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by Count Leo Tolstoy
The original, squashed down to read in about 30 minutes
Tolstoy's 'realist' novel was said to have been inspired by the life of Maria Hartung, a daughter of the poet Alexander Pushkin. The Russian writers Fyodor Dostoevsky and Vladimir Nabokov both declared it to be "flawless", while Time magazine's 2007 survey of novelists chose it as the greatest book ever written.
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
The Oblonsky family was plunged into miserable confusion. The wife had discovered that the husband was carrying on an intrigue with the French governess, and had announced to her husband that she could not go on living in the same house with him. She remained in her rooms, and the husband had not shown himself at home for three days. Some of the servants quarrelled and others demanded their wages.
Prince Stepan Arkadyevitch Oblonsky - Stiva, as he was called - had on returning one evening from the theatre found his Dolly sitting with a letter in her hand, and an expression of terror and despair on her countenance. "What is this? This?" she asked. Instead of attempting a reply, Stepan smiled good-humouredly and stupidly; and Dolly, after a flow of passionate reproaches, rushed from the room.
Stepan had never imagined that any such discovery would have such an effect on his wife. "How delightfully we were living till this happened!" said he, as on the third morning after the outbreak he awoke in his library, where he had rested on the lounge. "I never interfered with Dolly, and she did as she pleased with the household and children. What can be done?" He rose and put on his dressing gown and rang for his valet, who came in response to the summons, followed by the barber. The valet handed him a telegram, which announced that his loving sister, Anna Arkadyevna, was coming on a visit. He was pleased to receive the intelligence, for it might mean that she would effect a reconciliation.
Prince Stepan tranquilly partook of breakfast over his newspaper, and became absorbed in thought. Suddenly two children's voices roused him from his reverie. They were those of Grisha, his youngest boy, and Tania, his eldest daughter. The little girl, his favourite, ran in and laughingly and fondly embraced him. "What is mamma doing? Is she all right?" he asked of the girl.
"I don't know," was the reply. "She told us we were not to have lessons to-day but were to go to grandmamma's." He told the children to run along, and then said to himself, "To go, or not to go - but it has to be done, sooner or later," and straightening himself and lighting a cigarette, he opened the door into his wife's room. She was standing in the room removing the contents of a drawer, and turned her worn face on Stepan with a look of terror. She had dreaded this moment, for though she felt she could not stay, yet she knew she loved him and that it was impossible to leave him.
"What do you want? Go away, go away," she cried. He broke into sobs and began to beg forgiveness. "Dolly, think for the love of God of the children. They are not to blame. I alone am to blame. Now, Dolly, forgive me." But as the voice of one of the children was heard, she went out from him and slammed the door.
Stepan Arkadyevitch was naturally idle, yet his gifts had enabled him to do well at school, and he had gained an excellent position at Moscow as natchalnik, or president of one of the courts, through the influence of Aleksei Alexandrovitch Karenin, husband of his sister Anna, one of the most important members of the ministry. In this office Stepan enjoyed a salary of 6,000 roubles. Everyone who knew Oblonsky liked him, for his amiability, honesty, and brilliance, qualities which rendered him a most attractive character.
Going to his office after his unpleasant interview with his wife, he attended to matters in the court for some time, and on suspending business for lunch found his friend Levin waiting to see him - a fair-complexioned, broad-shouldered man whom he often saw in Moscow. Levin frequently came in from the country, full of enthusiasm about great things he had been attempting, at the reports of which Stepan was apt to smile in his good-humoured style. That Levin was in love with his sister Kitty was well enough known to Stepan.
When Oblonsky on this occasion, after chatting over some rural concerns in Levin's district, asked his friend what had specially brought him to Moscow, Levin blushed and was vexed with himself for blushing. He could not bring himself to reply that he had come to ask for the hand of Stepan's sister-in-law Kitty, though that was really his errand. As a student and a friend of the Shcherbatsky family, belonging like his own to the old nobility of Moscow, Konstantin Levin at first thought himself in love with Dolly, the eldest, but she married Oblonsky; then with Natalie, who married Lyof, a diplomat; and finally his passion settled on Kitty, who had been only a child when he left the University. He was now thirty-two, was wealthy, would surely have been reckoned an acceptable suitor, but had a most exalted opinion of Kitty, and to a corresponding degree depreciated himself.
