Grigory Grigorevich, 1890
Leo Tolstoy’s original title for Anna Karenina was to be, Two Marriages, initially serialized between 1875 and 1877 in a Russian periodical. This first title, with its Shakespearean ring, might have been altered slightly to Three Marriages, for the story can be segmented into three key relationships.
The novel does not concentrate solely on Anna Karenina, as the title suggests, though Anna is unquestionably the most captivating character. Her marriage to Karenin, the marriage of Dolly and Oblonsky as well as the budding relationship between Levin and Kitty, which grows and matures with such beauty and sensitivity, are the three pivotal relationships that Tolstoy develops by weaving them together through interactions and near-associations that work in concert as an elaborate Russian dance.
The first chapter begins with the wearisome marriage of Oblonsky and Dolly, centering on the awkward and ridiculous, illicit affair carried out by Oblonsky, which Dolly, a strong woman, will not tolerate. She is not the kind of wife who will avert her eyes and look the other way, as many of the society women will do by compromising and finding lovers of their own. Next, Tolstoy introduces Levin. An idealistic man, he dreams of Kitty and wonders if he still has a chance with her. These are the beautiful scenes on ice with brightly rendered skaters circling as the couples meet within a dazzling milieu of sunshine and snow. Tolstoy gives Kitty and Levin deliciously restrained dialogue, and particular enchantment is given to Levin’s thoughts:
“Yes,” he thought, “now this is happiness! Together, she said let us skate together! Speak to her now? But that’s just why I’m afraid to speak – because I’m happy…”
Even at this early stage, Levin and Kitty strive to understand one another, and when Levin fears he has lost the thread in conversation, he panics inside:
“What’s wrong? I have offended her. Lord help me!”
With this stirring scene, the reader gains a kind of bond and trust in the two characters. We root for Levin and Kitty even through their lost hopes and their flaws.
Vronsky, on the other hand, never fully gains our trust. Right from the beginning, Tolstoy portrays him as questionable. Vronsky “had never had a real family life.” He did not love his mother. His mother was a wealthy society woman who later had “notorious” love affairs, while Vronsky was away being educated at a military school. He hardly remembered his father. Knowing this about Vronsky’s past, one naturally draws conclusions about his aversion to Anna’s son and complete, almost contemptuous denial of Anna’s marriage to Karenin and the sacredness of her family life. Vronsky pursues her and doggedly, almost fanatically, lures her away from the family lair.
Indeed, Tolstoy paints Vronsky as rather spoiled, privileged and vain:
“He had often before had this sense of physical joy in his own body, but he had never felt so fond of himself, of his own body, as at that moment.”
Yet, these sensations are brought about by Vronsky’s anticipation of seeing Anna.
“And as I go on, I love her more and more.”
Vronsky’s character is uniquely sensuous and not altogether wicked, but consistently surrounded by beauty – and beautiful himself:
“… the roofs of the houses shining in the rays of the setting sun, the sharp outlines of fences and angles of buildings, the figures of passers-by, the carriages that met him now and then, the motionless green of the trees and grass, the fields with evenly drawn furrows of potatoes, and the slanting shadows that fell from the houses, and trees … everything was bright like a pretty landscape just finished and freshly varnished.”
Vladimir Volosov, Russian Landscape, 2002
However, there is a vanity and an unnamable dread in the beauty of Vronsky. Froufrou, the name of Vronsky’s horse, is more than a little telling. In French, froufrou means swish, rustling, pomp, show. These meanings describe Anna, especially at the point when she and Vronsky meet: on the train and then at the magnificent Russian ball. Anna is beautifully dressed in a swishing, rustling gown surrounded by a show of pomp and aristocratic pageantry. What’s more, in English, froufrou implies something that is not taken very seriously, something ephemeral and not lasting. Vronsky himself shows signs of the latter meaning with regard to women. Originally, with Kitty when she feels so certain of his love for her, yet Vronsky, all the while, thinks nothing of Kitty once he leaves her side. For the reader, his reputation of fleeting romance stays, even as he appears to be devoted to Anna. We are never completely certain that his devotion is lasting.
Communication and misunderstanding are a driving theme here in relationships. Anna and Vronsky, despite their grand passion, never fully understand each other. There are great lapses in interpretation between what is said and what is heard. While Kitty and Levin, on the other hand, understand each other, often with only a look but also via long, tirelessly wrought conversation. Theirs is the lasting, spiritual relationship of a true marriage. Vronsky may love Anna, but regrettably he fails to express his love for her and she fails to believe in anything he says. They do understand one another through their bodies. However, verbal exchanges only get in their way, disfiguring their love to utter confusion. As when Anna tells Vronsky about having confessed their affair to her husband, Karenin. Vronsky’s response is actually quite chivalrous.
“‘Yes, yes, that’s better, a thousand times better! I know how painful it was,’ he said. But she was not listening to his words, she was reading his thoughts from the expression on his face. She could not guess that that expression arose from the first idea that presented itself to Vronsky – that a duel was now inevitable. The idea of a duel had never crossed her mind, and so she put a different interpretation on this stern expression.”
Ilya Repin, 1899
Time and again, Vronsky tells Anna that he loves her and wants to devote his life to her, but she simply will not believe him. She feels certain that she can read his thoughts and that he could never love her now that she is in such a humiliating “position”. Yet, the writer builds upon small horizons of hope throughout the story.
Tolstoy illustrates many contradictions such as these. Anna yearns for Vronsky’s love, while rejecting it; her pompous husband, Karenin appears harsh, even severe, at times, yet he embodies the Christian virtues of compassion and mercy, even with Anna, up to a point. Levin, who constantly searches for spirituality and meaning, stumbles into murky territory even in the simplest of situations. The entire story reaches for clarity, with religious perseverance, yet Tolstoy’s central characters are habitually tangled up in confusion and ambiguity.
Indeed, it seems that Tolstoy has painted Anna into a corner. She is a remarkably intelligent woman; however, she remains so troubled that she cannot reason lucidly nor even turn to God. Consequently, Anna has little choice, and the one choice she truly desires eludes her, because she deeply believes that Vronsky can’t possibly love her. The words “shame,” “hopeless,” and “disgrace” repeat themselves in her mind, and she feels these things not only in society and in her own household but also in the eyes of Vronsky. It’s as if Vronsky represents society itself. Their only chance would be to somehow escape the era in which they live.
Dolly presents another character altogether. A matronly woman, the perfect example of a good mother and wife, ultimately, her choices are either to forgive her husband for being free and promiscuous or to leave him. Still, leaving him is not a real option. Dolly entertains the idea in fantasies, but in reality, it would be no life for her in 19th Century Russia.
Conversely, the highly circumspect Levin, tortured with his incessant soul-searching and philosophical labyrinths to find the meaning of life, finally reaches his answers, first, through a mere peasant and this peasant’s uncomplicated answer; “To live for God and for the Soul” and secondly, through a higher Divinity while gazing up at the stars, which appear to be moving across the sky. The celestial illusion suddenly puts to rest all of Levin’s questions about religion. And a clear understanding is shared when Levin looks into the bright, incomparable eyes of his wife.
Anna Karenina is a brilliant, expansive novel with too many small, beautiful scenes and nuances to include in a blog post… or a film, for that matter. I have seen two film adaptations and both were not able to represent the tale fully, although, the 2012 version is spectacular. Keira Knightley portrays Anna wonderfully, and it was interesting to hear Knightley describe Anna as an “anti-heroine” rather than the heroine of the tale. Perhaps Anna could have changed her fate; however, the writer chose to make a statement about a woman and her position in relationships and in the world.
Keira Knightley as Anna Karenina