For the last 10 days or so, I’ve been obsessed with Leo Tolstoy’s 1878 novel, “Anna Karenina.” I haven’t yet finished the massive book, but it’s been keeping me up late and giving me new things to think about. It’s a literary masterpiece that lives up to its reputation.
For most people — and certainly for movie adaptations — the book is primarily about the affair between the married Anna Karenina of the title and her lover, Count Vronsky. Although that story is filled with drama and pathos, I’ve been taken instead by the subplot involving the relationship between the characters of Konstantin Levin and Princess Katerina (Kitty) Shcherbatsky.
At every turn, I’ve found myself identifying with Levin, so much that it sometimes makes me feel as though the long-dead Tolstoy has been reading my private thoughts and feelings.
In the earliest parts of the book, we discover Levin’s love for Kitty in a scene which evokes my thoughts and feelings when I’m in love to an uncanny degree. Levin is drunk on the ecstasy of his love for Kitty but he’s also sick and terrified that she might reject his offer of marriage.
When a confused Kitty refuses him — believing that Vronsky is planning to propose to her as well — Levin is devastated and humiliated. In hurt and shame, Levin returns to his estate in the country to try to suppress his love for Kitty — and this is when the real story of the book starts for me.
I don’t want to tell you too much of the plot — because I’d encourage you to read it for yourself — but we spend time with a miserable Levin and a miserable Kitty for hundreds of pages. Since this is the subplot, the story of Anna and Vronsky develops during that same time, but I was always eager to get back to the brooding and hurt Levin — and the miserably unhappy Kitty, who regrets that she’s lost her only chance at happiness.
In many respects, I identify with the ways in which Levin thinks and feels. I identify with his frustration with the thinking of the people around him, who refuse to see things that seem obvious to him. I can identify with his changing directions several times as he gets excited about one set of ideas and plans — and then discovers himself to have been wrong.
Most of all, though, I can identify with Levin’s difficulty in getting over his love for one woman who has turned him down. I can identify with his inability to allow himself to even consider the other women who others would like him to choose as his wife.
As I watched the development of Levin and Kitty’s lives — as they’re on completely different tracks but both miserable — I couldn’t help but thinking that the entire problem could be solved if just one of them had the willingness to set aside his or her pride — and take a chance at pursuing what each of them secretly still wanted.
The more I’ve thought about this stubbornness — and this willingness to live miserable lives instead of taking a chance by setting aside fear and wounded pride — the more I’ve realized that this is an incredibly common human trait that Tolstoy has captured. And it occurs to me that we remain unhappy and loveless at times, even when there is someone who would like to love us, if we were only willing to get past our foolish pride.
About halfway through the book — when things have gone horribly wrong for Anna and Vronsky — there’s an unhappy scene in which Vronsky keeps asking himself, “How can we be reconciled?”
When I read those words, it suddenly occurred to me that this is one of the central questions of life for all of us. It applies to love and family and friendship and so much more. We make horrible mistakes with each other. We conclude that we can’t be forgiven. Or we conclude that nothing can erase the shame we feel about some real or imagined slight.
And we live apart from the people and things we need. We give up the love or family or friendships we need. All because we have too much pride to say either, “I was wrong and I need to know if you can forgive me,” or, “Can we start all over again?”
One person can’t make reconciliation happen. Both people have to be willing and able to make the necessary changes. Sometimes only one person really wants that. Other times, one party is unwilling to change.
But there are times when both people are secretly like Levin and Kitty.
Levin tried to forget Kitty. He tried to hate her. He tried to talk himself into marrying someone else. But his love for her was real and it was lasting. And when he finally saw her face again — as she went down the road in a carriage, when she had no idea he was there — he couldn’t keep lying to himself about loving her.
Kitty realized her mistake in refusing Levin almost as soon as she did it. She became miserable and then sick, so much so that she was sent for a trip abroad while she tried to recover. She was humiliated and afraid. She started fearing that she would never become a wife, in a society where being married meant everything. And she believed that Levin would never forgive her for refusing him.
Neither Levin nor Kitty was strong enough to set aside his or her pride and seek to be reconciled. Thankfully, someone else finally took steps to bring them together again. The scene at a social event at which they finally see one another again — and timidly get past their fears and their pride — was very emotional for me.
After someone else has finally brought the two past the gulf they wouldn’t cross for themselves, Levin made his offer again. Kitty joyfully accepts. They love each other and they’re married very soon afterward.
There’s still struggle in the rest of the book for them. They both have to mature and they find deeper love together. They have a son together who they love. And Levin resolves his own spiritual doubts in a way that satisfies both of them.
The story of Anna and Vronsky is tragic. It’s supposed to be the main story. I get that. But for me, the story of Kitty and Levin is the soul of the book. I wasn’t the least bit surprised to read that Tolstoy modeled Levin after himself and gave him some of the events of his own life.
Foolish pride often keeps us from pursuing what we really need. We’re too proud to say we might have been wrong. Or that we would like to try again. Or just that we would like to forget the past and find some solution to whatever has split us from those we want to love.
Love stories don’t always have happy endings. There are times when we’re hurt and humiliated even when we try again. But it’s certain that love never has a chance when our pride and our fears stand in the way of even giving love a chance to live.