Tolstoy gives us what ‘Anna Karenina’ is all about in the first line of the novel: the distinction between happiness and unhappiness in relationships – between parents and children, siblings, and friends. His primarily focus is happiness, or the quest for it, and the onslaught of unhappiness, and the attempts to escape it, in a love relationship….when a woman and a man give oneself to the other: soul, mind, and body.
Anna is at the heart of all of these relationships. She is the mother devoted to her child and the mother without him; she is the sister trying to preserve her brother’s marriage and the one causing his family disgrace; she’s the friend feeling for the younger woman who sought her guidance, and the one who crushes her heart. And she’s the one who gives all and wants all in a consuming love story.
Unlike Tolstoy’s other major novels, ’Anna Karenina’ does not stray into multiple threads. We do have different families, see their stories unfold on the pages, but here Tolstoy keeps the novel’s energy almost totally emanating from and revolving round Anna. It is her world in which we live, her feelings in which we delve, and her ocean of emotions in which we sail.
Often we identify with Anna. We want her to be in that love story in which she finds much more than warmth, companionship, and desire; she finds the man who chose her, the man round whom she wants to weave her life, and who happily settles into that central role she wants him to be in. We know how rare and valuable it is for a woman to want and give fully, and for a man to choose and commit wholeheartedly. There is innate warmth in that bond, one that connects with our own wants and desires. And so we want it to grow and prosper. We want it to become the framework surrounding their life. We feel that – she – by giving all, and – he – by wanting and accepting, the two of them form two circles surrounding each other, where both of them are the core and the surface. He chose, entered, accepted, settled, and protected. She accepted, chose, received, and gave her own protection. In he went, reception and settlement she endowed.
Tolstoy denies us choice. By structuring the relationship like that, by drawing Anna the way he did, by seducing us into the annals of her anxieties, for us to see the glory of her soul, as well as her darkness, Tolstoy weaved many threads round our emotions that we become compelled to wish Anna and her lover to withstand the tornadoes.
Tolstoy plays with their destiny, and in so doing, with our wants and wishes for them. At moments of weakness, the man feels the two circles that he and Anna have formed are getting too small for him. Anna, feels the circles are the life she sacrificed all for, and that by not seeing that, the man she accepted being chosen by, is almost on the verge of betraying her choice – almost on the verge of betraying his own choice. The two circles seem to separate; the two lives begin to diverge. Anna feels that her acceptance of being chosen, her choosing of her surrender, and her blessing of his life being hers gives her rights that his weaknesses cannot, must not, abrogate. And we, watching her rising waves of emotions, see the danger that could shatter the warmth, companionship, and desire.
But Tolstoy is a romantic. By creating Anna the way she is, he had to make her sail through the turbulence. The warmth returns, and the separation of the two lives, souls, wants, and desires disappears.
Tolstoy did not decide to save Anna’s love from a man feeling the domestic nest is too limiting, or from a woman having second thoughts about the sacrifices she made for being with the man she fell in love with. Tolstoy saved Anna’s love because he had to. The love story at the core of ‘Anna Karenina’ gets its meaning from the strength of the bond between the souls of the two protagonists. For Tolstoy, showing the strains that life, the banality of life, could impose on that bond was a must to arrive at the foregone conclusion that that bond would, of course, come out victorious.
But if the bond is almost sacred now, it is the love story that’s becoming too unreal. That closeness, that attachment to the extent of disappearing spaces between lives entangles the two souls by mental links and by passion. Those intangibles make ‘Anna Karenina’, the love story, what it is….but can that bond survive what is not mere life, what is not mere banality? The Tolstolian victory of that valuable bond lures us into believing it can survive, into wanting it to survive, into wanting Tolstoy to make it a reality that the characters he surrounded Anna with, accept.
Some do. Some do not. But Tolstoy does not care much about that. He leaves us focusing on the social aspects – will Anna regain the respectability she sacrificed, will her lover regain the career he squandered, will the former husband find tenderness (or faith) in his heart to forgive. And while we are turning the pages to look, to find out, to plea, Tolstoy splashes cold water on our faces. It is not waking up of the dream that society, that life, would let the two circles sail smoothly, not disturbed by forces that pull them apart. Tolstoy could have made that dream come true. He could have made the tenderness of nineteenth century sensibilities, coated by the luxurious privilege of upper classes Tzarist Russia accept the love story, come to terms with it, and with time, let it linger there in a grey zone of acceptability, that would have sufficed the two lovers.
But what Tolstoy could not have done, irrespective of our feelings, irrespective of how strongly we feel for Anna, was to let her survive her own story. To have sailed smoothly through her own inner tornadoes would have made Anna a different heroine from the Anna Tolstoy have made us fall for, identify with. Anna and the love story Tolstoy weaved for her, of course, transcend the ridiculousness of society, but does not transcend Anna herself. Anna had to be herself, had to look with warmth in the coldness surrounding her, and feel herself unable to go forward, to carry the burden of her own story. Anna had to shudder as her tornadoes rage inside her. Anna would not have been Anna if she had comprehended and reasoned with the anxieties lurking at her core. As she shudders, she crumbles. And as we see her fall, we cling to her occupying that warm place inside our imagination where our care for her story, for what it meant, for what it could have meant, resides. There Anna lives forever, nestled in the perception we have formed of her, of her life, of her love. Tolstoy takes her away from us, crushes her story, shows us the impossibility of Anna carrying her story through. Yet, he makes that decision with the absolute confidence of knowing that we will never let our take on Anna, our interpretation of her, our want for her story to live in our imagination, fade with her. The great writer, and deep inside him the wise old man, takes Anna away, casts his mercy, his tenderness on her, and saves her from her anxieties, knowing that Anna, with us, will never die.