Although Tolstoy grew up in aristocratic society, he became disillusioned by the artifice and pettiness that dominated this world. While Tolstoy was writing Anna Karenina, he was developing his own philosophies of nonviolence and anarchism: he believed that people, not government bureaucracies, should take care of each other. Throughout his later life, the wealthy Tolstoy rejected his Russian noble background and dressed in peasant clothes. In the discussions of farming and peasant life that form a large part of Anna Karenina, Tolstoy the philosophical and political turmoil in the rapidly shifting landscape of 19th century Russia.
Tolstoy devotes long passages of Anna Karenina to descriptions of Levin’s farm and the routines of rural life in 19th century Russia. These sections of the novel serve as a sharp contrast to the urban world that Anna Karenina inhabits. Tolstoy gives many technical details about agricultural practices, depicting farmers’ daily customs and describing the social, political, and historical background of farming life. The peasants in Anna Karenina symbolize the native Russian spirit, and Levin finds great joy when he works with his hands. However, Levin clashes with his peasants when he tries to introduce new Western methods of farming: his peasants turn against him, claiming that the old Russian ways are still the best.
The rural idyll has been a common genre since ancient times, and writers throughout the ages have often favorably compared the simplicity of the country to the artifice of the city. By cultivating the land, farmers contribute to the cycles of the earth, working towards a greater good rather than focusing solely on their individual desires. Tolstoy gives so many rich details about pastoral life because he wants to emphasize the power of a connection to nature and working with one’s hands over the false nature of urban life. Farmers must work hard, but they also have to trust the fortunes of nature. However, the pastoral life in Anna Karenina is by no means perfect, and tensions between the rural idyll and the forces of the city come to dominate many of the political and philosophical questions throughout the novel.
Farming broadens Levin’s perspective and makes him come to appreciate history, nature, and his culture. Similarly, the presence of so many lengthy passages about pastoral life in Anna Karenina broaden the scope of the novel, expanding it from a story of adultery to a nationalistic epic of 19th century Russian life. Levin joins the zemstvo, or local council, to argue that reform needs to happen on a personal scale: rather than introducing grand, sweeping, state-funded projects that the peasants may end up rejecting, estate owners should make improvements on an individual, local basis. The passages about farming throughout Anna Karenina play out the debate between abstract ideas about society and nationhood and tangible, personal good works and improvement. Though Tolstoy has grand plans for structural, sweeping change, he believes that this must be accomplished on an individual basis from the ground up.
Farming and Rural Life ThemeTracker
Farming and Rural Life Quotes in Anna Karenina
The old grass and the sprouting needles of new grass greened, the buds on the guelder-rose, the currants and the sticky, spirituous birches swelled, and on the willow, all sprinkled with golden catkins, the flitting, newly hatched bee buzzed.
He thought of nothing, desired nothing, except not to lag behind and to do the best job be could. He heard only the clang of scythes and ahead of him saw Titus’s erect figure moving on, the curved semicircle of this mowed space, grass and flower-heads bending down slowly and wavily about the blade of his scythe, and ahead of him the end of the swath, where rest would come.
But it was an unlucky day; he missed, and when he went to look for the one he had shot, he could not find it either. He searched everywhere in the sedge, but Laska did not believe he had shot it, and when he sent her to search, she did not really search but only pretended.