Amurph11’s #CBR4 Review #47, Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
I’ll get angry in the same way with the coachman Ivan, argue in the same way, speak my mind inappropriately, there will be the same wall between my soul’s holy of holies and other people, even my wife, I’ll accuse her in the same way of my own fear and then regret it, I’ll fail in the same way to understand with my reason why I pray, and yet I will pray—but my 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! -Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
I struggled with Anna Karenina. Not in a reading comprehension sort of way—although the free version available on Kindle is a crap translation, with nonsensical paragraph breaks and a rampant overuse of the term “contemptuously”—but in a spiritual sense. Part of the problem was that halfway through reading the book, I read an article about it, a thin, moralistic interpretation of a deeply complex book. The contention of this article—that happiness was entirely dependent on a strictly Christian sense of morality, and that Anna’s circumstances were entirely due to her infidelity and “sensual desire”—made me so angry that it colored my reading of the entire book. I was so busy looking for alternative interpretations that I came close to missing the actual point of the novel. It was only afterward, when I had time to really think about it, that I was able to grasp its message.
The first line of Tolstoy’s novel is no accident: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” That first sentence opens onto a story that is, at its heart, primarily about the question of happiness, and how one comes about it. It is also a subtle hint for us to put aside our biases: the matter of happiness and unhappiness is too complicated to be boiled down to one principle. Happiness is an uncomplicated thing, it says, but unhappiness is enormously complicated, far too variegated to assign a single cause.
I’m a huge fan of Russian literature, mostly because it tends to eschew happy endings. I can’t abide happy endings. At best, they’re unrealistic. At worst, they are damaging lies, encouraging us to pursue ends without considering the means of how we’ll achieve them, to set our expectations to unreachable. For most of us, the happy endings of literature and film do not exist. At best, we can expect to reach the end of our lives battered but unbowed, looking back on a life filled with both regret and joy. At most, we can hope that the latter will outweigh the former. Russians seem to understand this, and their realistic view of both the difficulties involved in pursuing a happy life, and their recognition of the complexity of human nature, makes reading their novels an existential struggle.
I struggled with Anna Karenina chiefly because, like most people, I couldn’t decide how to feel about the titular character herself. The story of Anna Karenina’s downfall is equal parts depressing and scintillating. The character fascinates us, despite the fact that until the end of the novel we don’t spend a whole lot of time in her mind; instead, our impressions of her are largely comprised of how she is viewed by other people: by her sister-in-law Dolly, with a sort of awe; from her brother Stiva with uncomplicated affection; from her husband Alexey with the kind of respect that, as Tolstoy puts it, “was invented to cover the empty place where love should be”; from her lover Vronsky with consuming passion; from just about everyone else in the book, with first admiration, then pity, then contempt. As readers, our mirror can be found chiefly in the character of the society in which Anna lives. At first we admire her as the consummate wife and mother, but with a wit that renders her more interesting than her contemporaries like Dolly, her boring and beset sister-in-law. Then, when she falls for the heedless Vronsky, our opinion changes. First we pity her, as she succumbs to a chance at grand passion. Then, as we learn more about her lover’s nature, we deride her. We feel contempt for the way she treats her husband, even as he forgives her. And finally, in her crazed jealousy and despair, we pity her. At the same time, we read about her treatment by society with self-righteous horror; surely, we would never treat Anna as hideously as all her former associates. We do these things often without the least bit of self-awareness. It is this cognitive dissonance that makes the story so difficult to digest.
Like Kiera Knightley, I had trouble deciding how to react to Anna. I spent most of the novel wanting to defend her, only to find myself judging her decisions (“I would never be so stupid as to fall for someone as obviously flakey as Vronsky;” “Why doesn’t she just divorce her husband already??”, “God woman, get it together.”). This was particularly the case at the end of the novel, as Anna descends further and further into suicidal madness and I found her more and more pathetic, to the point that her suicide came as somewhat of a relief.
The parallel to Anna’s story is, of course, that of Konstantin Levin. Levin is a great character—crotchety and unsure, with the kind of genuine humanity you rarely find in contemporary literature. Like Anna, whose unhappiness comes chiefly when she feels she is being forced to live a lie, Levin is a character who wants above all things to live an honest life. Unlike Anna, by the end of the book he mostly succeeds in doing so. And yet, his happiness is precarious. Levin gets everything he wants, but by the end of the novel he too is considering suicide; not because of his circumstances, but because of his certainty that he doesn’t deserve his happiness, and that he can’t live in a world where happiness can’t be conjured through the use of reason.
Levin makes it through his existential crisis better than Anna, and by the end of the book has arrived at this conclusion: I probably won’t change, and neither will the world around me, but the best that I can do is to try to put more good into it than I take out, and to try to be happy.
It’s a conclusion that most of us never find, and those of us who do, only through extensive trial and error. The truth is, happiness is a combination of luck and outlook. Tolstoy’s characters make this clear: Levin, who is a mostly moral character, finds happiness. Karenin, perhaps the novel’s most moral character, does not. Kitty, pure in heart and nature, finds happiness. Varenka, who is purer in both heart and nature, does not. Anna, who chooses infidelity and passion, does not find happiness. Her brother Stiva, who makes the same choices, is perfectly content. Other characters lead half-lives: Serghey loses a chance at full happiness, but still seems reasonably content with his lot; Dolly, who’s loyalty to Stiva is never rewarded, still finds some satisfaction and limited happiness in motherhood. Some of these characters’ state of happiness is entirely dependent on their choices; some on their outlook; most on some combination of the two.
