It must be great being a genius. You can do things like try and write a moralistic novel about adultery and the evils of high society and end up with a humane masterpiece on your hands. I’m pretty sure if Tolstoy had attempted to make a nuclear bomb he would have inadvertently cured cancer; he was just that kind of guy. It may be apocryphal but I have read numerous times that with this book the author’s intention was to condemn Anna and her set. Yet, if that is the case, why does Anna Karenina not read like a diatribe, like a dressing down of women like Anna and the scoundrels and fops of high society? Because there was too much love in Tolstoy, too much understanding. He may have wanted to vent his spleen, be didactic, but his intelligence and compassion would not allow it. Not only would a diatribe, a pure condemnation, not have satisfied his intellect, but, because he cared for people, he could see things from all points of view. Yes, there are moments of what you could call judgmentalism, like when Kitty describes Anna as satanic, but [almost] everyone in the book is multi-faceted and everyone elicits some sympathy from the author. Whatever the great Russian’s intentions were, I came away from the book feeling a kind of tenderness, for the characters and for the world at large.
I’ve read Anna Karenina once before and, although I very much enjoyed it, I certainly loved it far more this time around. Maybe the reason for that is that during my first read I focussed my attention too much on Anna herself. Anna – the adulteress, the titular character, and one of the most famous names in literature – is probably the least interesting of the major players in the book. She is, in fact, perhaps only interesting so much as her position, as a woman, contrasts that of her brother, Stiva Oblonsky, as a man. The novel opens with that wonderful scene, where Stiva wakes up in an unfamiliar room, and, as his sleep-fogged mind clears, he gradually comes to the realisation that he is there because he has been thrown out of the marital bedroom. Oblonsky has been caught cheating on his wife with a French governess. However, being a man Oblonsky is not lambasted [except perhaps by Levin], condemned or even all that harshly judged; he is, after not too long a time in the doghouse, forgiven, despite his wife not believing in his future fidelity. Anna, on the otherhand, as an adulterous woman, is forced to flee Russia once her affair comes to light and is shunned by society upon her return.
There is also a contrast in the way that both Anna and Stiva see infidelity, and in the reasons behind their actions. Oblonsky, as he is no longer attracted to his wife, deems it perfectly natural that his eye [and other things] ought to wander; he cheats not because he falls for the French governess but because he has the hots for her; and he does not see anything wrong in that. Anna is different. Anna considers Vronsky to be her first and only love. She finds in the relationship an emotional connection she does not have with her husband; her affair is a grand passion. This is why many readers sympathise with her; people, these days, are concerned less with duty and more with the dictum of following your heart. Anna does, however, think that her actions are wrong; she does not love her husband, but she does believe that cheating, lying, and so on, are bad things; Oblonsky, and Vronsky for that matter, lie without compunction. It is all part of that archaic idea that for a man to err is natural, but that a woman ought to be entirely chaste; that it is expected that a man will give chase, but that the woman ought always to resist and flee. I don’t know if Tolstoy’s desire was to highlight these inequalities but he does so nevertheless. I guess I am less inclined to believe that it was his desire, because Anna’s treatment at the hands of the author is different also. She loses everything, while Oblonsky manages to maintain the status quo, and, as most of us know, Anna does not survive the full duration of the book.
In any case, it is necessary to explain why, although the Anna passages and chapters are by no means badly written, I mostly found her, as a character, disappointing. I have seen her held up as a feminist icon numerous times, principally because of all that following your heart stuff and because she is regarded, in breaking from her husband, and therefore conventional society, as some kind of modern woman. Yet, I actually consider the opposite to be the case i.e. that she is not modern at all, but that she is a throwback. I find her disappointing, and often irritating, because she is so predictable; she is the kind of female character that someone like Balzac would have created, by which I mean a melodramatic woman who loses her heart to a handsome officer and ruins her life; a woman who throughout the book wrings her hands and cries and has fainting fits. Is that feminist? If so, then I have misunderstood that whole movement completely. It is not even true to say that she leaves her husband. She cheats on him, yes, but she doesn’t leave him. She, in fact, doesn’t even ask to be let go; her brother does that on her behalf. Anna, meanwhile, simply sits around weeping and gazing forlornly into the distance; she doesn’t act at all. It is her husband, Karenin, the wronged party, who frees her, despite not wanting to lose her.
While Anna disappointed me, Alexis Karenin is perhaps the best evidence of Tolstoy’s subtlety, fair-mindedness, and psychological complexity. He often seems to be glossed over in reviews and articles, but I think he is expertly drawn. Many authors, certainly around the time the book was written, would have gone one way or the other with the husband of the cheating woman: either he would be an imbecile or a saint. Karenin is neither, although I think I am right in saying that Tolstoy’s original thought was to make him saintly. What I like about Karenin is that he is essentially good, yes, but makes obvious mistakes; he is hugely successful in the business world, but he is artless where his wife is concerned. He doesn’t know how to express passion or even warm emotion, and it is clear that this [along with his ears!] is why Anna disparages him and finds it as easy as she does to wrong him. Indeed, Anna at one stage calls him a machine and says that if he had killed her and Vronsky then at least she’d be able to respect him. She doesn’t respect him though, of course, and this, in the beginning, fuels her feelings of entitlement and allows her to proceed, not without guilt, but with less compunction. Karenin’s way also serves to make Vronsky seem brighter, bigger and, crucially, more in love. It is Karenin’s smallness, his shrinking away from romance and passion, that enables the demonstrative Vronsky to seem all the more passionate and romantic and in love. The irony, the tragedy is that Karenin does love his wife very much, but he is an emotionally humble man who covers his embarrassment with jokes and easy sarcasm.
