Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary Discuss Their Suicides

“Anna Karenina” is not quite letting me go.

Partly that’s because it was just that good. I went back to re-read Part 8; and generally I don’t re-read books until years later; but I had to drink in that last section of the novel again, and slowly.

Partly the book is hanging on because I’ve got lingering questions about it.

Why, for example, was divorce so verboten to Karenin, even before he became influenced by Lydia and that quack French mystic Landau? Yes he has religious scruples against it but that answer does not quite satisfy. If he saw the need, he could have done it, and the church allowed it.

And why did Anna not press for divorce more than she did? When she goes to Italy with Vronsky, around the middle of the book, Tolstoy says she drops the idea of divorce entirely. Of course she’ll return to it later, but by then it’s tragically too late; and Karenin becomes hopelessly confirmed in his resistance, by Lydia and Landau.

The other big question for me — and there are hundreds of questions in this book about every aspect of life, which is why I’ve been thumbing through every part of the book since finishing it — is why does Anna kill herself? Yes she says she wants to take revenge on Vronsky, but again this is an explanation that doesn’t quite satisfy. If we can say that she wasn’t seeing the world clearly or justly when she concluded that people are placed here in order to hate each other, then surely there’s no reason to accept that she was seeing herself with any better clarity or justice, in those final days and hours. She even seems to regret her act in her final moment, which shows that she wasn’t in complete possession of herself or fully understanding what she was doing.

It’s true that she was refused a divorce, which she badly needed. But she has not yet received Karenin’s final refusal by the time she arrives at the station. And by then she has repeated more than once that she no longer cares about getting the divorce — which is something we don’t need to believe literally, but it complicates the question of how much she was in the grip of despair, and of what she was despairing.

I found a short story months ago, by Pauline Melville, that I’ve been waiting all this time to read: “Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary Discuss Their Suicides.”  It’s actually a little brilliant.  My favorite line is when Emma Bovary looks into Anna Karenina’s face and sees “something strange and diabolical and enchanting.”  This is a callback to what Kitty had said after meeting Anna: “Yes, there’s something alien, demonic and enchanting in her.”

And it turns out that Anna Karenina has been reading “Pride and Prejudice,” but I won’t give any more away.

It’s darkly humorous, and nicely done.

[Edit to add: this short story is actually an early excerpt from the author’s upcoming book, The Master of Chaos, due to be published in July 2021.]

Below are just two links among the many discussions and stories about Anna K. that I’ve found in the last few weeks.

“How should we read Anna Karenina?”, from The Common Room, contains an interesting comparison between Tolstoy’s novels and Jane Austen’s. 

Michael Bunker’s video, “Reading Anna Karenina: Errors to Avoid,” is about reading AK in historical context.

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