'Anna Karenina': The Reinvention of Leo Tolstoy

This weekend marks the latest film adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, directed by Joe Wright and starring Keira Knightley. Filmed several times before, the most notably with Greta Garbo in 1935 and Vivien Leigh in 1948, the character of...
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This weekend marks the latest film adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, directed by Joe Wright and starring Keira Knightley. Filmed several times before, the most notably with Greta Garbo in 1935 and Vivien Leigh in 1948, the character of...
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This weekend marks the latest film adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, directed by Joe Wright and starring Keira Knightley. Filmed several times before, the most notably with Greta Garbo in 1935 and Vivien Leigh in 1948, the character of Anna Karenina has clearly left a lasting impression on the cinematic world. Tolstoy’s story of a woman suffering through an adulterous relationship has proven both universal and timeless, but what many may not know is that the book that bears her name also had a profound effect on her creator’s life. Let’s take a more intimate look at the man behind this seminal novel... “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Unhappy families may have been on Leo Tolstoy’s mind when he wrote this line, the first sentence of his 1878 novel Anna Karenina, but in reality, his life at age 50 seemed settled and peaceful. He was a comfortably married husband and father; he was a respected man in his community; and his literary work, including his epic War and Peace, was widely admired in and outside of his Russian homeland. Anna Karenina's first line would prove oddly prescient, however; shortly after the book’s publication, Tolstoy would embark on a dramatic rethink of his lifestyle that would alienate his family, mystify his friends, and lead to a completely new phase in his life and career. Anna Karenina marked the moment after which nothing would be the same. When he began working on the novel, Tolstoy had been writing for a number of years, happily aided in his work by his wife Sonya. His previous book, War and Peace, established his reputation as one of the most gifted writers of the period, widely admired not only by critics and other writers, but also popular with general readers. Anna Karenina was to be a more focused, more personal book than the sprawling War and Peace, and the book began to appear in serial form in 1873, as most of his works did. It ran for four years until 1877, when it was published in its final form as a book.

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Tolstoy with his wife Sonya, circa 1906. Anna Karenina was an immediate hit. Its portrayal of an adulterous relationship and the unraveling of a marriage in contemporary St. Petersburg impressed both lay readers and critics with its sharply rendered characters and unstinting realism. As a tragic heroine, Anna is as vividly drawn as any woman in all of literature, the worthy companion of Hester Prynne, Jane Eyre, and Madame Bovary; her fatal situation offers a window into Russian society at a time when the marriage contract, ideals of social responsibility, and tenets of religious belief were all being re-examined and questioned. The novel ends on a philosophical note, with Levin, Tolstoy’s representative in the novel, deciding to live a good, Christian life devoted to ideals of family and community. Tolstoy himself would come to a similar conclusion in reality. Shortly after the publication of Anna Karenina, he began to renounce his former style of living, and even his previous works, to promote a Christian vision of ascetic living independent of and often critical of the church. His strong views, often labeled “Christian anarchism,” eventually led to his being excommunicated. Undaunted, Tolstoy promoted pacifism and nonviolent opposition, a position that would profoundly influence Mahatma Gandhi a generation later. Unfortunately, the intensification of Tolstoy’s religious beliefs divided his family; Sonya in particular was puzzled and dismayed by her husband’s transformation. This conflict reached its tipping point when Tolstoy announced that he would divest himself of all worldly goods and leave his family to wander the world as a monk. His advanced age almost guaranteed that he wouldn’t get very far; shortly after leaving home, he caught pneumonia and died at age 82. Tolstoy was once quoted as saying “I wrote everything into Anna Karenina, and nothing was left over.” Tolstoy put everything of his younger self into this classic tale, and once it was published, he was free to reinvent himself as a new man. This new man would go on to create impressive work for the balance of his career. For many readers, however, Tolstoy’s “everything” novel remains the greatest of his works, and Anna, his most enduring character.