Tolstoy infamously starts the novel Anna Karenina with the line, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” setting up the novel as a case study of happy and unhappy families.
Although the novel is mainly about unhappy families, Tolstoy makes the story of the one happy family, Ekaterina Scherbatsky (Kitty) and Konstantin Levin (Kostya), just as interesting as the others. Although every other relationship seems to tear apart its members, Kitty and Kostya stand out because their love makes them stronger. Nikolai Levin, Kostya’s brother, has the primary importance of illustrating how their relationship allows them to cope with issues that they cannot deal with on their own. We see the very qualities that make them unable to handle his illness by themselves turned into virtues when they are together. By using the life and death of Nikolai Levin as a way to highlight the differences in Kitty and Konstantin Levin before and after their marriage, Tolstoy emphasizes the transformative power of love, revealing love's ability to balance out our weaknesses and make us whole.
Tolstoy emphasizes the transformative power of love, revealing love's ability to balance out our weaknesses and make us whole.
Tolstoy immediately sets up the connection between Kitty and Konstantin’s relationship and Nikolai. The first time the reader meets Nikolai is right after Konstantin’s first proposal has been rejected by Kitty, leading Konstantin to question his self worth and the purpose of the world:
I myself am to blame. What right did I have to think she would want to join her life with mine? Who am I? And what am I? A worthless man, of no use to anyone or for anything.’ And he remembered his brother Nikolai and paused joyfully at this remembrance. ‘Isn’t he right that everything in the world is bad and vile?’ 
Kostya is self-deprecating to the point of being pathetic. In most, humility and accepting blame are virtues, but Kostya takes it to the extreme and wants to simply give up on the world when things go wrong, shaming himself into feeling “worthless.” By connecting Kostya’s self-loathing with his brother’s pessimistic attitude on the world, Nikolai is set up as an antithesis to Kostya’s normally upbeat attitude. Tolstoy introduces Nikolai as someone who makes Kostya confront his innermost feelings, with Kostya describing his brother as someone, “Who understood him thoroughly, who would call up all his innermost thoughts, would make him speak his whole mind. And that he did not want” (346). Kostya’s deep introspection makes him a very kind and cerebral character; but, in bad times, it leads him to an obsessive state as he acknowledges in this statement by saying that he does not want to think so deeply.
Painting of Anna Karenina by Hana Popaja
Not only does Nikolai call attention to Kostya’s self-deprecation, but also his extreme illness makes Kostya reflect upon death, leading him to question the purpose of life in general: “Death, the inevitable end of everything, presented itself to him for the first time with irresistible force” (348). As a deeply intellectual and introspective character, Kostya gets caught up when the question of death is presented before him by Nikolai’s illness, leading him into an all-consuming state of nihilism.
Tolstoy’s choice of the word “irresistible” points out how Kostya is enchanted by thoughts like this and cannot help but have them, even though they drive him to madness:
He had actually forgotten, overlooked in his life one small circumstance – that death would come and everything would end, that it was not worth stating anything and that nothing could possibly be done about it. Yes, it was terrible, but it was so. 
By saying that Kostya had forgotten about the possibility of death, Tolstoy emphasizes how deeply Nikolai’s illness affects Kostya. Nikolai’s illness forces Kostya to try and confront the big question of life and death, but Kostya is unable to handle it, instead choosing to retreat into a state of utter despair: “He saw either death or the approach of it everywhere. But this undertaking now occupied him all the more. He had to live his life to the end, until death came. Darkness covered everything for him” (352).
Kostya’s nihilism changes him from a methodical man who feels deeply to a stone-cold cynic. All of the flaws of Kostya that Nikolai’s illness brings out (his obsessive over-thinking, his complete blame of himself) are also his best qualities (his deep intellectualism, his ability to take responsibility for his actions).Continued on Next Page »
Tolstoy, Leo, Richard Pevear, and Larissa Volokhonsky.Anna Karenina: A Novel in Eight Parts. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2002. Print.
