Hierarchy and Social Class in Anna Karenina

Julie W. de Sherbinin, Colby College

Hierarchical systems of value characterized Russian society with particular force in the nineteenth century. State, ecclesiastical, economic and social structures cemented a cultural architecture of privilege based on opposing poles of high and low. Tolstoj famously challenged hierarchies. In Anna Karenina, a novel saturated with references to heights/ascent and depths/descent, the litmus test of personhood often hinges on a character's understanding of verticality: the "high" becomes "low" and "low" becomes high in value for characters with instinct or insight (the peasantry, Dolly, Kitty and Levin). Tragic consequences ensue for those unable to disengage from mental allegiance to hierarchical understandings (Anna, Vronskij, Karenin and others).

The novel, however, is fraught with a tension between the dismantling of hierarchies and a defense of the most fundamental hierarchy in human social life­class privilege. This paper looks at the critique of hierarchy performed in Anna Karenina alongside Tolstoj's troubling endorsement of aristocratic privilege in the character of Konstantin Levin.

Throughout the novel, the prefix vos–/voz– charts ascent, a trajectory consistently informed by false premises. Movement up stairs (Levin to Stiva's office; Vronskij and Stiva to the railway platform; Anna to get her picture album; Kitty to the ball; etc.) signals anticipated success that always leads to a "fall," or a refutation of the premises of hierarchy. (Vronskij's estate, Vozdvizhenskoe—named for the Raising of the Cross—thus becomes the ironic counterpoint for Anna's fall under the train wheels.) A motif of birds also conveys the reversal of conventional height values: here the lofty, soaring bird (Vronskij is compared to a falcon) pales in value beside domestic fowl (Dolly as nasedka—or brood-hen—accepts the flawed network of earthbound human relations that Levin finally comes to embrace at the novel's end). Height and depth, then, undergo a sort of reversal in voicing as they challenge widespread assumptions about hierarchy.

Social class may be the most insidious form of hierarchical discrimination. Levin's monological pronouncements concerning the rights and privileges of the nobility, then, should come as a surprise. He soberly defends the lofty calling of his estate in language that valorizes stratification. I argue that this discrepancy between hierarchies challenged and class hierarchy endorsed reflects not only a sore gap between Tolstoj's philosophical bearings and his life experience/practice. More broadly, Tolstoj consciously or unconsciously describes the stubborn challenge of aligning theoretical positions on privilege and equality with personal praxis around issues of social justice in all eras.