Vengeance in Anna Karenina

Mia Forbes considers the central theme in Tolstoy’s Anne Karenina, considered by many to be one of the finest ever written.

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”

The famous opening line of Anna Karenina sets us up with a good idea of what the novel will be about. There are indeed a few happy families and many more unhappy ones, plagued by a variety of different miseries. The meaning of the epigraph that precedes the first sentence, however, is far more obscure. On opening the book, our eyes fall first upon words taken from the Bible:

Vengeance is mine; I will repay’ (Romans 12:19)

With this ominous introduction, the reader embarks upon the narrative constantly awaiting said vengeance. Even in the first of the eight sections into which the work is divided, there are plenty of transgressions which might warrant revenge, mainly in the form of adultery. The opening scene finds the title character, Anna Karenina, visiting her brother in Moscow in order to convince his wife, Dolly, to forgive his affair. Although Anna herself emerges from the encounter as its saviour, having restored a precarious domestic harmony, this is but a taste of the drama that haunts her story. In fact, Tolstoy has already foreshadowed the impending series of mistakes and misfortunes with the chilling death of a railway worker, witnessed by Anna and identified as a bad omen. The disaster is made all the more pertinent to her eventual downfall by the fact that it occurs just as Count Vronsky, a cavalier and charismatic young officer, catches sight of her for the first time at the train station. Although he is meant to be courting Princess Kitty, the sister of Dolly, Vronsky immediately becomes infatuated with Anna, who has a husband and child in St Petersburg.

Amid the confusion of the opening chapters, we also meet the novel’s other protagonist, Levin, distinguished from his fellow aristocrats by his unpolished manner and adversity from the bright lights of Moscow and St Petersburg, preferring to live on his country estate. Heavily based on the author himself (Tolstoy’s first name is rendered more precisely as Lev, rather than the better-known Leo), Levin represents the antithesis of the high-society lifestyle embodied by Anna and her associates. For this reason, and due to her continued hope of attracting Vronsky’s attention, Kitty rejects Levin’s proposal. He, therefore, flees back to his rural estate, at the same time as Anna retreats to St Petersburg, where the sight of her husband fills her with a reluctant disdain. Vronsky had confessed his feelings for her on the train journey there, igniting a fire that Anna tries, for some time, to smother. And so, at the end of the novel’s first section, it is easy to imagine that the following 700 pages will be occupied by a series of revenge, spiralling out of control and ransacking the luxurious lives of the Russian elite.

And yet, any hopes of violent duels or dramatic acts of retribution fail to find their place in the second part either, which begins with an evaluation of Kitty’s deteriorating health, following Vronsky’s snub. When we return to Anna, we see her indulging in all the delights of high society in St Petersburg, having formed a strong friendship with Vronsky’s cousin. As rumours of an illicit relationship between her and the Count grow, her husband warns her that maintaining an image of propriety should be her utmost priority. This has quite the opposite effect than intended, driving Anna to begin the very affair that had previously been nothing more than gossip. She reveals the consequence of their liaisons to Vronsky just before he takes part in a public horse race:

‘“I’m pregnant”, she said softly and slowly’

In contrast to Anna’s feelings of guilt and fear, her lover reacts vehemently to the news. He over-exerts himself and his horse during the race, resulting in injury to them both. Anna’s horrified response to this sight arouses her husband’s suspicions even further, and at last, she confesses to him that they are grounded in truth. But even now, the anticipated revenge does not materialise. Karenin listens coldly to his wife, asks her to stop the affair, and ‘demands that the outward conventions of propriety be observed’. A rather underwhelming response, we might think, to Anna’s impassioned declaration: ‘I love him, I am his mistress, I cannot stand you, I’m afraid of you, I hate you’. At this tantalising point, we are taken swiftly off to Germany, where Kitty is recovering at a medical spa at which she meets a pious young woman who inspires her to become more devout. Kitty’s brief period of spirituality is broken off by the realisation that the woman and her mother are there on false pretences. The second section ends with Kitty’s return to Moscow, and our anticipation of a fierce conflict continues to grow.

