After finishing Anna Karenina I have to say that Tolstoy’s timeless novel is one of the my new favorite books. It is not so much a book as it is a picture: a living, breathing depiction of life. Tolstoy knows how to animate life, quite unlike any other. And his talent is one far from confined to parchment barriers. It reaches into the soul.
In Anna Karenina, love is depicted by comparisons. We see two romances side by side, but completely different in mood and texture. There is the story of young Levin, who is in many ways a hopeless romantic, deeply in love with Katerina (Kitty) Shcherbatsky, a young debutante preparing to make her entrance into Russian society. At first she spurns him, having committed her affections to the dashing Count Vronsky, a Prince Charming-esque character in almost every regard except for one: his unbridled taste for the fairer sex. In more modern terms, he’s basically a man-whore, casting his affections at the drop of a hat. Kitty falls prey to his debonair charm, and expects to receive an offer of marriage. But, at a ball, things go horribly wrong as another woman becomes the object of Vronsky’s affection: the mysterious Anna Karenina.
Vronsky flees from Kitty, romancing Anna. This causes a rift between her and her husband, Alexei. At first he needlessly clings to his wife for the sake of honor alone, but eventually relinquishes her. Anna, still married by contract, now becomes scandalized for her affair with the count. They plunge into passion together, and the affair results in a pregnancy, further ostracizing her from society.
Meanwhile, both Levin and Kitty, heartbroken, begin to build their lives apart from each other, finding purpose in the absence of romance. Later they come together, in renewed spirits, and begin to forge a relationship.
Love blossoms very slowly between Levin and Kitty. With Vronsky and Anna it ignites with passion. Rather than an act of time and patience, love is a selfish matter. Both Anna and Vronsky turn away from their prior obligations: one of marriage, the other of a marriage-to-be. In the case of Anna and Vronsky, love requires abandonment. Alexei Karenin is stripped of a wife, and Kitty is stripped of a suitor.
On the contrast, love is a patient affair with Kitty and Levin. It does not spring from sexual passion; it nurtures like a child. Far from perfect, we see the growing pains of Levin and Kitty’s relationship, even in marriage. There are doubts, there are quarrels, even moments of jealousy. But what Tolstoy is trying to show is that no romance is ever perfect. Even the best and most honest relationships come with blemishes. But these are only natural. And, unlike Anna and Vronsky, they sow maturity and patience, rather than discord.
Anna is a very selfish woman, always prizing her own needs over everyone else’s. She chides Vronsky for any time he spends away from her, but not in the same way as Kitty. Anna uses every instance of quarrel as leverage against Count Vronsky, trying to guilt-trip him into sympathy. She sees him in shades of black and white, rather than gray: he is her greatest love, but also her greatest enemy. In the end, her despair takes hold of her and she takes her life just to revenge herself on him one last time.
Anna thinks only of how things will affect herself, being scandalized. She does believe she has acted in error, but only considers the consequences of the act on her reputation, rather than anyone else’s. She uses it as excuse to bury herself deeper under self-loathing and self-pity.
Vronsky is also a selfish person. His biggest struggle is between trying to choose to commit to one woman whose reputation he has already helped to soil and wanting to live in his decadent, womanizing ways. Levin is far from a womanizer, but he is once tempted by the lure of selfish, masculine independence when he gets a taste of the Moscow city life. The difference is, he chooses commitment over self-interest. He chooses it willing and happily, while Vronsky still clings to Anna out of obligation.
Vronsky and Anna’s relationship is also one defined by excess and gratification. They travel the world, meeting artists and visiting exotic locations. When the throes of passion subside, they try to fill the void with opulence. Luxury abounds, from commissioning a painting of Anna from a famous artist, to lavish vacations and sumptuous feasts and parties. They try to make themselves fashionable to the upper rung of society, while Levin and Kitty are much more content to live a simple, pastoral life. Their romance is simply a show for the world, rather than an honest profession of love. It is a passion that kindles quickly and then clings desperately as its fire dies out. It is merely a trimming that hides its true nature.
Because passion kindles so quick and selfishly it also dies quick and selfishly. There is no room for the growth that we see in Levin and Kitty’s relationship, even though both experience similar things. At one point Levin becomes jealous of Kitty’s attention towards another man and even starts to accuse her, much like Anna accuses Vronsky. Jealousy is never the sole indication of a bad relationship, but unchecked it can sow the seeds for one. However love is patient, rather than quick-spirited, with Levin and Kitty. They argue like any other couple, but are willing to mend their quarrels, rather than let them fester over time. The blemishes, present in any normal relationship, are front and center in Levin and Kitty’s marriage: they are not hidden beneath a tapestry. In their case it takes seeing over the faults of each other, rather than trying to romanticize them.
Lastly, Kitty and Levin are given time to grow in themselves, before entering into a relationship. They learn the value of self-giving. Levin commits himself to his labor and Kitty commits herself to the service of others. Rather than causing a rift between them, this value of self-giving allows them to learn from each other. Kitty, though at times distraught by Levin’s commitment to his craft, comes to respect his integrity. Levin, though baffled at times by Kitty’s selfless attitude towards others, comes to adapt this to his own values. Tolstoy shows that the best loves are ones that can learn from experience. A husband is not “complete” in marriage without the values of his wife, and a wife is not complete without the values of her husband. Two competitors, such as Vronsky and Anna, will only divide a relationship, rather than compliment it. Love must not be swift and selfish; it must have a tender, patient hand. This does not and will never mean perfection, but it does imply a willingness to grow through challenges and obstacles.
Levin and Kitty have a natural relationship, rather than one that is persistently dysfunctional. Anna and Vronsky have a doomed relationship because it is only predicated on passion. It is one of vanity that cannot grow into anything more. Passion is a temporary thing: without the underpinnings of care and commitment, it cannot stay afloat. And crashes undertow.