He feared that probably Kitty did not love him, and he knew that his friends only looked upon him as a country proprietor, occupied with farming, or amusing himself with hunting. He was not what is understood as a society man. But he felt that he could no longer rest without seeking to get the question settled whether she would or would not be his wife.
Levin made his way to the gate of the Zoological Gardens and followed the path to the ice-mountains, where he knew that he should find the Shcherbatskys there, Kitty among them. He had seen their carriage at the gate. It was a lovely day, and the gaily-clad fashionable people, the Russian izbas with their carved woodwork, the paths gleaming with snow, and the old birch-trees, brilliant with icicles, combined to render the whole scene one of fascination.
Drawing near the ice-mountains, where the sledges rushed down the inclines, he soon discovered Kitty, who was on the opposite side, standing in close conversation with a lady. For him her presence filled the place with light and glory. He asked himself whether he was brave enough to go and meet her on the ice. The spot where she was seemed to him like a sanctuary, and all the persons privileged to be near her seemed to be the elect of heaven. This day the ice was the common meeting-ground for fashionable people, the masters in the art of skating being among them. Nikolai Shcherbatsky, Kitty's cousin, catching sight of Levin, exclaimed, "There is the best skater in Russia." Kitty cordially invited Levin to skate with her. He did so, and the faster they went together, the closer Kitty held his hand. And when after a spin they rested, and she asked how long he was going to stay in St. Petersburg, he astonished her by replying, "It depends on you." Either she did not understand, or did not wish to understand, his words, for she at once made an excuse to leave him.
At this moment Stepan came up and took Levin's arm, and the two went to the restaurant. Here Levin opened his soul to Stepan, and Stepan assured him that Kitty would become his wife. "But," said Levin, "it is shocking that we who are already getting old dare not approach a pure and innocent being. I look on my life with dismay, and mourn over it bitterly."
Said Stepan, "You have not much cause for self-reproach. What can you do? The world is thus constituted."
"There is only one comfort," replied Levin. "That is in the prayer I have always delighted in: 'Pardon me not according to my deserts, but according to Thy loving kindness.' Thus only can she forgive me."
Kitty had another suitor, Count Vronsky, on whom she looked with the favour that she could not accord to Levin. He was rich, intelligent, of good birth, with a brilliant career before him in court and navy. He was charming, and in him the Princess Shcherbatsky saw an admirable match for her youngest daughter. Princess Kitty was now eighteen. She was the favourite child of her father. It was manifest to both parents that she was in love with Vronsky. Yet when at length Levin ventured on an actual declaration of his love, she was deeply agitated. Lifting her sincere glance to him, she said hastily, "This cannot be. Forgive me."
Anna Karenina arrived in the home of Stepan Arkadyevitch, where she was received with cordial kisses by Dolly, who remembered that Stepan's sister was not to blame, and that she was a grande dame of St. Petersburg, wife of one of the important personages of the city. She was delighted to think that at last she could open her mind and tell her troubles. And she was not disappointed, for in a lengthy and sympathetic colloquy Dolly's heart was touched with the sentiment of forgiveness.
Anna was one of the most beautiful and graceful of women. And she was as tactful as she was lovely. Before many hours she had successfully played the part of peacemaker, and thanked God in her heart that she had been able to effect complete reconciliation between Stepan and his wife. That same evening Anna went to a grand ball with Kitty and her mother, where the three were quickly saluted by Vronsky. It was a most brilliant affair. But next morning Anna telegraphed to her husband that she was leaving Moscow for home. It happened that Vronsky travelled by the same train, and thus the two were thrown together for the long journey.
Aleksei Alexandrovitch, though he affectionately met his wife, found but little time to spend with her. The next day several visitors came to dine with the Karenins. Every moment of Aleksei's life was fully occupied with his official duties, and he was forced to be strictly regular and punctual in his arrangements. He was an excellent man, and an intellectual one, delighting in art, poetry, and music, and loving to talk of Shakespeare, Raphael, and Beethoven.
