Of all the writers I’ve read, Tolstoy is best able to capture the totality of human nature. Again and again, I was floored by the depth of his characters’ internal worlds, his ability to sketch out the motivations and contradictions and fantasies of people whose circumstances are so varied and different from his own.
Anna Karenina is, for those that don’t know, the story of an aristocratic woman who has an affair. There’s also a lot about a guy who likes farming. That’s it. As far as plots go, it’s not the greatest hook, but around this unexceptional subject is more insight into the human condition than you’ll find in a hundred best sellers.
The characters are unforgettable. Mysterious, passionate Anna. Painfully, often comically, earnest Levin. Vain, ambitious Vronsky. Affable, callous Oblonsky. Cold, self-righteous Alexey.
Tolstoy writes in a style that has fallen out of fashion, where he spells out the character’s mental state and motivations, as opposed to having their actions speaking for them. In lesser hands, this style might mean the reader is constantly spoon fed, but his writing has more than enough substance to leave room for delicious ambiguity.
Chief among the novel’s open questions is its elusive heroine. Specifically, why does she fall in love with Vronsky, and act as she does?
It would be easy to read Anna Karenina as a didactic, cautionary tale, the story of a fallen woman who gets her just deserts. In this reading, Vronsky represents the new generation of hedonistic urban youth, luring a wanton housewife away from the traditional institutions of marriage and motherhood.
Certainly, there is plenty to support this as the dominant narrative. What elevates Anna Karenina as a work of art, and makes it so incredibly progressive, is the degree to which Anna is rendered sympathetic. Compared to his contemporaries, the author gives Anna a transgressive degree of agency and motivation. Tolstoy goes to great pains to make the reader understand her position, especially in the breathtaking, stream of consciousness climax to her story (my god, he writes the shit out of those chapters).
Then there is the fact that Anna’s cuckolded husband is a passionless, effete shell of a man, who is repulsive to both her and the reader. Her infidelity is also contrasted with the serial womanising of her brother, for whom there are no consequences. His long suffering doormat of a wife, Dolly, even expresses envy of Anna’s romance at one point, and ends the novel trapped in a loveless marriage, forced to sell off her inheritance to support her husband’s extravagance.
Despite this ambiguity, a clear dichotomy does emerge between Tolstoy’s idolisation of traditional, family oriented, rural religious values and his contempt for feckless urban hedonism. Nowhere is this clearer than in the contrast between the two protagonists, Anna and Levin.
Unlike many of the other characters in the novel, these two are distinguished by an all consuming passion, an irresistible internal drive. Anna’s is entirely self focused, a need to love and be loved. Levin’s materialises as an existential angst, but also a need to find a just way of dealing with the peasants in his land.
In her final hours, Anna receives a kind of clarity that confines her to seeing the hypocrisy of the society around her, a view that is portrayed as both a madness and an insight. At the conclusion of his story, Levin, despite being happily married and with a young baby, also considers suicide, a terrifying prospect in light of what the reader has just experienced.
The crucial difference, I think, is that Levin’s long search leads him to God, whereas Anna leads her only to death. Anna’s longing was always for something worldly, whereas Levin strives for something higher.
But then, there is one other notable difference between Anna and Levin – and that is their gender. I don’t know how Anna’s story may have been different if she had had the opportunities available to men in her era – despite all the contrasts, there is no one quite like her in the novel – but I think Tolstoy at least wants us to ask the question.