Love affairs and the meaning of life: my thoughts on Anna Karenina

"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

So goes the first line of the longish novel of soap operatic proportions entitled Anna Karenina, a classic literary work of Russian author, Leo Tolstoy. An old paperback has been in the family library since I was in elementary, but I was perhaps too daunted to read the novel until now. And I have no regrets: it really is as good as people say it is.

With the depth and breadth of issues covered by the book, it is difficult, almost impossible, to write a summary of what the novel is all about. However, it's helpful to think of the book in light of the two major characters, Anna and Levin, because much of the story revolves around them. The life of Anna ends in a tragedy, that of Levin in a hopeful, joyful note.

Anna
Anna Karenina is the wife of Alexey Alexandrovitch Karenin, a powerful, famous Russian diplomat who holds office in Moscow. They have one child, Seryhoza. After ten years of marriage, all seems to go well. Anna, blessed with a beauty that exudes mystery, strength, and grace, enjoys the benefits of being part of the Russian high society, spending much of her time attending balls and dinners. Karenin meanwhile is immersed in his work and political career.

Their lives take a dramatic turn when Anna meets Country Vronsky, described as "one of the finest specimens of the guilded youth of Petersburg . . . fearfully rich, handsome, great connections, an aide-de-camp, and with all that a very nice, good-natured fellow . . . he's a man who'll make his mark." And he certainly does. The military man falls for Anna the moment he sees her. Anna feels uneasy; she doesn't understand her emotions. That uneasiness transforms into longing, and they fall into an intricate web of a love affair.

Through Anna Karenina's character, Tolstoy explores the issues regarding illicit love affairs, the kind frowned upon by society. Anna and Vronsky do love each other, but is their togetherness justified just because they feel that way about each other, even if they know that their actions will have fearful consequences? It occurred to me that this is what Philippine prime time television drama is made of, the timeless themes of you-and-me-against-the-world and I-will-love-you-no-matter-what.

Tolstoy writes about Anna's anguish when her husband refuses to grant her divorce. Unless a divorce is executed, Anna is forbidden to see her son. Her character is complex in that she is both a mother and lover—and she cannot play both roles simultaneously. Anna and Vronsky share their own troubles as well: socially, financially, and emotionally. And even if they still love each other, everything goes downhill from there. Anna, drowned by thoughts of jealousy and insecurities, jumps off into a railway, never to be seen alive again. And Count Vronsky is never the same man.

Levin
With Konstantin Dmitrievitch Levin, however, Tolstoy writes about an enduring kind of love, that which overcomes pain and disappoinment. Levin's is a sweet love story. On his meeting with his close friend Stepan Arkadyevitch (who happens to be Anna's brother), Levin is depicted as stern and serious, almost angry, but still very childlike in many ways.  I like this description of him: "Levin suddenly blushed, not as grown men blush, slightly, without being themselves aware of it, but as boys blush, feeling that they are ridiculous through their shyness, and consequently ashamed of it and blushing still more almost to the point of tears."

He comes to Moscow to finally spill his heart out. He is in love with his childhood friend, Kitty Shtcherbatsky, and he plans to ask her hand in marriage. This is where hopeless romantics will shriek in anticipation: Levin is afraid of being rejected, but he is so in love that his natural tendency to shy away from any emotional involvemnt and his utmost desire to be with Kitty for the rest of his life are at war. He also thinks so low of himself: "An ugly, good-natured man, as he considered himself, might, he supposed, be liked as a friend; but to be loved with such a love as that with which he loved Kitty, one need to be a handsome man, and still more, a distinguished man." He goes home rejected, because he thinks that Kitty has chosen his rival, Vronsky (who, at the time, hasn't met Anna yet). He is devastated as he goes back to his wide countryside estate.

After so many events in between, Levin learns that Vronsky has left Kitty for Anna Karenina, that Kitty is ruined, and that he can still ask for Kitty's hand in marriage. Kitty finds him the perfect man for her, and they are married. Levin is depicted as a happy man who has been given everything he has asked for. And what a happy life they live.

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In Levin, Tolstoy expounds on his opinions about economy, the working class, the nobles, and the wars that Russia was faced with. There are many discussions in the novel on how to go about one's business: how to divide the profits of the harvest, how to compensate the peasants for their hard work. Levin, in fact, attempts to write a book in his spare time, discussing the economic problems faced by the Russian nation.

Meaning of life
My favorite parts of the book are the last few chapters where Tolstoy, through Levin's character, contemplates the meaning of life. He has everything—a beautiful family, a large estate—but never has he been bothered by his sense of emptiness. For many years he has not believed in God, but the death of his brother leads him to ask about his spiritual condition.

"He had been stricken with horror, not so much of death, as of life, without any knowledge of whence, and why, and how, and what it was . . . 'If I do not accept the answers Christianity gives to the problems of my life, what answers do I accept?' And in the whole arsenal of his convictions, so far from finding any satisfactory answers, he was utterly unable to find anything at all like an answer."

He struggles with this question, until he meets a peasant who tells him about God. "The words uttered by the peasant had acted on his soul like an electric shock, suddenly transforming and combining into a single whole the whole swarm of disjointed, impotent, separate thoughts that incessantly occupied his mind . . . He was aware of something new in his soul, and joyfully tested this new thing, not yet knowing what it was. Not living for his (the peasant's) own wants but for God? . . . Now I know the meaning of my life: 'To live for God, for my soul. And this meaning, in spite of its clearness, is mysterious, marvelous. Such, indeed, is the meaning of everything existing."

2 thoughts on “Love affairs and the meaning of life: my thoughts on Anna Karenina”

  1. Thanks for the mini-review. Anna Karenina will probably be one of those books I'll never have the courage to pick up, and I envy you because judging from Tolstoy's short stories, he's one heck of a writer. - Carlo T

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