Society in St. Petersburg is very united, and Anna Karenina had very friendly relations with the gay world of fashion, with its dinner parties and balls. She met Vronsky at several of these brilliant reunions. He, deeply impressed with her, notwithstanding his connection with Kitty, went everywhere that he was likely to meet her, and her joy at meeting him easily betrayed itself in her eyes and her smile. And he did not refrain from actually making love to Anna on the occasions when they were able to engage in tête-à-tête conversations. Nor was he positively repelled. Soon the acquaintance became more and more intimate. Meantime, Aleksei as usual would come home and, instead of seeking his wife's society, would bury himself in his library amongst his books. But suddenly the idea that his wife could form an attachment to another man filled him with terror. He resolved to remonstrate with her, but she received his expostulations with laughing and good-humoured mockery, which entirely frustrated his purpose. He dropped the subject; yet from that moment a new life began for the husband and wife. There was no outward sign of the change. Anna continued to meet Vronsky, and Aleksei felt himself powerless to intervene.
While Vronsky was thus entangling himself with Anna Karenina at St. Petersburg, the Shcherbatskys at Moscow were growing anxious about the health of Princess Kitty, their beautiful daughter who was so deeply in love with him. She was ill, and after a consultation of physicians it was decided that travelling abroad would be advisable. But the girl said to herself that her trouble was one that they could not fathom, that her supposed illness and the remedies she had to endure were nonsense. What did they amount to? Nothing more than the gathering up of the fragments of a broken vase to patch it up again. Her heart was broken, and could it be healed by pills and powders?
Absorbed by his passion, Vronsky yet proceeded in his regular manner of life, sustaining as usual his social and military relations. He loved his regiment and was very popular in it. Naturally, he spoke not a syllable to anyone about his passion. He drank moderately, and not an indiscreet word escaped him. But his mother was not a little disturbed when she discovered that his infatuation for Madame Karenina had impelled him to refuse an excellent promotion which would have necessitated his removal from the metropolis. She feared that instead of being a flirtation of which she might not disapprove, this passion might develop into a Werther-like tragedy and lead her son to commit some imprudence.
Many fashionable young ladies who were jealous of Anna and were weary of hearing her praised, were malignantly pleased to hear rumours to her disparagement and to feel justified in alluding scornfully to her. Vronsky received a message from his mother in Moscow. She desired him to come to her. His elder brother, though not himself by any means a pattern of perfect propriety, strongly expressed his dissatisfaction, because he felt that the unpleasant rumours would be likely to cause displeasure in certain high quarters.
Early in the spring, Anna Karenina's husband went abroad, according to his annual custom, to take the water-cure after the toils of winter. Returning in July to St. Petersburg, he at once resumed his official duties with the usual vigour. Anna had already gone into the country, not far from the capital, to the summer datcha at Peterhof. Since the pair had failed to come to a mutual understanding coolness had existed, but it was simply a cloud, not an actual alienation.
He resolved for the sake of appearances to visit his wife once a week. To his astonishment, his doctor called voluntarily on him, to ask if he might examine into the condition of his health. The secret reason of this was that a kind friend, the Countess Lidia, had begged the doctor to do so, as she had noticed that Aleksei did not look well. The medical man after the diagnosis was perturbed with the result, for Aleksei's liver was congested and his digestion was out of order. The waters had not benefited him. He was ordered to take more physical exercise and to undergo less mental strain, and above all to avoid all worry.
It was not with real pleasure, but with an affectation of cordiality that Anna received her husband when he reached the datcha. She was gay and animated. He was somewhat constrained, and the conversation was without any special interest. But Anna afterwards could only recall it with real pain. The crisis came on a racecourse. One of Vronsky's chief pleasures was horse-racing, and at the brilliant races that season he himself rode his own splendid horse. But the occasion was a most disastrous one, for at the hurdle races more than half the riders were thrown, Vronsky being one of them. He was picked up uninjured, but the horse had its back broken.
Aleksei and his wife and several friends were amongst the gay crowd, and he noted with deep displeasure that his wife turned pale when the accident happened and was strangely excited throughout the occasion. In the carriage, as the pair returned, he taxed her with her unseemly demeanour, and a violent quarrel ensued, in which she exclaimed, "I love him. I fear you. I hate you. Do as you please with me." And Anna flung herself to the bottom of the carriage, covering her face with her hands and sobbing convulsively.
