not a joyous occasion; instead, “there was something frightful and revolting in the recollection of what had been paid for with this terrible price of shame” (135). Anna, guilt-stricken and sobbing, is aghast when Vronsky uses the word “bliss” to refer to what has just transpired between them. She repudiates the term with “disgust and horror” and beseeches him, “For heaven’s sake, not another word!” (136).

The tragic, ominous atmosphere that infuses the scene of their consummation foreshadows the rest of Vronsky and Anna’s ill-fated relationship. When their love does not bring them the perfect happiness they envisioned, they scapegoat social circumstances for their lack of satisfaction. Vronsky is angry at the familial and social disapproval he encounters: “They have no conception of what happiness is, and they do not know that without love there is no happiness or unhappiness for us, for there would be no life” (167). Now that their initial desire for each other has been fulfilled, they strive to satisfy a further desire. To free themselves from the need for lies and dissembling, “it was necessary to put an end to all this falsehood, and the sooner the better” (168). As Vronsky puts it, “Throw up everything and let us two conceal ourselves somewhere alone with our love” (168). Eventually, Anna and Vronsky attain this object and elope to Italy together.

The satisfaction of their mutual desires is complete, and yet “Vronsky…was not completely happy. He soon felt that the realization of his longing gave him only one grain of the mountain of bliss he had anticipated” (422). Vronsky’s disappointment, despite his sincere love for Anna, supplies the essence of Tolstoy’s critique of the desire fulfillment model of happiness. As Tolstoy unequivocally declares, “That realization showed him the eternal error men make by imagining that happiness consists in the gratification of their wishes” (422). After Vronsky’s brief delight in his love and his new mode of life as a civilian subsides, he feels “rising in his soul a desire for desires—boredom” (422). Happiness cannot be attained through the satisfaction of desires, because desire can never be satisfied: “Involuntarily he began to snatch at every passing caprice, mistaking it for a desire and a purpose” (422).

Anna’s happiness is likewise ephemeral. At first, she “feels unpardonably happy,” but soon she becomes tormented by jealousy (421). Even though her desire—Vronsky’s exclusive love—is completely satisfied, she realizes that her happiness is fragile: it will shatter if Vronsky loses interest, and it is impossible to ensure the constancy of human desires. Another problem with desire fulfillment theory is that desires conflict with one another. Anna’s desires to pursue a relationship with Vronsky and to retain the right to see her son, Serezha, are mutually exclusive; she chooses Vronsky, but the loss of her child causes Anna increasing anguish as the novel progresses. Finally, in the depths of despair, Anna recognizes that nothing would fundamentally change even if her wildest desires could be realized (691). The damaged love between her and Vronsky is irreparable, and her former position in society cannot be readily restored by divorcing Karenin and marrying Vronsky. Bitterly disillusioned, convinced that even the hypothetical satisfaction of her desires could no longer bring her any happiness, Anna commits suicide.

The hedonistic and desire fulfillment models of well-being, as illustrated above, are both subjective theories that focus on the pursuit of individual happiness instead of the welfare of others. Oblonsky, Anna, and Vronsky pursue the good life in fundamentally egoistical ways. The failure of their pursuits may seem to suggest that seeking personal happiness is an innately flawed objective in Tolstoy’s paradigm, and that instead, well-being consists in doing good for others.

Karenin exemplifies the idea that the good life is achieved through public service: he lives his life strictly according to his notions of duty. His views closely conform to the deontological theory of ethics (typically associated with the philosopher Immanuel Kant), which maintains that an individual’s sole moral obligation is to perform his duties, both in relation to himself and to other people (Stewart 35). Nevertheless, an examination of Karenin’s life reveals that Tolstoy does not endorse this brand of deontology any more than he approves of the abovementioned self-interested theories of well-being.

Karenin’s life is defined by acute awareness of his own duties, both as a private individual and as a public citizen. Karenin, a high-profile official, has professional responsibilities that consume most of his time; he also rigidly structures his personal life in accordance with self-imposed obligations. His leisure reading is one characteristic example: “[H]e considered it incumbent on him to follow everything of importance that appeared in the world of thought” (102). He diligently peruses topics that do not inherently interest him. For instance, even though “art was quite foreign to his nature,” Karenin “never ignored anything that caused a stir in that sphere, but considered it his duty to read everything” (102). The same sense of dull, uninspired duty characterizes Karenin’s relations with his wife. When he meets Anna at the train station upon her return from Moscow, he repeatedly calls attention to his own “devotion,” ironically referring to himself as a “devoted husband” (98, 95). From his tone, “which ridiculed those who could use such words in earnest,” it is clear that Karenin is not a romantic spouse; instead of trying to woo Anna, he calls her attention to his commendable performance of his marital duties. Anna tersely responds, “You insist too much on your devotion, for me to value it greatly” (98). Even Karenin’s sexual relationship with his wife appears to be a mutually passionless, perfunctory obligation: he comes to Anna “exactly at midnight,” telling her, “‘It’s time! It’s time!'” before retreating to their bedroom (103).

