An Introduction to “Anna Karenina”

[This is an introduction to the novel Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy, which I contributed to the anthology, The Great Books Reader edited by John Mark Reynolds (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2011).The passage I selected comes from the center of the book, Part 4, Ch 14-19. In the translation I like best, by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volkhonsky, it appears at pages 402-423.]

If you know anything about Anna Karenina, you know that it is the story of a woman who abandons her husband for another man, and comes to a bad end. What you might not know is that the novel is about two marriages: Anna’s, which ends sadly, and Levin’s, which, though not without the usual stresses, goes well. The often-quoted first sentence of the book sets up the dichotomy: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

The selection included here comes from the exact center of the book; it’s the hinge of the story. It begins with Levin walking around in a lovestricken daze—surely one of the most delightful passages in any novel—because Kitty has just accepted his proposal of marriage. Earlier in the story she had rejected him because, as an innocent young woman newly introduced to society, she was thrilled by the attentions of a handsome, worldly officer, Vronsky.  Kitty rejected Levin’s suit at a ball where she was expecting Vronsky’s proposal—but then saw him dancing with another woman, and gazing at her with an expression of rapt, headlong love that he had never bestowed on Kitty. That woman was Anna Karenina.

As in most 19th century novels, the characters’ families are interwoven. Kitty’s sister Dolly is married to Anna’s brother, Stiva Oblonsky. The book’s first scene depicts a crisis in that marriage: Dolly has just discovered a love note from her husband to the children’s French governess, and her pain and fury has thrown the household into disarray. Anna comes for a visit, hoping to talk with Dolly and Stiva and enable a reconciliation. Anna’s sensitive intervention is successful, and she returns home to her husband, Alexei Karenin (a rather dry government official twenty years her senior), and their eight-year-old son.

But during her visit Anna had a disturbing experience. She met Vronsky, and both were instantly aware of a powerful attraction. Vronsky pursued her, and, though she initially resisted, her defenses were soon overcome. Their affair became a familiar topic of society gossip, but somehow Karenin managed to ignore the truth, until Anna told him bluntly, “I am his mistress, I cannot stand you, I’m afraid of you, I hate you.” Karenin, shamed and furious, resolved at least to prevent Anna from getting what she wanted: the freedom to be with Vronsky.

Up to this point, the story of Anna’s love affair follows a familiar pattern: two people meet and fall in love, but one of them is already married and the heartless spouse stands in the way. We don’t encounter that storyline much anymore, but before the sexual revolution made pre-marital sex permissible, extra-marital sex was often treated sympathetically in fiction, on the premise that one’s destined true love might appear after a marriage had already taken place.  This story line gains drama if the resistant spouse is depicted as a bad guy, and that is how Karenin is often seen. In the 1935 film version of Anna Karenina (starring Greta Garbo), Basil Rathbone portrayed Karenin in the same cold, cruel manner that he did the villainous Mr. Murdstone in the same year’s David Copperfield.

So true love thwarted by a selfish spouse has been, in some ages, a common-enough story—but that’s not the story Tolstoy wrote. In the passage included here, Karenin goes to Anna’s bedside knowing she has contracted a postpartum infection, and secretly hoping she will die. But once he is at Anna’s bedside something unexpected happens. An inner disturbance starts working within him, as she clutches his hand and babbles feverishly. It breaks forth, a cascade of love and forgiveness for all who have hurt him. It is exhilarating and joyous, and reduces him to sobbing, with his head against Anna’s burning arm.

Look at what Tolstoy has done here: he has put a character through a radical transformation, and in the process reversed our view of that character. We knew Karenin as dull, cold, and overly concerned with his social standing, but a radiance of soul has suddenly blazed out. Everything has been turned upside down. Now Karenin is the noble figure in the story, while Vronsky discovers himself cast down and humiliated.

How did Tolstoy accomplish this reversal? We can reread the passage looking for authorial fingerprints, but it’s hard to find any clues. It looks as if Tolstoy achieved this transformation simply by telling us that it is what happened. In the hands of other novelists, this turn of events might have sounded manipulative, heavy-handed, and simply unbelievable. But when Tolstoy tells the story, for some reason, we believe it. It doesn’t feel like we’re reading fiction. It’s more like watching a documentary.

