In an earlier article I wrote about power that love has over people.1 Such power has inspired people to do many things in the name of love that they might not otherwise do. People have killed, stolen, abandoned their families, given up their career, and even moved to a completely different part of the world, all in the name of love. The media is replete with stories of politicians and other prominent people who have engaged in adulterous affairs, given up their marriage, and began a new life with this other person out of love.
The more prominent the couple is, the more we begin to believe that we actually “know them”. The reality is that we can never really understand anyone’s relationship as an outside observer. We can know some of the details regarding a couple’s public life, but when it comes to their intimate relationship this is something that we can never fully know. Such figures are not only known to us through television or film, but through literature as well.
Let us take examine the life of a woman of prominent social standing, in fact she is a member of an aristocratic family. This woman, Anna, grows up and marries a man, Alexei, who is a prominent government official in her area. From the world’s standpoint, these two have a very happy life. They have prominent social standing, a child, do not have to struggle as most people do simply to put food on the table and provide shelter for their family.
This woman goes on a trip to a distant city to visit her brother, Stiva, and sister-in-law, Dolly. Prior to Anna’s arrival, Dolly had discovered that Stiva was having an affair with the family’s governess and the entire home is in turmoil. While Anna in on the train on her way to visit her brother and his family, she meets a lady, Countess Vronskaya, from another aristocratic family and these two women begin to converse on the train. The countess’ son, Count Vronsky, is romantically interested in Dolly’s younger sister, Kitty. 2
This brief account would be well known to anyone who has ever read Anna Karenina by Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy (1828-1910). It is considered by many to be one of the greatest novels ever written. Anna Karenina is more than a simple love story. It introduces the Western reader to Orthodox culture and presents him or her with a worldview which is completely contrary to what is present in the United States.
Concepts such as personal autonomy, individuality, and independence are accepted as virtues by people in the United States. Ideas such as community are important to many Americans only to the extent that they support him or in their effort to be a free, independent human being. We might come together as a community in order to worship, socialize, or for some business purpose, but most Americans would not find their identity in being a part of a particular community. The exact opposite is true in traditional Orthodox culture. In this culture, one finds their identity as a result of being a member of a particular community. Family bonds are very important and there is much less focus on personal autonomy.
Here is one very simple example. In Orthodox culture family is a priority over work. Many people strive to build up their family life before building up their career. In the West, we have been very heavily influenced by the Protestant work ethics which teaches that one’s ability to enter into Heaven is directly connected to their financial success. Therefore, career often becomes a priority over family life. This is not true in Slavic culture. Neither the Orthodox nor the Catholic Church teach the “virtues” of the Protestant work ethic and even though religion does not have the same strong impact on Slavic culture that it did prior to the Soviet Union, Orthodox values are still important in this part of the world.
In the West there is such a priority placed on developing a person’s career that very often they unable to take part in special events when their children are young and the person begins to feel like his or her children are growing up without them. Work should not be a priority over family; however, it is difficult to preach this message when the culture presents those who promote family as a priority as being lazy and unwilling to work. This is particularly true of the people who come to the US from Mexico and Central America. The former residents of these areas were raised in a Catholic culture which does promote such a work ethic.
Anna’s should have been able to find her identity in her family or community, but this was not entirely true. While visiting Stiva and Dolly, Anna attends a ball with Kitty. Kitty believes that it is at this ball that Count Vronsky will finally propose to her so that they can be married. However, it was not meant to be. Instead, she spends the entire evening paying attention to Anna and completely ignores Kitty. Kitty is devastated by this. There was another man who was interested in Kitty. His name is Konstantin. Konstantin is a childhood friend of Stiva. He is a passionate, but shy landowner who chose to live on a farm instead of in the city with his friends. Konstantin proposed to Kitty, but she turned him down because she believed that she would marry Count Vronsky. After being rejected by Kitty, Konstantin returns to his farm and gives up any idea of ever being married.
Count Vronsky tells Anna of his feelings for her and she somewhat troubled by this. She is flattered by the attention that the Count has given her, but she is married and has a family back home. She returns to her home and is greeted at the train by her husband and son. Instead of feeling joy upon seeing them, she feels a sense of disgust when seeing her husband. He is twenty years old than her and their marriage appears to be based upon social standing. In America we would refer to this as a “love less” marriage, which is very sad.
Anna is a rather interesting person. She appears to believe that no one understands her. This sense of isolation can inspire people do things that they might never do otherwise in order alleviate this feeling. She feels no love for her husband and no connection to the people around her, but begins to think that perhaps Count Vronsky will understand her. Anna becomes friends with Princess Betty, a local socialite and gossip who is related to Count Vronsky. The Count continues to pursue Anna and even though she initially rejects his advances, eventually she succumbs to them.
Her husband, Alexei, begins to become concerned that Anna is spending too much time with Count Vronsky and this may become a public scandal. At one point, Alexei and Anna are at a steeple chase when she sees Count Vronsky fall from his horse. Unable to control her feelings she runs to the Count comforts him and tells him that she is pregnant with his child. Anna then confesses this affair to her husband. Alexei, concerned about a public scandal, encourages her to end this affair so they could return to the way things were before.
The problem is that there is no returning to the way things were before. Anna has no intention of ending this affair, so Alexei decides to speak with a lawyer about obtaining a divorce. At this point in Russian history, only the person who was being cheated on could ask for a divorce and would only be granted if one of two conditions were met. Either the cheating spouse had to confess their infidelity or the other spouse had to obtain evidence of this affair. Alexei forces Anna to give him some of the letters which Count Vronsky has written her as proof. Anna’s brother, Stiva, intervened and suggested to Alexei that he speak with Dolly before going through any divorce proceedings.