While Anna Karenina is not divided between subjects with quite the same rigidity as War and Peace, Tolstoy does take us on regular detours from the main narrative in the cities, a way to Levin’s country estate, where we now find the character contemplating a series of religious, political and ethical matters. Part Three is particularly directed towards the idea of falseness, which Levin observes in Dolly when he travels to Moscow, prompting him to consider marrying a peasant woman. The sort of issues he contemplates form an autobiographical mirror of the concerns that haunted the author himself and eventually led to his retreat from aristocratic society in favour of an ascetic existence. Far from undertaking such a lifestyle, however, Levin once more becomes infatuated with Kitty after catching sight of her again. Interrupting his story, we witness Anna’s frustration at her husband’s refusal to separate and his threats of taking away their son if her affair continues. The parallel structure of the two narratives helps the reader to put Anna’s experience into perspective; Levin’s meditations on morality are expressed in sharp contrast to her admission that ‘if [Vronsky] should say to her resolutely, passionately, without a moment’s hesitation: ‘Abandon everything and fly away with me!’ – she would leave her son and go with him’. And inevitably, with her husband ‘having considered and rejected a duel’ in favour of divorce, the vengeance intimated on the very first page continues to elude us.

The following section begins in a similarly resigned tone, with the estranged husband and wife still living together in an awkward stalemate, their house the battleground in an inconclusive conflict. Karenin investigates the divorce procedure, but rushes back to Anna’s side after receiving a short but startling telegram from her:

‘Am dying, beg, implore you to come. Will die more peacefully with forgiveness’

He arrives home to find not only Anna, weak but still alive after giving birth, but also Vronsky and their new daughter. At Anna’s request, Karenin accepts her daughter and forgives Vronsky, ‘not thinking that the Christian law which he had wanted to follow all his life prescribed that he forgive and love his enemies’ but actually relishing the opportunity to absolve them of their sins. This gives him power over Vronsky which drives the latter to suicide. A vengeance of sorts, we might think, but his attempt fails and the lovers eventually elope, with Anna abandoning her son and husband. Retribution is ultimately withheld. This chapter too is punctuated with a narrative diversion, back to Levin, whose betrothal to Kitty is finally realised after they are reconciled by Anna’s brother. Typically, Levin’s passages are dominated by ethical questions that once again illuminate the moral discrepancy between the novel’s two protagonists.

The second half of Anna Karenina begins with an examination of how they each adapt to their new lives. After their long-awaited wedding, Levin and Kitty at first share an uneasy marriage in the countryside, but their bond grows stronger when he sees the care and diligence with which she nurses his dying brother Nikolai (a sub-plot based on the death of Tolstoy’s own brother of the same name) despite worries of illness herself. We leave them with the exciting news that ‘her illness was pregnancy’. On the contrary, Anna and Vronsky’s story occurs almost in reverse: having already had a child together, they enjoy a short honeymoon period after their escape from Russia, but soon become disillusioned with the life of exile, failing to assimilate into European society. They return to St Petersburg and while Vronsky is welcomed back by his fellow officers and young aristocrats, Anna finds herself shunned by the elite. When she sneaks back to Karenin’s house to see her son, who has been told she is dead, she runs into her husband. Rather than raging or shouting at her, he simply ‘stopped and bowed his head’, refusing even to look at her. Shunned by both her husband and her old friends, Anna retreats with Vronsky to his estate. This fifth part of the novel illuminates the dichotomy between town and country, with Kitty’s marriage to Levin and subsequent move to his rural estate serving as a transition between the two. The stark differences between the two environments make Tolstoy’s message all the more apparent: it is impossible for any lovers to be completely isolated from the rest of the world anywhere. While the love between Levin and Kitty seems sincere and blameless, they must still make a conscious effort to adapt their marriage to the demands of their new lifestyle. Similarly, Anna and Vronsky had convinced themselves that the path to true happiness lays solely in one another, but their failure to integrate into their new surroundings nevertheless causes them significant problems. It is the same lesson as Emma Bovary learns, but with more action and fewer adjectives.

Kitty and Levin’s harmonious marriage is tested in the following section when one of their many visitors at the estate begins to flirt with the pregnant Kitty. Levin is simultaneously enraged with jealousy and ashamed of his own passion, attempting to repress it by taking a hunting trip with the offending guest. At first, he is ‘ashamed to remember how unfair he had been to him’ and vengeance seems once more postponed. Yet upon seeing the man leaning towards his wife, ‘again everything went dark in his eyes’ and we prepare ourselves for a minor but fiery confrontation. Levin simply sends the visitor away, however, and while his tone is firm, and the sight of his muscly arms quickly convinces the guest to comply, we are yet again deprived of a proper conflict. Meanwhile, at Vronsky’s estate, Anna is consumed with paranoia, afraid that her lover is no longer equally enamoured with her. So concerned is she that she writes to her husband, humbly requesting a divorce so that she might marry Vronsky and thus ensure his commitment to her, a somewhat ironic hope. As part of their desperate pursuit of happiness, the couple once again moves back to the city. The jealous crises and feelings of helplessness that both our protagonists experience in this section intensify the psychological portraits painted by Tolstoy, and reaffirm that loneliness can be a universal, unpredictable and indiscriminate predator.

