Gary Saul Morson
Anna Karenina In Our Time

When Anna arrives in Petersburg and sees her husband, one of the book's most famous passages occurs.
At Petersburg, as soon as the train stopped and she got out, the first person who attracted her attention was her husband. 'Oh, my God! Why do his ears stick out like that?' she thought, looking at his frigid and distinguished figure, and especially the ears that struck her at the moment as propping up the brim of his round hat. (110)
Of course, Karenin's ears could not be that bad or she would have noticed them before. The rest of what she sees in that passage—his frigid figure, a habitual sarcastic smile, his big, tired eyes—also reflect what she is now perceiving, not what is really there.

Critics usually interpret the 'ears' passage as a sign of Anna's changed feeling about her husband after she begins to fall in love with Vronsky. They are correct to do so. But something else is also happening, although it becomes clear only in retrospect. As the novel proceeds, Tolstoy makes it evident that Anna, from this point on, teaches herself to see Karenin as repulsive and unfeeling. So this first reference to 'ears' is not merely the sign of a changed feeling but also, as we learn later, the first in a long series of self-willed causes of changed feeling. The more she directs her attention to what she does not like, and the more she ascribes lack of feeling to Karenin, the more she comes to see him that way automatically.

Looking, listening, and paying attention are actions, and perception is not simple taking in of what is there. We can look charitably or uncharitably. We can pay attention only to what is worst in a person; everyone possesses characteristics that can be seen as irritating or repulsive. Tolstoy wants to teach us that what we do at every moment of our waking lives—how we look and direct our attention—has supreme moral value precisely because it is so ordinary, precisely because it forms habits.

In one respect Anna does not resemble her brother. Stiva is incapable of guilt, remorse, and shame, but Anna is quite subject to these emotions. We have already seen her shame on the train ride home. When she arrives in Petersburg, she must insist to herself that she has nothing to confess. She will have guilty dreams of being caressed by both men. That old dream of the peasant she has had before now attracts to it all the stray images of the station at which she first met Vronsky and of the train ride home. Fueled by guilt, it recurs to her with increasing horror. There is no doubt that she feels she is behaving immorally and suffers as a result.

She therefore does what Stiva would never do: she teaches herself to misperceive. If she could learn to see her husband as incapable of feeling, then she would not feel guilty for hurting him. If he she could perceive him as a monster of cruelty—the sadist he is in the Garbo film—then her anger at him would be justified. And if she could teach herself to react to him with such repulsion that it is simply impossible for her to live with him, then abandoning him would no longer be a matter of choice. She would not be to blame. (See Gustafson, 118-32).

What Anna does is not uncommon, even if she eventually does it more thoroughly than most people. We create for ourselves the world in which what we want to do is justified, and we try not to see contrary evidence. We usually do not at any single moment make an explicit decision to misperceive, because if we did, the misperception would feel like a lie and would not work. Like salesmen with shoddy goods, we must first sell ourselves; we must actually believe our own lies. Therefore, if the misperception is large and important enough, and if it contradicts a great deal of our experience, it must be learned gradually, so that no single moment strikes us by its palpable falsity. By tiny, tiny alterations, repeated countless times, we must instruct ourselves, without seeming to do so, to make each perception imperceptibly different from the last.

Even though we never make a single decision to lie, this process is deliberate in the sense that each uncharitable act of looking is a choice. Occasionally, as Anna does, we may find ourselves seeing in the old way, and then, as we make a determined effort to adjust, we become too aware of the effort to see something as we wish. If this effort at adjustment happens too often, the awareness of it will prevent our belief in the misperception and the whole project will fail. To make the falsehood believable, we must consciously do what we are not consciously aware of doing, and so each act of perception must only minutely alter its predecessors. Choosing so that one will not remember having chosen, willfully creating a sense of fate, ignoring part of what one has previously seen and changing the rest: all these actions constitute what might be called the paradox of self-deceit.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.