The Moral Urgency of Anna Karenina by Gary Saul Morson

I can not make this a part of regular recommendation, because it would make sense only to those who have read the voluminous classic Anna Karenina and preferably also War and Peace. But I couldn’t help writing about this article.

Oprah Winfrey, who chose Tolstoy’s novel for her book club, followed many others in viewing Anna Karenina as a celebration of its heroine and of romantic love. That gets the book exactly wrong. It mistakes Anna’s story of herself for Tolstoy’s. Just as Anna Karenina imagines herself into the novel she reads, such readers imagine themselves as Anna or her adulterous lover Vronsky. They do not seem to entertain the possibility that the values they accept unthinkingly are the ones Tolstoy wants to discredit.

Anna Karenina, the character, justified the “romance” of her life. Not the book or the author.

As one of her friends observes, she resembles a heroine from a romance. But Anna’s sense of herself is not Tolstoy’s sense of her. He places his romantic heroine not in a romance, where her values would be validated, but in the world of prosaic reality, where actions have consequences and the pain we inflict matters.

Is Karenin the unfeeling, uncouth man that Anna makes him out to be?

Because Anna feels guilty for hurting her husband, she persuades herself that he cannot feel. She knows better and is well aware that although he cannot express his feelings, he nevertheless experiences them. He suffers horribly from jealousy. But she makes sure not to see his suffering. Tolstoy tells us that Anna “schooled herself to despise and reproach him.” She maintains of him that “this is not a human being, this is a machine.”

If you have read Anna Karenina and have only thought of it as a tragic romance, you must read this article for yourself on Commentary magazine.