Tolstoy's acclaimed novel--It's a work of genius! It's daringly realistic! It's shorter than War and Peace!--follows the mirror lives of two impulsive, passionate, but ordinary people. Anna Arkadyevna Karenina, the wife of a wealthy St Petersburg bureaucrat twenty years her senior, is gifted with intelligence, beauty, and the ability to make almost anyone love her. Konstantin Dmitrievich Levin, a rural landholder hopelessly in love with Princess Yekaterina "Kitty" Alexandrovna Scherbatskaya, struggles both in an effort to improve his estate despite the laziness and wastefulness of the peasantry and in an effort to understand the meaning and purpose of life in the face of death.
Our story opens in the Oblonsky household, where Kitty's elder sister Darya has just been devastated by the knowledge that her husband, the cheerfully amoral Prince Stepan Oblonsky, has been unfaithful to her. The prince's sister Anna Karenina soon arrives in Moscow to heal the breach at about the same time that Oblonsky's friend Levin arrives to propose to Kitty. Unfortunately for Levin, the handsome and rising young army officer Count Alexei Vronsky has been carrying on a flirtation with Kitty which the young girl believes is serious, so she turns down Levin's awkward proposal. Vronsky meets Anna by accident at the train station and is immediately fascinated by her charming manner, but the moment is cut short by a spot of tragic foreshadowing. Later that week, at a ball, Kitty is heartbroken when Vronsky spends the night paying court to Anna and then follows her to Moscow.
Kitty realises that Vronsky never had serious intentions toward her despite doing all he could to gain her heart, but it's too late to recall Levin, who has returned home to bury himself in farming. Meanwhile, Anna flees home to St Petersburg, surprised by the strength of her feelings for Vronksy, who follows on the same train. At first she determines to resist Vronsky's advances, but cannot help finding her husband, Alexei Karenin, repulsive, or intentionally going into society where she knows she will meet the besotted count. Soon Anna forgets her scruples and begins a passionate affair with Vronsky; gradually, both of them discard everything they valued in life: family, career, social standing. Meanwhile, Levin tries to make sense of his life in the face of heartbreak, frustration with farming and the economy, and the approaching death of his brother.
Anna Karenina is, in genre, usually described as a realist novel. I'm not sure if this is the best description of either the genre or this specific book. In my experience the realism or otherwise of a book is usually judged by reference to a materialistic, secular view of life that fails to see the inherent poetry of existence. Realist literature often seeks to make the author's hand in the novel as invisible as possible, on the mistaken assumption that real life does not involve an Author Who uses foreshadowing, irony, and coincidence. The result is chaotic, meaningless, and depressing, since it reflects the unbeliever's experience of reality. Anna Karenina, with its flashes of divine grace, its skilful use of foreshadowing and drama, its juxtaposition of the two major characters, and its romantically idyllic view of the agrarian life is not realist in this sense.
On the other hand realism in literature can take the form of a desire to reflect created reality as faithfully as possible, without romanticising or demonising any part of it. This is a worthy effort. ND Wilson has pointed out that escapism can occur in two directions: it can be escape out of God's created order into a secular world, or it can be escape from the modernist dungeon into the fairytale world God made. And for a good discussion of this, I highly recommend GK Chesterton's Orthodoxy, the chapter entitled "The Ethics of Elfland." But I digress.
As for the themes, I’m not sure I could do justice to Anna Karenina on so brief an acquaintance. But here are a few observations.
The first thing to say, of course, is that Anna Karenina is not—as the trailer for Keira Knightley’s new movie assures us—“An Epic Story of Love”—at least, not in the way the trailer suggests. Anyone who comes out of this novel thinking an affair would be grand and noble has missed the point despite 700 pages of evidence to the contrary. Anna is not a free-spirited woman caught in the shackles of a cruel society as outdated as it is artificial. She is a guilty woman made miserable and petty by sin, and the book chronicles the horrifyingly destructive effect of that sin. Over and over she insists that she cannot be happy without Vronsky, but from the very beginning it is certain that she cannot be happy with him, even at the moment of surrender:
“A moment before this happiness…”
“What happiness?” she cried, with contempt and horror.