It’s tempting to view Anna Karenina in one of two ways: first, as the author of the aforementioned article did, as a black-and-white morality tale wherein good characters are rewarded with happiness and bad characters with despair. The second is to view it as a cultural cautionary tale: if only Anna lived in the here and now, where women aren’t punished (as much) for their desires, she would not have come to such an end. The truth is somewhere in between the two. Had Anna lived now, where affairs and cohabitation are less toxic to one’s reputation, she still may have lost her son and her lover and ended up ultimately unhappy. But had Anna made the moral decision to stay with her husband and son, she might still have been driven to suicide by her circumstances—a husband she doesn’t love, and a life that she finds stifling. Either way, she ends up unhappy. So the right question to ask about the novel isn’t what she could have done to make her story end differently, but how we choose to react to her story.
Immediately after reading this book, my only reaction was that of annoyance: of Anna’s pitiful end, of Levin’s refusal to be happy with what he has, of the fact that Serghey and Varenka didn’t end up getting together (I can’t be the only Sergenka shipper, can I?). But the book stuck with me, and after a great deal more thought, my main reaction was that of gratitude, for both my luck and my circumstances.
Here’s a story that might help illustrate why: when I first started dating my now-partner, I was involved with another guy at the same time. The other guy knew about my now-partner, but my partner didn’t know about the other guy. I never thought of myself as the type of person to be involved with two guys at once, so I held out on the other guy for a while before ultimately capitulating. It was too tempting: he was flatteringly, obsessively into me. He said all the right things, and the headiness of the situation made me feel like it was inevitable. Giving in was glorious, and even the aftermath of lies and excuses felt exciting. It was disturbingly easy leading a double-life, but eventually, as is always the case, the truth came out and I had to make a decision. Luckily, I somehow managed to make the right one.
The truth is, I’m lucky. I’m lucky that I live in an era that what I did isn’t cause for social suicide. In our circle, it barely made a stir. I’m also lucky that my partner chose to forgive me, to give my character the benefit of the doubt. What I did wasn’t unforgivable—it was early in the relationship, we hadn’t had the exclusivity talk—but my dubious relationship with the truth for the first few months of our relationship would have given him sufficient reason to write me off as a bad bet. But he didn’t. He gave me a shot. And because of that, I have been rewarded with a relationship that has become the home I’d never had.
A lot of good things came out of that initial bad decision. My boyfriend’s handling of the situation caused me to take him more seriously than I probably otherwise would have. Even more importantly, that early experience with dishonesty has prevented me from making similar mistakes. When you think about it, fidelity should not be that difficult commitment to make. All you’re promising is not to be unfaithful and dishonest at the same time. If I want to leave my partner for someone else, unlike Anna Karenina, nothing is stopping me. But to get involved with someone else without telling him, to try to maintain my stable happy home life while enjoying an illicit affair—that would be a cowardly choice. It’s not a choice I’m interested in making. It’s not the person I’m interested in being. And the way I know that is that I’ve already made that mistake. And I am lucky enough to live in a time and place where one can make mistakes, and learn from them.
Because of these things, happiness is a choice I’m able to make on most days. Because of them, I should also be smart enough to be compassionate. I should recognize my reaction to Anna for what it was: a projection of my own choices onto a character. At first, I saw in Anna a kindred spirit (clearly, I do not suffer from low self-esteem). I felt sympathy for her as she succumbed to Vronsky’s affections, but that sympathy turned rapidly to judgment. I derided her for placing her hopes and affections on so shiftless a man (but didn’t I almost do the same?). I was mystified by her own choices (but haven’t others often been mystified by mine?). I felt her pathetic for her jealousy, her inability to get her shit together (but would I really have acted differently, in the same situation?). I didn’t even have the decency to be sad when she died. It was only afterwards, when I finally realized the point, that I found compassion for her.
Tolstoy’s book becomes a masterpiece only when it functions as it was meant to: as a mirror into our own lives, forcing us to evaluate our own circumstances, our own luck, our own decisions, and our own happiness or unhappiness. That mirror will show different things to different people; for me, it exposed some ugliness I wasn’t prepared to deal with: a lack of compassion, for someone who prides herself on her empathy; a kind of gross pride in things I had absolutely no part in achieving, for someone who considers herself to have a realistic outlook on her own character; and a sense of the disturbing potential of human nature, a “there but for the grace of God go I” mentality which I found profoundly unsettling.
What you’ll find when you read Anna Karenina is entirely dependent on your own circumstances, and your ability to approach the novel with honesty and self-awareness. It’s an intimidating exercise; but then, looking into a mirror always is.
Recommended for: anyone who’s ever been in crisis, existential or otherwise
Read When: Either your happiness or your morality is feeling tenuous
Listen With: Forget Russian composers. Just put Yamaha by Delta Spirit on repeat. Anna Karenina would have had this goddamn song 24/7 had she lived in the present day.