Anna Karenina

We all have books that imprint a lasting memory on us, not simply for the entertainment value, but rather for the way in which they communicate the truth of the human person.  I just spent the better part of two hours and three cups of coffee with a good friend who described manner of influence that Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisted had upon him.  It seems to me that the profundity of such texts is carried by their characters rather than their plot lines.  True, the development of the characters is always serviced by the plot; but equally true is the direction of such service.  In fact, this is more than likely the primary means by which many modern novels go astray: the characters are at the service of the plot rather than the other way around.  Much of modern writing reads like a movie script rather than a work of literature.

For me, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is an exemplar in character development and as such presents an unparalleled disclosure of the human condition and the effects of both sin and virtue in the life of man.  I read the book five years ago, and I can still quote the opening line: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  There are two ways to read this.  The first is that “happy” is uniform, and in some sense boring, whereas sin is interesting, unique even.  Disfunction is worth writing about, because we, as readers, find it intriguing.  I don’t think this is Tolstoy’s final word on these words, at least in terms of the novel seen as a whole, but I do think he intends the reader to understand something along these lines at the start of the novel.

The story follows four individuals arranged as couple.  The first, for whom the novel is named, is Anna.  When she comes on the scene, she is nothing short of captivating: beautiful and mysterious in every way.  Anna is married, albeit unhappily.  As the story progresses, she falls into an illicit affair with the young Count Vronsky, who pursues her with both intensity and persistence.  The third is a young woman named Kitty.  At the start of the novel, Kitty is simple, even a bit superficial.  In short, I found her utterly uninteresting.  By the end of the story, Kitty is married to a man named Levin.  While their path towards this marriage was complicated, and each did their fair share of soul searching, they are to be the couple who stands apart in virtue from that of Anna and Vronsky, whose sin takes center stage throughout much of the book.

The curious thing is not the evolution of Kitty and Levin, nor the devolution of Anna and Vronsky.  Rather, the curious thing is the interest in which the reader has for each couple.  While Anna begins the story as mysterious and captivating, by the end of her plot line, her path of self-destruction comes to fulfillment, and at her final moment in which she throws herself in front of a train, she has lost all identity due to her sin.  The effect of sin and vice on the human person is reminiscent of Tolkien’s Gollum, for whom the ring (symbolizing evil) has replaced his own sense of self, even to the point where he speaks of himself in the plural.  Something of this sort is present in the New Testament encounters with demons, who also speak in the plural: “We are legion.”  In contrast, Kitty and Levin become much more complex and intriguing by the end.  Their fulfillment in virtue makes them interesting.  The message is clear: vice leads to self-destruction and lack of identity, and virtue leads to self fulfillment.

As I reflected back on the book, I felt, as a reader, towards each character exactly how one should feel in light of Tolstoy’s theme.  At the outset, I was captivated by the Anna and Vronksy plot and bored by that of Kitty and Levin.  I almost found myself (especially in light of the book’s overall length) nearly skimming past the chapters devoted to Kitty.  She was superficial and boring, and I had little patience for her.  Yet by the end, the tables had turned.  I was so tired of the sinful affair and the pathetic nothing of which Anna had become, that I was almost relieved when she finalized her own destruction.  For right or wrong, “It is about time,” was my reaction.  I was much more interested in seeing what would become of Kitty and Levin.

Towards the end of the book, I prematurely felt that I “got it.”  I thought I understood what Tolstoy was trying to do.  Yet, in spite of my Catholic upbringing, I failed to predict the true climax of the book.  It ins’t simply that virtue leads to happiness.  The perfection of the human person is not found only in natural virtue.

Levin, devoted fully to Kitty, senses the same, that something missing.

“When Levin thought about what he was and what he lived for, he found no answer and fell into despair, but when he stopped asking himself about it, he seemed to know what he was and what he lived for, because he acted and lived firmly and definitely; recently he had even lived much more firmly and definitely than before…  He felt something new in his soul and delightedly probed this new thing, not yet knowing what it was.  ‘To live not for one’s own needs but for God.’  For what God?  For God.  And could anything more meaningless be said than what he said?”

