Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Levin & Russia

In class we discussed how Levin's character reflects Tolstoy's because of his wildness and his determination to improve himself. I think we can draw another interesting parallel between Levin's character and the sentiment of the Russian nation during this time.

Compared to almost all of the other characters, Levin is portrayed as the most Russian because of his beard, his love of farming and his preference for the country. On page 350, he even becomes "disgusted with himself" for using non-Russian words.

Throughout the novel, we see Levin coming into contact with more Western ideas (like communism) and characters (like Oblonsky). As he tries to process these influences and situate them within his own personal philosophy, Levin fluctuates between experiencing overwhelming self-doubt and intense pride. Similarly, as new methods of transportation began to connect Russia to the west, the country became more self-conscious of its backwardness and equally aware of the uniqueness of its spread-out, agricultural society. I think the dichotomy between Russian self-doubt and self-confidence is particularly evident in the scenes at the European spa. While Kitty and her mother try to act more European and even feel shame for Nikolai when he acts as a sloppy representation of Russia, the Prince exaggerates his Russian qualities and rejects European behavior.

If we accept Levin as a symbol of Russia for his wildness and the moments he alternates between self-doubt and confidence, we are using the same justification that connects him to Tolstoy. This has interesting implications for Tolstoy's presentation of himself, since he's clearly proud of his Russian-ness. This could explain why he seems more sympathetic to the more Russian characters, like Levin and the Prince.


  1. I think that Tolstoy's romanticization of pure 'Russian' living is really interesting and at times frustrating. He goes into so much depth representing Levin in such a solid, pure light that it can be tiresome. His suggestions about 'therapy through work' I think illustrate this romanticization the most. It is true that physical work can energize, but if you are a peasant doing it day in and day out, chances are that you are wearing down your body more than benefiting from work's therapeutic nature. So while I do agree that Tolstoy is presenting Levin as a symbol of what he wants Russia to be like, it is a pretty limited and unrealistic ideal for more than the privileged few, like Levin.

  2. I think you're right, but the limitedness of Tolstoy's ideal probably wasn't an issue for him since the improvement of the aristocracy is likely his only concern. Still, his romanticization of the peasants' work is sort of ridiculous... I think he also puts them on a pedestal as a model (maybe not ideal one) of the Russian experience.

  3. Levin is certainly held up as the model Russian at times, but there are other points where the narrator seems to be making fun of him. Earlier in the novel we see Levin oscillate between a passion for writing his book on farming to giving up on everything because he realizes he will die someday. Levin seems to come across at times as an immature punchline for the narrator. I've found this aspect of Levin's character very confusing in light of his role as the Tolstoy/Russia stand-in.

  4. This issue is clearly eternal, belongs to past but is contemporary and of interest today as well. Let us consider this: In the era of globalization, there are many people around the world who are unwilling to be westernized or Americanized. For example, is keeping traditional French values by French people today, at the expense of embracing Big Mac, a negative? Tolstoy’s ridicule of aristocracy often presented by their excessive use of French language and phrases, as noble and intellectually and culturally superior to plain Russian, and his celebration of traditional Russian values are completely in line with 19th century Russia. Being a nationalist was a good thing 150 years ago, before the invention of globalization.