How can I say this? Probably because I never read it before. Tolstoy wasn't on my high school reading list. And I studied art in college. I've spent years reading for truth, when this book existed; luminous, transcendent, full of dirt and tragedy--like life itself. Tolstoy doesn't open with Anna, but her brother Stepan and it's brilliant he does so, because Stepan, Anna's brother has some similar proclivities. Stepan is a pleasure-loving family man, a sensualist easily moved by passing sentiments, and a philanderer. He's presented as attractive, a fun aristocrat with the usual indulgences of his class. In society he's liked for his easy-going personality and Stepan understands how to network and use connections. You almost agree with him that he's right to have a mistress or two, because pretty women are attracted to him and his wife has lost her looks, disposition, and has little of interest to say to a man of his cultured intelligence.
You may sympathize, until you meet Darya, his poor wife. The mother of six children, impoverished by her husband's lifestyle, burnt out from managing their household. She has little leisure to think of her looks and no desire to think about her husband's formal indifference. When she finds a letter from his mistress, her kids' governess,she has to pay attention, the pain is too acute. With little idea how to manage, she decides to leave her husband. Darya can't live with the incredible deceit. Yet Stepan wakes up on the couch, unsure how he got there and then, remembering, his concern is for his discomfort. The household in an uproar and he needs to restore his peace of mind.
The solution presents itself with the impending visit of his sister, Anna. When he informs her of his domestic trouble, she accepts the mission to broker a reconciliation. Though it's hard for her to part from her beloved son, Seroyzha, she wants to help Darya. While Stepan awaits her train, he meets his friend Veronsky, a handsome calvary officer. From Vronsky's first glance at Anna, he's smitten. Her dark curls framing an "exquisite" face with dark eyes and eyelashes, her graceful figure and movement, her small white hands, all dazzle Vronsky. A rake, habituated to barracks life, master of horses and pretty women, Vronsky loses his cool and becomes like an eager dog.
Kitty, Darya's 18 year old sister, thinks of Vronsky as her fiancee. She is under the intoxication of first love and assumes he would not monopolize her attentions the whole social season if marriage wasn't his object. Tolstoy, without judging, shows how Vronsky, who has never known family life, has no thought of marriage. On the night Kitty believes he will make her an offer, he's completely entranced by Anna. Though innocent Kitty is devastated, she accurately says there is something "uncanny" about Anna. Her dashed hopes lead her to collapse, when she realizes that previously she refused Levin's offer of marriage, a man who loves her. A friend of her deceased brother, Levin is a country gentleman, who farms his ancestral estate.
Vronsky pursues Anna with the all-consuming passion he puts into riding a race horse. He is fixed on her seduction with little thought of her situation--that she's married to a prominent politician and is devoted to her son. But Anna, a young woman married to a man 20 yrs her senior, is awakened erotically. Their relations make intolerable her perfunctory marriage. Alexy, her husband, is a cerebral man so fearful of emotion, the sight of tears makes him feel disturbed. His affected speech and patronizing manners become intolerable to Anna, though her disgust wars with her sense of shame.
With a sensuality like her brother's, yet Anna is not so superficial. She can't be a hypocrite about her feelings and is soon unable to preserve the outer forms of her marriage. Her basic honesty about who she is and wants, makes her an outcast, a "bad" woman. Leaving husband and son, she gains Vronsky but loses her world--even the right to see her son. She is tortured that she cannot live with the two people she loves, lover and son. When she opts to live with her lover, she cares little for her arrogant husband's humiliation. But when she almost dies in the birth of Vronsky's daughter, she is tortured with her treatment of him and wants forgiveness. Alexy experiences a state of grace. He can forgive her, accepts the baby, and they are briefly reconciled. But through the meddling of a hypocritical society woman, Anna does see Vronsky before he's to leave for a career promotion.
Rather than goodbye, the lovers reconcile. They flee to Europe, but Vronsky must give up his career, and Anna all hope of a legitimate place in society. Though they enjoy all the luxury and freedom of expats, the couple is soon dissatisfied with a life without meaning or focus. Love is not enough.
Meanwhile Tolstoy contrasts this story with Levin's life, working the land, respecting the peasant's knowledge of nature, and his own sweat at managing his land and wresting a living. A man of natural science, Levin also writes an agricultural study of the worker's relation to the land. His work is full of original ideas not quite ordered, just as Levin's personality is of great and changing feeling. Moods of happiness alternate with tempests of darker emotion, until he finally is able to marry his beloved Kitty. Then his life of solitary contemplation becomes a full and happy house. Kitty's family, Darya, her children, are all his responsibility to take care of. This weighs on him, when he experiences not joy but pity at the sight of his newborn son. Levin ponders the meaning of his routine life. A nonbeliever, he pursues theologies, philosophy, and finds no answers. Though he's a happy family man, he feels a bit desperate and even suicidal.
One day, he lies on the ground looking up to observe the globe of the sky. He has an unexpected "peak moment," an accountable joy and sense of the meaning in all around him. The moment passes, then, after a cloudburst, when he thought his family was dead but finds them intact, he understand his previous experience. It is a positive intimation of immortality, an intuitive sense of underlying reality. He thinks of this as a cosmic "good" he can evoke at any time. It changes his life and is the end of the book.
Levin's revelation is the opposite pole to Anna's fate. Outside of society, without a purpose beyond her love, and to serve as the loveobject of Veronsky. When he comes into his estate, he makes it as materially perfect as possible.
Anna's life is rich but artificial, haunted by the loss of her son and society. She and Vronsky long for the deliverance of a divorce. When she learns her husband won't grant one, Anna loses hope. She becomes obsessed with fear that she will lose all she has left--Veronsky's love. Since they can't marry, she decides he will leave her and she will have nothing, not even herself. With opium, she becomes further detached from reality. Death become her only way out of a life of fear and despair. When Anna lies down in front of a train, her last thought is of a nightmare vision of an evil peasant pressing on her.
Anna's "larger than life" love could not substitute for a world, where all doors had shut against her. In Tolstoy's vision, what dooms her is her lack of connection to nature--her affection for her son--and being solitary with the emotionally contained Vronsky. Beauty, glamour, sensitivity and intelligence could not save her. Her honesty means awareness of shame at her notoriety. She's tortured, divided from her own idea of herself. At that time, she briefly meets Levin. He is enthralled by what an amazing woman she is, her intelligence, and beauty. Though she knows she could make him fall in love with her, it's no satisfaction. Anna is wretched and goes mad in her life with Veronsky. Meanwhile, Levin and Kitty are nurtured by each other, and their closeness to the land. At the end, Veronsky with a toothache in his formerly perfect teeth, is going off to a war to die--his spirit destroyed by Anna's suicide.
Though Tolstoy was a Christian, he obviously had mystical beliefs about nature and man. To my mind there's also a kind of social Darwinism at work in this novel. In Levin's shining self-redemption is echoes of Dreiser's far less aware creature of nature, Sister Carrie, or even Scarlett O'Hara with that ball of dirt in her hand.