The rise and fall of characters in Tolstoy’s universe

“Tolstoy leaves no space for a fairytale perfect happy ending, for every character in Anna Karenina ends with some remorse,” writes Tushti Kumar.

Anna, the protagonist of the Leo Tolstoy’s timeless novel Anna Karenina, is described by every word as an unparalleled aristocratic noblewoman. She has a character that is reflected by grace. The declaration that she could indulge in an abomination as horrid as infidelity is what evokes an alarming eagerness in the reader. It creates the image that even those who are supposedly perfect can fall prey to feelings of lust. 

A short summary (with heavy spoilers)

When she locks her eyes with Count Vronsky for the first time, the attraction and the furtive eye contacts create a sense of mystery and excitement that so often surrounds people who are new to the feeling of love, kindling a desire in the reader as well. How wonderful to feel as if you have found someone who could give rise to such agitation in your bosom with only a look. 

Anna meets Vronsky’s mother, who immediately develops a liking for her. Countess Vronskaya, who is in actuality facing trouble with her own act of unfaithfulness brings out a feeling of indignation at the mere fragility of marriage that the important men of the Russian society seems to foster. 

When they descend at the station, Count Vronsky sets Anna’s heart alight by bestowing a large sum of money to the family of a deceased worker at the rail tracks. He does this after a slight suggestion from Anna, and when she notices his response to her concern, her heart along with that of the reader is stirred into an irrevocable feeling of warmth.

It is the tiniest and most minuscule acts of Vronsky that make him seem so desirable and appealing.

Also there is such subtle irony in the fact that Anna, having gone to salvage a marriage actually ends up wrecking her own, and though she criticizes and condemns her brother’s act, she embodies the very sin she chastises him for.

Her husband, Alexei, is an intimidating and formidable character, who is almost like a spirit, as he comes and goes, leaving Anna and her ethics in shatters. The ultimatum he offers her, of letting her leave, is like a respite to Anna, until he declares that she would never see the face of her son again, and it is at this point that the reader realizes the importance of the scene where she embraces her son ever so fondly before she leaves for her brother’s home. 

Alexei seems very cruel, but in truth is only a man trying to stay true to his principles, while Anna is a woman who leaves all her morals behind and yields to treachery, breaking free from a lifeless marriage that gives her no pleasure. In their own minds, they have both been wronged, and to some extent this is true. There is too much blame to be dusted off and not enough space on the dustpan.

Kitty is another memorable character. She is another character who gets attracted to Anna early in the novel.  She immediately regrets it, being the one to ask Anna to stay, and Anna is the one who steals away her man. The infamous dance at the ball, which calls the unfortunate attention of  the very righteous society, is one of the highlights of the book, which is where finally Anna and Vronsky accept their interest in each other. 

We meet Levin, who pines for Kitty so longingly, and Kitty, refuses his love for the longest. It shows an avaricious blemish in her character, where she prefers the attentions of Vronsky, the wealthy and dashing cavalry officer to those of Levin, a simple farmer. This is something that most of the readers would relate to considering such proprietorship of looks and affluence is something that entices the human nature quite inadvertently and is something that cannot be helped. However as Kitty is brought to her senses with the aid of time and Count Vronsky’s diminishing interest in her, Kitty begins to accept the love that Levin places on a silver platter for her, and quite gradually begins to apprehend the gravity of what Levin promises her. 

Anna finally yields to Alexei’s ultimatum, allowing her son to be snatched away from her. However, her affection for her son cannot be contained and she sneaks into her home to meet her son. In a heartbreaking scene where she meets him, we are filled with resentment towards Alexei, the family patriarch.

Towards the end of the book, when everything almost seems to be nearing quietude, is when Anna begins to approach a neurotic phase where she becomes increasingly delusional, remembering how she has given up everything for Vronsky, her son, her title, her respect and her husband and in her mind she creates the image where Vronsky is losing his interest in her, avoiding her and believing that he is tired of her. 

