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Symbolism of Trains in Novel Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1670 words Published: 4th Sep 2017

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 Anna Karenina, written by Leo Tolstoy, follows the accounts of Anna who begins an affair with another man, as a result of their affair falls from moral decency and eventually commits suicide by throwing herself in front of train. Tolstoy was a firm believer in punishing his female characters for falling into passions of disgracing romance and sexual desires. The theme of trains and railroads is found throughout the novel and it is very apparent that Leo Tolstoy had a distinct dislike of the railroads. Tolstoy was not a fan of the new advancement of trains in Russia and even went as far to say, “The railroad is to travel as a whore is to love” (Jahn 1). Anna Karenina is full of important scenes on trains and in train stations, but they also serve as a means of progressing the story line. Tolstoy felt that trains were destroying the old Russian way of life in favor of a new industrial and capitalistic Russia, while moving away from traditions and simplicity. Anna Karenina is a victim of her love affair, committing suicide by throwing herself under a train, while the theme of trains and railroads pierces the entire story. Tolstoy incorporates the symbols of railroads and trains as motifs of tragedy brought by the advancing progress of Western technology in Russian society, the destructive nature of trains, and how characters such as Levin serve as a reminder of how trains are destroying closeness to nature and old true values.

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The imagery of trains reappears through the entire plot, playing a significant role in the novel’s course of events as well as having a great impact on the atmosphere of the novel. Anna’s life of restlessness and travel is tied to trains, all the main meetings happening in trains or at train stations. Her little son Seryozha also takes a keen interest with trains and is seen, “carrying something which served as a train” (8). By having the children in the novel taking an interest in trains, it is showing how the railways and trains have already become popular even with the next generation of Russians, as well as foreshadowing how the railways will become the future means of transportation in the country. Tolstoy also makes an important addition by Anna’s brother Stepan mentioning to Alexei how he, “would very much like to get [the] vacant post as a member of the commission [of] the United Agency for Mutual Credit Balance of the Southern Railway Lines” (Tolstoy 721). Tolstoy includes this detail due to the fact that working in the railways was a very coveted and desirable in Russia since railroads were so popular and in such high demand.

For Tolstoy, trains are creations of both iron and technology which represent a brute force of sin, darkness and passions that break the human spirit and lead individuals to fall from moral decency. Anna and Vronsky’s romance begins and ends at the train station, the arrival of the train kills the watchman at the station and sets Anna’s first interaction with Vronsky is overlaid with death and foreshadows Anna’s eventual demise. After the, “watchman, [who was] either too drunk or too bundled up had not heard the train” and “had been run over by the train” Anna feels that this was a “bad omen” and is the first sign of the inevitable and tragic destiny of Anna Karenina (29). This scene is very important due to the imagery of the train itself as it pulls into the station. The train has a foreboding and dark presence when pulling into the station, as those could feel, “something heavy” causing the “platform to tremble slowing down and shaking the platform still more” and once it pulled in those could see, ” the coupling rod of the middle wheel slowly and rhythmically turning and straightening” the vivid description of the train in this scene gives it an evil and unnatural aura it as it pulls into the station (60).  Tolstoy’s incorporation of describing the imagery of the train as an almost evil and foreboding presence sets the tone for the eventual death and demise of Anna, her path to her own death left the station as soon as she began her affair with Vronsky.

Anna and Vronsky’s fateful affair began and ended at the train station. For instance when Vronsky sees Anna off to St. Petersburg on the train, he admits his love for Anna at the station, confessing to her how, “Not one of your words, not one of your movements will I ever forget I cannot”. The very spark of their relationship is tied to this scene as Anna ” [clutched] at the cold door post” and “entered the [entrance] of the [train] carriage” at the moment she felt the, “magical, strained condition that had tormented her” had not only “renewed itself, but grew stronger” (103). This scene at the train station is one of the most crucial aspects of the novel as this almost magical explanation of Anna falling for Vronsky is symbolic of Anna succumbing to the dark passion of adultery and the beginning of her fall from decency and morality.  In the end of the novel just seconds before Anna dies under the wheels of the train, ” something huge and implacable pushed at her head and dragged her over” it is almost as if she was crushed by the force of her own sins (768). Their fateful relationship can be compared to that of a train leaving the station, it begins slowly, but once it gains momentum it quickly escalates to a speed that is out of both Anna and Vronsky’s control.

Tolstoy, is able to express his dissatisfaction with railroads and trains through the characters and words of Oblonsky and Levin, as a way to demonstrate how Russia is slowly moving away from tradition and old values and moving more towards an industrial and capitalistic society. Levin is seen many times throughout the novel showing a distaste for the railroads and blames criticizes them for the “disastrous condition of agriculture in Russia” which was disrupting the traditional the use of agriculture throughout Russia (483). Levin also criticizes the railroads when he was, “writing a new chapter on the reasons for the unprofitable state of agriculture in Russia ” due to ” the incorrect use incorrect use of land” through ” the railways” and “instead of contributing to agriculture” the railways had “outstripped agriculture and halted it” (483-484). Tolstoy blamed Europe in spoiling Russia with a strive for modern technology and disrupting the normal way of life. Tolstoy also uses characters such as Lafitte as an example of how greed and  other “dishonest merchants” without whom “there would have been no railways”, he feels that trains and merchants are destroying the old Russian way of life in favor of a new industrial and capitalistic Russia (506). Tolstoy describes those who work in the railroads as those with little to no morals and are extremely greedy, furthering his dislike of the railroads.

The analysis of train and motifs in Anna Karenina requires mentioning the opposite symbols of “wood” and nature. Tolstoy uses the power of nature as an opposite to images of the new coming era of progress, the warmth of wood opposes the coldness of iron. The generosity of poor peasants who share their bread and vodka with Veslosvky and how ” [they] absolutely refused to take money” which contrasts the greediness of the merchants (568), peasants use wooden carts instead of iron trains which shows their closeness to nature and simplicity. Tolstoy believed that living in big cities corrupts the soul, and that is why Kitty and Levin are such an exemplary couple of this when they finally move into a country estate and are near the peasants, because they embody the ideal of a good family and thus must be close to the ground. Tolstoy describes in the novel the peasant’s methods of agriculture and the burden of their labour unites them. Tolstoy praises hard work and values the “work of a peasant or a learned profession” much more than the activities of capitalists (588). They are bound to earth and oppose progress with railways and trains, that tear the ties with the land and cross it painlessly, the peasants represent closeness to nature and fidelity to traditions.

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The well-known novel of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina raises numerous moral questions and vividly represents author’s opinions concerning, moral purity, decency and traditions. The images and themes of trains and railways are ones of the most significance in the entire novel, they start the story of Anna Karenina and finish it. However, the trains are what begins the ill-fated affair of both Anna and Vrosnky and cause Anna’s fall from moral decency and grace.  Through the character of Levin, Tolstoy is able to convey his beliefs that the railway are to blame for the disruption and ruin of Russian agriculture. Throughout the novel trains are seen as foreboding and unnatural and are seen as unstoppable in converting the country to a new means of transportation. Railways and trains are the symbols of progress, which according to Tolstoy is evil, he opposes the artificial coldness of iron to warmth of nature. Tolstoy believes that decency and goodness appear only in following traditions, hard labour, upholding moral decency proximity to ground and nature.

Works Cited

Jahn, Gary R. “The Image of the Railroad in Anna Karenina.” The Slavic and East European Journal, vol. 25, no. 2, 1981, pp. 1-10., www.jstor.org/stable/307952.

Tolstoy, Leo, and Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Anna Karenina. NY: Penguin, 2004. Print.


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