The Judgment of Anna K.

on 17 September 2009

I'm rereading Anna Karenina for the third time.

If someone had told me 3 years ago that I would end up LIKING Anna Karenina I would have laughed in their face. I read it as a graduate student, and then again for my oral exams, and now is the first time that I'm reading it for pleasure.

I think it was writing the whole story of how Chris and I got together, it made me feel all nostalgic and I pulled it down and started reading it.

I always feel sorry for Anna. I know that many of you will disagree, but hear me out. I've always felt that Tolstoy could not bear to have a female character who was more interesting than he was and so he killed her off. The woman is living in a marriage that is essentially on paper only. Her husband is cold, ambitious and cruel--he knows what will hurt her the most and that's what he does to her. And she is one of those people who NEEDS to be loved, she needs affection the way the earth needs rain, thus her marriage to Karenin is a long, slow death for her.

In this way, her relationship with Vronsky becomes a profound survivor instinct.

All of this I can understand. I don't think that it makes it "right" but I do think the situation justifies some of her choices. I don't think the adultery plot makes the novel the tragedy that it is. And while Anna is the one who actively commits adultery, I think that Karenin is every bit as guilty as she is, though of different crimes.

The tragedy is that she leaves her son with those cold and cruel people. That she lets him believe her to be dead. That she chooses to give her love to Vronsky rather than to her child who needs it much more than Vronsky ever could. That is the unforgivable choice. And yes, she eventually comes back, she seeks him out, she proves to him that she's not dead after all--but her choices being what they are she can never go back, she can never be a part of his life with any degree of constancy.

Her love for her son is made so plain and so poignantly clear at the beginning that it's absolutely painful to read her confliction and then, ultimately, her decision to leave. And the pain that she has in leaving him becomes a such a distinct part of her that it's as if Tolstoy is describing her white skin or her hands with the rings on them, there is also the pain of having left Seryozha.

I think part of what makes Anna Karenina such a marvelous book is that Tolstoy is writing something that we all think about. Not adultery and child abandonment, but rather the idea of a cross-roads in our lives. That point where the path that we've been on diverges and no matter which path you take, you will always be able to clearly see the path you did NOT take, and the pain that comes from knowing perfectly well all that you have sacrificed to have what you currently have. It's the curse of the Grass is Alwasy Greener...except that in her case, I think it probably was.