All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. – “Anna Karenina” by Leo Tolstoy
Russian novelists of the nineteenth century are obsessed with love affairs and unhappy marriages. Having just reread Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s masterpiece, I am left, as always, with compassion for Anna. She is the charming, lovely wife of an important but charmless government official, Karenin, and the mother of a beloved son. But Anna loses her position in society after she leaves Karenin for her lover, Vronsky.
When I read AK at 20, I viewed Anna as a romantic figure who was crushed by society for illicit love. I no longer regard Anna as a romantic figure, but she is indeed crushed by society. The double standard is brutal: no one blames Vronsky for a sexual liaison, and he goes about in society as before, but Anna is shunned by friends. When she goes to the opera, she is harassed – by a woman who makes a scene and leaves because of Anna. By default, love of Vronsky becomes Anna’s sole pursuit.
Tolstoy did not at first view Anna as a sympathetic character. He intended to write a novel in which he moralized about her as a fallen woman. But he began to see Anna differently as he wrote this tragic novel.
And yet he also shows Anna as a destructive force. In the beginning of the novel, Anna travels to Moscow to make peace between her brother, Stiva, and his wife, Dolly, who has learned that he is having an affair with their former governess. Ironically, after she persuades Dolly to stay, Anna cruelly destroys the mental health of Dolly’s younger sister, Kitty, by dancing all night with Kitty’s suitor, the handsome Vronsky. She is guiltily aware that she ruined the night for Kitty. Vronsky pursues Anna to Petersburg, without even saying good-bye to Kitty, who is so shattered she has a nervous breakdown. It’s all for the best – Kitty ends up marrying my favorite character, Levin, a much better man – but we see that Anna, like Stiva, is impulsive, with a strong sex drive.
Perhaps you’re wondering: where do the drugs come in? Anna begins to take opium to sleep at night. And we see, horrified, how the opium skews her judgment. Vronsky is faithful to her, as he tells her over and over, but she does not believe him. She is left alone too much at home, and has extreme mood swings. Finally, her thought processes become so disorganized that she enters a frenzied, psychotic state. And when she throws herself on the railroad tracks in front of a train, she is confused – doesn’t quite know how she got there – and regrets the impulse to commit suicide. Too late. Poor Anna! What a terrible end to love!
But perhaps Vronsky is the true destructive force. There is a grim scene where he kills his beautiful mare by incompetent riding in a race. He is careless – careless of the mare, careless of Kitty’s feelings, careless of Anna’s feelings. He can be noble at times, but how could he expect Anna to be happy as a pariah?
Anna is a central character, but in this magnificent novel Tolstoy also delineates the marriages of Levin and Kitty, Dolly and Stiva, and the sad deterioration of Karenin after Anna leaves him. A brilliant, entertaining page-turner. This was, I think, my fifth reading.