Set in 1870s Russia, Anna Karenina is of course considered one of the greatest novels of all time.
There are two main threads, two sets of characters, that make up the bulk of the action. These two main stories are interrelated.
The title character is a still fairly young married woman, a beautiful and sophisticated noblewoman (all the major characters are of the nobility, which is true of virtually all of these classic Russian novels), with ambivalent feelings about her marriage and her older husband. She is attached to her young son, but otherwise leads a somewhat dissatisfied, bored life. One of the few things she has going for her is an ability to charm virtually anyone she meets.
Her husband, Karenin, is a stuffy civil servant, skilled at bureaucratic maneuvering and such, but otherwise not very deep intellectually or emotionally.
Into their lives comes Count Vronsky, a young playboy type. He and Anna enter into an affair, and for the entire rest of the novel they struggle with the consequences of that. Will Karenin find out? If he does, what will he do? Should she leave Karenin to be with Vronsky? What are the chances she could obtain a divorce from Karenin? What would happen to her son if she split from her husband? Will Vronsky even want her on a long term basis, or is he only capable of a brief, passionate fling? How will her peers in high society treat her (and Karenin and Vronsky) as this all plays out?
The other main story revolves around Constantine Levin, the character that comes closest to the real life Tolstoy. He, like Tolstoy, struggles with all kinds of philosophical and religious issues, is committed to living a life closer to the land and the peasants than most noblemen, sees the flaws and hypocrisy in people and tends to be socially awkward around them, is much more capable of independent thinking than most of his peers, and in general is an intense, idealistic, principled fellow that others tend to admire, dismiss as a crank, or both.
Levin falls in love with 18 year old Kitty, and shy as he is about such things eventually works up the nerve to propose to her. She clearly is favorably disposed toward him but turns him down, as she’s angling for a proposal from Vronsky (herein one of the overlaps between the two main storylines), who is certainly more conventionally desirable as a mate, a better “catch” in the eyes of society.
Vronsky instead runs after Anna, crushing Kitty, who had crushed Levin.
Levin tries to put the whole ugliness behind him, and throws himself into his farming and into working out his philosophical and social theories all the more. Kitty goes abroad with her family for a while to try to get over the traumatic events, toys with the idea of devoting herself to a more religious, idealistic life, and wonders if Levin wasn’t the one she had greater feelings for all along, as well as being the better person.
The story follows Levin and Kitty and their families, as the possibility arises of their ending up together after all.
The edition of Anna Karenina that I happened to read—the Norton Critical Edition—includes almost 200 pages of critical essays and such, providing multiple perspectives through the years on the book and its author.
Tolstoy has an insightful way of describing on a meta level what is going on psychologically and socially with his characters. For example, he notes how surprisingly often people don’t say what they mean, even when they had every intention of doing so. There’s something about habit and social expectation that routinely overrides such intentions. It’s not all that often a conscious effort to deceive, but more that their subconscious awareness that “x rather than y is what people tend to say in this situation and so the safer course for me to take” kicks in.
One of the critical writings collected in this edition is an excerpt on Tolstoy from D.S. Mirsky’s A History of Russian Literature, wherein he describes better than I ever could this ability of Tolstoy to describe psychological and social reality in a way that is so direct and literal, and therefore unconventional, as to seem superficially unrealistic when in fact it’s the opposite:
The essence of Tolstoy’s early art was to push analysis to its furthest limit; hence it is that the details he offers are not complex cultural facts, but, as it were, atoms of experience—the indivisible units of immediate perception. An important form of this dissecting and atomizing method (and one that survived all the changes of his style) is what Victor Shklovsky has called “making it strange.” It consists in never calling complex things by their accepted name, but always distinguishing a complex action or object into its individual components. The method strips the world of the labels attached to it by habit and by social convention, and gives it a “dis-civilized” appearance, as it might have appeared to Adam on the day of creation. It is easy to see that the method, while it gives unusual freshness to imaginative representation, is in essence hostile to all culture and all social form, and is psychologically akin to anarchism. This method is the principal feature that distinguishes the work of Tolstoy from that of other realists.
When I read a work of fiction like Anna Karenina, especially one of such a great length with such an extraordinary amount of description—of both the externals of these people’s lifestyles and the ideas and attitudes in their heads—a question arises as to how valuable it is as history. That is, if one wanted to know—in a nonfiction sense—what life was like in Russia in the 1870s (e.g., what ideas were being talked about in the press and amongst the nobility and government officials, how the peasants lived and interacted with the nobility, what formal balls were like, how Moscow and St. Petersburg differed socially, what people’s attitudes were toward infidelity, how sexist and crippling social reality was toward women, and on and on), how valuable a source would Tolstoy’s novels be? Should an anthropologist wanting to better understand this particular historical culture read Anna Karenina?