Up until this point, Levin is an atheist; he struggles with Kitty’s religion.  Yet he searches, looking for proof, for that “miracle” that will convince the heart.

“‘I and millions of people who lived ages ago and are living now, muzhiks, the poor in spirit, and the wise men who have thought and written about it, saying the same thing in their vague language – we’re all agreed on this one thing: what we should live for and what is good.’”

He is reasoning that man has an inherent sense of both purpose and morality, and the the two are connected.  Why should a sense of “the good” pervade all of human history?  This is the miracle for which he has searched.

 “‘I looked for miracles, I was sorry that I’d never seen a miracle that would convince me.  And here it is, the only possible miracle, ever existing, surrounding my on all sides, and I never noticed it!  Can this be faith?’ he wondered, afraid to believe his happiness.  ‘My God, thank you!’ he said, choking back the rising sobs and with both hands wiping away the tears that filled his eyes.”

Even in his natural state of happiness, the result of virtuous decisions, Levin was not complete.  The human condition finds its perfection in conversion, and it is thus with which the novel ends.  (I have picked and assembled pieces of Levin’s vast monologue –  will leave it to the readers to go through the rest of it.  It is a brilliant philosophical argument in its own right.)

The novel is a perfect exhibition of the three states in which the human can find himself: vice, natural virtue, and supernatural perfection.  Granted, we are never, this side of heaven, purely in one state, but the three states are real nonetheless.  The message of Tolstoy couldn’t be more obsious: vice destroys, virtue perfects, but there is something else even beyond natural perfection, and that can only be brought about by self-abandonment, conversion, and grace.  That being said, the message of grace is utterly Orthodox/Catholic: grace perfects nature – it does not destroy it.

When we understand this, we return full circle with a renewed understanding to the opening words: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  It is not that sin is more interesting than virtue, for by the end of the book the reader is much more drawn into the plot of Kitty and Levin and has decidedly left the sinful affair in its own demise.  However, it remains true that there is only one path to happiness, authentic happiness that is: conversion.  Yet sin is as varied as the sinner.  Variety, however, does not make for interest anymore than simplicity makes for boredom.  God, after all, is perfectly simple, as is he one.

This brings me to the question of why, after five years, I found myself motivated to write about Anna Karenina.  The other day, when perusing upcoming films, I came across a trailer for a new adaption of Tolstoy’s novel, staring Keira Knightley as Anna.  Initially I was excited, but after watching the trailer, something seemed lacking.

First, the entire trailer focusses on the Anna and Vronsky affair.  There seems to be little mention of Kitty and Levin, though they are among the cast list and appear very briefly in the trailer.  Granted, the film, as well as the book, it titled after this character, so the focus on Anna is at the very least understandable.  It is, in fact, something about which I have often wondered.  With the destruction of Anna some fifty pages from the end, the climax of both the book and Tolstoy’s message is found not in her, but rather in Levin and Kitty, who share quite a bit in word count with the Anna/Vronksy sections.  Yet titling the book something other than Anna Karenina seems to detract from the story itself.  It is almost as it Tolstoy wanted to strike up an interest in Anna even before the first page.

What is more distressing about the trailer is that the affair itself is romanticized, something that is the result of a “true love” but finds its difficulties in the unfortunate situation in which the heroine (though in the book that she is not) finds herself.  Think even of the words Anna speaks at the start of the trailer: “I was eighteen when I got married, but it was not love.”  Love, being something about which  one “cannot ask why?” is a passive and mysterious emotion rather than an act about which one has authentic freedom.  The problem is that this is utterly inconsistent with the book itself.  The affair, while initially intriguing, becomes tiresome and shallow.  It is wrong, and the reader knows it is wrong, and the destructive path to which it leads is not only inevitable, but also just.  I have a sneaky suspicion, in a day and age that readily dismisses the permanence of marriage, the film will present Anna and Vronksy with more sympathy than they deserve, missing the first point of the novel.  Her husband will be an antagonist, as will her family in trying to keep her tragically locked in an unhappy marriage.  On this note, the main antagonist will be the Church (in this case the Russian Orthodox Church), which seeks to do the same through her antiquated rules and prudish definitions of marraige.  In this regard, the film will directly depart from Tolstoy.  Consider the following monologue from the conversion of Levin:

