A few weeks ago, on an appropriately snowy Wednesday, my wife and I went to see the new film version of “Anna Karenina.” It was the movie’s New York première, and, before it started, Joe Wright, the director, a dark-haired Englishman in a gray suit, stood up to say a few words. He introduced Keira Knightley, who plays Anna, along with the actors who play Kitty and Levin, Alicia Vikander and Domhnall Gleeson. Wright spoke earnestly, like a proud older brother, of having worked with Knightley since “Pride and Prejudice,” when she was only “an ingenue.” Meanwhile, he said, his new movie, “Anna Karenina,” was about love, and about all the ways in which love makes us human. Wright and his actors slipped out a side door, and the movie began. Wright’s “Anna Karenina” isn’t a straight-forward adaptation of the novel, but a fanciful, expressionistic reinterpretation of it, with a knowing, self-conscious screenplay by Tom Stoppard. The sets are inventive and metafictional. Knightley plays Anna with an edgy sensuality; Vronsky’s steeplechase is vivid and terrifying; the Levin and Kitty story is sweet, patient, and even spiritual. Still—if you know and love the novel, something about the movie just doesn’t feel right. The problem, I think, is that it’s too romantic. The film, as Wright promised, is all about love, but Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” isn’t a love story. If anything, “Anna Karenina” is a warning against the myth and cult of love.
When I first started reading “Anna Karenina,” ten years ago—I’m obsessed with the book, and have read it seven times since then—I, too, thought of it as a love story. I was twenty-three, and thinking of getting married; to me, it was obvious that the novel was about love, good and bad, wise and unwise. I read the novel as you might read any novel about marriage and adultery. You think about the protagonists and their choices; you root for happy endings. When they come, you applaud, and feel they’re well-deserved; when they don’t, you try to figure out what the lovers did wrong. But this love-story idea of love isn’t really native to “Anna Karenina.” Tolstoy, when he wrote the novel, was thinking about love in a different way: as a kind of fate, or curse, or judgment, and as a vector by which the universe distributes happiness and unhappiness, unfairly and apparently at random.
Those thoughts aren’t very romantic, but they are Tolstoyan. When he turned to “Anna Karenina,” Tolstoy didn’t simply leave behind the themes of “War and Peace.” Instead, he found a way of thinking about many of same issues that had always interested him—fate, chance, our powerlessness against circumstances and our determination to change them—in a different context. In 1873, when Tolstoy began writing “Anna Karenina,” he was in the midst of planning a historical novel about Peter the Great. Starting in 1870, he had shut himself up in his study at Yasnaya Polyana, reading and making notes, while his wife and their enormous brood of children tried to keep quiet outside. Peter the Great turned out to be too epic a subject even for Tolstoy. (“I am in a very bad mood,” he wrote to a friend. “Making no headway. The project I have chosen is incredibly difficult. There is no end to the preliminary research, the outline is swelling out of all proportion and I feel my strength ebbing away.”) Tolstoy needed a more manageable subject. Then he discovered something: another way into his concerns that wasn’t overblown and historical, but personal, intimate, and sad. In his biography of Tolstoy, Henri Troyat explains the novel’s origins this way:
Suddenly he had an illumination. He 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, who had become his mistress. 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. Before she died, she sent a note to Bibikov: “You are my murderer. Be happy, if an assassin can be happy. If you like you can see my corpse on the rails at Yasenki.” That was January 4, 1872. The following day Tolstoy had gone to the station as a spectator, while the autopsy was being performed in the presence of a police inspector. Standing in a corner of the shed, he had observed every detail of the woman’s body lying on the table, bloody and mutilated, with its skull crushed. How shameless, he thought, and yet how chaste. A dreadful lesson was brought home to him by that white, naked flesh, those dead breasts, those inert thighs that had felt and given pleasure. 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.
I suppose that there’s a love story here, but what really interested Tolstoy wasn’t love, per se, but its extreme consequences. As 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.
This view of love sounds fine, in theory, but in practice it can be hard to accept, because it runs against the mythology of love, which sees star-crossed lovers as more romantic, more in love, than the rest of us. That mythology urges us to see Anna’s death as a noble sacrifice: She gave up everything, we want to say, for a chance at love. It’s a seductive, but crazy, way to think. The fact of the matter is that nothing good came of the romance between Anna and Vronsky, and everyone would have been better off if it had never happened. Their affair was a cataclysm for Anna, obviously, but also for Vronsky, for Karenin, and for Seryozha, their son. In teaching the novel, I’ve seen students try to wriggle out of this conclusion; most of them do it by posing counterfactuals. Some argue that Anna didn’t have to commit suicide; the suicide was the mistake, the thinking goes, not the love affair. And you can also question the inevitability of Anna’s circumstances. Anna spirals into suicide, you might argue, for many historically contingent reasons: laws that are biased against women, religious prohibitions against divorce, a system of courtship that pushes girls to marry too young, and so on. It turned out badly, you might argue, but that wasn’t Anna’s fault—if things had been different, she and Vronsky could have been happy. And yet the point is that things weren’t different for Anna. The laws were unfair, but they were still laws. As my Jewish grandmother says: “What is, is.” “Anna Karenina” is preceded by an unsettling, unattributed epigraph quote: “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” That’s the sentiment, to some extent, behind Anna’s suicide. But it’s also, from Tolstoy’s point of view, a statement of fact about the universe. It doesn’t budge. What is, is.
If Anna isn’t the novel’s heroine—if she isn’t a martyr to Love—then what is she? Deciding what to think of Anna is one of the central challenges of “Anna Karenina.” Some readers, perhaps because they feel betrayed by Anna, end up questioning her character, or her judgment, or her motives. Unable to see her as good, they end up seeing her as bad. Keira Knightley, in an interview taped at the New York première, seems to feel this way: “As far as the story of ‘Anna Karenina,’” she says, “most people, in most adaptations—and I haven’t seen all of them—have taken Anna to be the heroine, and to be the innocent, a sort of saintly creature who is wronged, by the world, by her husband, by society, by everything. I didn’t necessarily think that when I read the book, the last time. I think you could also say that about Anna. But I think she is also the anti-hero.” Knightley ends up playing Anna as just a little wicked. (Some people will feel that there is too much lust, and not enough love, in her relationship with Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Vronsky.) Ultimately, though, “anti-hero” might be too strong a term for Anna. Tolstoy, as the critic Gary Saul Morson has argued, is sensitive to the fact that much of the evil in the world results not from malice, but from ignorance. Anna does bad things, but often only because she underestimates just how bad the consequences of those things will be. Anna doesn’t plan to fall in love with Vronsky, as such—she's not a cougar on the prowl—and one of the reasons for her later unhappiness is that, in sleeping with him, she has disappointed herself. In the novel’s (and the film’s) first episode, Anna travels to Moscow to act as a peacemaker between her brother Stiva and his wife Dolly, on whom he has cheated. Leaving, she can’t wait to get back to her family in St. Petersburg: “Thank God,” she thinks, “tomorrow I’ll see Seryozha and Alexei Alexandrovich, and my good and usual life will go on as before.”