Book note: Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1877) translated from the Russian by Louise and Aylmer Maude (1918) Vintage Classics edition (2012)

Anna Karenina is the sad story of a beautiful, charming. intelligent and selfish woman who fails to find the love she needs from either her husband or her lover.

It also is the story of three marriages – the failed marriage of Anna to Alexei Karenin, and Anna’s seduction by Count Vronsky; the bad marriage of Anna’s brother, Stepan Oblonsky, to the former Dolly Scherbatsky; and the good marriage of Dolly’s sister Kitty to Konstantin Levin.

Neither Karenin nor Count Vronsky is a bad man.  Karenin is an honest civil servant, doing his best to make the world a better place.  He fulfills all the duties society expects of a husband, and thinks this should be enough.  But he feels neither empathy nor passion for his wife.  When his marriage falls apart, his conventional moral code provides him no guidance on what to do.

Vronsky has an aristocratic code of honor, which, however, allows for the seduction of a married woman.  He offers her the passion lacking in her marriage.  She succumbs after initial resistance.  As their relationship goes sour, his code of honor requires him to stand by her.  But he, too, finds this is not enough.

Anna is not a bad person, either—just narcissistic.  She is not malicious, and wishes people well rather than ill, but she has no code of conduct to guide her and no purpose in life beyond being loved and admired.  

When we meet her, her life revolves around being the center of attraction in balls, parties and other social events.   She lives the life of an American high school prom queen, carried on into adult life.  There is nothing to show she cares about her husband’s feelings, happiness or career.

When she takes up with Vronsky, she feigns interest in his activities.  She participates in high-level intellectual conversations on art or architecture, which would have been beyond Dolly and Kitty.  But she has no interest in these topics for their own sake.  Her obsession is with whether Vronsky still cares about her as before.

When she separates from Karenin, she misses her little boy, Seroyzha.  She needs his love, and plots a reunion with him.   But she always outsourced responsibility for his care and education to nurses, governesses and tutors.

I didn’t grasp Anna’s narcissism on my first reading of the novel because Tolstoy shows her suffering so powerfully.  Her suffering is real.  But it is pitiful, not tragic.

The novel begins with Dolly deciding to leave Stepan Oblonsky after she discovers he is having sex with the family’s governess.  He calls on his sister Anna to salvage the situation.  Anna talks Dolly into changing her mind.  She assures her that Stepan is deeply sorry for what he has done, and won’t do it again.

All this is a lie.  Stepan is not sorry for what he did, only about the consequences.  Anna does not ask him to change his ways, and he doesn’t.

The result is that Stepan is able to live a life of pleasure, and Dolly lives a life of misery.  Her life consists of a succession of pregnancies. 

Note:  I accidentally posted this before I completed it.  My next post is the final version.

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2 Responses to “Book note: Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina”

  1. silverapplequeen Says:

    I’m not sure I agree with your assessment of the people in this novel. They are living the way their society allows them to live; the way they are expected to live. I wouldn’t call Anna narcissistic; selfish perhaps; but is it selfish to want to be loved? & is it her fault that she fell in love with a man like Vronsky? Oh, but I suppose she should have stayed “pure” in her loveless marriage with Karenin. But there would have been no novel! & yes, Anna’s story is tragic, if only because Tolstoy was a Christian & has to make sure that Anna’s adultery & abandonment of her son is punished properly & that’s tragic. In real life, Anna probably would have gotten over Vronsky & moved to Paris, living a long life of bohemian eccentricity.

    Karenin, of course, would be just the same as in the novel … boring.

    As for Stephen & Dolly, their story was the typical story of any married couple at that time in that social class. The man plays & the woman pays. Of course, when you think about it … that’s the same story as Vronsky & Anna.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Stephen Badrich Says:

    A wonderful essay. Right, I too missed your insights about Anna on my one reading of this novel.

    Liked by 1 person

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