On the Tragedy of Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina has often been considered as one of, if not, the greatest novels of all time. Every time I research on what book I should read next, I always see Anna Karenina at the top 5 of the lists. Back then, I already knew that this novel was an astronomical book. Reading it would be a huge undertaking and would take a long time to finish. So, I have always been putting it aside. Now, as I am maturing as a reader and a person, long and difficult books don’t bother me anymore; and I finally decided to read it.

It took me months to finish the novel because I was trying to enjoy every page of it; but also because it was a little bit difficult to absorb, especially at the start. There are countless of characters that will be introduced on the first ten chapters alone; and most of them are either related to each other or acquainted with each other. But as I progressed in the book, seeing their names repeatedly on the pages, I began to enjoy the story more and more. Since I was not hindered anymore by constantly trying to remember who each character is, I was finally able to enjoy the masterful storytelling of Leo Tolstoy.

I finally understand as to why Anna Karenina is considered as one of the best novels ever. Other than the beautifully tragic story it tells, the novel is also a comprehensive piece of art that narrates family life – and life itself, to its very essence.

However, it is not only the main story that is praiseworthy, for the novel covers a lot of ideas, philosophical questions, and family values that we are still debating to this day. Some of the ideas and questions that stuck to me were:

“What does it mean to truly love someone?”
“What does it mean to be a good husband and father?”
“What does it mean to truly believe in religion, in God?”

There are plenty more ideas and values that were tackled in the novel, but these three appealed to me because they were explored the most throughout the book. The genius of the novel is that, while the characters were pondering these questions, I can’t help but ponder them myself. So, I am not just being entertained while reading the novel, I was also being instigated to think on life’s greatest questions.

I would like to focus on one of the questions mentioned and on a particular character whom this question embodies her total being: Anna Karenina and the question, “What does it mean to truly love someone?”

Anna Karenina

Throughout my years of reading and watching films and TV shows, I have only considered four fictional characters who are so complex and interesting that I find their characterization to be as perfect as can be.

Frodo Baggins from the Lord of the Rings.
Walter White from Breaking Bad.
Spike Spiegel from Cowboy Bebop.
And now, the newest character on my list, Anna Karenina from, well, Anna Karenina.

Anna Karenina is a woman from Russian high society. She is wealthy, exceptionally loved by her family and relatives, has many connections and acquaintances in her social class due to her family and her husband’s reputations, and is one of the most beautiful, charming women in society, repeatedly affirmed by anyone who sees her, man or woman.

It is hard to imagine that an exceptional individual such as her would succumb to a tragic fate; where the only wrong thing that she ever did, according to her, was choosing to love someone with all her heart, albeit not her husband.

Her story might seem simple: a married woman who was unhappy with her husband then fell in love with a man whom she truly adores. But in life, everything is not so simple. There will always be something that will get in the way of what we truly want, and this novel perfectly encapsulates it, perfectly encapsulates life. In fact, this simple premise of a story spanned hundreds of pages, because that is how complicated life is. In this essay, I will try my best to examine, on surface level, the tragedy of Anna Karenina; and how a pure soul such as hers, who only wanted to love someone truly, were tainted by the complexities of life and society.

High Society

In this novel, living in the upper echelons of High Society has its perks, obviously. The characters are wealthy and they can do whatever they want without being constrained by time, cost, security, and other factors. They also have a lot of friends and acquaintances due to their high status – whether they are true friends is another topic. The best part is, they don’t have to worry about anything, economically speaking. Even if they just pursue their interest for weeks or months, do terribly on their job, and ultimately lose it, the connections that they have will help them land another job in no time, with the same or even higher salary, as is the case with Stepan Arkadyich, Anna’s brother. Another notable example is Anna Karenina and Alexei Vronsky, who moved abroad and lived there for a while just because they wanted to.

The quality of life at home is another story, a grander example of the characters’ wealth. That’s because their home is not the home of an average person, for these characters have their own estates. Every morning, they have servants tending to their every need. Coffee, breakfast, newspapers, clothes, and their papers and work related duties are all ready for them when they wake up. It is a very comfortable life for these characters.

However, just because their lives are well off economically, that doesn’t mean their lives are perfect; for the social consequences of anything they do are significantly larger than the average person.

Gossip is an ever recurring activity by the upper class throughout the novel. I was amazed by how many topics they can talk about on every social event. From clothes worn by some aristocrat during theatre to their vacation plans, or if someone prominent arrives in town, they would talk about that person’s career and family history before they would invite that person. This entails that in the small world of high society, anything someone does, even if it’s remotely worth talking about, these people will talk about it. It is also worth noting that since the upper class is composed of the smallest group of people among the social classes, almost everyone knew or is acquainted with each other, which makes the consequences of being gossiped all the more terrible. Anna Karenina is a perfect example of this.