Indeed the entire Anna plot demonstrates one truth: “the eternal error made by men who imagine their happiness lies in the accomplishment of their desires.” While social restrictions, such as the difficulty of getting a divorce (without solid evidence of the affair, Anna’s husband cannot divorce her, unless he should admit falsely to being unfaithful himself; meanwhile, Anna herself does not want a divorce since it would mean losing all rights to her son Serozha) and the impossibility of an openly “fallen” woman being accepted in society do add greatly to Anna’s misery, the real problem lies in the fact that she is entirely incapable of being happy in a guilty liason. At every turn, even the mercies and kindnesses granted her only make her more unhappy. Eventually, it boils down to this: Anna knows it would be as easy for Vronsky to dispose of her as it was for him to win her. Her predicament is the same as that of every woman who gives herself without the minimum protection of an absolute lifelong covenant: once the first rush of infatuation is over, only the ability to be prettier and more agreeable than every other woman in the world will protect her.
“Just think! I am not his wife; he will love me just as long as he loves me; and how, by what means, am I to keep his love? It is by this.”
And she put out her white arms in front of her beautiful body.
With extraordinary rapidity, as always happens in moments of emotion, all sorts of thoughts and ideas went rushing through Darya Aleksandrovna’s mind.
“I have not tried,” she reasoned, “to attract Stiva to myself; he deserted me for some one else, and the first woman for whom he sacrificed me did not retain him by being always pretty and gay. He threw her over and took another. And will Anna be able to fascinate and retain Count Vronsky? If that is what attracts him, then he will be able to find women who dress even better and are more fascinating and merry-hearted. And however white, however beautiful, her bare arms, however beautiful her rounded form, and her animated face framed in her black hair, he will be able to find still better, more attractive women, just as my abominable, wretched, and beloved husband has done.”
In the end, it’s Anna’s jealousy that begins to destroy her relationship with Vronsky. Because she has no other hold on him and has given up so much for him, her enjoyment is spoiled by the knowledge that she may lose it at any moment. The crowning irony is that this begins to destroy the relationship even before he becomes indifferent to her.
At the climax of her story, Anna looks out at the world and decides that all social constructs and relationships have been elaborately constructed to conceal that fact that everyone is evil and everyone hates each other. After so much time spent looking at her through the lens of other characters or even the narrator, to see the world through Anna’s eyes is chilling. She is already in Hell, having followed her own desires there.
The plot dealing with Konstantin Levin follows a very similar person on a very similar quest: seeking happiness through the accomplishment of his desires. Levin also seeks happiness through love: a happily married family life is his ideal, but even the realisation of this ideal fails to satisfy him. Of course, marrying for love with the intention of fidelity already puts him in a happier position than Anna, but even as Levin struggles with his own jealousy, it is his secure position as a married man that allows him to deal with it; his relationship with Kitty is one of trust and understanding. Meanwhile, Kitty’s sister Dolly, having made a “brilliant” rather than a wise marriage, has lost all respect for her husband and can only lapse into indifference as a coping mechanism for her own jealousy.
Eventually, as the plot unfolds, Levin finds himself living out the dilemma of the book of Ecclesiastes. Faced with an impending death, Levin realises that all his efforts in this life are meaningless unless something beyond the material world gives meaning to them. He wrestles with philosophers and dusty tomes for a long time before the simple words of a peasant cut through the Gordian knot and illuminate him. Then he reflects:
“What should I have been, how should I have lived, it I had not absorbed these beliefs…if I had not known that I must live for God, and not for the satisfaction of my desires?” … And, though he made the most strenuous efforts of his imagination, he could not picture to himself what kind of a wild creature he might have been, if he had not really known the aim of his existence.