 “‘Yes, what I know, I do not know by reason, it is given to me, it is revealed to me, and I know it by my heart, by faith in that main thing that the Church confesses.  The Church?  The Church! … But can I believe in everything the Church confesses?’  He began purposely to recall all the teachings of the Church that had always seemed to him the most strange and full of temptation … And it now seemed to him that there was not a single belief of the Church that violated the main thing – faith in God, in the good as the sole purpose of man.  In place of the Church’s beliefs there could be put the belief in serving the good instead of one’s needs.”

I doubt they will change the end of Anna – it is far to famous a scene to alter or delete.  Yet the tragic end will be more of a horrific shock than a predictable result of her sinful actions.  The tragedy will be that Anna was not allowed to love freely the one whom she so deeply desired rather than the natural self-destruction that results from vice.

I will be completely surprised if the film brings out the second, and more important lesson of Tolstoy, that natural virtue finds it perfection in conversion.  The religious themes will be stripped from the story – Hollywood has little patience for Christianity.  The last fifty pages of Anna Karenina will be seen much as the Scourging of the Shire was seen by the filmmakers of Lord of the Rings: an unnecessary appendix.  And like Lord of the Rings, in choosing to eliminate the ending, the filmmakers of Anna Karenina will have completely misunderstood a major theme woven into the fabric of the story.

Perhaps it is premature for me to render such criticism.  I certainly hope I am wrong – the lessons in Anna Karenina are indispensable for a culture that has all but abandoned the notion of vice and virtue, so I will be among the first to rejoice if the film recognizes and communicates this.  Thus, in fairness, I will withhold final judgement until the film comes out, yet the tenor of trailer leaves me in doubt.

More to explorer


  1. Whenever I hear Anna Karenina mentioned, this exchange from NewsRadio comes to mind:

    Lisa Miller: Why don’t you read a book?
    Dave Nelson: Like what?
    Lisa Miller: Like Anna Karenina.
    Dave Nelson: Oh, no. I lost a whole semester of Cheers reading Anna Karenina. I’m not making that mistake again.
    Lisa Miller: I’m reading it for the third time.
    Dave Nelson: You read the same thing over and over, and I’m the one with the brain made of mush?

    It probably shouldn’t be hard to guess which character I have more in common with….

  2. I think you’re right about Hollywood going to strip religious themes from the movie. Think about the ending of Brideshead Revisited in the recent remake with Emma Thompson…there was nothing about the Real Presence in the chapel, just a “candle.”

  3. Thanks, Jake. I’ve often thought about the irony of the faith, whether the words of Jesus or God’s way with the world as things work themselves out in time. The lives of Tolstoy’s characters seem ironic in that sense. What begins on a rather boring note turns out to be rather comic in its ending, and what began happily ended in tragedy. And I consider how much value we must place on outcomes. Life is often tragic but ends on a comic note for the Christian.

  4. Christianity, I think, led to the character development we’ve come to expect from good writing. That someone would be seen deeply in personal terms as acquiring unique character, that their struggles and responses count and that they achieve greater depth through time as they surmount obstacles and share themselves with others, this is all what we’ve come to expect from a Christian anthropology. Biography and confessionalism are products, I suppose, of Christianity.

  5. Sometimes it’s the subtle changes that destroy an adaptation. The recent film adaptation of Brideshead removed one of the most essential moments of the final part of the novel, thus completely missing the entire point of Waugh’s masterpiece. No doubt your right about Anna Karenina (an excellent novel, and I second your overall view of the book). It’s hard to do a work like that justice in a two-hour movie, anyway.

  6. Paul, it’s funny your mention (as did someone else) the recent adaption of Brideshead. It was the example discussed over the three cups of coffee previously mentioned (had with Darwin, I might add). Further, I thought of mentioning your point of trying to squeeze an entire novel into three hours (probably the reason why many like the 10 hour BBC version of Brideshead much better … with more time come at least the potential of greater fidelity to the text.) Thanks for bringing it up!

