Michael McCooe – 19th Century: Anna Karenina

Released in 1877, Russian writer Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is often regarded as the pinnacle of realist literature. Chronicling the tragic story of married aristocrat Anna Karenina as she engages in a torrid affair with the affluent Count Vronsky, this thousand page tome has become truly iconic.

Meeting Anna

As the novel opens, we meet the prominent Moscow-based Oblonsky family. Its head, Stiva, has been caught having an affair with their children’s former governess by his wife, Dolly. Stiva’s sister Anna, who is married to St Petersburg official Karenin, comes to mediate, helping the couple resolve their differences. Concurrently, Dolly’s sister Kitty is being pursued by two suitors – awkward landowner Konstantin Levin and charming military man Alexei Vronsky, with Kitty eventually choosing the latter.

After meeting Anna, Vronsky falls in love with her, devastating Kitty who then becomes ill. Anna returns to St Petersburg, but he follows her and their feelings then being to deepen, as she starts mixing with the free-thinking set of Vronksy’s cousin Betsy. When they both attend a party, Anna asks Vronsky to beg Kitty’s forgiveness but he responds by confessing his love for Anna, after which she returns to Karenin, who then confides his suspicions to Anna, regarding her relationship with Vronksy.

Changing relationships

Anna and Vronsky then start an affair, causing Karenin’s suspicions to heighten. One day Vronsky takes part in a military officers’ horse race and when he accidentally break’s his horse’s back, Anna’s intense interest in Vronsky becomes crystal clear to Karenin, after which she candidly admits the affair. Meanwhile, Kitty travels to a German health spa, meeting a pious Russian woman, her protégée, Varenka and Levin’s ill brother Nikolai, who has come to the spa for the same purpose as Kitty.

At the same time, Levin is visited at his countryside estate by his intellectual half-brother, Sergei Koznyshev. The brother criticises Levin for quitting his job at the local administrative council, but Levin says that the position was bureaucratic and useless, so he prefers working with the peasants on his estate, although he finds their resistance to agricultural innovations irritating. After, Levin visits Dolly, who persuades him to re-start his relationship with Kitty, who then become engaged and marry.

We then return to Anna, who asks Karenin for a divorce. He says no and insists that the two maintain pretences. But Anna moves to her family’s country home to get away, where she continues to meet Vronksy, but soon becomes pregnant, complicating matters. After catching her with Vronsky, Karenin then agrees to divorce Anna. Karenin eventually forgives his wife and allows her to set the terms of their divorce, while she is giving birth, but Anna resents his generosity and fails to ask for a divorce.

Anna’s demise

Instead, Anna and Vronsky flee to Italy, where they lead an aimless life, before returning to Russia, where Anna is shunned by society for being an adulteress. The couple then go into seclusion, but she grows to resent Vronsky, because as a man, he can still move freely in society, while she has to remain home to avoid the shame. We also discover that married life has restricted Levin’s freedom, as he cannot visit his dying brother Nikolai without soliciting an argument with Kitty. When she joins Levin, it becomes clear that Kitty feels more for Nikolai, proving a great comfort to him as he passes away.

Kitty then falls pregnant, after which Dolly visits Anna, who is still waiting for a divorce, at her luxurious country home, becoming worried by her reliance on sedatives. After this, Levin and Kitty move to Moscow in preparation for the birth of their child but one day, Stiva takes Levin to visit Anna. She charms Levin and this causes her to resent Vronsky even further, increasingly believing that her Count no longer loves her. Kitty then gives birth, but Levin experiences conflicting feelings towards his son, while Stiva goes to St Petersburg to beg Karenin to divorce Anna, but he again refuses.

Growing more paranoid, Anna then picks a fight with Vronsky, suggesting that he loves his mother more than her. Vronsky tries to be accommodating but Anna remains angry and after he leaves on an errand, Anna begs him via telegram to come home. Anna then desperately drives to Dolly’s to say goodbye to Vronsky, but then resolves to meet him later at the train station. She rides there in a stupor and dazed by the crowds gathered there, Anna then dives onto the track and is killed by a train.

After Anna’s death, Vronsky grows suicidal. Along with some others, he joins a Russian uprising in support of the Slavic peoples’ attempt to free themselves of Turkish rule. Levin is sceptical over this cause and stays away, growing increasingly gloomy over his inability to determine the meaning of life. However, Levin meets a peasant one day, who tells Levin that the meaning of life is to serve god and be good. Later, Levin runs into the woods to flee from a storm, spotting an oak felled by lightning and fearing that it killed his wife and son. After this Levin is relieved to see Kitty and his son alive, feeling real love for his son for the first time, realising that he can make his life meaningful by doing good.

Crucial text

In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy was trying to say that no one can build their happiness, upon another person’s pain. Anna and Vronsky’s romance is doomed, as they cannot overcome their relationship’s scandalous beginning, but Kitty and Levin grow to become happy, as they experience married life. Tolstoy does not moralise, instead allowing readers to draw their own conclusions by delving into the rich complexities of Russian life and in doing so, creates a timeless piece in Anna Karenina.

You can also read a blog by Michael McCooe on Classical Music.