Save Citation » (Works with EndNote, ProCite, & Reference Manager)
The fourth post in a series in which we ask what book or writer our contributors have returned to again and again.
A few weeks ago, on an appropriately snowy Wednesday, my wife and I went to see the new film version of “Anna Karenina.” It was the movie’s New York première, and, before it started, Joe Wright, the director, a dark-haired Englishman in a gray suit, stood up to say a few words. He introduced Keira Knightley, who plays Anna, along with the actors who play Kitty and Levin, Alicia Vikander and Domhnall Gleeson. Wright spoke earnestly, like a proud older brother, of having worked with Knightley since “Pride and Prejudice,” when she was only “an ingenue.” Meanwhile, he said, his new movie, “Anna Karenina,” was about love, and about all the ways in which love makes us human. Wright and his actors slipped out a side door, and the movie began.
Wright’s “Anna Karenina” isn’t a straight-forward adaptation of the novel, but a fanciful, expressionistic reinterpretation of it, with a knowing, self-conscious screenplay by Tom Stoppard. The sets are inventive and metafictional. Knightley plays Anna with an edgy sensuality; Vronsky’s steeplechase is vivid and terrifying; the Levin and Kitty story is sweet, patient, and even spiritual. Still—if you know and love the novel, something about the movie just doesn’t feel right. The problem, I think, is that it’s too romantic. The film, as Wright promised, is all about love, but Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” isn’t a love story. If anything, “Anna Karenina” is a warning against the myth and cult of love.
When I first started reading “Anna Karenina,” ten years ago—I’m obsessed with the book, and have read it seven times since then—I, too, thought of it as a love story. I was twenty-three, and thinking of getting married; to me, it was obvious that the novel was about love, good and bad, wise and unwise. I read the novel as you might read any novel about marriage and adultery. You think about the protagonists and their choices; you root for happy endings. When they come, you applaud, and feel they’re well-deserved; when they don’t, you try to figure out what the lovers did wrong. But this love-story idea of love isn’t really native to “Anna Karenina.” Tolstoy, when he wrote the novel, was thinking about love in a different way: as a kind of fate, or curse, or judgment, and as a vector by which the universe distributes happiness and unhappiness, unfairly and apparently at random.
Those thoughts aren’t very romantic, but they are Tolstoyan. When he turned to “Anna Karenina,” Tolstoy didn’t simply leave behind the themes of “War and Peace.” Instead, he found a way of thinking about many of same issues that had always interested him—fate, chance, our powerlessness against circumstances and our determination to change them—in a different context. In 1873, when Tolstoy began writing “Anna Karenina,” he was in the midst of planning a historical novel about Peter the Great. Starting in 1870, he had shut himself up in his study at Yasnaya Polyana, reading and making notes, while his wife and their enormous brood of children tried to keep quiet outside. Peter the Great turned out to be too epic a subject even for Tolstoy. (“I am in a very bad mood,” he wrote to a friend. “Making no headway. The project I have chosen is incredibly difficult. There is no end to the preliminary research, the outline is swelling out of all proportion and I feel my strength ebbing away.”) Tolstoy needed a more manageable subject. Then he discovered something: another way into his concerns that wasn’t overblown and historical, but personal, intimate, and sad. In his biography of Tolstoy, Henri Troyat explains the novel’s origins this way:
Suddenly he had an illumination. He remembered an occurrence that had deeply affected him the previous year. A neighbor and friend of his, Bibikov, the snipe hunter, lived with a woman named Anna Stepanovna Pirogova, a tall, full-blown woman with a broad face and an easy-going nature, who had become his mistress. But he had been neglecting her of late for his children’s German governess. He had even made up his mind to marry the blond Frÿulein. Learning of his treachery, Anna Stepanovna’s jealousy burst all bounds; she ran away, carrying a bundle of clothes, and wandered about the countryside for three days, crazed with grief. Then she threw herself under a freight train at the Yasenki station. Before she died, she sent a note to Bibikov: “You are my murderer. Be happy, if an assassin can be happy. If you like you can see my corpse on the rails at Yasenki.” That was January 4, 1872. The following day Tolstoy had gone to the station as a spectator, while the autopsy was being performed in the presence of a police inspector. Standing in a corner of the shed, he had observed every detail of the woman’s body lying on the table, bloody and mutilated, with its skull crushed. How shameless, he thought, and yet how chaste. A dreadful lesson was brought home to him by that white, naked flesh, those dead breasts, those inert thighs that had felt and given pleasure. He tried to imagine the existence of this poor woman who had given all for love, only to meet with such a trite, ugly death.
