Thursday, November 6, 2014

Lessons from Anna Karenina

For us, for you and me, there is only one thing that matters, whether we love one another. Other people we need not consider.

Some claim it's the greatest novel ever written.  Dostoyevsky called it "flawless as a work of art."  

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy is an incredible novel--a rich, complex, poignant, and introspective work that touches on the myriad of life's experiences, emotions, and questions.  The writing is superb: I even found the chapter on scything a field positively moving!

The Russian author wrote Anna Karenina in serial installments from 1873-1877.  As he started the novel, Tolstoy was occupied with understanding the idea of family.  Throughout the work, Tolstoy touchingly portrays some of the most powerful and influential moments of family life with vivid detail.  

There is a number of ideas and themes running throughout the work, which is focused on two protagonists: Anna and Levin, who actually meet only once, but whose lives run parallel to each other, though in ever sharper contrast.  

So much could be written about Anna Karenina.  Tolstoy himself said of his work, "If I were to try to say what it is that I meant by Anna Karenina, I would have to write the entire novel all over again."

However, as I progressed through the stories of Anna and Levin, one particular theme stood out to me: truth.  Truth and genuineness.  

Consider the first protagonist, Anna.  Anna is a stunning, kind, confident, and intelligent woman, who was married at a young age to Alexei Alexandrovich, an older, seemingly-emotionless bureaucrat.  While visiting her brother and sister-in-law in hopes of repairing their marriage, wounded by her brother's infidelity, Anna meets the dashing Count Alexei Vronsky.  The attraction is immediate, the desire powerful.

At first Anna sincerely believed that she was displeased with him for allowing himself to pursue her; but soon after her return from Moscow, having gone to a soiree where she thought she would meet him, and finding that he was not there, she clearly understood from the sadness which came over her that she was deceiving herself, that his pursuit not only was not unpleasant for her but constituted the entire interest of her life. 

As the light of Vronsky's allure and appeal grows in Anna's eyes, her husband and their marriage seem dark, fake, and dull.  Though Anna initially resists Vronsky's advances--at least in word--she quickly succumbs to her desire for him, first in her thoughts, then in her actions.  

He [Alexei Alexandrovich] saw that the depth of her soul, formerly always open to him, was now closed to him.  Moreover, by her tone he could tell that she was not embarrassed by it, but was as if saying directly to him: yes, it's closed, and so it ought to be and will be in the future.  He now felt the way a man would feel coming home and finding his house locked up.

When Alexei Alexandrovich hears of Anna's liaison with Vronsky, he gives her one stipulation: do as you will, but maintain appearances.  Anna abhors living such a lie: how could she continue at Alexei Alexandrovich's side, playing the charade of happy, content wife, when there is another Alexei with whom she is passionately in love?

Don't you know that you are my whole life?  But I know no peace and cannot give you any.  All of myself, my love...yes.  I cannot think of you and myself separately.  You and I are one for me.  And I do not see any possibility of peace ahead either for me or for you.  I see the possibility of despair, of unhappiness...or I see the possibility of happiness, such happiness!...Isn't is possible? (Vronsky to Anna)

So Anna eventually leaves her husband and their son, escaping with Vronsky for Italy.  At first it seems that she has everything she desired.  But, for all the apparent freedom she has gained, she lacks a unity of life.  Ironically, the very thing Anna flees from--lies--becomes the life that she lives.  

Vronsky and Anna seem joined as one, but the truth of their situation speaks quite the opposite.  There is no marriage between them.  They are not one.  The precariousness of the relationship soon manifests itself more and more glaringly, like little cracks that grow deeper and wider.  

Anna is shunned by society for her choice to leave her husband and live as Vronsky's mistress.  She is a social outcast.  Their relationship has cost Vronsky a promising career in the military; he ultimately leaves his calvary post and pursues other interests--painting, building a hospital--all in the elusive search for something to desire.  Having his prior ambitions fulfilled in his relationship with Anna, Vronsky finds himself wrestling with the emptiness of discontent.  

Vronsky meanwhile, despite the full realization of what he had desired for so long, was not fully happy.  He soon felt the realization of his desire had given him only a grain of the mountain of happiness he had expected.  It showed him the eternal error people make in imagining that happiness is the realization of desires.

Believing her physical attributes keep Vronsky at her side, Anna desires no other children, knowing a pregnancy and subsequent postpartum period would alter her appearance.  Clearly, this relationship does not rest on a strong foundation.  Anna becomes increasingly jealous, suspicious, and possessive of the love she has sacrificed everything for...a love that is not based in truth.

These fits of jealousy, which had come over her more and more often lately, horrified him and, no matter how he tried to conceal it, made him cooler towards her, though he knew that the cause of her jealousy was her love for him...She was not at all as he had seen her in the beginning.  Both morally and physically she had changed for the worse...He looked at her as a man looks at a faded flower he has plucked, in which he can barely recognize the beauty that had made him pluck and destroy it.

As the novel opens, it is the Anna/Vronsky relationship that seems most intriguing, passionate, and powerful.  Yet, love that has at its root sin, is not authentic love.  Vice has a way of stripping the subject of his or her beauty--it makes one less of a person.  So it happens with Anna and Vronsky.  By the end of the novel, their story has gone flat.  The passion is gone; the romance is replaced with jealousy and insecurity.  Anna, originally so captivating and stunning in her persona, has become monotonous in her vice and misery.  In one of their final conversations, Anna cries desperately to Vronsky:

Respect was invented to cover the empty place where love should be.  But if you don't love me, it would be better and more honest to say so.

