More Anna Karenina: What About Love?

Well, that was abrupt. Here I thought that this novel told a great love story, and instead we seem to have stumbled into a love affair with no good reason. Not that Anna and Vronsky don’t have their reasons, but we hardly know what they are or why we should care when all of a sudden we hear that it “had come to pass.” I’ve read about a hundred pages past this development and I still feel disoriented by it. We hardly know anything about these people, and we’ve barely seen them flirting, much less falling in love. Immediately upon the consummation of their passion–which seems little more than an infatuation–it’s shame, not love, that dominates the atmosphere: even as Vronsky showers kisses on her face and shoulders, all Anna can think about is that “These kisses were what had been bought by their shame!”

Maybe it isn’t a love story, then, at least not for these two. Though Anna is now declaring her love for Vronsky to her husband:

‘You were not mistaken. I was, and cannot help being, in despair. I listen to you but I am thinking of him. I love him, I am his mistress, I cannot endure you. I am afraid of you, and I hate you. . . .’

“I love him, I am his mistress, I cannot endure you”: the juxtaposition of these declarations makes Anna’s feelings and motives more obscure to me rather than less. Maybe they are obscure to her too. Is she his mistress because her love was too great to resist, or because her distaste for her husband made her restless? Is there more to her love for Vronsky than being his mistress? How is their love different from desire, or gratification? Is it worth the shame? Is it worth the 550 remaining pages of the novel? This situation–their affair, but also Karenin’s knowledge of it–came much sooner than I expected. It turns out barely any of the novel is about the gathering storm of their passion, or a desperate struggle to hide it. It can only be a novel about love’s consequences, then, but I wonder how we will navigate those consequences when we understand so little about that love. Also, I wonder how I will feel about those consequences when so far I feel so little for either Anna or Vronsky. I think I am not reading the novel right.

I peered at John Bayley’s introduction to my edition for help with my confusion and found that I am making a weak echo of a complaint made by Percy Lubbock in The Craft of Fiction, and by Matthew Arnold in an early review, that “we do not know enough about Anna, as Tolstoy sets her before us.” We are making, Bayley proposes, the mistake of a reader of other kind of novels, of European novels such as Madame Bovary or Emma or Middlemarch. In these novels “the author seeks to understand [the heroine], and to convey understanding to his [sic] reader, by means of analysis and the careful establishment of a social and moral context. . . . Tolstoy’s method is very different.” That method, Bayley says, is to have Anna “soar above the book, and above all its family details and social events, as if she were the vehicle through which the force of passion declares itself. . . . This vivid insubstantiality of Anna is one of the most remarkable things about her.” Is the implication here that the love that really matters is mine for Anna? If so, I’m in trouble, since at this point I am only mildly interested in her, and that interest is not of a wholly positive  kind, as I don’t understand her infidelity and thus can’t sympathize with it. If she is going to be the animated “force of passion” my sympathies are likely to remain muted, steeped as I am in a tradition that values the moral struggle with passion over someone who lives like “a gale of wind or a roaring fire.” Did Anna struggle? How did Vronsky win her over? Or was the seed of her betrayal in her own weakness, rather than his strength? Did she fall because she loves him, or or does she love him because she was already fallen?

Maybe the love story is not Anna and Vronsky but Kitty and Levin. At this point they are quite far from their consummation, but I know where things will end up for them as well as I know how things end up for Anna. They seem to be learning about love, or about life, and there is more explanation in their sections about character and motives and circumstances. Overall, though, I’m finding the novel episodic and disjointed, organized into set pieces (the ball, the race, the religious experiment) without a supporting web of ideas or attitudes. Maybe Tolstoy is just making me work harder to figure out his novel’s morality than George Eliot does.

5 thoughts on “More Anna Karenina: What About Love?

  1. Victoria Olsen December 10, 2012 / 1:31 am

    It’s useful to track your responses this way, as you read — I wonder if you will feel differently about Anna or her passion for Vronsky by the end? I just saw the film and found the love affair treated the same way as you describe in the book (which I haven’t read in years). It is very sudden and not given any particular psychological or social rationale. Their eyes meet…. etc. The movie holds off from showing Vronsky as a Wickham-type flirt (those men in uniforms!), but only barely. He seems immature, but then Anna does too and she has been married nine years. There are plenty of unanswered questions about her life: why doesn’t she have as many children as her sister-in-law Dolly? (the film implies the couple uses birth control, but why?) why did she marry Karenin in the first place? and then the essential question of why she gives up everything for Vronsky and why she seems so surprised by the consequences (loss of her son, her “good name” etc). Even Vronsky seems to know what will befall them, whereas Anna lives in some happy bubble until it bursts. I’ll be interested to hear more of your progress through the book.


  2. V Patrick December 10, 2012 / 12:30 pm

    Yes, I was very taken back by the abruptness of the deed also. And I have to say it took me several parts to get an adequate handle on how it all affected the general story. One other thing that struck me as I navigate through the novel are the societal tendencies to accept or overlook Oblonsky’s affair(s) while Anna’s affair is looked down on by all except those close to her who have encouraged the relationship. I also find it ironic that Oblonsky and Anna are related, male and female, and then add those societal tendencies in…it just feels like a huge double standard. One that I seem to be incredibly hung up on. I’m just crossing into part 5 now and I greatly appreciate the conversation. Just in the few posts so far, I’ve gone back to re-read parts that I did not remember reading or I didn’t latch on to as key details. It’s helped so much!


  3. Stefanie December 10, 2012 / 4:09 pm

    You are moving right along! I didn’t much like Anna in the beginning of the book, she lacked something compelling. She gets more interesting in the last two parts though. She and Vronsky are not the love story, it’s good you notice that Levin and Kitty might be 🙂


  4. Rohan December 10, 2012 / 11:58 pm

    Maryb – thanks for the tip. See how behind the curve I am on this? Everyone has always already been there first. You’re right that I think I’ll wait to read this. Might as well give myself half a chance to answer the question my own way.


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