I suppose that there’s a love story here, but what really interested Tolstoy wasn’t love, per se, but its extreme consequences. As Tolstoy began writing “Anna Karenina,” he introduced other characters and other stories, including the love story of Kitty and Levin. But at its core—without the balm of Kitty and Levin’s romance—“Anna Karenina” remains troubled by what happened to Anna Stepanovna. This makes it different from other love stories—in them, love is a positive good. If you have it, you’re glad, and if you don’t have it, you’re not. (Think of Lizzie Bennett and Charlotte Lucas, in “Pride and Prejudice.”) In “Anna Karenina,” love can be a curse as well as a blessing. It’s an elemental force in human affairs, like genius, or anger, or strength, or wealth. Sometimes it’s good, but sometimes it's awful, cruel, even dangerous. It’s wonderful that Levin and Kitty fall in love with one another—but Anna would have been better off if she had never fallen in love with Vronsky.
This view of love sounds fine, in theory, but in practice it can be hard to accept, because it runs against the mythology of love, which sees star-crossed lovers as more romantic, more in love, than the rest of us. That mythology urges us to see Anna’s death as a noble sacrifice: She gave up everything, we want to say, for a chance at love. It’s a seductive, but crazy, way to think. The fact of the matter is that nothing good came of the romance between Anna and Vronsky, and everyone would have been better off if it had never happened. Their affair was a cataclysm for Anna, obviously, but also for Vronsky, for Karenin, and for Seryozha, their son. In teaching the novel, I’ve seen students try to wriggle out of this conclusion; most of them do it by posing counterfactuals. Some argue that Anna didn’t have to commit suicide; the suicide was the mistake, the thinking goes, not the love affair. And you can also question the inevitability of Anna’s circumstances. Anna spirals into suicide, you might argue, for many historically contingent reasons: laws that are biased against women, religious prohibitions against divorce, a system of courtship that pushes girls to marry too young, and so on. It turned out badly, you might argue, but that wasn’t Anna’s fault—if things had been different, she and Vronsky could have been happy. And yet the point is that things weren’t different for Anna. The laws were unfair, but they were still laws. As my Jewish grandmother says: “What is, is.” “Anna Karenina” is preceded by an unsettling, unattributed epigraph quote: “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” That’s the sentiment, to some extent, behind Anna’s suicide. But it’s also, from Tolstoy’s point of view, a statement of fact about the universe. It doesn’t budge. What is, is.
If Anna isn’t the novel’s heroine—if she isn’t a martyr to Love—then what is she? Deciding what to think of Anna is one of the central challenges of “Anna Karenina.” Some readers, perhaps because they feel betrayed by Anna, end up questioning her character, or her judgment, or her motives. Unable to see her as good, they end up seeing her as bad. Keira Knightley, in an interview taped at the New York première, seems to feel this way: “As far as the story of ‘Anna Karenina,’” she says, “most people, in most adaptations—and I haven’t seen all of them—have taken Anna to be the heroine, and to be the innocent, a sort of saintly creature who is wronged, by the world, by her husband, by society, by everything. I didn’t necessarily think that when I read the book, the last time. I think you could also say that about Anna. But I think she is also the anti-hero.” Knightley ends up playing Anna as just a little wicked. (Some people will feel that there is too much lust, and not enough love, in her relationship with Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Vronsky.) Ultimately, though, “anti-hero” might be too strong a term for Anna. Tolstoy, as the critic Gary Saul Morson has argued, is sensitive to the fact that much of the evil in the world results not from malice, but from ignorance. Anna does bad things, but often only because she underestimates just how bad the consequences of those things will be. Anna doesn’t plan to fall in love with Vronsky, as such—she's not a cougar on the prowl—and one of the reasons for her later unhappiness is that, in sleeping with him, she has disappointed herself. In the novel’s (and the film’s) first episode, Anna travels to Moscow to act as a peacemaker between her brother Stiva and his wife Dolly, on whom he has cheated. Leaving, she can’t wait to get back to her family in St. Petersburg: “Thank God,” she thinks, “tomorrow I’ll see Seryozha and Alexei Alexandrovich, and my good and usual life will go on as before.”
