Anna Karenina: Tolstoy’s obsessive eye on love, jealousy, adultery and the decline of Russian aristocracy.
War and Peace and Anna Karenina are the two greatest works by Tolstoy, the former published in 1869, the latter published in installments from 1873 to 1877. They are regularly compared in terms of the difference in style. For some scholars, the inclusion of essays in a narrative that tends to be fictitious makes it difficult to categorize War and Peace as a novel. Tolstoy wrote an interpretative note entitled ‘A Few Words on War and Peace’ in which he explicitly confirmed that this work “is not a novel, even less is it a poem, and still less a historical chronicle.” This explanation by the author makes Anna Karenina his first novel. Another important difference is the time where the two works take place. War and Peace happens during the French invasion of Russia in 1812 whereas Anna Karenina in the years when it was written. As a serial, it took several years to be completed, allowing Tolstoy to witness and describe through his characters, how the society was changing, including his ideas about his country and his own class.
Considered as one of Tolstoy’s masterpieces, Anna Karenina is best known for its outstanding portraits of the compelling characters and extraordinary situations in the story. It has the typical Tolstoy’s signature style to allow the readers to explore the complex personalities of the characters, and to learn about their most intimate desires and emotions as well as ideas and tastes. The novel is full of interesting dialogues and conversations among various topics, ranging from the most frivolous gossips to highly sophisticated issues such as education, religion, morality, and politics, etc.
One of Tolstoy talents is to create distinct, believable characters that the readers quickly identify with, describing in detail their actions, ideas, and intimate thoughts. Tolstoy’s writing is an invitation for the readers to be the witnesses by sharing the atmosphere of different situations like attending events such as a ball, a concert, a dinner, a hunting trip or a horse race. His rich language helps us discover where his ideological affinities and antipathies lie in respectively. Many times his characters impersonate a part of himself or are inspired by close friends or family members which makes his novels somewhat autobiographical especially when he makes Konstantin Levin, one the story leading characters, a kindred soul.
The novel also highlights the situations of the arrogant declining aristocracy challenged by only a few progressive reformers as well as the rising ‘nouveau-riche’ that embraces the luxuries and a colorful lifestyle. Some from the old world aristocracy are struggling to keep up their expensive level of living with increased debt and a rapidly diminished inheritance or income from the land.
There is also another type of aristocrats that can be contented with a simple life. They are truly concerned about the problems confronting the peasants and think that land is a relatively important issue in Russia compared to the rest of Europe.
Tolstoy also shows the double-standard morality of the Moscow and Petersburg high society that ostracizes the heroine Anna, who chooses to sacrifice her honor and her family for the sake of love.
After finishing the last chapters of Anna Karenina Tolstoy renegaded his aristocratic background and concentrated on “morally improving tales”. He published dozens of pamphlets and essays promoting anti-establishment Christian values in an attempt to foment social change. Two years after Anna Karenina was released in 1889 Tolstoy finished The Kreutzer Sonata, initially banned, a novella that was considered to be one of the best books on jealousy and sexual obsession. Many critics think that it matches William Shakespeare’s Othello, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Eternal Husband, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and many other great novels or plays dealing with these complex dark emotional attributes of destructive human relationships.
In Anna Karenina, unfaithfulness or adultery is one of the central topics entangled with jealousy that also troubles many other characters in the novel.
It is possible to find some similarities between Anna Karenina and other 19th Century romantic novels where certain heroines are married to an older man with high positions in society and break their marriages fatally falling in love with young officials. As an avid reader of French literature and politics, Tolstoy was familiar and probably read Adolph, the classic novella by Benjamin Constant. In both stories, the heroine fall in love with young and attractive official, Anna with Vronsky and Ellénore with Adolph. Both give up their stable and privileged status and abandon their husbands. They lose a comfortable life and are rejected by the society. However, the similarities end there since the stories unfold in a different way.
Anna is not abandoned by her suitor whereas Ellénore is. Even though proud of his conquest, Vronsky is captivated by Anna’s looks and personality and ardently pursues her, regardless of the consequences of getting involved with a married woman. He makes no excuses and wants to live together with Anna and even proposes marriage. Adolph, on the other hand, brags about his conquest and indulges himself thinking that “younger men.. were delighted with the skill with which I had supplanted the Count (i. e. Ellénore’s husband),“ They, congratulated me on my conquest and undertook to imitate me.” For Ellénore, it is a short, passionate love affair, that in the end, brings great pain.
Vronsky is madly in love with Anna and faces the challenges. He openly evaluates the available options. Reflecting their situation he quietly thinks; “If I told her to leave her husband, that must mean uniting her life with mine; am I prepared for that? How can I take her away now, when I have no money? Supposing I could arrange…. But how can I take her away while I’m in the service? If I say that—I ought to be prepared to do it, that is, I ought to have the money and to retire from the army.” Money should not necessarily be a problem, since his family is immensely wealthy to allow them a comfortable life abroad. He is even ready to sacrifice a promising military career for Anna in Russia.
