Recently, on the commuter train back home, I finished the seventh of the eight parts that comprise Anna Karenina. I think this is my sixth reading of the book, but I was reading it all as if for the first time.
The tragic climax of the novel occurs at the end of the seventh part: the eighth part (which I started on the commuter train the next morning) is effectively an epilogue. As I was approaching the end of the seventh part, I couldn’t quite believe what I was reading. I really was living and breathing every sentence of it. Throughout the novel, Tolstoy is fascinated by why people think and act and perceive as they do. There is no obvious or easy answer to this; and there is no one reason, or even an identifiable set of reasons. But Tolstoy takes us into the characters’ heads, and, no matter how irrational and even lunatic their thoughts and actions may be, he allows us to see why they are thinking and perceiving in this manner.
Before leaving her husband, Anna had been misinterpreting her husband’s words and actions – and misinterpreting almost deliberately. Almost deliberately: her mind was blocking out anything that it couldn’t handle, anything that was too much for it to take; and she would interpret only in a way that would minimise her mental anguish. She had to imagine her husband as an automaton incapable of human feeling because she would not have been able to live with the thought that she was causing him pain, So, everything her husband said or did, every slightest gesture, she had to interpret in such a way as to confirm this picture of him – this picture that, from the chapters dealing with Karenin, we know is quite false. And perhaps Anna knows it as well, deep down: but to think of her husband as a sentient being capable of feeling pain would have been too much for Anna to have handled.
Now, towards the end, Anna, suffering quite clearly from what nowadays would be diagnosed as severe depression, misinterprets, again almost deliberately, Vronsky’s words and actions; but this time, she misinterprets to cause herself maximum anguish – almost as if she wanted to punish herself. She want to believe that Vronsky is losing interest in her, that he is tiring of her, that he is happy to allow his mother to arrange a suitable marriage for him. None of this, we know is true. And yet, terrible though it is, utterly irrational though it is, Tolstoy convinces us that, yes, this is exactly how she would have acted, this is exactly how she would have perceived.
Throughout this novel, people’s ability to control their thoughts and behaviour is limited. Even when Anna behaves utterly irrationally, Vronsky cannot help reacting in the way he does. Despite his feelings for her, despite having sacrificed just about everything for her sake, he is frustrated by Anna’s mood swings, and can’t understand her irrationality. At one superb moment, Vronsky wants to comfort Anna, but…
He wanted to stop and say a word of comfort to her, but his legs carried him out of the room before he could think of what to say.
- From the translation by Kyril Zinovieff and Jenny Hughes
And Tolstoy keeps us, effectively, prisoners in Anna’s disturbed mind right up to the very moment of her self-inflicted death. There really is nothing like this in the whole range of literature.
When my commuter train arrived at the station that night, I just had one page remaining of the seventh part. I couldn’t stop there. So I got off on to the platform – it was quite dark by then – sat on a bench, and read that final extraordinary page. Yes – on the platform of a railway station.