Vronsky or Levin? Choose Wisely


Anna Karenina’s Konstantin Dimitrich Levin—"Kostya" to his nearest and dearest, "Levin" to most everyone else—is the ideal man. Thoughtful and restrained, patient and hardworking, faithful, honest, deeply spiritual but free-thinking, intellectual but not pompous, self-aware but not self-aggrandizing.

I didn’t read Tolstoy’s masterpiece until just recently, and boy am I glad: as a younger lady, I, like many young ladies before me, was busy falling in love with a real-life Count Vronsky and wouldn’t have recognized a potential Levin if he bit me on the earlobe.

Technically, I know, Levin’s not a Nice Jewish Boy. Technically he’s not Jewish at all. But Yisrael means “to struggle,” and Levin does plenty of that; with his conscience, with the status quo of labor relations in Russia, with the intelligentsia of Moscow and Petersburg, with his understanding of the workings of the world. Tolstoy might not be pleased to hear it, but I hereby declare Levin a Jew (at least in Lenny Bruce’s definition of Jewishness). So that’s settled.

Now I’d like to throw my hat into the lucrative romance-self-help ring (think of it as He’s Just Not That Into You for the lit-crit set) with this handy-dandy cheat-sheet for quick referral throughout the dating process:

Is he a Vronsky or a Levin? The lovelorn can always use edification.

A Vronsky is outwardly and immediately charming. He might be wealthy; he’s definitely hedonistic, passionate, outwardly heroic—all of these traits are on automatic, immediate display. You will be, in a manner of speaking, swept off your feet by a Vronsky.

A Levin is a harder nut to crack. He’ll hang back, observe, maybe over-think things a little, and really mean what he says when finally he speaks. He isn’t always suave. He has very little capacity for guile. On your first date he may well be a little nervous. He’s not necessarily the easiest man to get to know; he has depth and character and a soulful sense of humor.

A Vronsky will make a mess of your life and disappear when it’s time to pick up the pieces. Among his priorities, you fall somewhere between (1) take care of self and (10) change that light bulb. The lasting bequest of any involvement with Vronsky seems to be emotional ruin.

Levin, on the other hand—dear Levin!—will never leave you hanging.  Levin is consistent, caring, selfless and honest.


Dashing Vronsky courts innocent young Kitty Scherbatsky, implying that a proposal might well be on its way, and then leaves her thoughtlessly behind for the beguiling, married Anna. Kitty is very nearly ruined—only after an extended stay at a German “spa” does she fully recover from her broken heart and move on, wiser and stronger. Anna, famously, fares less well.

After Anna has left her marriage and beloved young son (with unbearable emotional and social consequences) to be with Vronsky, he bristles at her expectation that he offer her consistent companionship and support. In a scene midway through the book, we see just how intimately Vronsky cares for his horse, Frou-Frou. The downfall of the horse (who breaks his leg during an important race) troubles Vronsky significantly more than the suffering of his beloved later on.

Vronsky’s all talk. He might be great fun in the short run, but when the going gets tough he’s nowhere to be found. He’ll make you grand promises and shrug mirthlessly when they go unmet.

Levin, on the other hand, spends the first part of the novel mourning the loss of Kitty, with whom he was in love. He drowns his sorrow in good old-fashioned hard work. Though the extended narration of his working in the fields alongside the peasant workers is often cited as a “boring” part of the book, I couldn’t help but fall in love with Levin as I watched him find true joy in the intense labor and in the company of the folk who do it day in and day out.

Long after he’s given up on having love in his life and, indeed, resigned himself to his loneliness, Levin continues to seek out a righteous existence on his own terms. He doesn’t run out and find himself some other, random wife; he doesn’t lose all hope in life itself, he doesn’t run from his pain. He endures his suffering, the thwarted love, and the possibility that his work is all he’ll ever have. It takes a real mensch, male or female, to be alone after lost love, to put one foot in front of the other, and to carry on.

All of which makes Levin, when at long last Kitty becomes his, supremely capable of and ready for true partnership and fatherhood. (The fact that Levin - like Tolstoy himself - finds God in the end is an essay for another time entirely.)

Okay then, with that background on these polarized men, some practice tests:

1. His JDate profile contains allusions to his high salary, expensive hobbies, and sexual prowess. In his photos he is (a) holding an alcoholic beverage; (b) putting his arm around a headless woman; (c) sporting a tan and an excess of hair-gel; (d) bare-chested; or (e) all of the above. He is looking specifically for a woman between five and ten years younger than himself who is between 100 and 115 lbs. Is he a Vronsky or a Levin?

2. His JDate profile is a little bit curt—almost like he wrote it himself and is a little sheepish about marketing himself. He doesn’t try too hard to be funny or impress you. His picture is blurry. He honestly reports his height as 5”9. A Vronsky or a Levin?

3. The day you have tickets to see his favorite band, you fall terribly ill and can’t make it. “Go without me,” you tell him. He’ll have none of it, promptly selling the tickets on craigslist and coming over to make you soup. Despite feeling like crap, you have a lovely evening: he makes you laugh and lets you win at cards.  Vronsky or Levin?

4. You spend a week visiting your parents with him. At some point, age-old family dynamics prove overwhelming and you freak out. He says (a) “Dude, you’re freaking out. Get it together. I don’t need this.” Or (b) “I love all of you; even your fucked up family. Want a cookie?”

Are we getting the hang?

Some say you have to know a Vronsky before you can appreciate a Levin. It does seem like a sort of rite-of-passage to go through one or more Vronskys and finally come to an understanding that it’s a Levin you want.

It’s no wonder (spoiler alert!) that poor Anna throws herself under a train. My narrow escape from a Vronsky nearly destroyed me, too, and that was two hundred-odd years later, sans (most) of the societal disapproval shouldered by Anna in the novel Tolstoy named for her.

But hey: it led me to the fateful night when I met my real-life Levin, and primed me perfectly, instinctively, to recognize him as such.

So ask yourself: Vronsky or Levin? If he’s a Levin, be patient and rejoice. If he’s a Vronsky, please: back away from those train tracks and run for your life.