Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy who was a Russian nobleman is considered a master of realism. Many writers and critics have called Anna Karenina the perfect novel. Though in his youth Tolstoy was a dissolute privileged young man, in later life he turns towards extreme spiritualism much to the dismay of his long suffering wife. Frequent quarrels with his wife made Tolstoy unhappy with domesticity and when he was eighty-two years old, he secretly left home at the height of the cruel Russian winter. He died within two days of pneumonia.
Relevance of the Title
Though the book covers the lives of many characters, at the core is Anna Karenina. All the stories are connected with her in some way. Running parallel to her story is that of her brother Stiva.
The Flux in Twentieth-Century Russia
The conflict in Anna Karenina arises from the opposing forces of the old patriarchal values and the democratic “Western” values that enshrine democracy and equality for women. Men and women commit adultery in the story but men are judged liberally where as women are ostracized by society.
Is a family a kind of prison that restricts one’s freedom to do as one pleases or is it an institution that confers blessings only is a question that is central in Anna Karenina.
Anna is a beautiful and cultured woman who is married to a nobleman several years older to her. She has had an arranged marriage and she despises her husband’s false conventional attitudes. She is genuine in all that she does. She is not happy in her marriage and when she meets Veronsky, he appeals to her as he is more natural in his sentiments. But society does not condone their affair and Anna faces social disapproval. Since the relationship is not sanctioned by law, Anna becomes increasingly insecure. But even then she spends time and energy in trying to keep her brother’s family whole.
Alexei is Anna’s husband. He occupies a high position in society and the government but his reactions and attitudes are all artificial. He does only such things as are approved by society. There is nothing genuine about the man. Anna feels stifled by the fake life that he leads.There is no tenderness in the marriage; Alexei is remote with his son too as befits society’s beliefs of how a father should be.
Vronsky is the man Anna loses heart to. He is modeled on the Romantic heroes of an earlier age. He is wealthy and dashing and Anna finds him genuine. Of course some of the ardour that he has for her dissipates with time nevertheless, he treats her well.
The story begins with the lines “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Anna Karenina is a family based story. Anna’s brother Stiva is having trouble because he has a string of affairs and now his wife Dolly has threatened to leave him taking the children away with her. Anna who is a sensitive and concerned sister comes hoping to get the warring couple make by making her brother change his ways and be faithful. In their household lives Dooly’s sister Kitty who has two suitors, the shy and aristocratic Levin who is a landowner and Count Vronsky, a handsome military officer who is a nobleman.
Soon, Anna and Vronsky meet and Vronsky falls in love but Anna resists the attraction that she too feels. She is unhappy in her marriage as her husband is the much older Count Karenin who is unimaginative and conventional. He tries to be correct rather than genuine. Anna does not want to do anything that will harm her young son whom she adores. Later in St Petersburg, she meets Vronsky again. Soon she realizes that she too is in love with him. Count Karenin notices the attraction the two have for each other and cautions his wife.
Anna and Vronsky begin an affair and she becomes pregnant with his child. She confesses to her husband that she is in love with Vronsky and carrying his child. Karenin wants her to break off with Vronsky before the knowledge becomes public. He is more worried about what society will think about him and his wife. As Anna refuses to relent, Karenin makes moves to obtain a divorce. But in Russia, it is not easy to get a divorce. Meanwhile Anna gives birth to a daughter. Soon, Vronsky is posted to Tashkent. Anna becomes desperate and Vronsky and she elope to Europe leaving behind her son with her husband.
In Europe, the society does not accept Anna though it has no problem with Vronsky. Vronsky is forced to spend his time with Anna making him feel suffocated. After a time, they come back to Russia. Anna starts becoming jealous and insecure. She is still married to Karenin and she senses Vronsky’s passion for her cooling off. She misses her son too. After a bitter row with Vronsky who she is convinced will marry someone else, she takes her own life by flinging herself under the wheels of a train.
Right from the beginning, trains have a negative aura in Anna Karenina. When Anna and Vronsky first meet, the meeting is marred by the tragic incident of a train accident where a man is run over by a train. It seems to foreshadow the eventual death of Anna.
Vronsky’s racehorse Frau-Frau is a beautiful creature that Vronsky accidentally injures. The horse had to be put down. The horse is a symbol for Anna. She too is beautiful; she too is destroyed. Anna lacks the resilience that he has. Society treats her shabbily though both are guilty of the same error of judgment. Like the racehorse Anna too is vulnerable.
- All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
The family, as an institution lies at the heart of Anna Karenina. All the families shown in the novel are flawed in some way. The flaws are different in each family. In some, the wife is unfaithful or not caring. In some, the husband is pompous and thinks only of society’s opinion.
- In that brief glance Vronsky had time to notice the restrained animation that played over her face and fluttered between her shining eyes and the barely noticeable smile that curved her red lips. It was as if a surplus of something so overflowed her being that it expressed itself beyond her will, now in the brightness of her glance, now in her smile.
Anna and veronsky are struck by each other at their first meeting. It is clear that they are both attracted though she is a married woman and he is almost engaged to another. The reactions between them are stereotyped ones as are encountered in romantic novels.
- “Respect was invented to cover the empty place where love should be. But if you don’t love me, it would be better and more honest to say so.”
Anna is insecure and rather neurotic. She is not sure if there is any future in her relationship with Vronsky. These lines are spoken when Vronsky postpones a trip he has planned with Anna as he needs to attend to some business that concerns his mother. Anna cannot appreciate that there are other people in Vronsky’s life. She wants importance all the time.
- 4. “. . . [M]y life now, my whole life, regardless of all that may happen to me, every minute of it, is not only not meaningless, as it was before, but has the unquestionable meaning of the good which it is in my power to put into it!”
Though Tolstoy was influenced by the Romantic Russian novels of old, he does not make Anna Karenina end with her death in the Romantic fashion. Life goes on for the family as it does for Vronsky too. Levin finds new meaning in his life when a peasant tells that life is not just a matter of filling one’s belly with food. Serving God and being good is more important.