Vronsky also knows that his decision has very minor social risks and could even enhance his image as a sophisticated, worldly man. “He was very well aware that he ran no risk of being ridiculous in the eyes of .. fashionable people. He was very well mindful of the fact that in their eyes .. the position of a man pursuing a married woman, and, regardless of everything, staking his life on drawing her into adultery, has something elegant and grand about it, and can never be ridiculous;..…”
However, the impact is somewhat different on Anna’s side. She needs to make the greatest sacrifice of leaving her loved child. And, opposite to the admiration that Anna’s suitor draws from certain social circles, she is made an outcast by most of her “friends,” who turn their back and harshly criticize her. Tolstoy’s description of the rough responses to Anna’s conduct shows one of the darkest sides of the Russian aristocracy. “The greater number of the young women, who envied Anna and had long been weary of hearing her called virtuous, rejoiced at the fulfillment of their predictions, and were only waiting for a decisive turn in public opinion to fall upon her with all the weight of their scorn. They were already making ready their handfuls of mud to fling at her when the right moment arrived. The greater number of the middle-aged people and certain great personages were displeased at the prospect of the impending scandal in society.”
Anna and Vronsky are not the only important characters in the novel. Anna’s brother Stepan Arkadyich Oblonsky (Stiva) and his friend Konstantin Levin, who later becomes his brother-in-law, also have great significances. They embodies two very different personalities exhibiting the contrast between the two styles in the old aristocracy in Russia at the time.
Oblonsky is a well regarded government official but at the same time becomes very irresponsible with his financial situation continuing to borrow money to maintain a high living standard. While he indulges himself with fancy dinners, his family are struggling and have to endure the inconveniences with their summer country house which is in dire need of visible repairs. On top of this, he is also an unfaithful husband and caused social humiliation on his family.
As a contrast, Levin is a character that represents Tolstoy values and ideas. He enjoys a straightforward austere life in the country coexisting with the peasants. Being a member of the aristocracy that owns land, he decides to stay far from what he considers a frivolous city life. Levin is also intellectually engaged, writing a book on agriculture with the particular problems the peasants and land owners face in Russia. He is an idealist that dreams of a non-violent revolution among the following lines. “This is not a matter of myself individually; the question of the public welfare comes into it. The whole system of culture, the chief element in the condition of the people, must be completely transformed. Instead of poverty, general prosperity, and content; instead of hostility, harmony and unity of interests. In short, a bloodless revolution, but a revolution of the greatest magnitude, beginning in the little circle of our district, then the province, then Russia, the whole world.”
The clash of personalities between the two characters is described in different chapters of the novel, particularly when Arkadyevitch, facing bankruptcy, decided to sell a forest without consulting his friend Levin, who knows the buyer and the price of the land is baffled when Oblonsky mention the terms of the operation “’Then you’ve as good as given away your forest for nothing,’ said Levin gloomily.” Surprised Stepan Arkadyevitch reply, “How do you mean for nothing?” with a good-humored smile” and with distinct arrogant tone explicitly referring to Levin continue “Oh, these farmers!” said Stepan Arkadyevitch playfully. “Your tone of contempt for us poor townsfolk!… But when it comes to business, we do it better than anyone. I assure you I have reckoned it all out,” he said, “and the forest is fetching a very good price..”
Tolstoy also includes a minor character to mock the “nouveau-riche” aristocracy. The author introduces the pompous Vasenka Veslovsky who is invited by Arkadyevitch to visit Levin in the country, “a brilliant young gentleman in Petersburg and Moscow society. “A capital fellow, and a keen sportsman,” Stepan Arkadyevitch said, introducing him.” Levin has a different impression seeing his unexpected guest as “a quite uncongenial and superfluous person.”
Tolstoy makes a caricature of this “gentleman” when the three go hunting the next day. Pretending to be at home in the country, he uses a different outfit, appearing in a pair of expensive new boots and an exotic hat. “Vassenka Veslovsky had had no notion before that it was truly chic for a sportsman to be in tatters, but to have his shooting outfit of the best quality. He saw it now as he looked at Stepan Arkadyevitch, radiant in his rags, graceful, well-fed, and joyous, a typical Russian nobleman. And he made up his mind that next time he went shooting he would certainly adopt the same get-up.”
It is not the intention of this long note to go through the vivid descriptions of all the characters and situations encompassed in this novel. Many critical characters are not included here as are the cases of Anna’s husband whose anger and dilemmas facing his wife’s affair, and Kitty, Levin’s wife, who deals with his jealousy when newly wedded. I also did not include here Tolstoy’s brilliant accounts of an election, the discussion of the music played in a concert, the interesting conversations over some sumptuous dinners, and much more.
The idea of this review, like the others, is to encourage those readers that have not yet had the opportunity to try this masterpiece and those who, like me, read it a long time ago, to look for it in their library or to download a copy, even for free, with their iPad to enjoy it again.
Anna Karenina is a work of art that allow the readers to enjoy and learn from Tolstoy’s incisive psychological skills about the universal human conditions, independently of time and place. As a masterpiece classic, this title will be permanently available in print and eBook or any other up-to-date formats for the enjoyment of future generations.