In the immortal masterpiece Anna Karenina (1888) by Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), the central protagonist Anna Karenina forced herself to commit suicide at the end of an overwhelming adventure for love and romance. She was an educated, refined and polished girl coming of an aristocratic family and well appreciated by her social associates solely because of her high-grade personality molded on modern education and aesthetic refinement. She was married to Alexey Alexandrovitch Karenin, a high-ranking public official in St. Petersburg, with whom her conjugal life ran apparently on a smooth path though there was a gulf of distance between Anna and Karenin. It was all a mechanical bond based on social sanction devoid of the glow and essence of love. But the clouds of calamity started gathering as she fell in a passionate love with Count Alexey Vronsky, the dashing army officer who met Anna at a social party. From that clutch of love Anna failed to retrieve and restore herself to her proper social position and eventually committed suicide by throwing herself on a railway track. Hence the curious search as to what or who was responsible that forced Anna to kill herself.
The first and obvious factor that led Anna towards suicidal stage was the gross neglect cast upon her by her husband Alexey Karenin. Anna had a socially settled marriage: Karenin chose her through meticulous scrutiny; he opted for her because she hailed from an aristocratic family, she was properly educated, she was exquisitely beautiful, she had a high level cultural and aesthetic dignity that consummated her personality to a great height that was a good match for a person like Alexey Karenin but an improper one for Anna. For, Anna had a higher sophistication level than Mr. Karenin. As a matter of fact, it was a mismatch between the refined and the rough individuals. She was a superior personage for Mr. Karenin. He was nothing more than a mediocre individual having a footing on land property and a public office position but lacking some great virtues like aesthetic sensibilities and great human values and dignified perception. It was because of this gulf of difference between the taste and temperament of the couple that the marriage turned a failure leading to deeper crisis. It was the sheer failure of Mr. Karenin in providing the bliss of love, security and physical and moral care that turned Anna's life drab and dull and led her to fall in adulterous love of Count Vronsky. The ultimate result of the adulterous love brought about a deeper crisis as Vronsky also turned his face owing to some personal reasons that overruled his love for Anna.
The second responsible person was Count Vronsky, Anna's extramarital love. In the initial stage of the courtship Vronsky was too effusive who declared that he could not live without her. He took Anna to Italy on a "honeymoon" and impregnated her. Unknown to her, Anna blindly trusted and followed all the calls by Vronsky. But to her utter shock and surprise Vronsky betrayed as soon as he heard that Anna was carrying his child. Without paying the least importance to the matter, Vronsky engaged himself in his professional and official affairs as his one promotion was held up. Completely unconcerned he kept on attending social parties and enjoy life as usual. But in the meantime, Anna had been cast away by her husband Karenin: Anna was then in a precarious condition having no specific identity but deluded by both the sides. It was deeply a sad thing that the responsible persons like Karenin and Vronsky behaved so callously towards an innocent lady who only wanted the kisses of love in life. Being frustrated with Vronsky's apathetic attitude towards her, once Anna lamented to Vrosnky: ". . . these are what have been bought by my shame. . . Everything is over. . . I have nothing but you left. Remember that." But Vronsky really did not remember that Anna made a complete surrender after sacrificing all the precious possession that a woman can offer a man. Vronsky acted all a selfish course before and after winning Anna. His sense of justice was of so low grade that he failed to value Anna in entirety: her total personality founded on her education, moral level and aesthetic dimension.
