The first thing to be said about Anna Karenina is that no-one is going to be surprised by her fate. It is too well-known. We can blame Greta Garbo for this. But the book does not end there, which may take people by surprise. The second surprise is that the book is not about Anna Karenina, although she plays one of the central roles. It is about Konstantin Levin or, at least, as much about him as it is about Anna herself. These are the two round whom the whole story revolves.
Anna is a nineteenth century Russian aristocratic women. Although she lives a luxurious life, she has no real power, except to make mistakes. Once she has got pregnant by Vronsky, she is entirely at the mercy of her husband. The child, Annie, is legally his because she is married to him, and nothing that she says to contrary will alter that. She cannot divorce Karenin unless he agrees, and he refuses. She cannot have access to her son, Seryozha, accept by surreptitious means unless Karenin allows it, and he does not. And she has no confidence in Vronsky although she runs away with him. She, as an older woman, cannot believe that a younger man will stay in love with her. She has no reason for this, except that he does not devote his whole time to her, and insists that he should fulfil what is expected of him as an aristocrat and a landowner. This undermines their relationship and leads inexorably to the railway station. Tolstoy, however, has not written a feminist novel. The role of women, as described in Anna Karenina, is marriage, pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood. The only important time that a woman has power is in deciding whether or not to accept a proposal of marriage. She can, also, decide on whether or not she should take a lover, once married. But the one thing that she must not do, if she wishes to remain acceptable in society, is leave her husband and run off with her lover. Lovers are to be kept in the background, and propriety has to be maintained. Falling pregnant by a lover puts a woman beyond the pale of what is allowed, unless the husband accepts the baby. Karenin accepts the baby, but Anna runs off with Vronsky and the child. This seals her fate in society and also, ultimately, in life.
The other central character is Konstantin Levin, an aristocrat who is trying to live without oppressing the peasantry. This is more than a little difficult because the whole of the Tsarist system of government was based on doing exactly that. The reforms of Tsar Alexander II have been introduced, including the abolition of serfdom, and a decade later the nobility are struggling to come to terms with the implications of this action. Some of them do not succeed mainly because they do not even attempt to modernise. Levin does try and much of the book revolves around his efforts to modernise farming methods on his estate. If that sounds boring, it is not. It is an essential part of the story. Tolstoy, through Levin, is grappling with the needs for Tsarist Russia to change. Levin’s bewilderment, honesty and integrity are the moral root of the tale.
Nor is Karenin the monster that he is made out to be. He married a wife some twenty years younger than him. As a civil servant in the Tsarist bureaucracy, marriage was expected of him and his marriage to Anna Arkadyevna Oblonsky brought him significant political allies amongst the princely families of Russia. What is strange is that there was only one child, Seryozha. This suggests that the physical side of the marriage ceased existing. Anna’s sister-in-law, Dolly Oblonsky, has numerous children. But when Anna becomes pregnant by her lover, he forgives her, makes sure that she is looked after during childbirth and also during her subsequent puerperal fever. It is only when Anna humiliates him by running off with Vronsky that, encouraged by Countess Lydia Ivanovna, he seeks the consolation of religion and, specifically, the advice of a medium. He refuses Anna a divorce for two reasons. First, he will not lie and say that he has committed adultery and, secondly, he will not bring scandal upon the children, Seryozha and Annie. This is a man caught in the social mores of his time, who drowns under the tides of convention. It is difficult to think of him as sympathetic but he is not a monster.
There is one other thing to be said about Karenin. His work involves him in deciding the fate of the racial minorities in Russia. This means the Jews. We are not told on which side of the argument Karenin found himself, just that he was opposed to the ideas of his colleague, Stremov. The argument would have been about the introduction of pogroms. The last two Tsars, Alexander III and Nicholas II were responsible for pogroms. But the book is set in the reign of Alexander II. As I have said, we are not told Karenin’s view, but we know what is coming, and we know that “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” was published by the Tsarist secret police in the reign of Nicholas II. So perhaps Karenin is a monster after all.
Vronsky is a young graduate of the military academy in St. Petersburg, and is expected to make a name for himself. We meet him at a party where he is flirting with Kitty, the youngest of Anna’s sisters-in-law. At one of these parties, Vronsky meets Anna and is smitten. The two of them fall in love. This is unfortunate because Kitty and her mother were expecting Vronsky to propose to Kitty, and Kitty turns down a proposal from Levin on these grounds. But Vronsky does not propose. He forms a liaison with Anna, and eventually makes her pregnant. Kitty is devastated. Her mother takes her abroad so that the rebuff can be forgotten. Levin eventually proposes to Kitty a second time, and this time she accepts. Anna and Vronsky, meanwhile, have fled abroad, taking the baby Annie with them. Vronsky is expected to make his way in society, and expects this himself. Anna, of course, as a scarlet woman, has no place in society until she secures a divorce and then marries her lover. Vronsky, like Levin, turns to estate management to establish his place in society and he is very successful at it. This success puts a strain on his relationship with Anna as she begins to feel more and more isolated and also uncertain about their relationship. This is the heart of Anna’s tragedy.
But this is not just a book about tragic personal relationships. This is a book about Russia. It cannot be read in 2017 without us, the readership, having knowledge of what was to come. The book ends around 1877. We know this because Vronsky volunteers to fight in the Serbo-Turkish was of 1876-78. This was the war in which Serbia finally asserted its independence of the Ottoman Empire. Forty years later, the Tsarist monarchy collapsed in revolution. Nearly all the main characters – Vronsky, Levin, Stiva (Anna’s brother), Dolly and Kitty could have lived to see the overthrow of Nicholas II. Seryozha, Annie and the other children certainly would have done so. Tolstoy did not know this, but we do. We know that the people in this story are like the passengers on the Titanic, not knowing about the approaching iceberg.
For me, reading this book, the future cannot be ignored. Indeed, through Levin’s brother, Nikolai, Tolstoy actually shows us something of this future. I found it difficult to read this book without thinking of it as a metaphor for the fate of Tsarist Russia. Of course, it is not because that would require Tolstoy having the ability to predict the future. He made some very good guesses. There is even a sort of Rasputin figure in the medium who wins the patronage of the Countess Lydia Ivanovna and then Karenin.
I suppose that I have at the back of my imagination the idea of the elderly, bearded, dying Tolstoy on the railway station at Yasnaya Polyana as a sort of prophet, a Jeremiah denouncing the follies of the Tsarist regime, spitting fire with his last breath. It is a seductive image. It may even be an image that Tolstoy wanted to project. “Anna Karenina” is the crucible of that image, the starting point. It is a novel of extraordinary power. It is a novel that you will never forget.