Also in Moscow for the birth of their child, Kitty and Levin discover how corruptive the urban environment can be to their marriage. Upon visiting Anna with her brother, Lenin finds himself attracted to the disgraced woman, admiring ‘her beauty, her intelligence, her education and with that her simplicity and deep feeling’. Tolstoy thus provides us with a clear illustration of how the attractions of vice are able to subvert even the greatest virtue. Kitty sees that Anna has bewitched her husband, and after hours of conversation, they decide that they must move back to the estate. The sentiment that prevention is better than cure was shared by the author himself, at least in his later life, when he withdrew from the luxuries of aristocratic living and adopted the customs of his local peasants. When Kitty gives birth, Levin is first elated, but then struggles to come to terms with the responsibility and purpose that he has been charged with:

‘There was a new, tormenting fear. There was an awareness of a new region of vulnerability’

On the verge of his existential crisis, we return once more to Anna’s desperate situation. While Kitty and Levin have made the prudent decision to withdraw from the city, she continues to live there in bitter jealousy, paranoid about Vronsky’s activities and growing steadily more reliant on morphine. When Karenin refuses her the divorce she had pinned her hopes on, Anna spirals into an anxious and hopeless depression. She convinces herself that she ‘wants love and there is none. That means it’s all over!’. Soon the tragic truth of those words is revealed, as Anna throws herself under a train, the terrible counterpart to the scene of her and Vronsky’s first encounter. In fact, Tolstoy was inspired to write Anna Karenina after being called as a witness after a woman jumped in front of a train at his local station, having been accused of adultery. Even more strangely, the author himself was fated to meet his end at a train station, having contracted pneumonia after making the long journey there from his estate. It seems strangely portentous, too, that Tolstoy was known to harbour a strong dislike of the railroads throughout his life, lamenting the huge expansion that they underwent during the nineteenth century.

As a substitute for the gory details of her suicide, Tolstoy describes how a candle ‘sputtered, grew dim, and went out forever’. Much like Eliot’s later poem, Anna’s life ends ‘not with a bang but a whimper’. The protagonist’s last words are ‘Lord, forgive me for everything, which helps us to finally unveil the true meaning behind that mysterious epigraph. The full quotation of Romans 12:19 is:

‘Do not avenge yourselves, beloved, but leave room for God’s wrath. For it is written: “Vengeance is Mine; I will repay, says the Lord.”’

With this in mind, we might now understand why the novel’s many disputes, transgressions and offences have never been answered with a fully-fledged revenge plot. Tolstoy wishes to teach his reader that humans should not presume to judge or punish one another, but trust in God to exact justice. This precept is undoubtedly designed to encourage self-reflection in the reader, as we are invited to consider our own role in judging and condemning the characters. Were we right in expecting great conflict, and what does it say about us, that we eagerly awaited confrontation? These moral questions also form the central focus of the novel’s final section, in which Levin reconciles himself with his position as patriarch and comes to terms with his own faith. In the very last chapter, in which Levin acts as an almost-direct mouthpiece for Tolstoy’s religious beliefs, the protagonist concludes that spiritual faith transcends human reasoning, happily acknowledging that he will continue to pray without quite understanding why. This mirrors the sentiment of the novel’s epigraph: we must accept that some things are beyond us, while trying to act well in those things which we do have control over.

As evidenced by the length of this article, the plot of Anna Karenina is unambiguously intricate and complex, but the real value of Tolstoy’s ‘only true novel’ lies not in its many narrative twists and turns, but in the psychological characters skilfully constructed by the author. Through the differences, and more importantly the similarities, between Anna and Levin, we are exposed to a broad spectrum of perspectives on some of humanity’s most pressing questions.

Image: Greta Garbo and Fredric March in the 1935 MGM film ‘Anna Karenina’.
Contributor: PictureLux / The Hollywood Archive / Alamy Stock Photo