Aleksei sat in silence during the rest of the journey home, but as they came near the house he said, "I insist that from this moment appearances be preserved for the sake of my honour, and I will communicate my decision to you after I have considered what measures I shall take." He assisted her to alight at the datcha, shook hands with her in the presence of the servants, and returned to St. Petersburg.
"Thank God, it is all over between us," said Anna to herself. But, notwithstanding this reflection, she had felt strangely impressed by the aspect of deathlike rigidity in her husband's face, though he gave no sign of inward agitation. As he rode off alone he felt a keen pain in his heart. But, curiously enough, he also experienced a sensation of deep relief of soul now that a vast load of doubt and jealousy had been lifted from him.
"I always knew she was without either heart or religion," said he to himself. "I made a mistake when I united my life with hers, but I should not be unhappy, for my error was not my fault. Henceforth for me she does not exist." He pondered over the problem whether he should challenge Vronsky, but he soon decided against the idea of fighting a duel. No one would expect it of him, so his reputation would not be injured by abstaining from such a proceeding. At length he came to the conclusion that an open separation would not be expedient and that the status quo alone was advisable, on the condition that Anna should obey his will and break off her acquaintance with Vronsky.
"Only thus," thought Aleksei, "can I conform to the requirements of religion. I give her another chance, and consecrate my powers to her salvation." He wrote his wife a letter saying that for his own sake, for her sake, and the sake of her son, their lives must remain unchanged, the family must not be sacrificed, and as he was sure she felt penitent, he hoped at their next interview to come to a complete understanding.
Though, when she received this communication, Anna felt her anger rising, yet her heart told her that she was in a false position from which she longed to escape. A new sensation had taken possession of her soul, and she seemed to be a double kind of personality. At length, after long agitation she wrote to her husband, telling him that she could no longer remain in his house, but was going away, taking their boy Serosha with her. "Be generous; let me have him," were the last words in the letter. She wrote a little note to Vronsky, but her cheeks burned as she wrote, and presently she tore the note to tatters. Then she made her preparations for going to Moscow.
Anna returned to the home in St. Petersburg. Husband and wife met with a silent greeting, and the silence lasted some time. Then ensued an interview in which each side coldly accused the other, but which ended in Aleksei's demand that his wife should so comport herself that neither the world nor the servants could accuse her, on which condition she could enjoy the position and fulfil the duties of an honourable wife.
And so the Kareninas continued to live in the same house, to meet daily, and yet to remain strangers to each other. Vronsky was never seen near the place, yet Anna met him elsewhere and Aleksei knew it.
Meanwhile, a change was coming over the prospect for Kitty and Levin. He had never renounced the hope of possessing the beautiful girl, and at length she had come to understand his nobility of character and to feel that she could reciprocate his affection. During a conversation with her, he watched as she mechanically drew circles with chalk on the table-cloth.
"I have waited for a long time to ask you a question," said he, looking fondly at her.
"What is it?" said Kitty.
"This is it," said Levin, taking the chalk and writing the letters w, y, s, i, i, i, w, i, i, t, o, a? The letters were the initials of the words, "When you said 'It is impossible,' was it impossible then, or always?"
Kitty studied the letters long and attentively, and at length took the chalk and, blushing deeply, wrote the letters: t, I, c, n, a, d. Levin's face soon beamed with joy. He comprehended that the reply was: "Then I could not answer differently." Everything was settled. Kitty had acknowledged her love for him, and Levin at last was happy.
Aleksei sat alone in his room, pondering events, when he was startled by a telegram from his wife - "I am dying. I beg you to come; I shall die easier if I have your forgiveness." He read the words with momentary scorn, imagining that some scheme of deceit was being practised. But presently he reflected that it might be true, and, if so, it would be cruel and foolish to refuse to go, and besides, everybody would blame him.
He travelled all night and arrived, tired and dusty, in the morning at St. Petersburg. Reaching his house, he went into the drawing-room, and the nurse quickly led him into the bedroom, saying, "Thank God, you have come. She talks only of you."
"Bring ice at once," the doctor's voice was heard saying. Aleksei was startled to see in the boudoir, seated on a low chair, Vronsky, weeping with his hands over his face. And the latter was startled in turn as, disturbed by the doctor's words, he looked up and caught sight of the husband. He rose and seemed desiring to disappear, but with an evident effort said, "She is dying and the doctors say there is no hope. I am in your power, but allow me to stay and I will conform to your wishes."
