After finishing the novel this past week, I’ve been trying to figure out what Anna Karenina is about. Despite pop culture and most movies, it isn’t just about Anna and Vronsky and their love affair, about how a woman’s extramarital relationship ruins her life. There are a lot of other characters, and a whole lot of philosophy, theology, and politics dragged in.
But I think that it’s ultimately about two ways to live your life. You either live for yourself, following your passions and your desires wherever they lead, or, as Levin says towards the end, you life for God, for goodness, for your soul. And these contrasting approaches to live can be seen through Anna and Levin, with all the other characters coming in and out of their stories.
Anna and Levin are actually very much alike. Both are highly temperamental, passionate people, and when they fall in love, they fall hard. They both want to live life with a purpose, to really live and not just exist, but they aren’t quite sure how to make that happen. So they go after what they think will please them, believing that if only this would change, or that would go their way, that they’d be completely delighted and joyful. But when those goals are achieved, they find they’re still unsatisfied.
For example, even when Anna gets Vronsky, she isn’t happy. When she’s offered the opportunity to get a divorce and take her son, she refuses because she feels guilty. When she throws herself into her new life—all she wanted at the time—she finds it isn’t enough, because she still feels guilty towards her husband and Vronsky, and she’s afraid that he won’t keep loving her.
And Levin is the same way. When he marries Kitty, he is still irritable and frustrated. Like Anna, he blames his spouse, but the fault is in himself, as Levin finally realizes. Until he lives for his soul, for what he knows is right in his conscience, he is chasing a bubble that never fulfills his desires. He no sooner gets what he wants than he has to start fighting to keep it, or he finds it changes and he doesn’t want it to change, or he’s afraid it will change. He is happy and knows he doesn’t deserve it, and so he’s miserable.
In Anna’s case, the conflict in her soul is what ultimate drives her to suicide. She wants Vronsky, and even though she has his love, she doesn’t believe he loves her, and she can’t keep her irritable temper under control, and she makes him say things he regrets, and then she believes that he hates her. And all of this stems from the discontent in her heart, I think.
Before she met Vronsky, she knew no shame, because she was, more or less, living for other people. We meet her on a mission of mercy, of sorts, to help her sister-in-law keep loving her brother, even though he is a scoundrel and never reforms. She urges her to stay with her brother, despite his faults, because he forgot his wife and had a moment of madness, but she claims such madness never touched his home and his family, and did not disgrace it in any way.
But this sounds a bit like Anna telling her sister-in-law what she wishes to be the case, rather than the truth itself. I think Anna was trying to mix living for other people and living for her soul with living for herself, with achieving what she wanted to happen in life, and this leaves her open and very vulnerable to Vronsky’s temptations. She doesn’t love her husband, but she is content with him, and all she needs is that higher knowledge, that abandonment of self in soul to make her entirely happy.
This is where Levin is a few chapters from the end of the book. He is searching for something to live for, though in his case, he is already living the right way; he just needs the peace of knowing.
Unfortunately, Anna never comes to this knowing. Instead, she abandons herself to the selfish side. She persuades herself that her husband doesn’t love her, and isn’t capable of love, and from that vantage point, permits herself to fall in love with Vronsky. Just as she argued her sister-in-law into staying, she argues herself into leaving, because the goodness of life isn’t based on any truth, any deeper knowledge, like Levin’s when he lives for his soul. It is based on her perception of the moment, of live and its demands, and her perceptions end up getting her killed.
I say getting her killed, rather than making her kill herself, because she is driven by the flawed reasonings of her mind. Just as flawed logic made her leave her husband, so a faulty argument drives her from her home in Moscow, drives her into bewilderment and the act of suicide itself. She is a harassed being once she gives herself up to these persuasions, and they are all based on her perceptions, which are skewed by what she wants and feels and fears.
By comparison, Levin has the anchor of following his soul to tell him what is right and what he should do. Instead of being driven, he can rest and be at peace in the hands of his conscience. He is in no danger of desperate actions, despite his passionate temperament, because living for his soul keeps him alive and well.
Copyright 2015 Andrea Lundgren