When Karenin realizes that society deems his wife’s interactions with Vronsky improper, he is not concerned with the “question of her feelings,” which he considers to be outside the domain of his duty (131). He decides that religion and conscience are the proper guides of his wife’s inner emotions—he has no obligation to intervene. He believes his “duty is clearly defined,” telling himself, “I must show her the danger which I see, warn her, and even use my authority” (131). In his usual precise and formal way, Karenin informs Anna, “Your feelings concern your own conscience, but it is my duty to you, to myself, and to God, to point out to you your duties” (133). Instead of expressing any personal hurt or betrayal, his reproof has a cold, factual ring: “Our lives are bound together not by men but by God. This bond can only be broken by a crime and that kind of crime brings its punishment” (133).

In spite of himself, Karenin has emotions, which he strives with difficulty to repress in order to maintain his dutiful persona. When Anna confirms his suspicions of adultery after her “positively unseemly” display of emotion at the steeplechase, Karenin is externally impassive: “[H]is face suddenly assumed the solemn immobility of the dead” (194). His words are also stiff and precise; he responds, “…I demand that the external conditions of propriety shall be observed till I take measures to safeguard my honour and inform you of them” (194). Nevertheless, his trembling voice betrays his inner tumult (194). Despite the fact that Karenin is a man of reason, he deceives himself into ignoring his wife’s blatant infidelity. Until the very last moment, “a strange delusion possessed him”; he nurses the irrational hope that his suspicions are baseless, because “what he knew was so terrible he was now prepared to believe anything” (194).

Feelings have no place in Karenin’s conception of duty, but he cannot control the “cruel pain in his heart” (254). His unhappiness is exacerbated by his sense of “physical pity” induced by Anna’s tears (254). Karenin “could not with equanimity hear or see a child or a woman weeping. The sight of tears upset him and made him quite incapable of reasoning” (253). This trait of instinctive compassion, “quite inconsistent with the general trend of his character,” is so antithetical to Karenin’s deontological paradigm that it typically manifests itself as impatience and anger (253).

When he believes that Anna is on the verge of death, Karenin’s spontaneous emotions finally take precedence over his sense of duty: “He was not thinking that the law of Christ, which all his life he had wished to fulfill, told him to forgive and love his enemies, but a joyous feeling of forgiveness and love for his enemies filled his soul” (376). It is worth noting, however, that even Karenin’s genuine spiritual ecstasy soon finds expression in deontological form: “[T]he joy of forgiving has revealed my duty to me. I have wholly forgiven—I want to turn the other cheek—I want to give my cloak because my coat has been taken” (377). Karenin’s sense of duty toward Anna now outweighs his concern for social standing: “You may trample me in the mud, make me the laughing-stock of the world,—I will not forsake her and will never utter a word of reproach to you…My duty is clearly defined: I must and will remain with her” (377).

Ironically, Karenin’s dutiful nature prevents him from fulfilling his duties. He tries to be a good husband, but inspires only fear and repulsion in Anna; since she is a deeply emotional person, his mechanical performance of his duties strikes her as hollow hypocrisy. She vainly wishes for him to abandon duty and act sincerely: “If he were to kill me, and if he were to kill Vronsky, I should respect him. But no, lies and propriety are all he cares about” (189). When Karenin is inspired by Christian duty, Anna is even further alienated. She says, “I have heard it said that women love men for their very faults…but I hate him for his virtues,” finding Karenin’s desire to be kind and generous oppressive (388). Karenin’s relationship with his son is also strained for the same reason. He dutifully undertakes Serezha’s education and does thorough pedagogical research, but quenches his son’s enthusiasm with his relentlessly didactic attitude: “Serezha’s eyes, that had been shining with affection and joy, grew dull and drooped under his father’s gaze” (470).