My sense is that an author like Tolstoy puts a very high value on accuracy, and that a book like this is extremely valuable in terms of better understanding the people of a certain culture and their typical lifestyles, beliefs, and mores. But I know there is a school of thought that rejects this idea.
I recall I had a literature professor who addressed this question directly—not in terms of Anna Karenina specifically, but in general—asserting that it is absolutely not the role of a novelist to educate about history, that there is no more obligation or expectation that a social milieu and such be described accurately in a work of fiction than that the individual characters and events correspond to real people and events.
I disagree, and I’ve touched on this in one or more of these essays previously. Probably 90% of what I know—or think I do—about life in Czarist Russia, especially in the 19th century, comes from works of fiction by Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and other Russian novelists of that era. I certainly hope those authors didn’t give themselves permission to just make up the social and historical context of their stories as they went along, and insofar as they did I would think less of them.
But I suspect it varies from author to author and from story to story. Just thinking back on my reading from long ago, I remember some critic noting that Shakespeare made little or no effort to make his foreign characters accurate. That is, Italians in a Shakespeare play are really no different in terms of their personalities and attitudes and such than Englishmen. (I don’t know if that’s true; I’ve had only the most minimal exposure to Shakespeare in my life.) Similarly, I remember an introduction to Edgar Allan Poe’s short story Metzengerstein noting that though it is supposedly set in ancient Hungary, really Poe just used “Hungary” as a stand-in for “an exotic place far away from us in time and space” and wrote a story with a setting that bore basically no resemblance whatsoever to any time period in the real Hungary.
I also recall seeing a comment from Norman Mailer long ago saying that the reason he chose such a remote setting for Ancient Evenings (his novel that takes place in ancient Egypt), was precisely that he didn’t want it judged on its accuracy. He said that the fact that we know virtually nothing whatsoever about the attitudes, habits, verbal styles, etc. of people in that far removed a culture gave him the freedom to attribute whatever he pleased to them.
But I don’t think Anna Karenina is like that. I can’t say for sure, but certainly my impression is that part of Tolstoy’s purpose is to describe life as it was in his particular time and place. I don’t think he would depict romantic connections between nobility and peasants as commonplace if they were really unheard of, or vice versa, I don’t think he would depict 10% of the nobility as sincere and literal believers in the Orthodox Church and 90% as giving it lip service at most if the reverse were true, or vice versa, and I don’t think he would depict the Royal Family as all fluent in French and ignorant of German if it were really the other way around, or vice versa.
Anyway, so as I read a book like Anna Karenina, a lot of what I think about along the way is how these people are shaped—and limited and perverted—by the social reality of their environment.
I see many commentators remarking on what a strong, intelligent, self-directed woman Anna is, how she finds people like her husband so insufferable precisely because they are so conformist, so lacking in vision, so dead inside.
I’m frankly not that impressed with her, though I attribute her unimpressive nature largely to social forces beyond her control and so tend to excuse her for it.
But I think she’s the kind of woman who is so good looking and has developed such social charms that the people in her life—and readers—want to attribute all kinds of other appealing traits to her. When you get right down to it, she’s obsessed by things like looks, she’s crushed when high society no longer approves of her, and her ideal of love is about 20% noble, inspiring, and worthy of sacrifice, and 80% insipid, juvenile infatuation. She’s a drama queen, prone to horrible, debilitating jealousy.
Now again, a lot of that can be excused in a sense. Why is she so distraught at even the slightest sign (in reality or more likely her imagination) that Vronsky is losing interest in her? Because in the society in which she lives, she is completely and utterly vulnerable if the man she is dependent on pulls the rug out from under her. Once she has given up her husband, and her peers have largely turned their back on her, what does she have besides Vronsky? Not just in terms of companionship, emotional support, love, etc., but even just in terms of sustaining herself? If she lost his support, where would she live? How could she generate an income to live on other than perhaps through prostitution?
The power of society to control and punish with its disapproval and ostracism is one of the main themes of the book. It’s not always consistent or predictable—e.g., infidelity in some ways is tolerated as long as you adhere to certain hypocritical conventions about it, and even when Anna and Vronsky flout such conventions they find that in certain circles it is still tolerated by people who pride themselves on their modern, liberal attitudes—but in the end if you stray too far from the norm, as wise or idiotic as that norm might be, you can expect to come to grief.