Anna, Tolstoy suggests, is like the watchman who, at the beginning of the novel, gets run down by a train: “either drunk or too bundled up because of the freezing cold,” he doesn’t hear the train coming. Her affair with Vronsky is less like a love story, and more like a tragedy, ruled by fate. And Tolstoy is careful to show that the same is true, in an obverse way, for Levin and Kitty, who are simply lucky where Anna is unlucky. Levin, it turns out, had been in love with Kitty’s two older sisters; as things worked out, they happened to get married to other men (one of them, Dolly, to Stiva). Had things been different, Kitty might have ended up married to Stiva, not Levin, and Levin to Dolly. At one point, it appears that Levin is about to give up on Kitty completely; but, at just that moment, Kitty’s carriage happens to pass by the field where Levin is walking, deep in the countryside. And, of course, there’s the fact that Levin and Kitty might not be together at all were it not for Anna, who steals Vronsky from Kitty at a ball in the novel’s early pages. Almost as a provocation, Tolstoy places this fact—that Anna’s adultery paves the way for Levin and Kitty’s happy marriage—at the center of his novel, where it sits, a mute and ironic reminder of how much our own successes can depend on others’ disasters.
Tolstoy, I think, doesn’t know exactly how to think about Anna’s role in her own downfall, just as he doesn’t know exactly how to think about the free will of the soldiers and generals in “War and Peace.” He believes that we make choices, and that our sense of free will is based on something real. But he also has a deep respect for the complexity and power of our circumstances, and he considers our personalities and psychologies to be “circumstances,” too. There are limits to what we can do out there in the world, and there are also limits to what we can feel, endure, know, and imagine within ourselves. These inner limits may be just as permanent as the outer ones. In Anna’s case, she may have been hemmed in on all sides: driven, in her soul, to love Vronsky, while living in a world that made acting on that love unwise and unendurable. Or, she may have made an unwise choice, giving into desires she could have resisted because she underestimated how unyielding the world would be. We will never know what happened, exactly, just as Anna could not know. That’s one of the dreadful lessons of Anna’s story: she herself could not distinguish between what she was choosing to do and what she was driven to do. In life, we sometimes relinquish our freedom too easily, while, at other times, we struggle unwisely against laws that will not change. Give in too easily, and you drift through life; struggle too much, and you suffer for it.
After Anna dies, much of the end of the novel is devoted to Levin, who struggles to come to terms with the very small role he has played in his own happiness. Levin is likable, thoughtful, and sincere, but he is not particularly wise, experienced, or brilliant. (Tolstoy’s wife, Sonia, told Tolstoy that Levin was “you, without the talent.”) He is like Anna, in that he spends much of the novel debating, in a more overt and deliberate way, the same questions that Anna faces. Should he try to force the people and institutions around him to change, so that he can live in accordance with the dictates of his soul (for example, by remaking his farm along “modern” lines, politically and agriculturally)? Or should he submit to one of the pre-determined possibilities his world offers him and become a completely conventional gentleman farmer? Because he’s a rich, independent man, the stakes for him are lower than they are for Anna, but they’re still substantive: Levin feels that none of the usual ways of life will be meaningful for him, and he doesn’t want his life to be meaningless.
