Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, is perhaps the world's greatest novel.
If the story took place today, Anna would divorce Karenin, keep custody of her child, marry her lover, launch a career as an author, and divorce her second husband to embark on a third and finally happy marriage. No tragedy there. And Kitty would move in with Vronsky before he met Anna,spoiling her future relationship with Levin. No bliss.
As it is instead, there is more drama than can be packed into a dozen novels of the same length.
About the translations:The new one by Pevear and Volokhonsky is the one most praised by critics. The style is similar to Constance Garnett's, but their are differences in word choices. Where she uses "irritable shyness," Pevear uses "irascible shyness." Where Garnett uses "vulgar," Pevear says 'trivial," and so on.
But it is Pevear's introduction and notes that provide great insight into the book. He tells us that Tolstoy wrote the book when he was more "balanced" between reason and emotion than he ever would be again. He mentions that friends of Tolstoy's thought the book lacked structure, but Tolstoy noted a hidden structure, if you know where to look. These two seemingly different stories, of Anna and her lover, of Levin and Kitty, come together at various points. Levin, despite his happy marriage, grows nearly suicidal, as Anna does, because he is lacking a world view. Eventually, he comes to worship goodness itself. "Levin is you, minus the talent" Tolstoy's wife once said to him. The portrayal of Levin's courtship and wedding is accurate down to such detail's as the groom's lost shirt on his wedding day.
But we don't read Tolstoy for his lessons. We read him to live.
At a tremendous ballroom dance, everything is grand for Kitty. She looks like she was born in her tulle dress. Yet the dance is ruined when Vronsky dances repeatedly with Anna. We wonder why Anna, a married woman, dresses so enticingly, so magnificently.
Anna's husband, Karenin, is hypocritical. He talks ironically of his devotion to Anna. She is sarcastic back. Later when Karenin knows of her affair, he is regularly sarcastic to their young son, who grows increasingly bewildered.
When the affair between Vronsky and Anna is consumated, Vronsky says he feels like a murderer. His extra kisses are like chopping up and hiding the body.
Anna is also full of shame.
Vronsky is hugely rich, an aristocrat. He loves horses and the army, and is popular. His best friend is a man not only without morals but positively immoral. The death of Vronsky's horse is a foreshadowing of his love dying, and remains "for years the bitterest moment of his life."
Kitty, who is literally dying of love for Vronsky, whom she realizes is in love with Anna, finally goes abroad with her mother. She meets Varenka, who administers help daily to the sick and dying. Kitty tries to copy her, but can't. When I was 17 and read this, I thought the message was about Kitty's inability to be a martyr. Now it strikes me as a simpler tale. Kitty was too beautiful. No wonder a sick and dying man falls in love with her, which nixes everything as far as his wife is concerned.
When Kitty returns to Russia, she is riding in a carriage to her sister Dolly's house when Levin sees her and realizes that he is as in love with her as ever. He has difficulty getting back in touch with her, because she has rejected his marriage offer, and he does not want to be accepted as second best. If he could meet her by accident, it would all take care of itself.
When Levin finally sees Kitty again, it is a revelation. He can think nothing ill of this innocent, shamed-face creature whose every look asks for forgiveness. They communicate without words, they are rapturous. He wonders how he can get through the night till seeing her the next day, and indeed stays up all night. As part of the marriage process, Levin must go through confessions; he is grateful to get through it wihtout lying. He tells the priest he doubts everything, even the existence of God, and the priest wants to know how he will answer his babes' questions. (He'll get to those when they come.). It is interesting that Tolstoy was writing as long ago as 1873 and talks of a society where many begin with evolution, and advance to nihilism.
Karenin, Anna's husband, has a moment of forgiving his wife and is blissful. (The scene is like Tolstoy's novel "Resurrection," which is about forgiveness.) But Karenin is moved by forces he can't control. Stiva, Anna's brother, is timid in approaching him with Anna's need for divorce. Karenin can't listen; he's thought all this over a thousand times and feels Anna will be ruined if he divorces her, and his child's education will be inferior.
Kitty is marvelous with Levin's dying brother, and Levin surmises that for all his philosophy he doesn't understand death as well as she does. Kitty makes everything clean and sweet smelling, including the brother's nightshirt. She pets him and comforts him, talks of herself to distract him, tries to get the best doctors, etc.
For me, the most touching scene in the whole book is when Anna's son wakes up to find his mom has come back after she's been away with her lover for perhaps a year or more. "It's my birthday. I knew you'd come." He falls back to sleep with a brief explanation but awakens when he hears her cry. He can't figure out why she cries. But he's so overjoyed that she is there, he tumbles into her, then makes her hands go over his face and ears etc. One of the new servants thinks the old servant has done wrong to let Anna in, but the older servant scoffs. Is this how you repay her perfect kindnesses? The reunion is interrupted when Karenin comes in; the boy can't figure out why Anna is both afraid and ashamed. The toys she chose with such loving care are gathered up again in her haste to get away. She dare not linger a second longer to leave them. When the boy cries, she pries his hands from his wet face to kiss him one last time. All the love that she didn't feel for Karenin has been poured into her son.
What Anna should have done to stop the self-torment.
1. The impossible: Go back to her son and ask forgiveness of her husband and forget Vronsky.
2. The more likely: Live nearby and see her son daily, still giving up Vronsky.
3. Continue her children's book writing and caring for young proteges.
There are at least four points in the novel where we get hints that the love between Anna and Vronsky will be tragic:
- Kitty's father remarks that men like Vronsky are a dime a dozen.
- When Anna hasn 't seen Vronsky, she has to reconcile his image with her imagination.
- Vronsky tries to paint a portrait of Anna and fails. When a serious artist does one, he learns something new about Anna from the portrait.
- Even Levin, meeting Anna for the first time, sees that Vronsky doesn't understand her.
When Vronsky sees Anna for the first time at the train station, he feels her suppressed power. She is everything a man might desire. When she sees Vronsky, she tries to suppress the joy and power in her eyes and it pops out again in her smile. She sees him as if she knows him already. The tragedy is that her love for Vronsky isn't worthy of her sacrifices.
A great ending: Levin's revelation at the end is that belief needn't be intellectual, it can be emotional, like the peasant's or like Kitty's. It means equating God with Goodness.