The answer, mutely provided by the structure of the book itself, is that he would have been like Anna—as gifted, as accomplished, as doomed.
This is, I suppose, the major theme of Anna Karenina—live for God, not for one’s own desires, because happiness does not come from one’s desires. There are also other themes, of course: most obviously, the theme comparing agrarian with cosmopolitan life, the comparison of various kinds of Christian religiosity from pietism to spiritualism; the long discussions of philosophy, economics, and war. There are faults in the application of the theme: Tolstoy’s Christianity is a vague, inclusive thing which I suspect to be unitarian and thus unable to save or to speak authoritatively into history; and the whole Levin plotline suffers from authorial lecturing.
A hundred and thirty years after its publication, Anna Karenina is remembered mainly for its eponymous heroine and not Levin. The reason, beyond the title, is fairly simple to discover. Anna’s plot is more immediate, more dramatic, and more authoritative. Tolstoy simply is better able to depict the ennui of evil than he is able to display the romance of goodness. His idea of goodness is too vague. To convince us that Anna is wrong one only has to tell her story. But to convince us that Levin is right somehow requires a series of tracts.
In GK Chestertion’s critique of Tolstoy in his book Twelve Types he made the observation—
The narrow notion that an artist may not teach is pretty well exploded by now. But the truth of the matter is, that an artist teaches far more by his mere background and properties, his landscape, his costume, his idiom and technique--all the part of his work, in short, of which he is probably entirely unconscious, than by the elaborate and pompous moral dicta which he fondly imagines to be his opinions. The real distinction between the ethics of high art and the ethics of manufactured and didactic art lies in the simple fact that the bad fable has a moral, while the good fable is a moral. And the real moral of Tolstoy comes out constantly in these stories, the great moral which lies at the heart of all his work, of which he is probably unconscious, and of which it is quite likely that he would vehemently disapprove. The curious cold white light of morning that shines over all the tales, the folklore simplicity with which 'a man or a woman' are spoken of without further identification, the love--one might almost say the lust--for the qualities of brute materials, the hardness of wood, and the softness of mud, the ingrained belief in a certain ancient kindliness sitting beside the very cradle of the race of man--these influences are truly moral. When we put beside them the trumpeting and tearing nonsense of the didactic Tolstoy, screaming for an obscene purity, shouting for an inhuman peace, hacking up human life into small sins with a chopper, sneering at men, women, and children out of respect to humanity, combining in one chaos of contradictions an unmanly Puritan and an uncivilised prig, then, indeed, we scarcely know whither Tolstoy has vanished. We know not what to do with this small and noisy moralist who is inhabiting one corner of a great and good man.
That is a fair comment, I think, to make about Anna Karenina, although fortunately in this book the fault is kept to a reasonable minimum.
In the end, I recommend that you read Anna Karenina not so much for what it teaches but for what it teaches against. Many writers have tried to depict sin in both its attractiveness and in its destructiveness, and have failed—either by making the sin so repulsive that it becomes impossible to see how a rational person could embrace it, or by making the sin so enticing that the moral is compromised or lost. In Anna Karenina Tolstoy appears as the rare success. There’s no denying the sympathy one feels for the main characters; there is no denying the ugliness of their sins. Equally, there are moments of divine grace, unexpected and unpredictable, that retrieve the wreckage being made of the some characters’ lives. The result, despite abovementioned flaws, is well worth while.
Gutenberg etext (trans. Constance Garnett)
I have not seen any of the various film adaptations of Anna Karenina, none of which (I am reliably informed) treat the story properly. The 2012 movie looks sumptuous, and I never yet met the elaborate visual conceit I didn’t like, but its whole point seems to be that Anna’s trouble stems from the artificial restraints of a society held in place only by the willing suspension of disbelief of its members. A typically contemporary way of looking at it, and not remotely what Tolstoy was saying.