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Reflections upon Reading Anna Karenina

When I compare the writing styles of Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, I view the former as seeing life through the external lens of societal forces impacting the major characters in his story. On the other hand, the latter describes his characters through internal or intrapsychic forces that propel them to act.   As a practicing psychologist, I find Dostoyevsky’s method of character development the more appealing but this is not to say that I did not enjoy reading Anna Karenina.

Tolstoy’s writing style provides the reader with his perception of Russia life during the 1870’s.   The description of Russia during this time allows the reader to see both the political and cultural shortcomings. But in providing a slice of life Tolstoy may go into details that don’t alter or add much to the story. An example of this is the rather lengthy scene of Levin arriving late on his wedding date due to a lack of a cleaned pleated shirt. The detailed description of Levin having to obtain a pleated shirt from his assistant adds little to the development of who he his in relation to the other main characters in the story.

The novel, Anna Karenina, has all the qualities of a grand scale soap opera insofar as its principal characters face love, adultery and then, in the fashion of the Greeks, tragedy. None of the major characters in Anna Karenina are outright villains inasmuch as they commit acts of kindness or goodness as well as acts to the contrary. Soap opera characters likewise can go from the heroic in some episodes to much lesser qualities in later episodes. Perhaps the popularity of both Tolstoy’s masterpiece and soap operas resides in this very complex nature of human behavior where evil and good at different times come from the same hand.

As I read Anna Karenina, I thought about George Eliot’s classic Middlemarch written about the same time Tolstoy wrote Anna Karenina. One very significant difference between the two novels was their author’s gender: Eliot’s protagonist, Dorothea Brooke, is introduced early in her life when she is about 17 years old as a naïve and idealistic woman that decides to marry a man much older than she. When Anna is introduced, she has been already married for eight years to a man twenty years older than she.   But although he may be rigid in his beliefs, there is little evidence that he mistreats her or demeans her as there is in Dorothea’s marriage. Eliot resolves her heroine’s marital difficulties by bringing about the death of her spouse, Edward Casaubon. This allows Dorothea the release of her positive energies and the falling in love with a much younger but distant relative of Casaubon, Will Ladislaw.

Anna Karenina’s circumstances are much different: She has the insight to understand she is doing wrong falling in love with Count Vronsky and from the start wants to break it off. But she cannot and we see this love as a fatal attraction that begins to take control of her and becomes all encompassing. She is torn by her passionate love. This results in her diminishing both the character and stature of her husband, Alexei Karenin, causing her to fixate on her husband’s ears as, most repusilvely, sticking out from the rest of his face. Intrinsic to Anna’a attraction to the Count is the fate that binds her love to him much like the fate of that of a Greek tragedy. Anna meets Vronsky at a train station where it is discovered that one of the railroad workers has a fatal mishap that finds him killed at a train crossing. This sets the stage for where and how their relationship will ultimately end.

When Anna’s husband, Alexei Karenin, sees her in the midst of child birth on her death bed, he is able to forgive her and grant her the divorce and right to live with her much beloved son, Seryozha. Dorothea’s husband, on the other hand, writes a codicil to his will stating that she will forfeit all of his wealth if she marries Will Ladislaw. Dorothea chooses to marry Will for the goodness she sees in him, and, in so doing transcends social convention by not doing what others expect of her.  Meanwhile, Anna cannot accept the generous offer her husband makes to her because she does not want to feel indebted to him. Of course, if she accepts the offer we no longer have a Greek tragedy. By her rejecting the offer, she becomes trapped in a relationship, taboo to the norms of the times, with her gradual descent into a Hell. This rejection of her husband’s largesse due to her not wanting to feel indebted to him is difficult to understand given the way Anna acts in subsequent passages of the novel. An example of this is Anna disguising herself in entering her husband’s house to visit with her son on his birthday with the accompanying joy that they both experience. The pain that Anna feels in not being able to see her son, due to her not being divorced, is made very real throughout her relationship with Vronsky.

