Science and the Aesthetics of Communion in Anna Karenina and What Is Art?

Michael Kelly, Brigham Young University

In the concluding chapter of What Is Art?, Tolstoy argues that “true science” brings to our perception valuable truths and knowledge, while “art transmits these truths from the region of perception to the reason of emotion.” Consequently, if “the path chosen by science be false, so also will be the path taken by art” (277). Not only does he deride “art for art’s sake,” but he also censures “science for science’s sake,” which is flawed because it either attempts to justify the existing political and social order or “occupies itself with questions of simple curiosity, or with technical improvements” (278–79).

In this paper I propose to examine the critical role played by Anna Karenina in helping Tolstoy to formulate his ideas on science and art that he then would develop in various essays over the following two decades and declare with controversial certitude in What Is Art?. I proceed from the premise outlined by Gustafson that “any Tolstoyan text takes its meaning only from within the complete oeuvre.” Later works become a clarification and articulation of his earlier works (6-7).

The interrelationships in these two works on questions of aesthetics have already been explored by at length Šilbajoris and Mandelker, among others, but the question of science has received less attention. As Eikhenbaum noted in his analysis of the creative history of Anna Karenina, when Tolstoy ceased work on his novel in 1874, he wrote a philosophical dialogue entitled “Conversation About Science.” This dialogue, which was an attempt to grapple with “the significance of science and the meaning of life” (117), helped to provide Tolstoy with important “scaffolding” as he again set out to reshape his novel significantly.

Just as War and Peace is an epistemological and ethical critique of the methodology of history, so Anna Karenina helps found Tolstoy’s critique of the epistemology of the sciences as a whole, an assessment that Tolstoy hoped would lead to “a re-appraisement” of “the knowledge we possess and of which we are so proud” (What Is Art? 285). Just as Vronsky is a counterfeit artist, so also are Koznyshev and Karenin, in a sense, counterfeit scientists, and a counterfeit approach to any endeavor leads to alienation and estrangement. Tolstoy can hope to achieve his ideal of communion among all people only when science first becomes “the study of how man’s life should be established” (What Is Art? 220), and art then becomes a means of evoking feelings of joy and spiritual union with others (227).


Gustafson, Richard F. Leo Tolstoy, Resident and Stranger: A Study in Fiction and Theology. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1986.

Mandelker, Amy. Framing Anna Karenina: Tolstoy, the Woman Question, and the Victorian Novel. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1993.

Šilbajoris, Rimvydas. Tolstoy’s Aesthetics and His Art. Columbus: Slavica, 1990.

Tolstoy, Leo. What Is Art? and Essays on Art. Trans. Aylmer Maude. London: Oxford UP, 1962.