Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in it’s own way.– Anna Karenina, Part I, Ch. I
So begins Tolstoy’s 800-page saga on life, love, and the complexity of the human person. Anna Karenina has long been given the auspicious title of “the greatest novel of all time,” and after spending 3 months deep within its pages, I can see the wisdom in that claim very clearly!
I have read many books that dissect the inner and outer complexity of its main character, but I have never read a book in which the thoughts and actions of every character (and I mean EVERY character) have been given center stage at some point. I can confidently say that Tolstoy is an absolute master at writing the nuances of human psychology into his cast, from the stiffest court member, to the most ignorant peasant, to the most shamelessly flirting debutante. The opinions, doubts, prejudices, goals, and dreams of his characters interplay with one another and affect the entire plot!
Anna Karenina, although it is peopled with many faces, circles around the familial and romantic troubles of three families of the Russian nobility: the Oblonskys, the Levins, and the Karenins. The novel opens with Stepan Arkadyevitch Oblonsky (Anna’s brother) being found out for having an affair with the French governess of his children. His poor and frazzled wife, Dolly, is in a tizzy and threatens to leave him. The jovial, pleasure-loving Stepan asks his sister Anna to come and calm her down to avoid a public scandal.
It is an interesting choice for a character like Stepan to open such a hefty book, but it turns out to be quite smart. For Stepan’s infidelity is smoothed over fairly easily, both within his own family and within his social circle. Anna’s own extramarital affair with a suave cavalry officer, Count Vronsky, becomes the talk of all St. Petersburg and Moscow. She becomes a social pariah for seeking love in the wrong places, and while a liason like her brother’s is seen as a tricky but legitimate gentlemanly entertainment, Anna is automatically labeled as a Jezebel who abandoned her duties as a wife and mother. Trapped in a loveless marriage to her business-like and social climbing husband, it is no wonder that Anna’s eye begins to wander from the cold and dull Alexei Karenin to the dashing and passionate figure of Alexei Vronsky.
What I found particularly captivating about Anna is how truly human Tolstoy fashioned her to be. She has a wide range of emotions that are laid bare on the pages. Her mood swings are rather notorious, and so it is in the mind of the reader, as one’s opinion of her can rapidly change. One minute she’s a petulant, shrill, and clingy woman with an all-or-nothing mentality, and the next she’s an incredibly lonely woman, one who is grasping at whatever glimpses of true happiness she can find, while internally fighting the enormous pressures of her society. The real kicker, of course, is that Anna is all of those things and more. Tolstoy weaves each character’s mental tape so intricately that we recognize all their motives, good and bad. It makes the reader capable of loving and hating each character. It makes them relatable–human.
Levin and Anna: Two Different Approaches to Love
My personal favorite among the bunch is Konstantin Dmitrievitch Levin, the socially awkward but learned Russian noble who takes forever to realize that all of his work and hobbies cannot fill the longing he has for one woman–Kitty Scherbatskaya. After a classic lovers’ misunderstanding, they each do some individual soul-searching, and eventually reunite with their priorities straight. Levin and Kitty exemplify what marriage should be. They run the gamut of newlywed struggles, from navigating the small annoyances of each other’s personalities to how to spend their finances. I love that Tolstoy shows that real marriage means work, to sacrifice for the good and happiness of the other person. You will disagree with your spouse, you won’t see everything eye to eye, and it won’t always be wine and roses. What Kitty and Levin come to learn is that to love someone else, you must love every facet of them, to take an interest in the causes and pastimes dear to their heart, to recognize that they are human. Marriage is about continual discovery, about finding new facets of your spouse to love and cherish. This is challenging work, and Tolstoy wisely doesn’t give this young couple a syrupy sweet romance.
Conversely, Vronsky and Anna, although they do have quite a deep attachment to one another, do not fully embrace this self-sacrificial nature of love. They are still too selfish, each in their own way. Vronsky is concerned about the opinion of his contemporaries in society, while Anna frets and panics over whether Vronsky still loves her and is being faithful. They playact at marriage, traveling all over Europe as if they are on a grand honeymoon, all the while knowing that there are still prying eyes and sticky questions waiting for them back home. They love each other to fill a personal need, not to seek the happiness of the other.
The different ways in which Anna and Levin met life’s challenges was particularly striking to me. Both of them are moody, passionate, and overthinking types, yet one succeeds in rising above doubt and confusion, while the other succumbs to it. Levin looks at every situation in his life from ten different angles and this usually causes him a lot of stress and trouble. He has many inner battles within himself: whether he should support the aristocracy to which he belongs or the peasantry he so admires, whether he should indulge in the worldly pleasures of the city or actively choose a country life that most of his peers disdain, whether he should stubbornly remain an atheist or seek God as the answer to his most interior questions and yearnings. Levin might be a little slow to the table, but his innate curiosity, his desire to seek and know the truth, propels him through these struggles, each in their own time.
Anna, however, doesn’t meet such trials with as much patience or wisdom. She broods incessantly over whether her aristocratic contemporaries are laughing at her, whether her husband will sign divorce papers, whether Vronsky still finds her attractive, and most pressing of all, whether her husband will grant her custody of her son. Starved for true romantic love, she flings her heart at Vronsky in a desperate attempt to obtain the validation and love she desires. Since he has become the only source from which she can glean any affection, she jealously guards his attention and becomes suspicious of his whereabouts any time he is out of her sight. In making him the central point of her life, around which everything else revolves, Anna sets herself up for failure without realizing it. One person cannot hold the entire emotional burden for another, otherwise both will collapse. In addition to such an imbalanced relationship, Anna dearly misses her son. She believes that in having him close to her, it would be as if he had become the band-aid between her old life and the new. Unfortunately, band-aids don’t treat the root cause of a wound.
Anna’s mental health spirals steadily downward, until she realizes that all her hopes are dashed. Her husband refuses to grant a divorce, Vronsky begins to pull away from her smothering attentions, and her young son is denied to her. She takes the most drastic measure to escape her pain and misery, and steps onto a train track….
While Anna Karenina is a sad tale, it encompasses so much of the human emotional life that I would venture to call it a literary triumph. Don’t get me wrong–it’s a marathon! But when you spend this much time with a book, you begin to intimately know the characters. You understand their quirks, can quite literally read their thoughts, and (at least for me) you can start seeing their behaviors pop up in everyday life! The world has its fair share of Vronskys, Annas, Levins, and Kittys. Once you know the characters, you’ll begin to spot them around you. This book is one that will make you stop and think, to question why you do things the way you do. It is an intricate tapestry of the movements of the heart, for good or bad. There is nothing quite like it when art mirrors life, and Anna Karenina is one heck of a mirror.