Tolstoy shows us another drawback inherent in Karenin’s deontological approach to life: while this system promises clear-cut answers, it cannot offer adequate guidance in cases of conflicting duties. Karenin would like to fulfill his Christian duty to forgive, but society has other expectations—the public believes that a scorned husband has the duty to take measures to avenge himself and recoup his lost honor. Karenin feels helplessly torn: “He was conscious that, beside the good spiritual force which governed his soul, there existed a coarse power, as potent if not more so; and that this power would not grant him the humble peace he desired” (382). This antagonistic power, “in direct opposition to his inward mood, dominated his life and demanded fulfillment of its decrees and a change in his relation to his wife” (387). The external obligation to “do what was wrong but what seemed to them [society] proper” overpowers Karenin’s internal sense of what is “natural and good” (387). Ultimately, Karenin’s well-intentioned belief in the sacrosanct primacy of duty turns out to be entirely misguided. He fails to achieve lasting happiness for himself; he renders his loved ones miserable; and he cannot even console himself that his actions are right, for his sense of duty impels him to sacrifice moral conviction on the altar of societal expectations.

Perfectionism, a theory of well-being advanced by Aristotle, appears to be a more promising path to the good life: it offers a holistic combination of personal happiness and civic virtue (Nicomachean Ethics). Aristotle conceives of happiness as eudaimonia: a state that encompasses the totality of well-being and living well. He believes that eudaimonia is achieved through the fulfillment of our unique human purpose, or telos, which is to obey the rational part of our soul and thereby live both excellently and virtuously. It is only through this path, Aristotle claims, that we can actualize what it means to be fully human and thus achieve true happiness.

Toward the end of Anna Karenina, Levin’s life closely resembles the Aristotelian ideal of eudaimonia. He is happily married to Kitty; he has a newborn son, the fulfillment of his long-standing wish to have children; he is a prosperous landowner who lives virtuously, striving not only to maximize his own profit, but to improve the lot of the peasants; and he is highly esteemed by his friends and family alike. Additionally, he is amply blessed with the “external goods” that Aristotle stipulates as necessary to perform “noble acts” (Nicomachean Ethics1.8.6). Nonetheless, Levin’s despair is so intense that he contemplates taking his own life: “[E]ven though he was a happy and healthy family man, Levin was several times so near to suicide that he hid a cord he had lest he should hang himself, and he feared to carry a gun lest he should shoot himself” (714).

Levin’s unhappiness cannot be attributed to a failure to live in accordance with the dictates of reason; on the contrary, he is rational to a fault. Ever since his brother’s death, Levin has suffered from his heightened consciousness of death’s inevitability. He needs a solution to the problem that confronts him: “If I don’t accept the replies offered by Christianity to the questions my life presents, what solutions do I accept?” (712). Levin, an agnostic, can find no answer. He concludes, “Without knowing what I am, and why I am here, it is impossible to live. Yet I cannot know that, and therefore I can’t live” (714). Levin thinks that, if life is meaningless, it rationally follows that he should kill himself.

Levin strives unsuccessfully to find the answer in philosophy. Dissatisfied with the materialists, he “read through and re-read Plato, Spinoza, Kant, Schelling, Hegel, and Schopenhauer, those philosophers who explained life otherwise than materialistically” (713). None of these philosophers, however, can help him: their theories seem superficially plausible in the abstract, but when Levin returns to contemplating real life, “the whole artificial edifice tumbled down like a house of cards” (713). Levin realizes that these theories lack “regard for something in life more important than reason” (713). Tolstoy likens this kind of philosophical rationalism to a “muslin garment without warmth,” unable to shield Levin from the frost of his existential plight. Rational schemata cannot provide satisfying answers to the fundamental questions that life poses: “What am I? Where am I? And why am I here?” (718).

Although the Aristotelian notion of eudaimonia describes the harmonious integration of happiness, virtue, and reason, Levin finds no such idyllic accord in his soul: “He was painfully out of harmony with himself and strained all his spiritual powers to escape from this condition” (713). Reason leads Levin fundamentally astray. When he does not think about life, but simply lives, he acts correctly by instinct: he “unceasingly felt in his soul the presence of an infallible judge deciding which of two possible actions was the better and which the worse; and as soon as he did what he should not have done, he immediately felt this” (717).