Anna Karenina could not find her life filled with pleasure and happiness with her husband despite all the amenities to be had from the aristocrat husband's household. We know that Alexey Karenin was a drab person with some outward polish on his essential worldly spirit and personality. His austere nature was diametrically opposite Anna's bland and soothing temperament. Mr. Karenin hardly knew how to smile: he used to read poetry but without having any poetic taste and temperament; he used to read the history of the Roman Empire but without gaining any personal enlightenment. He was all a mundane individual engrossed in professional duties and mundane obligations and attending social parties thrown by his social associates. We never knew Karenin spinning a sweet kiss of love on Anna's lips. He was such a robotic individual that he never caressed or fondled his little son (only child by Anna) Koznyshev although he called him "the young man". But romantic, youthful and vigorous Anna jumped into the ocean of love as soon she got in contact with Vronsky. It was all a colorful flare Anna and Vronsky were able to create: they went to Europe for honeymoon to which Mr. Karenin did not protest. We know that Alexey Karenin, however did not consider granting divorce for Anna who desperately asked for it. If we look into the matter we see that it was Anna's unbounded and adulterous love with Vronsky that was the most apparent cause leading her to the catastrophic end. She could hardly be aware that the society in which she (or for that matter anyone else) lived had an inherent force and power that invisibly works and controls human affairs even at individual level. Anna's most basic weakness was her inability to read the nerve of the society. Many of her noble virtues went vain only because of her uncontrolled adultery with Vronsky: on her return from Europe Anna was hardly welcome by her society. Another major thing was her split with Vronsky, who did not agree to sacrifice his professional career for the sake of love for Anna Karenina. It was Vronsky's selfish gesture that motivated Anna towards her self-hatred and self-neglect. She realized that she had no shelter, no home in the world unless there was any security given by Vronsky, because her home with Mr. Karenin was already shattered: she refused to continue living under the same roof with her husband without having any formal divorce or any sanctified status approved by the society. Hypersensitive Anna considered that death was far better than the precarious and disgraceful living with Mr. Karenin under the same roof without moral legitimacy vindicated by the society. To her life meant a noble process a combination of both physical and spiritual needs glorified by social approval.
We also see that Mr. Karenin failed as a good husband, whose duty it was to provide love, care and all moral and physical protection to Anna, but he was just too liberal and callous husband whose husbandly bonds could not hold Anna into the home and life. We see that Mr. Karenin overtly lacked the intellectual sophistication and aesthetic sensibility without which one can hardly appreciate another person's intellectual moral and aesthetic level: Mr. Karenin failed to bridge up a cordial and loving bond sparked by the flare of love; to him Anna was just only a woman chosen for his personal pleasure and domestic services to act as an ordinary wife nursing the husband and slaving the domestic duties. His view of life therefore went into blatant conflict where the outlet was served by the arrival of Vronsky. One can hardly appreciate Mr. Karenin's liberal attitude when he agreed to grant divorce. But we cannot accept his old-fashioned and parochial notion that a wife is but a slavish person to be devoted to house-hold mundane obligation as though life was a process composed of food and clothes alone. Her indomitable spirit of individualism dominated by self-sought pleasure steered up the speed of ruinous phases for Anna. We see that Anna was clearly a divided entity: She was deplorably torn between Karenin and Vronsky. Anna could neither give up Mr. Karenin (perhaps because of her son Koznyshev) nor accept Count Vronsky. She had to toss between the two who ultimately betrayed her. In the deep layer of the ground therefore, we find that the essential failure of self-guidance and self-disciplining capacity caused Anna's catastrophe. Her vaulting aspiration for self-satisfaction should have been bridled by reason and logic that she failed to do. Anna was an unfortunate child of the male-dominated Russian society where such an act of betrayal was prevalent.
It is also to be noticed that the society acted as a concrete entity that posed as a potential agent in molding Anna's disastrous fate. The novel asserts that one cannot deny the commands of the social force though it operates invisibly. One has to follow the dictates of the society that maintains moral discipline. A violator has no scopes to entertain one's moral or emotional vagaries. Here Anna stood a glaring instance. She had to devise her suicide as she was discarded by her society; she realized that her passions were not approved by the society and having no shelter there she had to seek home in death. Here we conclude that social value-system as a whole worked as a potential force that paved the way to Anna's self-chosen verdict to death. The novelist's thesis, therefore, asserts that human being belongs to the society, which is an invisible authority where one must honor its codes and traditions despite limitless self-love done by indomitable passion.
The writer is a Professor of English at Daffodil International University, Dhaka