Anna Karenina, which Nabokov called “one of the greatest love stories in world literature,” is uniquely ambitious in that it strives to portray two separate love affairs: one successful (like Pride and Prejudice), and the other a tragic failure (like Ethan Frome or The End of the Affair).
Fiction is by necessity dark. The darker the novel, the more leeway it offers the writer who wishes to portray moments of unabashed joy and happiness. Anna Karenina encompasses such a deeply affecting tragic arc, and Tolstoy takes full advantage of the opportunity to let in the light. More than in any other novel I know, with the possible exception of the Russian maestro’s other great opus, War and Peace, Anna Karenina immerses the reader in a profusion of devastatingly joyous scenes involving skating parties, family kitchens, mushroom hunting, hayfield scything, and a multi-day bird-hunting excursion.
Tolstoy was a genius, so these happy scenes also, of course, brim with dramatic tension and the possibility—even the certainty—that even the best things in life can go wrong. But the overall mood in these moments is one of great illumination, like sunlight streaming through a long-shuttered window. They rank among the most wondrous literary portrayals we possess of the rich textures of daily life, demonstrating how even in the midst of great sorrow we can be surprised by pure exuberance and happiness. It’s impossible to capture the full effect with brief passages taken out of context, but consider the experience of a newly infatuated Anna stepping off a train:
“She opened the door and went out. The wind seemed as though lying in wait for her; with gleeful whistle it tried to snatch her up and bear her off, but she clung to the cold handrail and, holding her skirt, got down onto the platform and under the shelter of the carriages. The wind had been powerful on the steps, but on the platform, under the lee of the carriages, there was a lull. With enjoyment she drew deep breaths of the frozen, snowy air and, standing near the carriage, looked about the platform and the lighted station.”
Or this one, when Levin and two others set off on a hunting trip:
“Levin felt now at leaving behind all his family and household cares such an eager sense of joy in life and expectation that he was not disposed to talk. Besides that, he had that feeling of concentrated excitement that every sportsman experiences as he approaches the scene of action. If he had anything on his mind at that moment, it was only the doubt whether they would start anything in the Kolpensky marsh, whether Laska would show to advantage in comparison with Krak, and whether he would shoot well that day himself.”
In a similar vein, the tragic arc of the book gives Tolstoy room to create some of the most sympathetic characters that exist in fiction. Consider Kitty’s response to finding her husband Levin’s brother on his deathbed in a skeezy hotel adjacent to a railway station in rural Russia:
“On seeing the sick man, she pitied him. And pity in her womanly heart did not arouse at all that feeling of horror and loathing that it aroused in her husband, but a desire to act, to find out all the details of his state, and to remedy them. And since she had not the slightest doubt that it was her duty to help him, she had no doubt either that it was possible, and immediately set to work. The very details, the mere thought of which reduced her husband to terror, immediately engaged her attention. She sent for the doctor, sent to the chemist’s, set the maid who had come with her and Marya Nikolaevna to sweep and dust and scrub; she herself washed up something, washed out something else, laid something under the quilt. Something was by her directions brought into the sick-room, something else was carried out. She herself went several times to her room, regardless of the men she met in the corridor, got out and brought in sheets, pillow cases, towels, and shirts.”
Kitty is admirable because she’s compassionate. Because she’s calm and proactive in the face of her husband’s paralysis. The scene goes on:
“On getting back from the sick-room to their own two rooms for the night, Levin sat with hanging head not knowing what to do. Not to speak of supper, of preparing for bed, of considering what they were going to do, he could not even talk to his wife; he was ashamed to. Kitty, on the contrary, was more active than usual. She was even livelier than usual. She ordered supper to be brought, herself unpacked their things, and herself helped to make the beds, and did not even forget to sprinkle them with Persian powder. She showed that alertness, that swiftness of reflection comes out in men before a battle, in conflict, in the dangerous and decisive moments of life — those moments when a man shows once and for all his value, and that all his past has not been wasted but has been a preparation for these moments.”
In this scene Kitty and Levin both take on the dimensions of living, breathing characters, but it’s Kitty we most admire and appreciate—in much the same way we would an actual living friend.
Tolstoy had a particular gift for the difficult authorial feat of creating such characters, and for showing the possibilities for love and joy as well as tragedy in human affairs. It’s no wonder that his novels still hold a place near the top the pantheon of the greatest ever written.
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