The end draws near, where Anna decides to go meet Vronsky at the railway station. The reader breathes a sigh of relief, believing and hoping that once again their love story will be set right. 

Anna’s mind is a mess, she wonders if her divorce would change things, and concludes that it wouldn’t. She revels on how she exchanged one love for the other. Her son’s for Vronsky, and she condemns herself. Anna believes that her love for Vronsky grows everyday, out of dissatisfaction, while his diminishes. In her mind arises the feeling of how they were irresistibly drawn together at first and how they are irresistibly drawn apart now. 

In a daze, Anna walks toward the edge of the platform, senses a train approaching, and in a moment of horror, ducks her head and hurls herself under the wheels of the freight. This is how the life of Anna Karenina ends. Even as she departs, Anna achieves what she desired, to rekindle Vronsky’s love for her and to punish him for what he did.

Comparing the novel’s three major love stories

Three of the book’s major characters – Levin, Anna and Dolly – are inflicted with different intensities of insecurities throughout the novel. Levin, quite foolishly deems himself wronged when Kitty proceeds to flirt with another man. Anna gets caught up in a feat of madness believing that Vronsky was finally tired of her and she was paying for her own sins. As for Dolly, the one who truly deserved to be insecure, was obviously in constant despair over her husband’s extramarital affair.

Tolstoy leaves no space for a fairytale perfect happy ending, for every character ends with some remorse. The protagonist committing suicide, Kitty being left with an ordinary life in comparison to what she dreamed of, Vronsky in shatters, and Dolly in continual fear of a repetition of her husband’s acts. Meanwhile Seroyaza loses his mother and Alexei stands with his status destroyed. 

Tolstoy has an art of evolving characters, showing their fall and their rise. How Anna is introduced as a refined and poised woman and how tragically her end is disclosed with her almost nearing insanity. Alexei as an unbreakable quiet man,  and brought down by society and it’s judgemental eyes. Kitty, who began as a flamboyant young girl is transformed into an unpretentious and modest woman. Every character graduates into a new person with time.

Perhaps things were much more relaxed when Tolstoy decided to write ‘Anna Karenina’ than when he wrote ‘War and Peace’. He criticised the ways of Russian society, brought out the hypocrisy of men condemning infidelity while performing the very acts of shame in their bedrooms. He criticised the school systems as well, in addition to the Orthodox church. In ‘A confession’, he writes, “Wrong doesn’t cease to be wrong because the majority share in it.” Tolstoy was a strict moralist christian, and believed that being a pacifist was his supreme duty. This is what led to him achieving the title of a philosophical anarchist. 

A tragedy to the last page

The book ends with Vronsky trying desperately to fill the void that Anna’s death has left him with, and to do so he signs up for the Serbian war. His gesture is portrayed as a useless way to waste away what is left of his life, and we see how Tolstoy depicts his anti-war ideologies. He finds an excuse in the war, he avoids this inevitable confrontation with guilt and uses it as a barrier to avoid how Anna’s death will never leave him until his last breath.

Maybe the point made above is irrelevant, but quite coincidentally, the end of Anna Karenina is strikingly similar to that of Tolstoy’s himself. His wife, preferring the life as Countess Tolstoy, began to resent him, much like what Anna sees in Vronsky as the book begins to draw to its close, she begins believing he yearned for his life before and was no longer interested in a life with her. Tired and driven to a point of insanity by his wife, Tolstoy, died a tired and old man, caught in the clutches of Pneumonia, as he lay in an old railway station.

Or perhaps Anna Karenina affected Tolstoy so deeply that it did not leave him, even during his death.

Not one word, not one gesture of yours shall I, could I, ever forget…

-Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Source : Goodreads

Tushti Kumar studies at NIFT, Bengaluru, and is an aspiring poet and avid reader. In a world full of smartphones and Netflix, Tushti is an old school romantic, drowning in the depths of Shakespeare and Tolstoy. An army kid, she has traveled far and wide and have more stories of her mischief and adventures to proclaim than is good for her.

This essay was written for the ‘Creative Writing’ course at NIFT, Bengaluru.

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