True Love

Anna Karenina is a product of this small, exceptional niche in society. At a young age, she was married off by her aunt to a government officer, Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin. After that marriage, her role was established in high society due to her husband, and her life was changed forever.

Although, on the concept of love, there is still some conflict in her soul. She knows that she loves both her son and husband; and yet out of the two, only her son was the person she genuinely loves. The love that she has for her husband is somewhat of a formal love, a love produced by society and not by two hearts passionately wanting each other.

So, when Anna finally met Vronsky on that fateful train station; the handsome, sweet, impressive military man who came to pick up his mother, something fluttered in her heart. A mixture of desire and confusion was building up inside her. She tried to repress it at first, but she knows that the feeling will spring up again if she ever meets Vronsky; and meet him again she did.

After meeting Vronsky again, Anna finally told him her true feelings, and they decided to be together. While being with him, she felt for the first time the love and passion of a man that was true. Through all the things that he did for her, Anna realized, or thought, just how deprived she was of love, for her husband Alexei, have always given her the kind of love that was formal and cold. In Anna’s opinion, her husband only cared about their outward appearance in society, whereas Vronsky truly loved her.

While reading this novel, any one of us readers might already think just how terrible of a woman she is, or others might view her as a courageous person who chose love over security. No matter what any of us thinks of her, one thing is for certain, Anna and Vronsky’s story is more of a tragedy than a romance.

Everything that Anna and Vronsky did, were considered immoral by everyone in their circle. However, since this novel was set in Imperial Russia, the consequences were far greater for Anna. Vronsky, being a military man, can still do as he pleases in society without shame, whereas Anna, shunned by everyone she knows, cannot even go out into society and live normally. The gossips about their affair were widespread, and this societal pressure would eventually tarnish their relationship.

Down at the last few chapters of the book, Anna admitted to Dolly, her sister-in-law, that she has wronged her husband and her family. But just as she finally decided to try and make things right, life, with all its complexity and mysteriousness, takes a different path on what she wanted to happen. The consequences of this circumstance were too much for her. For even though she realizes that she loves both Vronsky and her son, Seryozha, equally, she knows she cannot have both of them due to her irredeemable status in society.

This realization, or maybe, admittance of love, took a long time for Anna. She and Vronsky have caused so much pain to other people and to themselves before arriving in this realization. Now that they both know what to do, life, after letting them do what they want for so long, has finally turned the other way. This is the ultimate lesson that I found in Anna Karenina: that you have to be always prepared for the consequences of your actions, for life is not a straight path and anything can happen in the most unexpected of times.

Love & Family

So, what does it mean to truly love a person?

The novel did not show a straight answer to this question. Rather, the author showed the effects of love on three distinct families with different circumstances: Anna Karenina’s family (the Karenins), Dolly’s family (the Oblonskys), and the other main characters, Levin and Kitty’s family (the Levins).

While analyzing their situations, I noticed that one distinct character in each of those families provided the same kind of love: the unassailable love that endures and pushes through no matter what happens in their family.

Dolly, even though her husband, Stepan Arkadyich, cheated on her, still chose to love him and let him stay so that their children would not grow up without a father, for she loves her children very much. Stepan, realizing this, chose to stay and be a good father to his children.

Levin, even though Kitty rejected him at first on his marriage proposal, never gave up on his love, and was rewarded after some time later when they would meet again, for Kitty truly loved him back then. She only chose the other suitor, Vronsky, because he was the best man for the family and their family’s image in society. But when Vronsky left her and chose Anna instead, Kitty realized that she never stopped thinking about Levin.

And Anna, who exudes the similar kind of love as Dolly and Levin, but only to someone outside her family, destroyed her own. She left her son and husband to be with Vronsky, had a child with him, and irreparably tainted the Karenins’ reputation in society.

Analyzing these three families, I learned that it is not enough to just love someone. Loving is easy. It is the consequences to yourself and the people around you, and the vicissitudes of life, that make it difficult. So, if you love someone, think carefully about the consequences of your actions before you go through with it. If it will not hurt the people around you, then pursue it, but still be prepared for every circumstance.

The tragedy of Anna Karenina is that she had the right kind of love that will last. But because she is a married woman, bound to her family, this kind of love should be reserved for her family, like what the Levins and Oblonskys did. As a consequence, this powerful love turned into hatred, jealousy, and irrationality, ultimately destroying her soul.

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