In one of the most touching sections of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, the recently married Konstantin Levin is repeatedly mystified by his wife Kitty’s behavior. She bustles about his country estate, rearranging the household, changing table cloths, moving furniture, and establishing dining routines. While he cannot comprehend the meaning of her activity, he sees that it engrosses her, and he tolerates it. It is strange to him; she is strange to him, and he cannot penetrate into the heart of this mystery.
Not much later, he receives word that his brother Nikolai is dying. He prepares to depart, in order to be by his side, but to his dismay, Kitty wishes and even insists on accompanying him on the journey. What place, he wonders, does a woman have around such a scene? She will be confronted by shameful dissolution, poverty, filth, and the unseemliness of death. But she insists, and as many men have felt over the centuries, he is convinced she will unduly encumber him. He will have to account for her safety, her comfort, and her sensibilities. He will be burdened by care for her and the niceties which a woman requires, when he should be occupied with the somber affair of his brothers death.
How many a man has resented the presence of his wife because he felt in some sense restricted by responsibility for her person or her effects? Men often delight in and pride themselves in freedom of movement, an unencumbered readiness for adventure or work, an ability to place themselves at the service of the moment’s demands. But how many a man has misjudged his wife’s willingness and capability to do the same?
With irritation and shame, Konstantin allows Kitty to join him on the trip. Her presence demands certain changes in his travel and boarding plans, but overall, what he regrets is the nuisance of her presence, that his mind should be occupied with her, rather than his brother. Yet, when confronted by the reality of death, by the misery of illness and ill care, he finds that he has little to offer in way of comfort or conversation. Instead, he is confronted and overwhelmed by a gulf of separation which stands between the living and the dying. This gulf proves insurmountable to him, and the episode begins as one of despair and isolation, stamping their last moments together with the finality of separation.
Remarkably, it is Kitty who in her wisdom, in her concern for the practical realities of the body and bodily habiliments, brings warmth and light into this dreadful scene. Her care for conversation, linens, laundry, food and medicine, her courageous and hopeful presence spans the awful gulf, bridges the worlds of the living and dying in these final moments. All her feminine mystery, all her seeming superfluity, becomes at this moment indispensable to the brothers. There are other remarkable aspects of her person and her activity: her social background, her previous experience at a German Spa, the fact that this is her first meeting with Nikolai. But what matters most here is simply that the absurdity of death is transfigured by her presence.
Tolstoy depicts the true mystery of marriage, of otherness and unity in these moments. Amidst all the challenges of married life, and yes, of life in general, the discovery and surrender to such mysteries marks a journey into a richer and more wondrous world.
Who knows how often this happens or shall happen, that where we perceive fault or weakness, we shall one day discover the wisdom and strength of life itself? Who knows how often, hidden by our prejudices and ignorance, we shall not only find comfort, but the much needed consolation, without which we would be quite lost. The true mystery is how we often fail to see that we have continually been sustained and nurtured by some such reality, things strange to us, embodied in our others, others whom we have long held in contempt or taken for granted. That which we perceived as burdensome, has actually born us along and aloft for years, and without which (or without at least the hope of such either in this life or the next), we would never have found life much worth the living.