Read an Excerpt
From Amy Mandelker's Introduction to Anna Karenina
The literary fragments by Pushkin that inspired Tolstoy to sit down and begin writing Anna Karenina were sketches for a novel about an adulteress who is ultimately cast off by her lover and society. The plot of adulterous love, the story of a doomed impossible passion, is common in Western European literature and typically creates a narrative that links love and death. Indeed Tolstoy had in his library that most famous nineteenth-century culmination of the literary tradition of adulterous love and death, Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary. Yet Russian literary history had no native tradition comparable to Troubadoran love poetry, the cult of courtly love, the idea of the liebestod, or the novels of adulterous passion that capped the poetic tradition. Despite early sentimental prose accounts of young girls drowning themselves for unrequited love, like Nikolai Karamzin's Poor Liza, Russian literature as it matured in the nineteenth century tended to invert and caricature European prose forms rather than directly imitating them. Indeed in his article "Some Words about War and Peace," Tolstoy insisted that his work was not a novel, pronouncing with characteristic national pride and eccentricity that Russians did not even know how to write novels in the European sense of the word.
Such an announcement of disregard for conventional form in art might seem presumptuous were it premeditated, and were there not precedents for it. But the history of Russian literature since the time of Pushkin not merely affords many examples of such deviations from European forms, but does not offer a single example of the contrary. From Gogol's Dead Souls to Dostoevsky's House of the Dead, in the recent period of Russian literature there is not a single artistic prose work, rising at all above mediocrity, which quite fits into the form of a novel, epic, or story (Bayley, Tolstoy and the Novel, p 64).
It is highly significant, therefore, that when Tolstoy began work on Anna Karenina, he described it as "the first novel I have attempted."
Tolstoy's characterization of Russian literature as resistant to European literary shapes and narrative trajectories is certainly apt. The founding work of the nineteenth-century Russian novelistic tradition was Aleksandr Pushkin's novel in verse Eugene Onegin. The idea of a novel in verse is itself unusual, and Pushkin's experimental form includes the invention of a new verse pattern, the Onegin stanza. Furthermore, he stages a narrative reversal of the liebestod by evacuating his love story of desire and thereby eliminating the fuel that fires the Western European romance. In the case of classic European star-crossed lovers, from Tristan and Isolde to Romeo and Juliet, the impossibility of their union generates a heated desire that only increases in response to obstacles. The lovers desire nothing so much as to perpetuate their longing for one another, a yearning that betrays its metaphysical dimension and shades into death-a death of the body that releases the ardent spirit.
In the earliest drafts of Anna Karenina, the heroine is named for Pushkin's heroine, Tatiana, a naive country girl who, addicted to French novels and infatuated with the literary representation of ruinous love, projects a romantic silhouette onto the novel's eponymous protagonist, Eugene. He not only refuses, rather discourteously, to sexually ravish and ruin the heroine, but he apparently has no desire to do so; instead he turns his disordered impulses against his poet friend, Lensky, whom he eliminates in a duel before his departure for Western Europe. In Onegin's absence, Tatiana peruses the stacks of his personal library to discover that her beloved is an empty cloak, a mere parody, a "paper bullet of the brain." Years later, returning to Russia, Eugene discovers the same young girl who once made love to him in the person of a society grande dame, the wife of a military grandee. But Tatiana has lost her desire for Eugene at the moment he discovers his desire for her; spurned, he rushes from the pages of the novel to seek his death.
It is fairly clear that in taking up the well-used plot of adulterous love in response to Pushkin's sketches, Tolstoy intended to quiz the ethos of love and death that spiritualized into tragedy the adulterous love stories of Western European literature. Initially he sketches his heroine satirically: She is fat, vulgar, and obvious; she chomps on her pearl necklace and flirts openly with her lover in her husband's face. But these omens of overindulged physicality vanish in the final characterizations of Anna Karenina, whose grace, vitality, maternal warmth, and beauty are instead slowly and painfully extinguished over the inexorable course of the novel. It is her lover who becomes coarse: An artistic, sensitive man in the earlier drafts, by the final version he is a dilettante and a poor sportsman, riding his lovely racehorse to death through his own corpulence and clumsiness. He becomes a corporeal "hunk of beefsteak" who runs to fat and loses his hair and teeth. In similar fashion, the husband, a more sympathetic type in the first versions of the novel, becomes physically grotesque in the novel as we read it, with his huge ears, stammer, and unpleasant habit of cracking his knuckles.
Satirical impulses are directed at every other character in the novel: the bon vivant (Anna's brother, Stiva), the sanctimonious religious hypocrite (Countess Lydia Ivanovna), the society flirt (Countess Betsy Tverskaya), the careerist (Karenin). The heroine, Anna, is protected from the broad brushstroke of social critique, but whether she is meant to be portrayed as a victim or a participant in the book's destructive social machinery is the highly debated question the novel puts to us.
The moral transgressions of adultery and the violations of social proprieties as understood by nineteenth-century Russian high society can hardly come under censure by today's reader: Anna Karenina remains as sympathetic and compelling as any heroine in literature. Writers like D. H. Lawrence claim for Anna and her lover the role of sympathetic martyrs, crushed beneath the wheels of an implacably conventional and hypocritical society; but Tolstoy was to be condemned for "putting his finger in the balance" to bring the novel to a moralistic conclusion. Yet Anna's suffering may not be entirely due to her moral transgressions and afflicted conscience, just as her experience of social ostracism and rejection cannot fully account for the growing sense of explosive inner turmoil, psychological conflict, and distress she undergoes.