Mirrors within Mirrors | Daily News

Mirrors within Mirrors

Aaron  Taylor-Johnson as Count Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Count Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky

When I first read “Anna Karenina,” I was nineteen years old, in love with Jane Eyer’s Mr. Rochester, Elizabeth’s Darcy, Mary Yellen’s Jem, and heartbroken by the untimely deaths of Romeo and Juliet, Cathy of Wuthering Heights, Tess of the d’Urbervilles. I was young, and day-dreaming of finding my own Mr. Right. Looking back now, I realize it was natural that I should see ‘Anna Karenina’ too as a love story. It was natural that in my eyes Tolstoy’s 900 page novel should be about love “as boundless as the sea, as deep.”

But when I read the book now, many decades later, I realize the ‘love’ described in “Anna Karanina” is totally different from the kind of love easily found in love stories mostly with happy, and at times sad, endings. It is clear that when he wrote Anna’s story as well as the stories about the marriages of the other main characters in his acclaimed masterpiece, Tolstoy was thinking about love in a different way. To Tolstoy love was a kind of fate, or curse, or judgment; love was something that was never distributed fairly, something where the scale is hardly ever perfectly balanced so that there is always someone who suffers.

This Tolstoyan perspective of love becomes evident when we get to know the story behind the story of “Anna Karanina.” According to critic Joshua Rothman, in his biography of Tolstoy, Henri Troyat explains the novel’s origins this way: “He (Tolstoy) 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. 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. The following day Tolstoy had gone to the station as a spectator...standing in a corner of the shed, he had observed every detail of the woman’s body lying on the table...He tried to imagine the existence of this poor woman who had given all for love, only to meet with such a trite, ugly death.”

As Rothman explains, when Tolstoy began writing “Anna Karenina,” he introduced other characters and other stories, including the love story of Kitty and Levin. But at its core—without the balm of Kitty and Levin’s romance—“Anna Karenina” remains troubled by what happened to Anna Stepanovna. This makes it different from other love stories—in them, love is a positive good. If you have it, you’re glad, and if you don’t have it, you’re not. (Think of Lizzie Bennett and Charlotte Lucas, in “Pride and Prejudice.”) In “Anna Karenina,” love can be a curse as well as a blessing. It’s an elemental force in human affairs, like genius, or anger, or strength, or wealth. Sometimes it’s good, but sometimes it’s awful, cruel, even dangerous. It’s wonderful that Levin and Kitty fall in love with one another—but Anna would have been better off if she had never fallen in love with Vronsky.”

If not for Vronsky, Anna would have been an epitome of virtue. Anna is no Madam Bovary. She does not plan to fall in love with Vronsky. Although she is unhappy in her marriage with Karanin, as she travels to Moscow to act as a peacemaker between her brother Stiva and his wife Dolly, on whom he has cheated, she eagerly looks forward to being with her family again. “Thank God,” she thinks, “tomorrow I’ll see Seryozha and Alexei Alexandrovich, and my good and usual life will go on as before.”

But fate interferes, just as cruelly as in a Thomas Hardy novel. In one of the most beautiful first encounters in literature, Anna meets Count Vronsky on a train. The craftsmanship with which Tolstoy describes that moment is as powerful and beautiful as Anton Rubinstein at the piano.

“Vronsky followed the guard to the carriage, and at the door of the compartment he stopped short to make room for a lady who was getting out. With the insight of a man of the world, from one glance at this lady’s appearance Vronsky classified her as belonging to the best society. He begged pardon, and was getting into the carriage, but felt he must glance at her once more; not that she was very beautiful, not on account of the elegance and modest grace which were apparent in her whole figure, but because in the expression of her charming face, as she passed close by him, there was something peculiarly caressing and soft. As he looked round, she too turned her head. Her shining gray eyes, that looked dark from the thick lashes, rested with friendly attention on his face, as though she were recognizing him, and then promptly turned away to the passing crowd, as though seeking someone.

“In that brief look Vronsky had time to notice the suppressed eagerness which played over her face, and flitted between the brilliant eyes and the faint smile that curved her red lips. It was as though her nature were so brimming over with something that against her will it showed itself now in the flash of her eyes, and now in her smile. Deliberately she shrouded the light in her eyes, but it shone against her will in the faintly perceptible smile.”

In place of a barrage of metaphors describing things in terms of other things, as found in modern novels, in a plain, straightforward style, Tolstoy defines Anna not as a woman with exterior beauty but as a being with interior richness and refined sensuousness. He draws Vronsky’s as well as the reader’s attention to Anna’s animation, animation that is yet repressed. Through the description of that first encounter Tolstoy highlights Anna’s outstanding characteristics, she is assertive, and decisive and she rejects identification with the conventional norms of society.

Here are the first words they speak to each other. “When Vronsky introduced himself to Anna saying, “You probably don’t remember me,” Anna replied, “On the contrary,” Then she continued, “I should have known you because your mother and I have been talking,of nothing but you all the way.” As she spoke she let the eagerness that would insist on coming out show itself in her smile.”

A few minutes later, when she saw her brother, “she stepped out with her light, resolute step. And as soon as her brother had reached her, with a gesture that struck Vronsky by its decision and its grace, she flung her left arm around his neck, drew him rapidly to her, and kissed him warmly. Vronsky gazed, never taking his eyes from her, and smiled, he could not have said why.”

Thus begins the pursuit of love for love’s sake, in defiance of the rules laid down by one’s peers and one’s family. The union of Anna and Vronsky eventually leads to societal recrimination, separation from the son Anna had with Karanin, to guilt, insecurity, jealousy, and, ultimately, death.

Tolstoy creates a foil for Anna in the landowner, Levin. Levin, like Anna, is likable, thoughtful, and sincere and many critics believe Levin is Tolstoy’s alter ego, yet, as Tolstoy’s wife, Sonia, observed, Levin was Tolstoy, “without the talent.” Levin too, debates with himself, among other things, over his diary, over the questions that are related to his life as a gentleman farmer, but unlike Anna, he manages to figure things out, without stepping over the boundaries imposed by society, and achieve everything he wants, Kitty as his wife and a beautiful family. But this does not mean he is satisfied with what he has. “Happy in his family life,” Tolstoy writes, “a healthy man, Levin was several times so close to suicide that he hid a rope lest he hang himself with it, and was afraid to go about with a rifle lest he shoot himself.” Levin is like most of us, who have resigned ourselves to float wherever life will take us, and not entirely happy with what fate has so benignly sent our way.

As we reach the last page it is easy to realize while we love Anna it is Levin who really matters, because it is Levin who stays within society’s conventions and who saves us. It is Levin who upholds the stability of the most important institute in society, the family, and embodies one of the most exalted forms of love on earth – love of one’s spouse and offspring.

Levin tells himself, “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...and then regret it, I’ll fail in the same way to understand with my reason why I pray, and yet I will pray...”

So will we.

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