When I read Anna Karenina, the character that stood out the most to me, and that had the most impact, apart from Anna Karenina herself, was Konstantin Dmitrich Levin. I think all of the characters were constructed and explored really well, but Levin in particular was given a lot of depth.
One of the main things I remember about Levin, even several years after reading the novel, is how, despite being a well-off landowner, Levin yearned for a simple life of honest labour. There is one part of the book where he helps his muzhiks with the harvest, wielding a scythe alongside them in his fields. To him, it was satisfying work, but not only in the physical sense of “a good day’s work”, but also in a psychological or spiritual sense.
I’ve heard that Levin was the character that Tolstoy most identified with, or that was most closely modelled on his own thoughts and beliefs. In War and Peace the equivalent most Tolstoy-esque character is Pierre Bezukhov. It is not surprising then, that this yearning for a simple and honest life is also experienced by Pierre.
[Warning: spoilers ahead. Please note, also, that I haven’t quite finished War and Peace yet, so please don’t spoil the ending for me.]
(Side note: I don’t know why Levin was always referred to by his last name, but Pierre is most often referred to by his first name — and it’s the French translation of his name rather than his Russian name, Pyotr (Kirillovich). It seems to be something unique to him, as most other male characters in War and Peace are mostly referred to by last name, with first names being used mostly for younger female characters. But I’m used to thinking of him as Pierre so that is how I will refer to him.)
Like Levin, Pierre is a wealthy landowner. In fact, he is a Count, and after inheriting assets from his late father, is wealthy enough to be able to spend all his days socialising and eating and drinking, never doing any work. But there is an internal disquiet and a certain restlessness in Pierre, and he seems to feel that there is something wrong with this lifestyle.
At first, he seeks spirituality by essentially joining a cult. He is drawn in by the appearance of doing something good, but he is soon disillusioned and realises the group is not genuine with its pursuits.
Later in the novel, as Napoleon invades Russia, Pierre considers joining the military and becoming a soldier. The main trouble is that Pierre is rather big and fat (Tolstoy calls him fat many times throughout the novel, even mentioning that it would be difficult for a horse to carry him for significant distances), so he doesn’t quite have the physique one would expect of a front-line soldier.
But when Napoleon and his army are nearing Moscow, and the Battle of Borodino is about to take place, Pierre leaves behind everything he has, and goes to the camps of the Russian army. There he stays and observes the battle, and sees many people fight and die. This experience at Borodino changes him, and develops in him a great admiration for soldiers.
Leaving Borodino, Pierre reflects on what he has seen on the battlefield, and is overcome with a need to abandon his previous life and become a soldier:
“To be a soldier, simply a soldier! … To enter that common life with my whole being, to be pervaded by what makes them that way. But how to cast off all that’s superfluous, devilish, all the burden of the outer man?”p.842, Chapter 9, Part 3, Volume III
Returning to Moscow after the Battle of Borodino, Pierre follows through with this yearning, and actually runs away from home (his staff have no idea where he disappears to, and go out to search the city for him). Pierre assumes a commoner’s disguise, buys a pistol, and is consumed by visions of bravery, even believing that he could kill Napoleon himself.
But there are always more lessons for Pierre.
As the Russian army retreats, and civilians flee with anything they can fit in their carriages, French soldiers invade and loot Moscow, and the city becomes engulfed in flames. Pierre, walking through the burning city, comes across a woman being assaulted by a French soldier. When he intervenes, he is arrested, and becomes a prisoner of war. But he doesn’t suffer as one might expect prisoners to suffer. Indeed, he grows from the experience:
In captivity, in the shed, Pierre had learned, not with his mind, but with his whole being, his life, that man is created for happiness, that happiness is within him, in the satisfying of natural human needs, and that all unhappiness comes not from lack, but from superfluity.p.1060, Chapter 12, Part 3, Volume IV
He muses that a man who has “one leaf askew in his bed of roses” might be as upset as a man who has nothing and sleeps on a cold, hard floor. Likewise, when he was wealthy and attended high society balls, his feet were as uncomfortable in the most exquisite ballroom shoes as they currently were, marching barefoot, accumulating scabs and sores.
I suppose all this resonates with me because it’s similar to the notion that “all suffering comes from wanting”, which I believe is a Buddhist teaching that I learnt during religion studies at school, and it has stuck with me since. The overarching principle, I suppose, is to find peace in one’s situation without wanting more things.
Of course, it could be argued that without this desire for more, we wouldn’t have a lot of inventions and conveniences that were created by people with a lot of ambition (and maybe a bit of greed). And maybe you can have a lovely bed of roses, and not care if anything is askew (although I’m sure it can’t be easy to grow roses, so there must be other problems to stress about).
But I’ve got to say, this “simple and honest life” that Tolstoy’s characters strive for does sound pretty good. The trouble is that modern life seems geared toward making it harder to want this, and harder still to achieve it (due to various superfluities and misconceptions of what we “need”).