Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Anna Karenina is a long book. I don’t mean just numerically, in pages. I can handle long books. I’ve read and enjoyed Gone With the Wind, Les Miserables, Tess of the D’urbervilles, East of Eden, and a host of other long classics. It’s not the fact that it’s Russian literature—I love The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment. I don’t think it’s Tolstoy; I liked The Death of Ivan Ilyich when I read it. But maybe that’s not a very good representation of Tolstoy.
The reason I did not enjoy Anna Karenina was simply because it was boring. And it takes a lot for me to find a book boring. Sad to say, the most interesting scene was Anna’s suicide.
But instead of harping on all of the parts I didn’t like, there is one thing I want to explore: Anna’s plight. And I phrase it as her “plight” because, although she is certainly responsible for her own misery and does nothing to make her situation any better, she is still a victim of her society’s disapproval. And this, of course, is one point of the book.
Anna’s brother Stepan goes to Moscow to see Anna’s husband, Alexei Alexandrovich, to persuade him to finally grant Anna a divorce so she can marry Vronsky. Although, in Stepan’s defense, he does see that Anna’s suffering (at least in society) is pointless, he does not realize the hypocrisy of his situation. Stepan has had numerous affairs, and is in every way a negligent husband and father. Yet he is not berated or judged harshly by society; in fact, he prides himself on being considered an hónest man. He remembers another prominent man, Prince Chechensky, who has an entire illegitimate family, and nobody cares. In fact, throughout the book we are told of many people—men and women—who have had illicit relations, but who get away with it.
So why is Anna’s situation different? Is it because she is a woman, and it is worse for a woman to cheat on her husband than for a man to cheat on his wife? Or is it because the true crime was not in that she had an affair, but in that she made it public?
I think it is both. If she had continued to see Vronsky, but kept it a “secret”—although everyone had known anyway, which is another irony—society would have had no reason to shun her, since, technically, they would not have known. Even Alexei Alexandrovich is agreeable to her seeing Vronsky, as long as it was kept quiet. He simply wants to keep the status quo.
That is really what the elite Petersburg and Moscow society wants: to maintain the status quo. But Anna disrupts it by going public with her affair with Vronsky. At that point, the “honorable” men and women who want to maintain their own reputations have no choice but to condemn Anna. People are supposed to condemn and shun people, especially women, who have “fallen;” they are even supposed to act outraged. Even though, in fact, no one is outraged or surprised, they must pretend. It is their responsibility now to maintain the status quo.
The hypocrisy of the whole affair is a point that Tolstoy emphasizes again and again. For this reason, I think that Joe Wright’s decision to film the new version of Anna Karenina on a stage is pure brilliance. It only drives home the point that these characters are, most of the time, acting. Anna and Vronsky perform an intricate act in their own relationship, and I think this is part of what drives Anna to commit suicide.
I could talk about Levin and Kitty, the opposites of Anna and Vronsky. Their relationship is void of hypocrisy. Levin does have a spiritual crisis in which he also contemplates committing suicide, but he is able to find peace and does not actually carry it out. To be honest, though, Levin is the most boring character of the entire book. I apologize to Leo Tolstoy for what this means about himself; Tolstoy’s wife, Sophia, apparently identified that Levin is a largely autobiographical character.
Even though reading the novel was hard work, I can see the movie version being very rewarding, and I love Keira Knightley, so I am still excited to see it in theaters. Am I glad I trudged through the book? Maybe, if only for bragging rights. Do I recommend it to others? Not really.