Dolly speaks with Alexei, but she appears to be unsuccessful in talking him out of his plan. However, Alexei’s plan does change after he receives news that Anna is dying as a result of a difficult childbirth. While at Anna’s bedside, Alexei forgives Count Vronsky for the affair. Count Vronsky becomes so distraught over Alexei’s forgiveness that he attempts suicide by shooting himself. His attempt is unsuccessful, but Count Vronsky is badly wounded.
Anna gives birth to a daughter, whom she names “Annie”, and fully recovers. Even though Alexei has forgiven her and has become attached to Annie, Anna no longer wants to live with him. She receives news that Count Vronsky is about to leave for a new military post. Anna’s brother, Stiva, pleads with Alexei to free Anna by giving her a divorce. Anna runs to be with Count Vronsky and the two of them leave for Europe, leaving her son behind with Alexei, before she is ever granted a divorce.
While all of this is going on, Kitty has been having various medical problems stemming from the fact that she was ignored by Count Vronsky and the fact that she was rather mean to Konstantin in regard to the way she rejected his marriage proposal. Kitty goes with her mother to Germany in order restore her health. While they are there, they meet a very pious woman and her adopted daughter. Kitty ends up becoming very pious as a result of meeting these two women. Her newfound piety does not appeal to her father. Konstantin has since returned to his country estate and is struggling to understand the falseness of other people. He turns to agriculture, which is a very important part of his life and spirituality, as a way of coming up with answers.
Konstantin then pays a visit to Dolly, hoping that she might be able to help him understand what had happened. Instead of receiving support and consolation, Konstantin becomes very annoyed with Dolly and she her as being false also. He returns to his estate, abandons any hope of marrying Kitty, and considers marrying a local peasant woman. However, when Konstantin happens to see Kitty drive by in her carriage, he realizes that he still loves her.
Stiva realizes that his childhood friend still loves Kitty, so be begins to play matchmaker. He arranges a meeting between Konstantin and Kitty. This meeting results in their reconciliation and eventual betrothal. Konstantin and Kitty are married and immediately begin a new life on Konstantin’s estate. Like many couples, they love each other, but their marriage has begun with some difficulties as these two people begin to get to know each other. Konstantin is concerned because he does not feel that Kitty is paying too much attention to domestic matters and not enough attention to him. This seems incompatible with his understanding of romantic love.
A few months after they are married, Konstantin receives news that his brother, Nikolai, is dying of consumption. Most men would be delighted that their wife wants to accompany them to see their dying brother, but not Konstantin. He has placed Kitty on a pedestal and does not believe that she should get involved with people from a lower class.
Placing a loved one on a pedestal can create many problems. First, it is almost impossible for Kitty to live up to his ideal. Kitty might be the most wonderful wife in the world, but she is a human being and so has her own faults and failings. Placing her on a pedestal makes her into a god and when these faults and failings become evident it is difficult for him to deal with.
Konstantin is presented as an almost comic contrast to Anna. He deals with hay and piglets, with farming and peasants. While other “gentleman farmers” are enjoying the fruit of their ownership, Konstantin is not quite content. He observes the simple faith of the peasants and of his wife and, identifying with them he asks, “Why can’t I believe?”
Having attained everything she wanted, Anna finds herself tormented by greed, jealousy, and doubt. What if Count Vronsky loved another woman the way he loved her? What is he wanted her only for her body and he eventually loses interest in her? How can she cling to those things she has found through her self-assertion? Ultimately she determines that death, in Tolstoy’s words is, “the only way of restoring his love for her in his heart, of punishing him, and of gaining the victory in the fight which an evil spirit was waging in her heart against him.” Thus, Anna life of self-affirmation and fulfillment ends as she throws herself under a train.
This tragic end to Anna’s life would be the end of most novels, but Tolstoy takes us back to the country estate where we encounter Konstantin again. We find Konstantin wrestling with idea of his love for Kitty and their son, Mirya. Why, he is wondering, do I not feel such intense caring for my son? Was something wrong with him? Konstantin has invested himself, lost himself, and denied himself for his family and his servants, but he still questions himself.
Suddenly, a terrible thunderstorm comes up. Kitty and Mirya are not in the house. Lightning strikes and their favorite oak tree comes crashing down. Suddenly he feels himself utterly a desperate prayer, “Dear Lord, dear Lord, not on them!” Tolstoy’s words: “Though he thought, at once, how senseless was his prayer that they should not be killed by that already fallen tree, he repeated it for he knew that he could do nothing better than to utter that senseless prayer.” They are safe. However, Konstantin remains deeply moved, for in that moment he came to understand both his love them, and his ultimately dependency upon God. 3
Konstantin had everything that he wanted once he married Kitty, but he was not content. Based upon his notion of ideal romantic love, he placed his wife on a pedestal and then became distraught when she wanted to walk around with “mere humans”. His deeply reflexive nature caused him to question everything: his love for his wife, his son, and even his relationship with God.
The Lord Jesus told us, “He who finds his life will lose it, but he who loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Luke 9: 24). In this wonderful novel by Leo Tolstoy we have the example of someone who found her life, but lost it and someone who has lost his life, but found it. From the world’s standpoint, Anna had everything she could be possibly want, but true genuine lasting happiness. Konstantin did not have the glamorous life that Anna had, but he had something even more important. He finally came to the realization that what was most important in his life was his love for this family and his relationship with God.
1) “The Power of Love in Our Lives” http://heideggerm1.blogspot.com/2011/06/power-of-love-in-our-lives.html
2) Anna Karenina http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anna_Karenina
3) Rodney L. Hunter (ed.) Dictionary of Pastoral Care and Counseling (TN: Abingdon Press, 1999), p. 164