This reality-effect is the distinctive feature of Tolstoy’s writing, and readers and critics have been trying to express just what this characteristic is, and how he does it, for over a century.  The fashion of “realism” in fiction—that is, building a story from elements of ordinary life—did not originate with Tolstoy; it got its start decades earlier in France, and had been well demonstrated by his time by Honore´ Balzac and Gustave Flaubert. But in Tolstoy’s hands, reality somehow seems more real.

Clifton Fadiman, writing a foreword to Tolstoy’s War and Peace, says, “It is translucent. It seems to have been composed in the sunlight.” Critic Philip Rahv commented, “One might say that in a sense there are no plots in Tolstoy but simply the unquestioned and unalterable process of life itself.”

How did he do it? In a review of a new translation of Anna Karenina in the Feb 5, 2001, New Yorker, James Wood ferrets out a few of Tolstoy’s tricks. For one thing, he continually reverts to descriptions of physical reality. That’s hardly a professional secret—every writer learns the rule, “Show, don’t tell”—but Tolstoy has a way of drawing our attention to those concrete details that keeps us in his characters’ world. Vronsky is besieged by tormenting, insomniac thoughts, and at the very moment he thinks, “Why do people shoot themselves?,” he suddenly notices by his head a pillow embroidered by his sister-in-law.  He touches its tassel and tries to think when he saw her last.  But it is painful to think of anything beyond his immediate misery, and he tells himself, “No, I must sleep!” Tolstoy does not just tell us that there is a pillow near Vronsky’s head; he draws our attention to it by telling us it drew Vronsky’s attention. He renders it visible by mentioning concete details: it is embroidered, it has a tassel, and it causes an image of Varvara to flit across Vronsky’s memory.

Furthermore, Wood points out, Tolstoy’s “details are almost always propelled by function.” The details have dynamic power, because they are linked to the character’s actions and responses. Vronsky is first surprised to see the pillow, then touches the tassel, pictures its maker, moves the pillow, presses his head to it, makes an effort to keep his eyes closed, then sits up abruptly. The pillow exists in the story as Vronsky interacts with it; it is not there because the omniscient narrator thought it would make a good part of the descriptive background.

So Tolstoy does not tell us how things look to the author; he tells us how they look to the characters. In short, he  does not use simile and metaphor. (That astonishing assertion in Wood’s review is what got me started reading Tolstoy in the first place. How can anyone write without using metaphor and simile? That would be like—never mind.) Wood cites for comparison Flaubert’s description of the steam rising from a train’s funnel, and his authorial suggestion that it looks like an ostrich plume. There is no intrinsic connection between the steam and a plume; when we agree to that image, we are agreeing to see reality through the author’s eyes. Tolstoy instead tells us how things look to the characters. These things exist, with the characters, in a present-tense shared reality. “The writer who uses metaphor is describing the world hypothetically, as it might be,” Wood writes. “Tolstoy is describing the world as it is.”

This is why we get the sensation in Tolstoy’s novels, Wood writes, that “everything is extraordinarily free” yet “everything is also curiously inevitable.” When a surge of love and forgiveness flows through Karenin we are as surprised as he is, yet it is the only thing that could have happened.

But there may be yet another element to Tolstoy’s translucent craftsmanship, which has to do with love. Mark Van Doren commented, “For Tolstoy…anything that human beings do has its glory….I think he can be said to have hated nothing that ever happened.”  Indeed, Tolstoy appears to love all his characters. Even the reckless playboy Dolokhov, who foments much trouble in War and Peace, is later revealed to be a good son and the support of his widowed mother and sisters. Tolstoy didn’t have to show us a good side to Dolokhov; he chose to. Every character in his fictional universe can give a reason that he should be loved.

Lionel Trilling points out that this consistent affection for his characters is what sets Tolstoy apart.  Flaubert is equally “objective,” he says, but “Flaubert’s objectivity is charged with irritability and Tolstoy’s with affection. For Flaubert everyone and everything is somehow at fault. For Tolstoy everyone and everything has a saving grace.” It is “this quality of affection that accounts for the unique illusion of reality that Tolstoy creates.  It is when the novelist really loves his characters that he can show them in their completeness and contradictions…What we call Tolstoy’s objectivity is simply the power of his love to suffer no abatement from the notice and account it takes of the fact that life usually falls below its ideal of itself.” Tolstoy’s love for his characters is strong enough to recognize their capacity for evil.  He does not need them to maintain a false standard of goodness in order to be loved (as some characters in Dickens might be said to do).