The thing about Levin is that, through some accident of temperament and circumstances, he ends up figuring things out. He struggles and shapes his own destiny just enough to be happy, while never going out of bounds, and ending up like Anna, or like his brother Nikolai, a political radical, who dies impoverished and angry. Somehow, over the course of the book, Levin achieves everything he wants: he is married to Kitty, and they have a beautiful family. And yet, he senses, he has not really improved himself in his soul, and he has done nothing to deserve his happiness. He still feels powerless, pointless, useless. “Happy in his family life,” Tolstoy writes, “a healthy man, Levin was several times so close to suicide that he hid a rope lest he hang himself with it, and was afraid to go about with a rifle lest he shoot himself.” In the end, he is carried along by the flow of life, and keeps on living. He finds his way to a diffuse kind of faith. There will be no radical transformations, he realizes, either romantic or religious. What is, is. He will try his best to be a good person, within the constraints that his circumstances and nature have placed upon him, and that will be good enough:
I’ll get angry in the same way with the coachman Ivan, argue in the same way, speak my mind inappropriately, there will be the same wall between my soul’s holy of holies and other people, even my wife, I’ll accuse her in the same way of my own fear and then regret it, I’ll fail in the same way to understand with my reason why I pray, and yet I will pray—but my 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!
The novel leaves us with an answer that is also a riddle. Why was Levin able to find this peace, while Anna was not? Levin’s realization itself suggests that there’s no answer to that question. In “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” Isaiah Berlin writes that, for Tolstoy, wisdom consists in the ability “to grasp what human will and human reason can do, and what they cannot.” The only way to find those limits is to struggle against them, but gently, with the goal of finding and accepting them. You can’t think your way to the limits. You have to feel your way, learning through experience and suffering. And there is a risk in experimenting with what will and will not work in life, which is that it might not work. You might move to New York to pursue your dreams, and end up with no career to speak of. You might think you can wait to find the perfect spouse, but wait too long, and end up alone. You might think you can have that affair and still have the love of your spouse and children—but you may be mistaken about what’s possible, and lose everything.
There’s a deep conservatism to this way of thinking. It’s fatalistic, in an off-putting way, since it suggests that the limits of what’s possible are just not knowable in advance, and that experience and tradition are probably our best guides. In Anna’s case, it suggests that she should have tried harder to accept her unhappy marriage with Karenin. If she did try, and found herself hemmed in by limits on all sides, then there’s no making sense, in human terms, of her suffering. “Vengeance is mine; I will repay” is from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans; it’s in the middle of a beautiful passage about the difficulties of accepting injustices and differences. “We have many members in one body,” Paul says, “and all members have not the same office.”
Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of faith; or ministry, let us wait on our ministering: or he that teacheth, on teaching; or he that exhorteth, on exhortation: he that giveth, let him do it with simplicity; he that ruleth, with diligence; he that sheweth mercy, with cheerfulness. Let love be without dissimulation. Abhor that which is evil; cleave to that which is good…Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.
To read “Anna Karenina” is to care about Anna. She is one of the best characters in fiction; everyone in “Anna Karenina” loves her, and so do we. Reading about her struggle, it’s natural to want to understand it. Should Anna be applauded for her passion, or condemned for her foolhardiness? Is she to be admired, or spurned? Wright and Stoppard know that “Anna Karenina” urges you to push those questions aside. In its final minutes, their film asks you to contemplate the injustice and unknowability of it all. Watching Levin and Kitty with their baby in the film’s closing minutes, you feel how blessed they are. Vikander and Gleeson share a silent, reverent look, and in it you see their consciousness of their own undeserved happiness—of God’s grace. Even so, the movie can never quite escape its love-story roots. Its characters are too typed—wicked Anna, pure Kitty—and it doesn’t show us enough of their ordinary, unromantic lives for us to understand how similar they are to one another. Wright’s film only shows its characters falling in love. Tolstoy’s novel can take its time, showing how these characters struggle and hesitate, think and watch, imagine and debate, suffer and forgive. It can rise above the very human questions of admiration and condemnation, above the might-have-beens and should-have-dones, and simply say: this is the way things are. Be thankful for your happiness.
Illustration by Andy Rementer.