Tolstoy was forty four years old when he started writing Anna Karenina, the subject of which had been in his mind since the inquest on a young woman who threw herself under a train near the station a few miles from Tolstoy’s home. A few years earlier he had finished War and Peace and with Anna Karenina (the more perfect work) the psychological novel of the nineteenth century reaches its high-water mark. (Source: Introduction by Rosemary Edmonds, 1969 Penguins Classic Edition).
It is considered to be the greatest novel ever written. First published in book form in 1877, this novel has endured the test of time. But what is it about this book which has made it stay around for 136 years? Why is the story of an extra-marital affair of the wife of a Russian aristocrat with a young military officer still enthralling us? What makes Anna Karenina's story everlasting?
Love is a fundamental need of man and woman alike and it is, almost, the major theme of this novel. Anna wants to love and be loved. And it is this need for love, true love, which resonates with readers even now.
On the surface the story seems quite simple. Anna is in a rather conventional marriage with Karenin, a man much older than her. They have a son who is the center of Anna’s universe. Leaving her son behind in Moscow for a few days to help her brother, Stiva, with a domestic issue, is very difficult for her but go she must. Dolly, Stiva’s wife, had discovered his affair with the children’s governess and refused to live under the same roof as he. Anna travels to Saint Petersburg to save her brother’s marriage and fate plants the seeds for the destruction of her own. A chance meeting with Vronsky at a ball during her stay changes Anna’s life forever. They both fall madly in love and Anna leaves her husband, her beloved son and her home for her lover. But all doesn't end well for Anna, torn as she is between passion, jealousy and longing.
Even though Anna Karenina is famous, among most readers, for the extramarital affair of Anna and Vronsky, that is not the only theme of this novel. Parallel to Anna’s story is that of the simple, hardworking and less passionate Levin. Through him, it seems, the author is speaking to us because the ideas of Levin were Tolstoy’s ideas. Levin is both similar to and opposite of Anna. While she gives in to her heart and throws reason to the wind, Levin tries to keep his passion abated.
So why have I selected this book to represent love in literature? Anna Karenina is not heartbreaking or gut-wrenching like Wuthering Heights or Love Story. Yes, it is tragic and melancholy. It makes one realize how little space there is in the world for men and women who feel and dream without the influences of society. Anna and Levin were similar in this way. Anna gave up everything for her lover, even her respect and position in society, adopting a devil may care attitude. The exhilaration of her love, initially, blinded her to the reality of her actions. Once she realized that she was a trapped woman and will always be looked down upon by others, she started doubting her lover. Jealousy consumed her, so much so that she ended up on the rail tracks.
Anna tried to find happiness in love. So did Levin. But happiness deluded them. Fate chose the more tragic end for Anna and Vronsky’s love. Was Tolstoy trying to pass a judgment here? Maybe he was. But Anna Karenina is far from being a lesson in morality. It is about a woman desperately seeking love in a world which was, is and will remain hostile and judgmental towards all who find happiness in love.
Illustration of Anna & Vronsky is from the October 1946 edition of Anna Karenina published by The Living Library series.
[This post is a part of the celebration of love and literature all this month on the beanbag. Why? Read here].