When Levin finally finds the meaning of life, it is revealed not by a philosopher, but by a peasant. The latter describes the “upright” way of life: one in which an individual does not only focus on his own needs, but lives “for his soul, rightly, in a godly way” (719). These seemingly simple words instigate an epiphany in Levin’s soul. He believes that this ideal of the good life is manifestly irrational: “To live not for one’s needs but for God! For what God? What could be more senseless than what he said? He said we must not live for our needs—that is, we must not live for what we understand and what attracts us, what we wish for, but must live for something incomprehensible, for God whom nobody can understand or define” (720). Nevertheless, Levin understands these words perfectly and “cannot doubt” their justice (720). Contrary to the Aristotelian claim, Levin realizes that virtue is antithetical to reason, yet people are virtuous nonetheless. While reason supports the selfish maximization of self-interest, “the law of loving others could not be discovered by reason, because it is unreasonable” (722). Levin comes to the conclusion that the provenance of such a law could only be divine, and that the meaning of life is “to live for God, for the soul” (721).

Levin rues the error of his former approach to life: he sought to systematize existence in terms of “physical, chemical, and physiological laws” (721). By seeking the meaning of life in philosophy, by light of reason, Levin was like “a man seeking for good in a toy shop or at a gunsmith’s” (712). As he puts it, “I looked for an answer to my question. But reason could not give me an answer—reason is incommensurable with the question. Life itself has given me the answer, in my knowledge of what is good and what is bad” (722). This meaning resists systematic categorization. Levin’s spiritual epiphany at the end of Anna Karenina, which gives his soul complete peace and contentment, has little in common with the fashionable mysticism in which Karenin, under the influence of Countess Lydia Ivanovna, later finds superficial refuge. Unlike forms of religion popular in high society, this spirituality cannot be neatly encapsulated by words, nor can it be attained through fulfilling a discrete set of criteria.

Levin’s religious epiphany is not a conversion to Christian orthodoxy: “[T]here was not one of the dogmas of the Church that could disturb the principal thing—faith in God, in goodness, as the sole vocation of man” (724). Levin’s faith does not bring him exterior ecstasy, nor do the regular conditions of his life discernibly change. Instead, he achieves true faith, which brings him perfect happiness and relief from philosophical doubts: “My reason will still not understand why I pray, but I shall still pray, and my life, my whole life, independently of anything that may happen to me, is every moment of it no longer meaningless as it was before, but has an unquestionable meaning of goodness with which I have the power to invest it” (740).

Anna Karenina demonstrates that philosophical systems of well-being fail to deliver the good life they promise: hedonism, desire fulfillment theory, Kantian deontology, and Aristotelian perfectionism represent overly simplistic formulae that are wholly inadequate in the face of life’s complexities. Anna and Vronsky, who commit their lives to the satisfaction of their desires, end up deeply unhappy. Oblonsky is happy, but Tolstoy shows us that his happiness is callous, ephemeral, and intrinsically meaningless. Karenin, in his attempt to live dutifully, fails even by his own criteria. The only one of these protagonists who achieves genuine happiness is Levin, who is able to find meaning in life when he relinquishes reason’s false guidance and allows instinct to guide him back to his innate, organic spirituality. Anna Karenina suggests that seekers of the good life should not ask Aristotle for directions, but instead consult an “upright old” peasant named Platon (719).


[1] Subsequent citations that include the page number, but do not mention the author/work, are also referring to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

[2] As editor George Gibian explains, shlyupik literally means “A hard-boiled egg that has been repeatedly cracked till it has become soft and useless for the game” (626). Prince Shcherbatsky uses this term figuratively as a disparaging epithet for an aged gentleman of leisure who fritters his time in pursuit of idle pleasures.

Works Cited

Aristotle. Excerpt from Nicomachean Ethics. Constitution Society. Web. 14 Oct. 2012.

Parfit, Derek. Reasons and Persons. Oxford: Clarendon, 1984. Print.

Stewart, Noel. Ethics: An Introduction to Moral Philosophy. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2009. Print.

Sumner, L.W. Welfare, Happiness, and Ethics. Oxford: Clarendon, 1996. Print.

Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina. Trans. Louise Maude and Aylmer Maude. Ed. George Gibian. 2nded. New York: Norton, 1995. Print.

About the author

Anya Corke

Anya Corke graduated with a B.A. in Russian and Philosophy from Wellesley College in 2013. She is spending the spring semester of 2014 in Moscow, Russia, studying Russian and serving an internship with a local NGO. This fall she will start her graduate studies in Slavic Languages and Literatures at Yale University.

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