As well as Anna and Vronsky, there is another important relationship formed during the timeframe of the novel, that of Kitty and Levin. I wrote earlier that Anna is a throwback, but Constantine Levin points towards the future [over the century following the publication of the book literature became increasingly concerned with people like Levin – the introspective loner, the anguished, tortured soul]. Levin is very much a Dostoevskyan type of character [I wonder if Tolstoy ever acknowledged the influence?], he is in conflict with other people and also in conflict with himself; he is on a kind of quest to understand himself. When we first meet him he seems intense, pompous, judgmental. It is interesting that it is pretty much accepted that Levin is Tolstoy, because he isn’t particularly sympathetic at times. Take, for example, what he says about ‘fallen women.’ He compares them to a spider; he says that just as one could explain to someone who recoils from them that they are just following their nature, and that will not make one whit of difference in terms of finding them revolting, likewise he will still be disgusted by these women, no matter how one tries to explain or justify their situation.
One of the potential problems with the book, as time marches on, and people have become increasingly secular and morally laidback, is that readers are more likely to identify with and sympathise with amiable cads like Stiva Oblonsky or the intellectually and emotionally straightforward Vronsky rather than the complex Levin [because we would rather see our own flaws reflected in a character]. There is, I feel, a disconnect between who Tolstoy considered, intended as, his hero [or most heroic character] and who the general public will like and see themselves in the most. Levin is, to a certain extent, the moral or more specifically the philosophical heart of the novel; but arrogance, irritability and moodiness are not, I’m told, attractive qualities. Fortunately, however, Tolstoy breathes life into Levin by making him vulnerable, awkward, self-questioning, harder on himself than anyone else; so while he is sometimes a bit of a dick, he is also kind of loveable or endearing [he is, in fact, my favourite; but then I am a dick too]. Like almost everyone in the novel, he is not fully one thing or the other; his behaviour and attitude changes, he is inconsistent in the way that real people are.
If Levin is the moral or philosophical heart of the novel, and Anna provides the tragedy, it is Kitty who goes on the most admirable journey. At the beginning of the novel she is a socialite; she a pretty young girl, who likes balls and dancing and dresses. She is aware of her attractiveness and proud of it, but she is not conceited. Kitty’s two suitors are Levin and Vronsky; her preference is for Vronsky, because he is elegant and handsome and has good prospects [although her mother does seem to have played some part in her choice too]. However, once Vronsky abandons her for Anna Kitty starts to reassess her feelings, her priorities; she begins, in effect, to mature. She comes to see the balls as a kind of cattle market, as a way of arranging marriages, or more specifically of marrying off daughters. The pivotal moment for Kitty is meeting Mlle Varenka, who is a kind of role model; Varenka is pretty too, but is without ego, and Kitty wants to copy her. Crucially, however, she comes to realise that she can’t be anything but herself; that is her epiphany. One could see Kitty’s story as a journey towards Levin, but it isn’t that to me, it is a journey towards womanhood, towards independence [of thought], towards finding out who she really is.
That Tolstoy was a master of character construction and character psychology I hope to have made clear, but his art extends well beyond that sphere. He was, in my opinion, also the master of detail; he had an uncanny ability to know what to draw a readers attention to in order to elevate a scene, for example, the way that Kitty brushes the hoarfrost from her muff or, while at a ball, how she is danced towards Anna, her partner manoeuvring her so that they evade the ribbons and tulle on the other women’s dresses. Tolstoy was able to give significance to apparently insignificant things, he was able to imbue them with poetry. To my mind, Count Leo was also the master of tempo or pacing; he appeared to understand exactly the right point at which to move on his narrative; when the society scenes are getting dull, the action will move to the country; likewise, if Levin is starting to bore, Tolstoy will look in on Kitty. Finally, and perhaps most impressively, Tolstoy was the master of grand scenes. There are numerous grand scenes in Anna Karenina, by which I mean significant scenes that become burned into your consciousness. My favourite is Kitty iceskating; but there is also the wonderful chapter where Levin takes up a scythe and spends a whole day working his own farm, the mushroom picking with Varenka and Sergius, and Vronsky’s horse race. The horse race is particularly potent, because it foreshadows his and Anna’s fate, it sums up their relationship. Initially, the race is exciting, romantic; Vronsky takes the lead, and appears to be sure to win. Yet he makes a fatal, stupid error and his horse falls and breaks its back. As silly as it sounds, that horse is Anna; Vronsky by pursuing her, by riding her so hard, ruins her and, if you want to be dramatic about it, ultimately kills her.
As I come to the end of my review I realise that I have hardly touched on the novel’s themes. What is Anna Karenina really about? I am sure in classrooms around the world that is what is being most discussed. However, I sometimes think these kinds of questions are irrelevant, especially in relation to very long novels such as this. Anna Karenina has many themes, it is about many things; there is no single standout idea. Yes, to a certain extent it is about adultery; it is about love, it is about the contrast between a superficial attraction and a meeting of souls [or I think that is what Tolstoy himself intended, at least initially], for example, Kitty and Levin vs Anna and Vronsky; it is about relationships, familial and sexual; it is about gender and class; it is about duty [see: the brothers, and Stiva and Dolly, and Anna and Karenin and her to son etc]; it is about death; and so on. But, the genius of the book is that more than being about anything Anna Karenina is a believable representation of something. When reading the book what we are exposed to are thoughts, feelings, mundane moments, and dramatic ones too. We follow a group of people who we care about as they live their lives over a significant period of time. Life, for better and for worse; that, to me, is Anna Karenina.
Here, by the way, is Tolstoy as a young man:
Just look at the glorious fucker.