Martha Toll writes of the thematic depth of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina.
By Martha Anne Toll
Now comes Anna Karenina, once more bursting onto the world stage via Joe Wright’s grand new film. In case you haven’t had the chance to read it, I’d like to recommend Leo Tolstoy’s screenplay. Anna Karenina is a big book about everything. It covers the spectrum of human nature and human emotion. And that’s an understatement.
Let’s start with Anna Karenina as an epic work of Russian history. Want to know what domesticity looked like for Russian aristocrats? Interested in learning about the repercussions of emancipating the serfs? Wonder about the meaning of poverty? Or nineteenth century Russian farming techniques?
Then there’s the conflict between religious obligation and personal wealth. In his own life, Tolstoy wrestled with faith, ultimately choosing an ascetic form of Christianity. Yet he never managed to live the life he professed to believe in, having been born into wealth and property. We see Tolstoy’s conflict reflected in Levin, as he struggles to reconcile his lifestyle to his beliefs.
But the real reason we keep coming back to Anna Karenina is for the range and depth of humanity it serves up. I’m not sure how Tolstoy does it, but I’d like to consider a few of his techniques. Unlike contemporary writers, Tolstoy is fluid with his points of view. Rather than the sparse two or three we are accustomed to in contemporary fiction, there are almost as many points of view as there are characters. Tolstoy is happy to change perspective mid page, and he doesn’t mind introducing points of view to be used only once or rarely. For example, the few times we are privy to what Anna’s son thinks only intensifies our agony over Anna’s predicament.
A corollary is Tolstoy’s agility with getting inside his characters’ heads. He not only shares their thought processes with us, but also their emotional states. Here Tolstoy’s writing is often expository. We are seldom gifted with this level of psychological information in new fiction; American writers are taught to “show don’t tell.” Today’s readers are asked to make inferences, whereas Tolstoy, it seems, doesn’t want to leave those inferences to chance. We are given unlimited access to the minds of people in emotional extremis, including their in-the-moment reactions to events. We experience the tension generated by false reasoning, warped and contorted by personal drama. We may find Anna maddening or impressive; we may judge Levin too cerebral or too idealistic; we may find Stepan Oblonsky a boor and a cad; or Dolly too timid despite her generosity and kindness; but all of these characters earn our empathy because Tolstoy allows us to get to know them so deeply.
Great writers not only teach us about the human soul, they also enlighten us about reading and writing. Tolstoy is extremely interested in his characters’ reading habits. Having been exiled from polite society, Anna has to read because she can engage in no other activity. Both Levin and Karenin get their learning from books, trying to control their surroundings through what’s in their libraries. Tolstoy also considers the power of language. His characters go back and forth between French, the language of the Russian aristocracy, and Russian, the emotional currency for the book. Sometimes characters cannot access language–Anna could not “put into words the sense of shame, of rapture, and of horror at this stepping into a new life, and she did not want to speak of it, to vulgarize this feeling by inappropriate words.” [Leonard J. Kent and Nina Berberova translation, based on Constance Garnett] This, from Tolstoy the master of language and metaphor. Vronsky’s horse race is one powerful metaphor for the arc of his relationship with Anna.
What does Tolstoy think about love? I wouldn’t dare opine. But consider the irony in the book’s opening scene—Stepan Oblonsky’s marital peccadilloes, given to us in all seriousness, are utterly trivial compared with all that follows. I wonder why Anna’s two men have the same first name. I wonder what we are meant to think about the many different models of romantic love in the novel, all of them profoundly nuanced—Anna and Vronsky, Kitty and Levin, Kitty’s failed crush on Vronksy, Dolly and her womanizing husband, Dolly and Kitty’s parents, Levin’s brother Nikolai and his prostitute love Marya. It may be enough material for a long running soap opera, but really it’s life, in all its infinite complexities. What a screenplay.
Martha Toll is executive director of the Butler Family Fund, a nationwide philanthropy focused on ending homelessness and the death penalty. She has been featured as a book commentator on NPR and has received representation for her debut novel.