The reader cannot help but sympathize with her, but one cannot condone her actions: Anna's pursuit of love did not lead to her liberation, but to her downfall.  Instead of looking outward toward her husband, to whom she had given her vows, or to her son, Anna looked at Vronsky as the fulfillment of her desires.  As Vronsky states, "Other people we need not consider."  

This selfish insistence on Vronsky at all costs, despite the pain it inflicted upon others (including the lovers themselves) eventually meant that Vronsky and his love was all she had.  And when she thought his love gone, Anna saw nothing left for her.  As an article in The American Catholic explains, Anna had lost her identity through her sin.  Vice is self-destructive.

The other major romantic union in Anna Karenina is that between Levin and Kitty.  It exists as a foil for Anna and Vronsky's relationship and whereas the latter union was actually a disunion based on untruth, Levin and Kitty's relationship is genuine.  There is a unity of life between their desires and actions.  

Anna is intent on pursuing her desire for union with Vronsky, despite the enormous moral and societal cost of such an action.  Levin, in contrast, does not live for pleasure.  As he says to his friend (and Anna's brother), Stepan:

"Well, of course," Stepan Arkadyich picked up.  "But that's the aim of civilization: to make everything an enjoyment."

"Well, if that's its aim, I'd rather be wild." [Levin]

Levin's relationship with Kitty doesn't begin very smoothly.  He proposes to her, but she turns him down because she believes that she favors another man: ironically, Vronsky.  Levin's pride is hurt and he returns to his country home.  But unlike Anna, who cannot find any peace or contentment when she is apart from Vronsky, Levin takes his passion and energy and directs it to something fulfilling, as he works the land and applies himself to advancing his farming methods.

"'re a lucky man.  You have everything you love.  You love horses--you have them; dogs--you have them; hunting--you have it; farming--you have it." [Stepan]

"Maybe it's because I rejoice over what I have and don't grieve over what I don't have," said Levin, remembering Kitty." 

Though they parted ways for a time, in his heart, Levin has always loved Kitty and, when he meets her once again at a dinner party, he puts aside his wounded pride and is truthful with his feelings, as is she.  They are subsequently engaged and prepare for their wedding day.  Levin realizes that their marriage must be based on truth: they must be genuine with each other.  And so, before their wedding, Levin fully disclosed to Kitty his past transgressions.

It was not without inner struggle that Levin gave her his diary.  He knew that there could not and should not be any secrets between them and therefore he decided that it had to be so: but he did not realize how it might affect her, he did not put himself in her place.  Only when he came to them that evening before the theatre, went to her room and saw her tear-stained, pathetic and dear face, miserable from the irremediable grief he had caused her, did he understand the abyss that separated his shameful past from her dove-like purity... 

Vronsky and Anna seek to be one, but it is only in marriage that full unity of man and woman is achieved.  This is what Levin and Kitty experience.

Levin carefully kissed her smiling lips, offered her arm and, feeling a new, strange closeness, started out of the church.  He did not believe, he could not believe, that it was true.  Only when their surprised and timid eyes met did he believe it, because he felt that they were already one.

This oneness doesn't preclude quarrels or animosity.  In a remarkable parallel, Tolstoy provides the reader a view into the three months Anna and Vronsky spent traveling together and living in Italy, followed by the first three months of Kitty and Levin's marriage.  Both relationships experience difficulty during this time of adjustment.  After Vronsky grows discontent with his newly-acquired hobby (painting) and Anna secretly yearns to see her son, they abandon their temporary home abroad to return to Russia...almost, one could say, in defeat. 

Yet, the arguments Kitty and Levin have as they acclimate to married life serve to remind them how they are one--something quite absent from Anna and Vronsky's experience.

In perhaps my favorite passage from Anna Karenina, Levin reflects on his feelings after he and Kitty quarrel for the first time as husband and wife, a passage that strongly highlights the intimate union of matrimony.  There is no longer a "he" and "she," but a "we."

...he understand clearly for the first time what he had not understood when he had led her out of the church after the wedding.  He understood not only that she was close to him, but that the no longer knew where she ended and he began.  He understood it by the painful feeling of being split which he experienced at that moment.  He was offended at first, but in that same instant he felt that he could not be offended by her, that she was him.  In the first moment he felt like a man who, having suddenly received a violent blow from behind, turns with vexation and a desire for revenge to find out who did it, and realizes that he has accidentally struck himself, that there is no one to be angry with and he must endure and ease the pain.

By the end of the novel, it is the Kitty and Levin relationship that is more compelling, rich, and fulfilling.  Virtue makes one more of a person.  

Anna's focus became more and more inward: was she the recipient of Vronsky's full, undivided love?  Levin, however, by the end of the novel can cast his gaze up toward the heavens and recognize the source of Love.  Anna leaves this world, taking her life, convinced there is no more love to receive; Levin embraces his life, determined to put the goodness of love into the world.

What would I be and how would I live my life, if I did not have those beliefs, did not know that one should live for God and not for one's needs? life now, my whole life, regardless of all that may happen to me, every minute of it, is not only not meaningless, as it was before, but has the unquestionable meaning of the good which it is in my power to put into it!

No comments:

Post a Comment