One of the most striking examples of this is the abortive moral awakening of Karenin.
As his estrangement from Anna grows, he becomes increasingly cold toward her, basing his treatment of her on what he intuits is expected in his social class, since he has no other moral compass to speak of. But then when she is believed to be on her death bed, he suddenly understands for the first time in his life the basic Christian morals of compassion and forgiveness that, like all those around him, he has always mouthed but never truly appreciated and embraced. He opens his heart to Anna, and even to Vronsky, and seemingly becomes a new, much deeper, man.
But after initially sharing her husband’s desire to put their relationship on a firmer foundation of love and forgiveness, when Anna recovers she decides he’s still repugnant to her after all, and she lets those noble emotions fade. Of even greater influence, as Karenin steps hopefully but uncertainly into a new moral life, he receives zero support from his peers.
Everything they tell him, and everything they expect from him, is incompatible with the new moral worldview that has opened up to him, and because it is such an unfamiliar and radically different path he has embarked upon, and because he has spent his whole life habitually conforming to the expectations of those of his social class, he pulls back. He knows at some level that that’s not what he should do, but he feels powerless to defy the social pressure he is experiencing. He falls into a depression, and even a degree of insanity, and his moral salvation is lost.
The story of Levin, and of his relationship with Kitty, probably speaks to me more than the story of the title character, perhaps because I find a lot of Tolstoy’s philosophy interesting and appealing, and Levin is more or less the Tolstoy stand-in in this book.
The portrayal is not completely autobiographical certainly, and the philosophy of Levin does not overlap totally with that of the later Tolstoy—the famous, and in some circles notorious, pacifist and anarchist.
Levin determines that the key to a moral life is to live for others, but where I think he differs from Tolstoy, at least the later Tolstoy, is that he believes this can and should be done within the existing social structures. That is, a good man will devote himself to his family, and, if he is born a noble, will live a proper noble life, respecting the land, respecting tradition, etc. Furthermore, despite having considerable religious doubts when he was younger, Levin finds a way to pretty much reconcile himself to conventional religion.
I think as he grew older, Tolstoy moved in a more radical direction. His was still a highly moral worldview, and in his own idiosyncratic way a religious (Christian) one, but he became persona non grata as far as the Tsarist government was concerned, he was excommunicated by the Russian Orthodox Church, and in general came to believe that to truly live a loving, Christian life one had to reject almost everything that mainstream society—at least the society of the nobles of which he was a part—takes for granted.
There are an endless number of topics one could address concerning Anna Karenina, but since I don’t want this piece itself to be endless I’ll mention just one more point.
As Levin comes to believe he has a greater understanding of the meaning of life toward the close of the book, it’s interesting to contrast his moral awakening with that of Karenin.
Karenin was pretty much destroyed by his awakening. When he found no fertile ground in the society he had always followed in which to nurture his new moral insights, he ended up worse off than when he had been morally blissfully ignorant.
Levin experiences his awakening as more fully, and sustainably, positive, perhaps because he has always been capable of not conforming, has always had an independent mind and tried to work things out for himself as best he could.
But even with Levin—and I think this is a strength of the book and of Tolstoy’s realism—acquiring certain moral insights does not simplistically translate into behavior that is always consistent with them.
Isn’t that the way it always is? You reach various points in life when you feel that you suddenly have a greater understanding of life and of how it should be lived—maybe from a role model in your family, maybe from a teacher, maybe from a member of the clergy or something in the Scriptures of your religion, or maybe even from your reading of an author like Tolstoy—but you don’t just dramatically live completely differently from that moment on. Instead it’s there as kind of an ideal to aim for, and maybe incrementally you can move your life closer to it over time, but embracing it is not an all or nothing thing.
It’s not like at one moment you’re completely unaware of these moral principles and how and why they apply to you, and then all at once you’re aware and you just automatically abide by them. Sometimes your “getting it” might feel sudden like that, but really your embracing of your moral principles tends to be a gradual and imperfect thing.
It’s not that you’re being hypocritical and pretending to believe something you don’t, but, like Karenin and like Levin in different ways and to different degrees, you have a whole lifetime of habits of thought and behavior to overcome, not to mention living in a society that tends not to be conducive to moral purity, and so any moral improvement tends to be in fits and starts.
Levin comes to understand and accept this, and so not to beat himself up too much when he behaves in what he sees as a not very “Christlike” manner. He knows that even with the insight he has gained he will still at times experience anger, impatience, selfishness, and all the rest, but he also knows that at least now he has something he can work toward, rather than feeling adrift and at times suicidal the way he had for years while searching for a meaning to his life.