Anna Karenina's Enduring Power
by John Reardon
November 5, 2018
One of the most vitally enduring and supremely confident examples of not just Russian, but indeed western, literature, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina was written over the course of four years beginning in 1873. It was issued in serial form and eventually published as a novel in 1878. Tolstoy was by this time already famous and celebrated as the writer of, among other works, the monumental War and Peace (1869), but his new novel only added to his renown. The book was welcomed with almost universal public acclaim and its popularity was matched by its recognition from critics and Tolstoy’s fellow writers as a formidable literary accomplishment. It has never lost its position as one of the supreme works of 19th-century fiction.
The narrative focuses primarily on the book’s eponymous and tragic heroine, Anna Karenina, particularly her extramarital relationship with the dashing and seductive army officer, Count Vronsky. Heedlessly flouting the expectations and conventions of Russian society, the Orthodox Church and her own family situation, Anna embarks on a passionate affair with Vronsky that eventually sees them flee naively and impetuously to Italy where they hope to live together freely.
Eventually, however, the pressures of exile drive them back to Russia, where Anna finds herself ostracized by society, beginning to doubt Vronsky’s love for her and growing suspicious of his fidelity. Her mental condition deteriorates and she finally commits suicide by throwing herself into the path of a train. Wracked by guilt at what he has caused, Vronsky leaves Russia to fight with the army in a foreign conflict in what is probably a suicidal act of his own.
Interwoven with this plotline is the secondary, but still crucially important, story of Levin, a prosperous landowner, and his relationship with and eventual marriage to Kitty, a relative of Anna’s. Levin is in large measure an autobiographical portrait of Tolstoy, evidenced primarily in his grappling with his Christian faith, and in the broader tensions he feels between spiritual and material life, between duty and pleasure, and between tradition and modernity, all concerns with which Tolstoy was wrestling at this point in his life and which he would explore more directly in his subsequent book, Confession.
Levin and Kitty – for all of the conflicts and difficulties of their relationship – function as an obverse of Anna and Vronsky. They embody a kind of naturalness in one’s way of living, or at least a desire to aspire to it, as against the doomed amorality of cosmopolitan life that we are meant to see in Anna and Vronsky. It is symbolically apt for Anna to die as she does, for the image of the train is itself for Tolstoy a symbol of a brute, mechanistic modernity that crushes all before it.
Anna Karenina represents a departure from the stylistic ambitions and thematic concerns of War and Peace. In addition to the autobiographical element found in Levin’s character, it relies on a more subtly evocative use of symbolism, tonal variety and, unlike the “loose baggy monster” (Henry James’ famous description of War and Peace) that preceded it, is structurally more a conventional novel of social mores than historical epic. The breathtaking sweep and scale of vision that characterize War and Peace give way in Anna Karenina to a more concentrated and intimate approach to character and social analysis that are the hallmarks of the realistic novel as a genre.
The rich characterization and psychological acuity that one encounters in the novel are set against an equally rich and often startlingly detailed picture of Russian society at the time. The habits of both rural and urban life, the details of daily activity, the contours of class, social attitude and marital convention that Tolstoy provides, especially in famous scenes such as the horse race in which Vronsky falls and his horse is killed, prestaging Anna’s death, give Anna Karenina a hint of where the modern novel might go and even in a sense anticipate the potency of cinema. Yet for all its rootedness in a particular time and place, the novel has a compelling dramatic and narrative urgency that allows it to resonate across cultures and periods.
Adaptations of the novel—in almost every medium one can name—are so numerous as to constitute several fields of study unto themselves. Not surprisingly, given how visually detailed and richly theatrical Anna Karenina is, film and television versions of the book abound. These range from early Russian adaptations made virtually at the dawn of cinema, to Hollywood’s Greta Garbo-Frederic March vehicle from 1935, to Alexander Korda’s 1948 production starring Vivien Leigh and Ralph Richardson, to a ten-part 1977 BBC series and, more recently, Joe Wright’s adaptation featuring Keira Knightley and Jude Law, adapted by Tom Stoppard. But as well, there have been versions of the story made for theatre, opera and even radio (the last featuring the sultry voice of Marlene Dietrich in the title role). All of them attest to the powerful hold the narrative still has on the modern imagination.
Ballet has come to Anna Karenina later than other art forms, but in recent years it too has drawn successfully from the novel to create a number of superb dance versions. Among the best known are Alexei Ratmansky’s from 2004 with music by Rodion Schedrin and the 2005 version by Boris Eifman, with a score by Tchaikovsky. A new version of the story by John Neumeier created for The Hamburg Ballet, The National Ballet of Canada and The Bolshoi Ballet re-imagines the novel more radically, re-setting it from the 19th century to the present day and employing surprising musical choices to re-adjust the lens through which we see the story to a more modern perspective. But all of these ballets, like the many adaptations in other forms, reflect the striking generosity of meaning, character and human insight in one of the most captivating stories of all time.
Anna Karenina opens the 2018/19 season and is onstage November 10 – 18, 2018.