Such Desperate Passions

A Reflection on Tolstoy's 'Anna Karenina'

Anna-KareninaIn the midst of the hubbub over binders and contraception, a woman whom many dismiss as a harlot and many others revere as a feminist will entertain audiences at the movies.

Long before the War on Women and the Year of the Woman, Anna Karenina, heroine of Leo Tolstoy's novel of the same name, faced a changing culture and fought social convention. So timeless were her thoughts and feelings, if I did not know better, I would assume that Tolstoy wrote the novel yesterday.

Trapped in a loveless marriage, Anna devotes herself to her son and to her brother’s family. When she discovers her brother’s marriage is in trouble, she travels to visit him. She encourages his wife Dolly to stay with him, to forgive him, and to overlook his affair. But while she’s there, a charming, handsome man gives her the attention she doesn’t receive from her husband. Though Anna resists Vronsky at first, she eventually relents, unable to ignore the exciting anticipation of a new relationship. Like her brother before her, she engages in an affair, hoping that it will bring her joy.

Anna refuses to keep up appearances and hide her liaison, even though the cost is great. Unlike the men in her life who dally, Anna endures the consequences of an affair. While Vronsky’s life is left unchanged, Anna leaves her son behind and bears a daughter without a name. No longer received at the homes of her friends, or welcomed at social events, Anna is shunned and alone, but still hopes that her relationship with Vronsky will make up for the cost.

Passionate and poised, Anna enchanted me in the beginning, much like she enchanted many characters in the novel, such as the Countess and Kitty. When she entered the ball in her black dress, I imagined she looked like Sargent’s "Madame X." More sophisticated than Kitty, more radiant than Dolly, she commanded the attention of everyone there, and I confess I wanted to be her in that moment.

My enchantment did not last, however. I later found the same woman, now become the opposite of confidence and charm, clinging to Vronsky, manipulating him, and demanding his love. The desire to please and to serve Vronsky “had become the sole aim of her existence.”

The joy that Anna once experienced is overshadowed by the fear that his affection for her will wane. So deep is her desire for Vronsky’s love, she sought death as “the sole means of bringing back love for her in his heart.” Clearly, these words do not describe a liberated woman.

After Anna’s death, the Countess wonders, “Why, what is the meaning of such desperate passions?”

Many have interpreted Anna’s passions according to their own lights and have embraced her as a feminist, or, on the other hand, criticized Tolstoy as a misogynist. As I read the novel, I found those categories insufficient. Neither could I dismiss or revere her, and for that reason, I suggest a different perspective, a different explanation.

I see a woman craving a man, struggling under the effects of Eve’s curse.

In “Paradise Lost,” Eve also possesses a desperate passion, imagines her man with another woman, and cries, “A death to think” (9.830). To crave and envy to such an extreme implies a deeper issue. The root cause of Eve’s emotions? Idolatry and misplaced identity.

Similarly, Anna worships Vronsky, and in her imagination makes him “incomparably superior, impossible in reality.” She entwines her value and self-worth with his feelings for her, and it is too much for Vronsky to bear. Rather than drawing him closer, Anna’s veneration has the opposite effect, and Tolstoy tells us that “he wearied of the loving snares in which she tried to hold him fast.” She complains of a loveless marriage, but her liaison is not much better, and one could argue that her emotions and actions toward Vronsky are not loving at all.

Clearly, Anna has her vices, which a feminist perspective might ignore or justify. On the other hand, she has her virtues, which a misogynist view cannot deny.

What is the meaning of such desperate passions? Rather than supporting a misogynistic or feminist view, the message of the Bible creates a different paradigm. Women bear God’s image, have value, and are equal to men in God’s sight, even if they aren’t treated that way on earth. At the same time, women live under the curse of subjection and craving. It’s an effect of the Fall, an effect I see in Eve, in Anna, in myself.

But there’s hope. I don’t have to end up like Anna, a slave to desperate passion. As Christians, we still live under the effects of the curse, but in Christ we have a new identity and a hope that truly sets us free to love others, without fear, without demands, without expectations.

As the movie comes out soon, I wonder how Anna will be portrayed. Will she be lauded as a feminist ahead of her time? Will the movie ignore the pain that her passions inflicted on those around her? Regardless of how she appears on the screen, she will always be a reminder to me of the disastrous effects of finding one’s identity in anyone or anything other than Christ.

Image copyright Focus Features. Quotes are from the Constance Garnett translation of "Anna Karenina."

Ashley Chandler, a graduate of Columbia International University and St. John's College, reads and writes while residing on the island known as Manhattan.

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The Anna Karenina screenply backstory
If you are a student of storytelling, there is a very interesting NPR interview with writer for stage and screen Tom Stoppard about how he adapted the film. He gets philosophical about the nature of "love" as well. An interesting, short read.
Excellent thought.