Anna Karenina begins the novel as a mother and wife, settled  comfortably in society, respected by her friends and family, and richly endowed by nature. She is beautiful, kind, sensitive, and loving.Before long she is the mistress of Count Vronskii, tormented and despairing and unpleasant in nature and motive. In the end she commits suicide. The mystery of the novel lies in the forces that take Anna from happiness to misery and death. When we first meet her, she is on a mission of domestic counselling. Her brother Stiva Oblonskii is having an affair, and his wife Dolly is threatening to leave him. Anna comes to visit them and to bring about a reconciliation. During this trip she meets Count Vronskii, a dashing and wealthy guardsman, and falls in love with him. Vronskii has been paying court to Kitty, Dolly’s sister, but breaks off his courtship of her when he is taken by Anna. In the following months Vronskii pursues Anna and eventually seduces her. Anna’s husband, Karenin, a highly-placed government official, ignores the affair until Anna brutally brings it out in the open. After almost dying in childbirth, when she is temporarily reconciled with her husband, Anna goes off with Vronskii to live as his mistress. They live in Italy for a while, return to St.Petersburg, and then settle on Vronskii’s farm. Anna becomes progressively possessive, jealous, and miserable.
It is generally assumed that Anna deteriorates and commits suicide because she cannot have her lover and her son too, or because she felt unloved by Karenin, or because a highly conventional and restrictive society has punished her for her sexual boldness by ostracization.There is some validity in these motives and in many others, but Lev Tolstoi has so constructed the novel that it is impossible to settle on one single reason. Karenin is incapable of giving Anna the love that she craves, but he does on occasion—the deathbed scene is an example—offer her love and affection. It is true also that Anna loves her son and, at least at the end of the novel, she cannot have both lover and son, especially in the society she lives in. But when Anna is happy with Vronskii, she does not think of her son. That is, Tolstoi is careful to qualify any cause or motive that we might settle on. What drives Anna to misery and death is far deeper and more complex than any specific motive. Matthew Arnold, in a major statement on Anna’s tale, however, is only one half of the novel. The other half is Levin’s story. Levin is a rural aristocrat who, at the beginning of the novel, is in love with Kitty. His proposal is rejected by Kitty and he returns to the country to brood and to reflect on his fate. He works the land, gets to know the peasants, and comes to recognize that both physical and mental health result from contact with the simple and elemental forces of the country. He meets Kitty after her recuperative trip to Europe, proposes again, and is accepted. Levin and Kitty have children, live simply in the country, and develop a mature love.
Anna Karenina, then, is a contrast of two loves: Anna’s unhealthy and destructive love and Levin and Kitty’s healthy love. Tolstoi seems to be proposing that life and love are healthy when they are grounded in children, hard work, and the simple needs of self and family, and that love is unhealthy when it is based on sexual pleasure and self-will.Yet part of the mystery of this contrast is that we sympathize more with Anna than with Levin. Anna’s unhealthy and destructive fate strikes us as more real than does Levin’s healthy love. Anna dies and Levin and Kitty flourish, but we do not quite believe the Levin story,while Anna’s is unbearably real. Levin’s story reads like a fable,Anna’s like a tragedy. Still, these two characters, who seem to sum up in some mysterious way the alternatives of the universe, strike us with the immensity of their presences—s does Tolstoi. In Levin’s tale Tolstoi convinces the reader that love, happiness, and a life of fulfilment are all possible; yet in Anna’s tale he reminds the reader that the most beautiful and best of natures can be destroyed by forces within us.Anna Karenina in 1886, was astonished that someone like Anna, brought up in beneficent circumstances, would suffer herself to be swept away by passion, and especially for someone as insubstantial as Vronskii. But such a choice is part of the mystery of Anna’s actions. What is not in dispute is that Anna is perhaps the greatest female creation of world literature and that her fate engages all our emotional and aesthetic responses. Her last day alive is unmatched in emotional intensity. Tolstoi has created the inexplicable and tragic state of the beauty and fullness of life in the grip of destructive forces.
Edward Wasiolek

Work Cited:Reference Guide to World Literature

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