From The Art of the Novel:
On Levin’s estate, a man and a woman meet – two melancholy, lonely people. They like one another and secretly hope to join their lives together. All they need is the chance to be alone for a moment and say so. Finally one day they find themselves unobserved in a wood where they have come to gather mushrooms. Ill at ease, they are silent, knowing that the moment is upon them and they must not let it slip by. The silence has already lasted rather a long while when the woman suddenly, “involuntarily, reflexively,” starts to talk about mushrooms. Then silence again, and the man casts about for a way to declare himself, but instead of speaking of love, “on some unexpected impulse” he too talks about mushrooms. On the way home they go on discussing mushrooms, powerless and desperate, for never, they know it, never will they speak of love.
Back at the house, the man tells himself that he did not declare his love because of the memory of his dead mistress, which he cannot betray. But we know perfectly well: It is a false excuse he invokes only to console himself. Console himself? Yes. Because we can resign ourselves to losing a love for a reason. We would never forgive ourselves for losing it for no reason at all.
This very beautiful little episode is a kind of parable for one of Anna Karenina‘s great feats: bringing to light the causeless incalculable, even mysterious aspect of human action.
What is action? – the eternal question of the novel, its constitutive question, so to speak. How is a decision born? How is it transformed into an act, and how do acts connect to make an adventure?
Out of the mysterious and chaotic fabric of life, the old novelists tried to tease the thread of a limpid rationality; in their vie, the rationally accessible motive gives birth to an act, and that act provokes another. An adventure is a luminously causal chain of acts.
Werther loves his friend’s wife. He cannot betray his friend, he cannot give up his love, so he kills himself. Suicide with the transparent clarity of a mathematical equation.
But why does Anna Karenina kill herself?
The man who talked about mushrooms instead of love wants to believe that he did so out of loyalty to his vanished mistress. The reasons we might give for Anna’s act would be worth just as little. True, people are treating her with contempt, but can she not do the same to them? She is barred from seeing her son, but is that a situation beyond appeal and beyond of change? Vronsky is already a little less infatuated, but after all, doesn’t he still love her?
Besides, Anna did not come to the station to kill herself. She came to meet Vronsky. She throws herself beneath the train without having taken the decision to do so. It is rather the decision that takes Anna. That overtakes her. Like the man who talked about mushrooms, Anna acts “on some unexpected impulse.” Which does not mean that her act is senseless. But its sense lies outside rationally apprehensible causality. Tolstoy had to use (for the first time in the history of the novel) an almost Joycean interior monologue to reconstruct the subtle fabric of fleeting impulses, transient feelings, fragmentary thoughts, to show us the suicidal journey of Anna’s soul.
Dostoyevsky grasped the madness of reason stubbornly determined to carry its logic through to the end. The terrain Tolstoy explores is the opposite: he uncovers the intrusions of illogic, of the irrational.