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Is There Anything In The Fact Tolstoy Calls Both Karenin And Vronsky Alexei?

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If ever I’ve asked myself a rhetorical question on the blog, that question is it. While I was writing my review of Anna Karenina and specifying names I couldn’t help but follow it up with this question. I’m always like this as you’ve probably realised by now: if there’s something in something that might be worthy of exploration, I’m on it. I’m a strange scholar.

My question came after I’d discussed the way Tolstoy doesn’t condemn his characters (that is to say yes, I know what happens to Anna, but Tolstoy doesn’t ram it down your throat). Vronsky has his moment wherein he could’ve been the precedent that Anna followed instead of the other way around, and Karenin is strong-willed over the question of divorce, but Tolstoy doesn’t offer either to the vultures. Vronsky’s just a bit immature, perhaps, and Karenin thinks of things society says he shouldn’t which ends up endearing him to us rather than seeing him in a bad light.

I noticed, whilst reading – and forgive me, I can’t recall the quotation itself this time – that Anna does make note of their both being called Alexei. If we needed any evidence Tolstoy thought about it, there it is.

So yes, of course there must be something in the fact – most books steer clear of repeating names, the vast majority not even giving the same name to characters on different social scales – but what is it exactly? Is it something in the region of ‘Alexei’ perhaps being a common name, or is it something more fundamental to the text? I think it’s the latter, very much.

The most compelling thought is that it’s as simple as a comparison; this Alexei is doing this, that Alexei is doing that. There are possibilities for an ‘Alexei’, and these are two of them.

Perhaps it’s more abstract, more philosophical: ‘Alexei’ is a ‘person’ who is in Anna’s life and there are two ways it can, or she can, go. Alexei as a name, a ‘thing’, is the factor that alters Anna’s mindset. Anna is the core around which Alexei spins. And I’ll stop there on this thread or we could be going on forever.

What I think is interesting, when viewing the two characters only by their shared name, is that we see the way Anna moves from one Alexei to another, literally, and figuratively. She moves from one station that was comfortable and content but no longer enough to another station that is comfortable (enough) and happy in its way but soon goes full circle and becomes limiting. Her first relationship became limiting and no longer enough and her second relationship comes to emulate it.

Both relationships stifle Anna; she is wrong in her thinking that joining Vronsky will change anything other than being with someone she, for the time being at least, loves. (Not that love isn’t important, of course.) By joining Vronsky she casts off the limitations placed on her from her relationship to Karenin, which could be said to be imagined limits as well as social limits – Karenin is quite easygoing after all. But in joining Vronsky, she gains limits – she loses the respect of society for leaving her husband. She looses her son even as she gains a daughter. And it’s interesting that the child she bares Vronsky is a baby she doesn’t particularly care for. It shows just how much the change has affected her because it isn’t as simple as saying ‘oh, she should love Annie because the child is Vronsky’s’; Annie is a reminder of what Anna has lost. If having a baby changes a person’s life and lifestyle then Annie represents that to extreme and almost damning effect.

And of course Annie’s age and status mean that Anna, neglectful, will naturally have less empathy afforded to her by society and, likely, the reader also. Who would have thought a tiny baby who is seen so few times and doesn’t grow up within the novel could be so important a character?

To me it seems plausible that Tolstoy uses the same name for both men as a way of showing that Anna isn’t really moving as far or as much as she assumes. Tolstoy knows a lot more than her and planned for it – he lets her swan about and then watches as what she’s done dawns on her, becoming more the neutral reporter (because if his rather swift tidy-up and focus on Levin at the end isn’t a suggestion of what’s more important I don’t know what is). For all the freedom she seems to gain, Anna is stuck. And her world revolves around her relationship with Alexei, both of them.

What are your thoughts?



December 4, 2015, 3:40 pm

I love your final paragraph! I was thinking it might be some sort of title? But it looks like they both have the same name. I agree it may suggest she is trapped, and hasn’t wandered as far as she thinks she has.


December 5, 2015, 2:25 am

Maybe Alexei is Tolstoy’s term of endearment?



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