Clocking in at 864 pages, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is difficult to summarize in a 750-word article. That said, in short, Tolstoy’s very long novel—considered the best of all time by many—tells the stories of two romantic relationships. There’s Anna and Vronksy’s, which is rooted in deceit and ultimately implodes, and there’s Kitty and Levin’s, which struggles at the start but flourishes into a beautiful and fruitful marriage. And on the face of it, the novel's two leading ladies, Anna and Kitty, couldn't appear more different.
The famously beautiful Anna is a confident, shrewd, passionate woman; often generous and thoughtful, but manipulative and spiteful when it suits her. She wields her beauty and charm skillfully—and enjoys it. Kitty seems to be more demure and innocent, blindsided and upset by the duplicity and depravity rampant in high society. It’s tempting to characterize Kitty as sweetness and light and Anna as, well, anything but.
But Anna and Kitty share several common traits. And I believe it is in their similarities that one of the novel’s most profound messages is to be found: heroines are not born, they are made; virtues are not innate, they are hard-won through perseverance and with grit.
Jealousy, one could argue, is at the root of Anna’s downfall. What begins with a few momentary spells of envy grows into an obsessive distrust. By the end, without “an object for her jealousy,” Anna is “on the lookout for it,” and “at the slightest hint she transferred her jealousy from one object to another.” Thus, it is with a jealous and vengeful heart that she meets her demise. But the truth is that jealousy is as much a problem for Kitty (and Levin, for that matter) as it is for Anna. As newlyweds, Kitty and Levin's jealous fits are almost comically paltry and unnecessary. For example, their first fight as a married couple arises when Levin returns home and is met with “a stream of reproach, of senseless jealousy” for nothing more than having been “away half an hour too long.”
Another of Anna’s most distinct and intriguing characteristics is that—unlike many other beautiful women in literature—she is keenly aware of her beauty and its effect on both men and women. Almost immediately, with no concrete evidence and despite the fact that she is married, Anna can sense Vronsky’s attraction to her. And it’s not just Vronsky. When she meets the artist Mihailov, Anna is “aware from his eyes that he liked looking at her.” Likewise, she can see that her sister-in-law Dolly thinks she’s “grown handsomer,” simply because her “eyes were telling her so.” She goes out of her way to impress Levin when she meets him and can tell when she succeeds.
Kitty never weaponizes her beauty like Anna does (or at least, very nearly does), but she is certainly aware of it, and even takes a certain pleasure in observing its effect. After she dresses to attend a ball, we’re told that Kitty’s “eyes sparkled, and her rosy lips could not keep from smiling from the consciousness of her own attractiveness.” Much later, when a young male bachelor shows her undue attention, Kitty is unable to hide “the superficial pleasure afforded her by the young man's very obvious admiration.”
These similarities may seem somewhat trivial, but I don’t think they are. While reading novels about great women, I often find myself reflecting on what it is that sets them apart from everyone else in the story. Frequently, it is not so much a commitment to doing right that guides them as it is a seemingly innate virtue that makes wrongdoing unappealing. These heroines effortlessly avoid things like idle gossip and pettiness simply because they do not have the weaknesses that make such behavior tempting in the first place. They do not fall into the trap of vanity or self-absorption because they are either naturally detached from their beauty or, more often, totally unaware of it and its effect on others. They are independent, self-confident women who, as they ought to be, are repulsed by evil.
What makes all the difference
But what about those of us who are not the beacons of virtue and self-confidence that we’d like to be? Who avoid idle gossip and pettiness (when we do avoid it) only by actively resisting the temptation? Who struggle to detach from our looks and what others think of us? Can we be the heroines of our own stories?
This is what makes the moral message of Anna Karenina so special. Kitty thrives, not out of innate goodness that makes her immune to the temptations of things like jealousy and vanity, but out of sheer force of will and a desire not to succumb to her passions. Anna destroys herself not simply because she is jealous or vain, but because she allows these and other passions to control her. In other words, it is not a tragic flaw that is Anna’s undoing, but a tragic mistake. This culminates in a beautiful message about what it means to be a virtuous woman: it’s not the lack of temptation that is important, but the desire and willingness to resist it.