As I read further, I had hoped that somehow Anna would obtain a divorce, be reunited with her beloved son and live happily ever after. But it became apparent that this would not happen: She sees herself stained, a pariah, having lost all communal and social ties. In feeling entrapped and not being able to travel and interact with family and friends, she started to become extremely jealous of Vronsky and his ability to enjoy himself.  In the past, he would be able to reassure her but as her condition worsened, she refused to believe him, though there is no evidence for her to believe that he was seeing other women. Thus, she became extremely paranoid only thinking that he was cheating on her to the point that she could not and would not believe anything to the contrary. Tolstoy is quite able to let the reader enter her mind and be guided with this paranoid way of thinking in which she seeks revenge on Vronskly by planning her death. Toward the end of Anna’s life, Tolstoy injects a stream of consciousness in the manner in which Anna begins to plot the end of her life. To Tolstoy’s credit, the style of writing changes to closely shadow the paranoia that takes over and grips the tormented mind of Anna.

But there is more to Anna Karenina than her fatalistic death. There is the side story of Konstantin Dmitrich Levin, who often has been considered Tolstoy’s alter ego. In fact, Tolstoy’s wife, Sophia, said that Levin was like her husband but without the latter’s talent. In contrast to Anna and Vronsky, the love between Levin and Kitty, the woman he marries has a much happier ending. Although Kitty, somewhat like Dorothea, is young and naïve when we first meet her, she lacks the depth and moral values that the latter demonstrates throughout Middlemarch. In fact, as we come to understand the moral complexities that Levin finds himself in, we wonder what so attracts him to Kitty.

Levin, most notably stands out, from the rest of the characters because of his dubious sense of reality. His doubt is forever present in his interaction with others who appear to have the answer to the economic and political problems that are a part of everyday life in Russia. Moreover, the corruption in government jobs alluded to by Tolstoy throughout the novel, very well could be viewed as the precursor to the subsequent Russian Revolution and the advent of communism.

Throughout the book, Levin is struggling with his ideas never quite coming to a conclusion on his version of truth unlike the other characters who voice more absolute arguments that he cannot fully understand. Implicit in what Tolstoy is saying is that Levin’s lack of understanding is more a reflection of the superficial values held by others in the novel such as the the brother of Anna, Stepan Arkadyich Oblonsky and Levin’s own philosophically inclined brother, Sergei Ivanovich.

The last paragraph of the book summarizes Levin’s feelings: He recognizes that he will forever at times act inappropriately with his wife and others and later regret these actions, but above all he will be able to realize that his life will not be meaningless. Rather, he alone has the power to direct his life, while committing these human errors, toward the good.

By docallegro

Consulting Psychologist
Specialties in: Cognitve-Behavioral Interventions, Conflict Resolution, Mediation, Stress Management, Relationship Expertise, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Fluent in Spanish

4 replies on “Reflections upon Reading Anna Karenina”

A very in depth analysis of one of my favorite books. I agree with so much of what you’ve written here. It’s interesting to note how different Anna’s life would have been if not for her pride in rejecting her husband’s offer.

Anna’s husband was fairly certain that she was about to die (eagerly hoping) when he offered her any promise of divorce. I do not remember him offering her custody of the son at any point in the book, though. When she recovered, he back-peddled on the divorce quickly. I believe Anna declined the divorce when it was within her reach because society meant more to her than her son or even her connection with Vronsky. She wanted to have her cake and eat it to. Only in the moments with Kitty and Dolly, when she realizes that this will never be possible, she decides it is time to depart this world. That is my interpretation.

In regards to Levin finding purpose in goodness, I would add that it is GOD that makes the difference. He was the goodness contrasting Anna’s poor choices throughout the book. Goodness is not enough. Tolstoy made a point of showing that.

Great analysis and excellent writing! It is quite interesting how you compared it to Eliot’s Middlemarch.
You should try reading “The Master and Margarita” by Bulgakov – my personal favorite of Russian literature. It has two settings (Moscow and Jerusalem) and blends two time-dimensions together. Interestingly, there are many different interpretations of the novel and I’d be very interested to hear yours!

Katrina,

Those are great comments you made. Many thanks. I am not familiar with Bulgakov’s work. Is is a story or a novel:
Master and Margarita. BTW, Middlemarch I found to be a wonderful book!!

Enjoy the week-end.

Best,

Bernard

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