Aleksei turned without replying and went to the door. Anna was talking clearly and gaily. Her cheeks were bright and her eyes gleamed. Rattling on incoherently, she suddenly recognised her husband, and looking terrified, raised her hands as if to avert a blow; but she said the next moment, "No, no, I am not afraid of him, I am afraid of dying. Aleksei, I have but a few moments to live. Soon the fever will return and I shall know nothing more, but now I understand everything. There is another being in me, who loved him and hated you, but now I am my real self. But no, you cannot forgive me. Go away, you are too good."
With one burning hand she pushed him away, with the other she held him. Aleksei's emotion became uncontrollable. His soul was filled with love and forgiveness. Kneeling by the bed, he sobbed like a child. The doctors said that there was not one chance in a hundred of her living.
Vronsky returned to his home in an agony of soul. He tried in vain to sleep. Visions of the faces of Aleksei and Anna rose before him. Suddenly his brain seemed to receive a shock. He rose, paced the room, went to the table, took from it a revolver, which he examined and loaded. Presently he held it to his breast and without flinching pulled the trigger. The blow knocked him down, but he had failed to kill himself The valet, who had heard the report, ran in, but was so frightened at the sight of his master lying on the floor wounded that he rushed out again for help. In an hour came Varia, Vronsky's sister-in-law, who sent for three doctors. They managed to put the wounded man to bed, and Varia stayed to nurse him.
Vronsky's wound, though the heart was not touched, was so dangerous that for several days his life was in the balance. But gradually the crisis passed, and as he recovered he felt calmed with the conviction that he had now effected redemption from his faults. He accepted without hesitation an appointment to a position in Tashkend. But the nearer the time came, the more irrepressible grew the desire to see Anna for a farewell. He sent her a message, and she waited for his coming. The visit was fatal. Anna had made up her mind what to say, but the presence of Vronsky instantly overcame her resolution, and when she could find words she said, "Yes, you have conquered me. I am yours."
A month later Aleksei was left alone with his son, and Anna went abroad with Vronsky.
The marriage of Levin and Kitty was a brilliant occasion. A difficulty for Levin before the marriage was the necessity of attending confession. Like the majority of his fellows in society, he cherished no decided views on religion. He did not believe, nor did he positively disbelieve. But there could be no wedding without a certificate of confession. To the priest he frankly acknowledged his doubts, that doubt was his chief sin, that he was nearly always in doubt. But the gentle and kindly priest exhorted him to cultivate the practice of prayer, and then pronounced the formula of absolution.
In presence of a great assembly the wedding took place. The same priest who had heard the confession ministered for the marriage. He handed to each of the couple a lighted candle decorated with flowers. The chanting of an invisible choir resounded richly through the church, and when the liturgy was finished, the solemn benediction was read over the bridal pair. It was a great event in the fashionable world of Moscow.
Anna and Vronsky had been travelling for three months in Europe. As for Anna, she had revelled in the exuberance of her freedom from a disagreeable past, the events of which seemed like some frightful nightmare. She appeased her conscience to some extent by saying to herself: "I have done my husband an irreparable injury, but I also suffer, and I shall suffer." The prediction was soon fulfilled. Vronsky soon began to feel dissatisfied. He grew weary of lack of occupation in foreign cities for sixteen hours a day. Life soon became intolerable in little Italian cities, and Anna, though astonished at this speedy disillusionment, agreed to return to Russia and to spend the summer on his estate. They travelled home, but neither of them was happy. Vronsky perceived that Anna was in a strange state of mind, evidently tormented by something which she made no attempt to explain. By degrees she, on her part, realized that Vronsky was willing to absent himself from her society on various excuses. Quarrels became frequent, and at length alienation was complete.
* * *
A tragedy happened on the railway. A woman went along the platform of the station and walked off on to the line. Like a madman a short time afterwards Vronsky rushed into the barracks where Anna's body had been carried. Her head was untouched, with its heavy braids of hair and light curls gathered about the temples. Her eyes were half closed and her lips were slightly opened as if she was about to speak, and to repeat the last words she had uttered to him: "You will repent."
The war with Turkey had broken out, and Vronsky, disgusted with his whole life, left for Servia.
● Copyright © 2014 Glyn Hughes.
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