Skip main navigation
We use cookies to give you a better experience, if that’s ok you can close this message and carry on browsing. For more info read our cookies policy.
We use cookies to give you a better experience. Carry on browsing if you're happy with this, or read our cookies policy for more information.

Anna Karenina

A short essay by Professor Nick Chater on Russian writer Leo Tolstoy's novel, Anna Karenina.

This article was sent out as pre-reading, so if you have already had a chance to read it, no need to read it again!

When Anna Karenina threw herself under a train in a Moscow station, did she want to die? Various interpretations of this most crucial moment in Tolstoy’s great masterpiece are possible. Had the ennui of Russian aristocratic life and the fear of losing her beloved Vronsky, become so intolerable that death seemed the only escape? Or was her final act mere capriciousness, a theatrical gesture of despair, not seriously imagined even moments before the opportunity arose?

We can, and do, ask such questions. But can they possibly have answers? If Tolstoy says that Anna has dark hair, then Anna has dark hair. If Tolstoy doesn’t tell us why Anna jumped to her death, then Anna’s motives are surely a void. We can attempt to fill the void with our own interpretations; and we can debate their plausibility. But there is no hidden truth about Anna’s motivations, no truth which we might alight upon after sufficiently careful thought. Indeed, there is no truth of the matter at all, because Anna is a fictional character.

However, suppose instead that Anna were a historical figure and Tolstoy’s masterpiece were a journalistic reconstruction of real events. Now the question of Anna’s motivation becomes a historical question, rather than a matter of literary interpretation. Yet, our method of enquiry remains the same: the very same text would be now be viewed as providing (perhaps only partially reliable) clues about the mental state of a real person, not a fictional character. Lawyers, journalists and historians, rather than critics and literary scholars, might put forward and debate competing interpretations.

Suppose now that we were to ask Anna herself. To sidestep the need for a medium, suppose that Tolstoy’s novel was indeed an account of real events; but, unknown to Tolstoy, the great steam engine slams on its brakes just in time. Anna, apparently mortally injured, is conveyed in anonymity to a Moscow hospital, but, against the odds, pulls through. She chooses to disappear to escape her past; and we catch up with Anna convalescing in a Swiss sanatorium. As likely as not, Anna will be as unsure as anyone else about her true motivations. After all, she too has to engage in a process of interpretation: considering her memories (rather than a written document), she attempts to piece together an account of her behaviour. Even if Anna does venture a definitive account of her actions, we may reasonably be sceptical that her own interpretation will be more compelling than that of others. To be sure, she may have ‘data’ unavailable to an outsider – she may, for example, remember the despairing words ‘Vronsky has left me forever’ running through her mind as she approached the edge of the fateful platform. However, any such advantage may be more than outweighed by the distorting lens of self-perception – our interpretations of our own actions seem, among other things, to appropriate for ourselves greater wisdom and nobility than might be evident to the dispassionate observer. Autobiography always deserves a measure of scepticism.

Might we get closer to Anna’s true motivations if we asked her not in hindsight, but at the time? Suppose a journalist, employed by a scandal-hungry Moscow paper, is following Anna’s every move, scenting a story. He leaps to save Anna from falling to her death, only to brandish pen and notepad, with the words ‘Now, Ms Karenina, tell me a little about why you decided to launch yourself into oblivion’. This strategy seems unlikely to succeed, to put it mildly. While a discreet query ‘Ms Karenina, I perceive you to be about to leap to your death. Perhaps you could spare a couple of moments to answer this short questionnaire?’ seems equally doomed to fail.

There are two opposing morals that one might draw from this vignette. One moral is that uncovering the true motivations for human behaviour requires delicacy and sophistication. Merely inviting interpretations of behaviour, whether from observers or participants; before, during, or after the behaviour has occurred; gives, at best, a rough guide. Such interpretations are, after all, just more behaviour (i.e., verbal behaviour, such as the scribblings of journalists or the convalescing Anna’s measured words of self-disclosure). And this behaviour stands in need of interpretation just as much as the behaviour to be explained in the first place. What is required, instead, is the ability to dive deep into the inner workings of the mind, and to measure directly the hidden forces governing our actions, forces of which we may ourselves be only dimly aware. Reasonable people may disagree, of course, concerning how the deep waters of real human motivation might best be plumbed. Psychotherapy, experiments on behaviour and imaging the activity of the brain are among the more popular options.

I argue that we should draw a radically different moral. That interpretation of the motivations of real people is no different from the interpretations of fictional characters. There is no ‘deep’ truth about the real Anna’s motivations, any more than there is for the fictional Anna. No amount of therapy, clever experiment, or neuroscientific measurement can recover true motives, not because the search is too difficult, but because there is nothing to search for.

In fiction, while some characters are ‘two-dimensional’, others seem to have real ‘depth’. They can, indeed, assume in our imagination, a vividness that may equal, or even exceed, that of some of our living acquaintances. We may attribute them with attitudes and beliefs that go far beyond the printed page. Yet such apparent depth is, of course, an illusion: there are no facts about Anna Karenina’s life, save what Tolstoy gives us; no hidden motives lurking between the lines.

The shocking truth is that the behaviour of real people is no different. There are the facts of what people say and what they do; and these, like the lines of a novel, can conjure up a compelling depth – of underlying motivations, beliefs and attitudes from which people’s behaviour appears to emerge. However, as for fictional characters, so with real people: the sense that behaviour is merely the surface of a vast sea, immeasurably deep and teeming with inner motives, beliefs and desires whose power we can barely sense is a conjuring trick played by our own minds. The truth is not that the depths are empty, or even shallow; but that the surface is all there is.

We are fictional characters, in stories of our own invention.

Share this article:

This article is from the free online course:

The Mind is Flat: the Shocking Shallowness of Human Psychology

The University of Warwick

Get a taste of this course

Find out what this course is like by previewing some of the course steps before you join:

Contact FutureLearn for Support