The tragedy of Anna Karenina

One of my 2015 resolutions was to finish Anna Karenina. I finally finished it during my flight home on New Year’s Eve Eve.

Usually, it’s a fair assumption that if a book is named after a character, that character is supposed to be the main focus. Everything centers around Emma Woodhouse or Nicholas Nickleby or Jay Gatsby. The focus is who they are and how they interact with their world.

I was confused about Anna Karenina until I actually finished the book. I thought I was supposed to be reading about Anna, and I didn’t understand why I hated everyone. I didn’t understand why Tolstoy kept switching cities and scenes, and why there were so many characters to keep track of.

To put this in terms of another book that I’m more familiar with, Anna Karenina is about Anna Karenina about as much as Les Misérables is about Jean Valjean. They are both very long novels written within only a decade apart and featuring far too many characters (with backstories) to keep straight. In both, we see an obviously important character introduced in the first few chapters, and we follow that character’s decisions until they die.

This is where my comparison ends, because Les Misérables actually is about Jean Valjean, and Hugo ends the novel with the other characters mourning our hero’s death (I’m choosing to ignore the 30 pages of social commentary in the appendices).

Anna Karenina is not the heroine, though, of her novel. She dies, and everyone forgets about her. The novel is instead about the ways that this woman’s choices affected her family. She is as much a participant in this story as was the storm in The Life of Pi. She is a plot device.

A few months ago, I wrote about the different ways that infidelity in marriage affected Anna, Dolly, and Kitty. I thought that that was the point of the book, but I’ve changed my mind. Infidelity certainly is a major theme in the novel, but it’s not THE point. Above everything else is the idea is that one’s destructive thoughts and actions impact other people.

Anna reminds me of both Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment and a Time article I read about Frozen. Society pushes her into a box that she believes is impossible to leave once she chooses her fate. She is forced outside polite society because she lives in sin with her lover, while her old friends or refuse to risk their reputations to visit her. She cannot leave. In her loneliness, she invents reasons why everyone, including the hot lover for whom she abandoned her marriage, despises her very existence. To her, the only way out of this is death, and her codependent relationship with Vronsky subsequently pushes him into suicidal depression.

Dolly rejects her sister-in-law’s lifestyle. She is the wronged wife who envies Anna and Vronsky’s passionate whirlwind love, realizes the loneliness of living outside society, then leaves her adulterous husband to move in with her sister. It seems small considering that she moves out, but she keeps her children and her reputation. She finds a way to be happy within societal expectations.

Kitty went from being the character I hated to the only one I actually liked. Kitty rejects her future husband for the hotter suitor, who in turn rejects her for her married relative, so she is forced to grow up. She learns from her shallow teenage flirtations, so she is the character with the good marriage. In a way, Anna Karenina is a morality tale, for virtue and selflessness are shown as the reason why Kitty has a happy ending. Unlike modern literature, the praiseworthy women are specifically natural nurses and mothers, able to redeem their families by their love. The heroine is goodness incarnate. As proof of 1 Corinthians 7, Levin’s crisis of faith is resolved with his wife’s influence. If Anna Karenina is about a single person, it’s about this woman whose entire life was changed by the woman who stole her first crush.

Had Anna not left her marriage for Vronsky, who knows where these characters would have ended up? Dolly might have stayed with Oblonsky, the man who squandered their wealth. Kitty might have married anyone, but Anna forced her to mature and gain self-confidence. Levin might have stayed a cynical bachelor. Vronsky might have stayed in the military. Anna might have died with her self-esteem intact.

I remember reading something on Facebook once about wanting to be the protagonist, rather than some side or background character, of one’s own story. In a way, because she saw no way out from her circumstances, Anna resigned herself to inconsequence. She could have talked about her fears with Dolly or Vronsky or anyone else, but she refused to be vulnerable. She was so caught up in her problems and her own mind that the other characters had no opportunity to tell her the truth about herself. Her impossible situation was self-made. That is the tragedy of Anna Karenina: that she was selfish and immobile and refused to change.

As we begin 2016, let us not become immobile. Let us be vulnerable with those who love us and will tell us the truth when we are being crushed by hopeless lies. Let us be vulnerable and listen. Let us be willing to change for the better.


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