Tolstoy wrote of Pierre, the earnest and bumbling lead character of War and Peace, “By loving people without cause, he discovered indubitable causes for loving them.” It would be hard to find a more succinct description of the chief work of the Holy Spirit in the human heart.

Trilling believes that Tolstoy’s expectation that there is some good in every ordinary person feels to us like reality because it is the reality we want. We want to be loved like this, believing that we are “not heroic yet not without heroism, not splendid yet not without moments of light,” and “managing somehow…to maintain a curious dignity.”  We award Tolstoy praise for achieving a crystalline quality of realism, Trilling claims, because we recognize his reality as the one we most desire.

Yet life is not sugar-coated in Tolstoy’s works; terrible things take place. But it can be argued that he lacks the profound understanding of evil that makes Dostoevsky’s works so powerful.  Trilling suspects, though, that our age (he was writing in 1952) is inclined to think that the worst things are the truest things, itself a form of blindness.  “We may come to assume that evil is equivalent to reality,” Trilling warns, “and may even come, in some distant and unconscious way, to honor it as such.” We may come to assume that whatever is dark and edgy is true, and to mistrust joy, or even lose the ability to depict honest joy. “Though many have represented the attenuation or distortion of human relationships, scarcely any have been able to make actual what the normalities of relationships are.” Tolstoy shows us family, parenthood, romance in all their ordinary variety, and these images complement more harrowing works of art by reminding us of what there is to lose.

Anna Karenina has its critics. Some have charged Tolstoy with delivering a formless novel, in which Anna’s situation dramatically outweighs Levin’s, and the two parallel stories barely intersect. A friend of Tolstoy’s made that complaint when the book was first published, and Richard Pevear quotes Tolstoy’s reply in the introduction to his new translation:

On the contrary, I am proud of my architecture. But my vaults have been assembled in such a way that the keystone cannot be seen. Most of my effort has gone into that. The cohesion of the structure does not lie in the plot or in the relations (the meetings) of the characters, it is an internal cohesion…look well and you will find it.

When thinking in terms of that invisible structure, it’s useful to remember that this selection from Anna Karenina comes in the middle, not at the end. Karenin’s flood of divine forgiveness will not necessarily last. He has discovered, through this wrenching experience, that the reason tears had always been upsetting to him was that he was trying to hold back a powerful impulse for compassion. Now, to give free rein to that love, and to forgive from the heart, and to treasure the baby his wife had borne to her lover, all this gives him great joy. But he can see from the surprised looks of those around him, and the joy his acquaintances can barely conceal (“as if delighted, as if they were getting somebody married”), that he will not be permitted to continue in this simplicity of heart. (Karenin’s experience was Tolstoy’s own; he wrote in his Confession, “Every time I tried to display my innermost desires – a wish to be morally good – I met with contempt and scorn, and as soon as I gave in to base desires I was praised and encouraged.”)

Levin, like Karenin, is overwhelmed and behaving oddly. Those who know him are surprised and affected by his joy, and even find wedding talk contagious (“The old folk evidently got confused for a moment and could not quite tell whether it was they who were in love again, or only their daughter.”) But Levin will not be permitted to continue his cloud-walking. “Will there really be a trousseau?” he thinks “with horror,” but, seeing that it pleases Kitty, he admits that it must be so. Levin’s simple, spontaneous effusion of love will be hemmed in and altered by the society that surrounds him.

Two roads diverge in this novel, but the more you look, the more you notice similarities. I was struck this time by the image of Kitty’s kissing her father’s “fleshy hand,” surely an unappealing note on which to end this most delicate and whimsical section. A few pages later we see Karenin reach out toward Anna, as she endures the unhelpful badgering of her friend Princess Tverskoy. Though he has exhibited extraordinary love for Anna, at the sight of “his moist hand with its big, swollen veins” she recoils, and takes it “with an obvious effort.” We realize that no amount of love on his part will render Anna able to love him. In this poignant juxtaposition of two unattractive hands we perhaps catch a glimpse of Tolstoy’s hidden structure. But, really, you’re going to want to buy the book and search it out yourself, starting from the beginning.

About Frederica Matthewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service,, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.