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What I call a good book is one that when you read it again later, you find things in it you didn't see the first time.
And so I'm re-reading my ancient copy of Anna Karenina in Russian and suddenly got hit in the face by what I think is the real core of the tragedy.
Aleksey Aleksandrovich Karenin was raised properly but without emotion and without the wanderyahr or social season that many of his contemporaries got. He had to plunge directly into work. As a result, he had no education at all in how to behave in women's society and he had no concept of emotional relationships. So after spending some time with Anna Arkadievna Oblonskaya in social situations, he wasn't in love with her and didn't know the meaning of love, but he got maneuvered into marrying her by her aunt without being able to laugh off the claim that he had compromised Anna.
The irony is that when Vronskij did compromise her, Aleksey finds all kinds of reasons not to let her go. First it's because she's his wife and even though she breaks her promise to observe the proprieties, he refuses to consider divorce. Then after Vronskij and Anna go the whole way, after she gives birth to an illegitimate child, after Karenin offers to let Anna continue living in his home and even takes a liking to the baby, after she leaves, after she lives with Vronskij for years, Karenin lets the weeny clairvoyant Landau/Bezzubov tell him to refuse a divorce.
This book at least in part is about three men who think the whole world revolves around them: Karenin the government official; Vronskij the wealthy playboy; and Oblonskij the dissipated wastrel. The women caught in their toils all suffer, even Countess Lidiya Ivanovna who takes physical, mental and moral possession of Karenin, who will never love her no matter how often he takes her advice.
Although the theme of female emancipation is touched on in the novel, it is Kitty Levin who speaks for Tolstoy in rejecting the concept. Konstantin Levin is essentially Tolstoy himself, and Kitty is to some extent Tolstoy's wife, Sofiya, nee Behrs, who wrote in her journals how much she hated Tolstoy's punishment of unfaithful wives in his literature, including the Kreutzer Sonata. She felt it hypocritical given his physical appetites after marriage as well as before, appetites he failed to arouse in her. But the good wife forgives the man's past since he is faithful to her in the present, and the man has a right to all the wife's attentions.
Even the children have no claim on her, as is clear from Kreutzer Sonata. Because of his own jealousy, Tolstoy made Sofiya end her childhood friendship with a very musical man who was a friend of her family, because it took her attention away from him. Then later in his life he abandoned his family, forcing all the financial responsibilities onto Sofiya, and finally actually leaving home, to die at "the last station."
But at least Anna has a name, unlike the wife in Kreutzer Sonata. It's just that none of the men in her life expect her to actually have a life. Karenin can't love her but expects her to be a pattern of wives in high society -- where she meets a number of women who have affairs but at least don't break up the family. Oblonskij sends her to his wife to heal the wounds caused by her _discovery_ of his infidelity -- not by the infidelity, but because Dolly, the pattern wife, never conceived of her husband having an affair or even kissing anybody else. Vronskij says he loves her but he can't understand her love for her son and disses her affection for his horse trainer's family after the father drinks himself into the DTs.
It's all wrapped up in the tragedy of society's expectation that if you have a nice house and clothes and go to parties and do what everybody lays down as the rules, you've achieved the summit of how people should live, regardless of the signs that something is broken. Nobody in Anna's life pays attention to her continuing use of morphine, which I think has to be at the bottom of her increasingly erratic behavior and ultimately her suicide.
Yes, they're all sorry when it's too late, as Anna says to herself at one point. And not one of them is capable of doing anything to avert the tragedy, I think because they believe that in their social circle, _and because Anna is part of their lives_, nothing like that would ever happen to disturb them.
And isn't that what we hear in the news every day? "She was such a nice person!" "We lived next door for years..." Because the person in the news was part of our lives, it's impossible they could be living their own life, and that it could turn out so tragically.
That's what a great novel does. If you pay attention, you'll hear echoes of it in the news involving people who never heard of the book or even the author. That's reality in writing.