Is "Anna Karenina" a Love Story?
A few weeks ago, on an appropriately snowy Wednesday, my wife and I went to see the new film version of "Anna Karenina." It was the movie's New York première, and, before it started, Joe Wright, the director, a dark-haired Englishman in a gray suit, stood up to say a few words. He introduced Keira Knightley, who plays Anna, along with the actors who play Kitty and Levin, Alicia Vikander and Domhnall Gleeson. Wright spoke earnestly, like a proud older brother, of having worked with Knightley since "Pride and Prejudice, " when she was only "an ingenue." Meanwhile, he said, his new movie, "Anna Karenina, " was about love, and about all the ways in which love makes us human. Wright and his actors slipped out a side door, and the movie began.
Suddenly he had an illumination. He remembered an occurrence that had deeply affected him the previous year. A neighbor and friend of his, Bibikov, the snipe hunter, lived with a woman named Anna Stepanovna Pirogova, a tall, full-blown woman with a broad face and an easy-going nature, who had become his mistress. But he had been neglecting her of late for his children's German governess. He had even made up his mind to marry the blond Frÿulein. Learning of his treachery, Anna Stepanovna's jealousy burst all bounds; she ran away, carrying a bundle of clothes, and wandered about the countryside for three days, crazed with grief. Then she threw herself under a freight train at the Yasenki station. Before she died, she sent a note to Bibikov: "You are my murderer. Be happy, if an assassin can be happy. If you like you can see my corpse on the rails at Yasenki." That was January 4,1872. The following day Tolstoy had gone to the station as a spectator, while the autopsy was being performed in the presence of a police inspector. Standing in a corner of the shed, he had observed every detail of the woman's body lying on the table, bloody and mutilated, with its skull crushed. How shameless, he thought, and yet how chaste. A dreadful lesson was brought home to him by that white, naked flesh, those dead
I'll get angry in the same way with the coachman Ivan, argue in the same way, speak my mind inappropriately, there will be the same wall between my soul's holy of holies and other people, even my wife, I'll accuse her in the same way of my own fear and then regret it, I'll fail in the same way to understand with my reason why I pray, and yet I will pray—but my life now, my whole life, regardless of all that may happen to me, every minute of it, is not only not meaningless, as it was before, but has the unquestionable meaning of the good which it is in my power to put into it!
To read "Anna Karenina" is to care about Anna. She is one of the best characters in fiction; everyone in "Anna Karenina" loves her, and so do we. Reading about her struggle, it's natural to want to understand it. Should Anna be applauded for her passion, or condemned for her foolhardiness? Is she to be admired, or spurned? Wright and Stoppard know that "Anna Karenina" urges you to push those questions aside. In its final minutes, their film asks you to contemplate the injustice and unknowability of it all. Watching Levin and Kitty with their baby in the film's closing minutes, you feel how blessed they are. Vikander and Gleeson share a silent, reverent look, and in it you see their consciousness of their own undeserved happiness—of God's grace. Even so, the movie can never quite escape its love-story roots. Its characters are too typed—wicked Anna, pure Kitty—and it doesn't show us enough of their ordinary, unromantic lives for us to understand how similar they are to one another. Wright's film only shows its characters falling in love. Tolstoy's novel can take its time, showing how these characters struggle and hesitate, think and watch, imagine and debate, suffer and forgive. It can rise above the very human questions of admiration and condemnation, above the might-have-beens and should-have-dones, and simply say: this is the way things are. Be thankful for your happiness.
This was a very thought-provoking article which I enjoyed reading. However I did feel that Mr Rothman lacked a base from which to draw some of his conclusions. Perhaps it was because he was limited to a certain word count but I did not get a sense for what he feels love is, and so he cannot explain why people fall in love. This can easily be dismissed as contingent and unknowable, and perhaps that's the explanation he would give! Anna realised the mundanity of her marriage after she had met Vronsky through the happiness Vronsky (temporarily as it turns out) brought her. There are signs that Tolstoy intended us to think that her happiness had shallow foundations, such as when he describes at length the couple getting a portrait painted in Italy, relishing their physical appearance together, and how they felt less contented without being gazed upon by Russian society, but my point is that surely the period of happiness for Anna (the period after meeting Vronsky but before before her descent into paranoia) resulting from Vronsky making her feel fulfilled in a way she was never aware she could have hoped for, needs to be weighed in the balance before declaring that their relationship was all for the worse.
POet Nyein Way
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Edgar Allan Poe
(19 January 1809 - 7 October 1849)
(c. 600 BCE)
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