Written by Leo Tolstoy in the distant 1912, Anna Karenina has not lost its topicality yet, rendering one of the most basic and yet the most tragic issues that may occur to a married couple, which is the loss of passion and the further awkward attempts at putting the remnants of once passionate romance together. Being a “breakthrough” (Morson 55) at the time, the novel addresses one of the aspects of marriage that was least talked about. More importantly, the novel shed some light on the situation as viewed from the perspective of a woman, which alone was a major foot forward in the analysis of the social issues of the beginning of the 20th century.
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While Tolstoy makes it obvious that Anna is far from being a positive character, seeing that she makes a range of mistakes and does not put any major effort in restoring her relationships with her husband, he clearly sympathizes with her situation, therefore, making her character more relatable and attracting the public’s attention to the problem of an early 20th century wedlock.
Though technically retaining his objectivity and refraining from describing Anna as a flawless human being, Tolstoy adopts an obviously sympathetic tone when talking about Anne and her relationships with her husband, as well as the collapsing marriage: “I’ll be bad; but, anyway, not a liar, a cheat” (Tolstoy 553), says Kitty, one of the side characters, therefore, representing a different opinion on Anna’s actions.
Thus, Tolstoy is able to stress the significance of balance between proclaiming personal freedoms, and remembering about the significance of basic human virtues, loyalty being one of them. At the same time, Tolstoy shows that he does not approve of a thoughtless search for a thrill, which Anna’s attitude towards her marriage borders; for instance, the line “I hate him for his virtues” (Tolstoy 992) nearly makes Anna unlikable.
Therefore, while admittedly being critical towards the decisions, which his leading character makes, Tolstoy is also very sympathetic to the leading character; this makes the latter all the more human and, therefore, allows for getting the message concerning life choices across in a more efficient manner than blatant criticism.
While Tolstoy obviously stresses that what Anna is doing is wrong, he cannot help but admit that she is trapped in the hypocritical norms of the early 20th-century society, where the divorce was considered shameful and where a couple forcing themselves to be together instead of being happy was viewed as a norm. In fact, Tolstoy spells the social problems of the era out at some point of his narration; in fact, when Anna comes to understanding that her relationships with Vronsky are not going to evolve any further and instead lead her to the same dead-end, she makes a very important statement by saying that “Respect was invented to cover the empty place where love should be” (Tolstoy 1712).
The empathy, which Tolstoy has for the women that are trapped in the circumstances similar to those of his leading character, shines through as the author comments on the choices made by Anna. Specifically, a range of elements of the narration conveys the sadness and the sympathy, which the author has for the heroine: “If you look for perfection, you will never be satisfied” (Tolstoy 1574). The above-mentioned quote, in fact, reveals the entire depth of the feelings that the author has for the women, who face the situation similar to that one of Anna. The above-mentioned quote, in fact, makes the readers deviate from the analysis of the unfair moralist principles of the early 20th century and analyze the character herself, isolated from the environment in which she lived (Jones 24).
Although Tolstoy obviously states that the societal principles of the time were unnecessarily cruel and lacked the understanding of how the basic human relationships work (Evans 77), he never claims that what Anna is doing is a good thing, either. Wrapped in her desire to escape the mundane life and the solitude, which she locked herself into, she dashes into the rushed romance without thinking of whether she actually needs it as emotional support or temporary salvation from her current “situation” (Orwin 263). In other words, Tolstoy’s opinions on the fact that Anna is searching for the perfect balance in marriage instead of coming to grips with reality and admitting that conflicts and boredom are integral parts of living with a partner are “implicit, if not directly stated” (Simmons 51).
The problem of Anna, therefore, as Tolstoy explains, is that she does not try to fix the issue but, instead, seeks the notorious “perfection” (Tolstoy 1574), i.e., something that she will never be able to find and, therefore, dooms herself to being miserable.
While it would be wrong to claim that Tolstoy refrains from criticizing his character at all, there is an obvious element of sympathy in his attitude to Anna, which can be traced in the way that Tolstoy describes her actions, intentions, and feelings. Tolstoy offers a very pragmatic, yet also very reasonable way to view the issue – he shows the significance of free will and equality in relationships, as well as the negative effect of social prejudice on marriage and divorce. Tolstoy’s empathy is supported by logical reasoning, which does not make it any weaker and, if anything, adds credibility to his argument.
Evans, Mary. Reflecting on Anna Karenina. New York, NY: Routledge, 2014. Print.
Jones, Malcolm. New Essays on Tolstoy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Print.
Morson, Gary Saul. Anna Karenina in Our Time: Seeing More Wisely. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007. Print.
Orwin, Donna Tussing. Tolstoy’s Art and Thought, 1847-1880. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013. Print.
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Simmons, Ernest Joseph. Tolstoy. New York, NY: Routledge, 2014. Print.
Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina. New York, NY: Plain Label Books, 1912. Print.