  7. good point Sal– Christianity celebrates the depth of each person, individually willed and sustained by God Almighty… and that has mightily shaped our literature
    I think the Russian heart touches all of us because it is so Christian in that way.
    I tried “War and Peace” when a sophomore in high school and was daunted by the names/nicknames and story jumps- so I quit. I first read Chekhov in a little book called “Dissonant Voices in Soviet Literature” — and have been fascinated ever since. I read “Anna Karenina” way back then too; finished it feeling like an empty sack.
    The greatness of the Russian soul is of concern to our Blessed Mother as she asked us to pray for the conversion of Russia. With V Putin in charge over there we’d better keep praying.
    The scourging of the shire–only briefly alluded to, but not totally left out.

  8. Tolstoy is not an easy read. After slogging through hundreds of pages, the best part was when Anna threw herself on the railroad tracks. The book should have ended there but then Tolstoy couldn’t resist writing several more anticlimactic pages.

  9. Don, that was Woody’s funniest movie indeed. Loved the scenes with “Napoleon.” The best line: “There are some things worst than death. Like spending an evening with an insurance man.”

  10. Bridesmaid TV adaptation was godawful. A guy pukes all over you and you become his best friend. Right.

  11. I read a lot of the great Russians, but I ran out of steam halfway through War and Peace. I still hope to read it and maybe Anna Karenina one day, but Tolstoy isn’t my favorite. He writes with an agenda. I like Dostoevsky better. I prefer Dostoevsky writing about people to Tolstoy instructing us about human nature.

  12. I can say one thing with absolute certainty–if Keira Knightly is in it, Anna will be portrayed as a spunky proto-feminist. That is how she plays every role. It doesn’t matter that she is a tiny waif, she becomes a butt-kicking ninja in every film. Count on it. They will probably write in a scene in which she single-handedly stops the Cossacks from carrying out a pogrom.

  13. I have to agree with the poster that said that the Lev/Kitty story will probably be cut in the interest of time. The novel would be much better as a PBS mini-series rather than a 2+ hour movie. Certainly, the example of the PBS adaption/recent movie of Brideshead serves as an example of complex novel not surviving a Hollywood blue pencil.

    You’ve intrepeted Lev’s conversion as a “message of grace” in the Othodox/Catholic manner. I can’t disagree more. There is nothing in Lev’s conversion story or his approach to God that is as complex or as ritualistic as the Orthodox or Catholic bureaucracies. As you state above–Lev’s God is discovered as “perfectly simple.” (The “sancity” of simplicity is another theme in the book. The simplicity of Lev’s estate is considered more moral than the city. The peasants are drawn in a much more sympathetic light than the nobility. The beauty of the honest toil of the harvest is contrasted with Voronsky’s idyl wealth and meaningless luxury.)

    You’ve also not mentioned Lev’s inner dialog during the wedding “it must be this way” or the portrait of the self-righteous, theatrical, showy religiousity of Countess Lydia Ivanovna. Her character has to be viewed as Tolstoy’s condemnation of complex religion.

    You may claim that Tolstoy is writing about virtue and vice, but you can’t claim this is a message about any religion in particular and certainly not an ode to organized religion. Remember–Tolstoy rejected the authority of the structure of the Orthodox church and the church, in turn, excommunicated Tolstoy.

  14. Pinky, I’ll argue with you; all authors have some sort of agenda in mind…but I totally get that you dislike Tolstoy’s method of going about it.

  15. I, too, saw the trailer as my 21 year old daughter called me over to watch it on her notebook. I, too, felt something gnawing in the pit of my stomach— are they really going to glorify the affair? Knock the Church? Blame the parents? It appears that way in the trailer. I felt sad as I watched a portrayal of Anna’s unsympathetic husband and began to cringe at the fast-paced tearing down of what is good and glorifying what is sin. I am hoping against all hope, it is just a teaser trailer & Tolstoy comes out ahead on this.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: