Ever since the movie was released in 2012, the popular consensus has been that Anna Karenina is the archetypal tragic love-story—married woman falls in love with an eligible bachelor, faces a very Sophie’s Choice like situation, having to choose between the bachelor and her marriage and child, is continually pummelled by the pressures of society and religion till she eventually kills herself (spoiler alert!). But Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is not just the tale of a forbidden love but is perhaps one of the most comprehensive and complete portrayals of 19th century Russia. To paraphrase Joshua Rothman (who has written about his experience of the book in The New Yorker), this book is not only a tragic love-story, but also a moralistic treatise which focuses on the position of the Russian aristocracy in a nation that is inching toward its biggest revolution.
Anna Karenina has been called a work that lies between realism and modernism, dangling between a propensity to strain against what is acceptable within the structure of literature and the boundaries of society, and the things that can be relayed in the exact manner they appear. At one level, Tolstoy literally tells it the way it is—the affairs in the aristocratic society, how they weren’t considered an infringement for men but were for women, the nascent head of socialism beginning to rear itself (seen in the form of Levin’s elder brother Nikolay) and how corruption had set in. All the same, the structure of his work constantly tests the boundaries of the European novel, as per the conventions of the time. He was among the first to experiment with, what would come to be known as, stream of consciousness writing, wherein he describes every moment of Anna’s fleeting emotions from the crests of relief to the troughs of jealousy. Through this, he effectively slows down time and allows the reader to feel as Anna felt, to empathise with the pathetic nature of her condition and to understand her continual longing for passion and unfettered love.
The brilliance of Tolstoy’s work lies not in the manner he is able to orchestrate Anna’s fall from grace. Well, not only in that. It lies in his ability to compress all that has to do with the Russian aristocracy and present it in the form of a tragic tale of romance. Anna’s last moments are as vividly described as Levin’s thoughts on faith, religion and existence, Karenin’s dilemma painted with as clear a brush stroke as Varenka’s virtues. There is a startling homeostasis that Tolstoy is able to maintain between the heart-rending tragedy and his own philosophical and moralistic views. He creates a web, you see, a web which is equally held up by institutions which are both personal as well as impersonal, and it is this kind of conflict, between the external and the internal, sexual/romantic freedom versus ecclesiastical constraints, which lie at the heart of his narrative. He successfully brings the conflicts together, like the same poles of two magnets that cannot help but repel each other, in such direct opposition they are. But he brings them together nonetheless and does not only show conflict through the changing moods of the individual(s) involved, but also charts the trajectory through the build up of emotion and the cathartic releases, or the word he loves to use “reconciliation” of either thought or of people.
It is as if he is sitting at a potter’s wheel and moulding the clay to create a piece that would transcend time. Only that the clay is not the plot of the story but actually the nature of each individual character. In Anna Karenina, no character represents a particular idea or concept that Tolstoy is trying to promote. In fact, he puts some of them in situations where they begin to contradict the ideals they stand for. Levin, for instance, a sceptic, begins to chant the holy scriptures he was taught as a child as his wife goes into labour; Alexey Karenin, despite being a man who lived by principle and having resolved to ensure that his wife did not attain the happiness she craved, caved when she fell ill and then happily permitted her to be with Vronsky. While this continuous contradiction of values is central to the text, it is also indicative of the fact that Tolstoy’s characters were multi-dimensional in that they were actual people as opposed being a mere representation of select ideas. He created a person using the clay instead of an idea, a person that was capable of thought, argument, disagreement and even passion. The simplicity with which he could have created Mihailov, the artist, to promote the idea of art as a means to achieve a personal representation of perfection would have been too easy for Tolstoy. Instead, he went on for a couple of chapters, just talking about Mihailov’s inspiration, his absurd take on art and subtext, his appreciation and at the same time utter disregard and disapproval for anyone’s comment or criticisms; this is but one example of how fully Tolstoy created a minor character whom he disposed of within a few chapters. Imbuing it with the ability to think and to feel in its own unique way, Tolstoy does not create pillars of sand or mere shadows as characters but he creates people who seem so real, despite lasting only a few chapters that the reader continues to feel the presence till the very end.
This reader cannot help but be in awe of Leo Tolstoy’s work, his understanding of human emotion and his ability to put into the words the most serene and unspeakably beautiful moments found in the simplest designs of nature. His grasp on the condition of the individual in an aristocratic society is ironclad and extends to his ability to not only understand the problems of men but also to his ability of understanding women and allowing their characters to speak out to the reader with voices and feelings at par with that of men. The manner in which he contemplated and discussed the condition of highborn women in the Russian society, and the way in which he has moulded their characters, allows the text to speak not only as a vehicle of Anna’s tragic fall but to also show the pitiful condition of women—how they were often abandoned or unloved by their husbands and then abandoned by those who once showed them passion—that was commonplace in Russian aristocracy.
Dostoyevsky called Anna Karenina “flawless as a work of art”, William Faulkner said that it was “the best novel ever written”. In comparison to those opinions, it seems to me that mine would hold little water if I were to disagree with such exalted individuals. But it is not for that reason why I believe Anna Karenina would outlive most, if not all of us, why it is one of the most comprehensive works about human nature and why Tolstoy’s magic has continued to work on swathes of people through centuries. The book is brilliant because in the midst of lover’s spats, philosophic digressions and detailed imagery, there is the voice of Tolstoy channelled through different characters with all of whom we tend to identify at some point or another. He makes us sympathise with Anna’s pain, with Levin’s deep, almost sehnsucht-like yearning for love and answers to questions of faith and with Karenin’s position while at the same time enchanting us with Oblonsky’s characteristic tone and mirth, Sergey Ivanovitch’s thoughtful opinions and Veslovsky’s good-natured but all-too-excited attempts at everything. Despite its daunting size and the fact that the entire text is firmly rooted in what is, to many, a foreign culture, Anna Karenina is a must-read for everyone, perhaps for those very reasons. The sheer volume of pages simply mean that one would not run out of matter to appreciate and the allusions to an unknown culture in a far off time only serve to highlight the common humanity in all of us as Tolstoy allows us to feel with every character. In as many ways as Tolstoy brings to us the Russian aristocracy of the 19th century is he able to make us feel for the pain that was probably felt by those long passed, who lived in a far off culture, in a far off time.