Photo courtesy of Focus Features

Love. A four-letter word that stands for so much, but most of us are not sure what exactly for. What does love truly mean? And what does it look like? As someone who has had cups of water in her bedroom longer than has been in relationships, I am probably the wrong person to ask. So, where does one turn to find out the clues to such a confusing concept? Leo Tolstoy’s 1877 novel, Anna Karenina, of course. In this 800-page story, Tolstoy submerges into rich subjects of Imperial Russian life, family, religion, and of course, romantic love. Tolstoy sheds light on some of the most common misconceptions about love through the extramarital affairs of Anna and Vronsky and the relationship between Levin and Kitty. Here are the biggest lessons that we can learn from Anna Karenina:

Passion is overrated

Readers are introduced to two esteemed individuals: Vronsky, a dashing young military officer, and Anna, a married, well-off, and well-liked socialite. Their statuses almost give an element of glamour, which makes their fling even more exciting. Anna and Vronsky’s relationship is fiery, hot, and unrestrained- and while passion is necessary for any relationship, it also became the downfall of their success.

Anna and Vronsky’s physical and sexual attraction inevitably consumes them, driving their feelings and rendering them incapable of trying to like each other for more than face value. Neither of them knew much about the other before diving into a relationship they knew would cause up a stir. Because Anna and Vronsky only liked the idea of being with each other, they confused love for infatuation.

In contrast, Kitty and Levin’s relationship had started the opposite. For Levin, it was an exceptionally long and insufferable process. As a socially awkward and isolated man who was already refused once by Kitty, he was afraid of being rejected again. Kitty, who had suffered a broken heart from Vronsky’s betrayal, had to take time away to recover and eventually realized she had lost a good man. Both Levin and Kitty had heavy hearts that needed to be protected, and time was the only thing that let them heal and realize their own shortcomings. Real love is not a raging fire that eventually burns out, but rather like Kitty and Levin, a soft, glowing ember.

Values over similarities

Most people would agree that successful relationships are based on having similar backgrounds, age, and interests. Kitty and Vronsky would have made a good match in age. However, their values did not align. Vronsky was the 19th-century version of a player- he liked Kitty’s attention but did not want to settle down himself. No amount of similarities could not make up for their different expectations.

The truth that values are much more important becomes more evident in the dynamic of Anna and Vronsky. Both characters had to give up a lot for them to be together. Anna had abandoned her husband to be with another man, resulting in her burning bridges and being forced to hide from society. Anna had lost all the things she had- her son, her integrity, and her financial security, while Vronsky, who was highly ambitious in his career, had to give it all up to take care of Anna.

Sacrificing needs and wants is essential for a relationship to work- but when you have to compromise your own values, it is important to ask yourself- are the highs worth the lows?

Anna and Vronsky wound up ruining each other’s life by ignoring the truth that they would lose the things that were important to them. Both had formed a relationship born out of superficial attraction, and as a result, one that had to be kept out of necessity for survival rather than love.

Sometimes your worst enemy is yourself

Near the end of the novel, Anna concluded that ridding herself from the Earth was the proper possible way to handle her unfavourable situation. This is also suggested in the novel’s epigraph: “Vengeance is mine, I will repay.”

After Anna had left her husband to start a new life with Vronsky, there were still problems perpetuated by Anna’s cynical attitude. Whenever Vronsky would try to approach Anna and talk, she would try to push him away. Anna would then feel reproachful of his isolation, even though she was the one who ordered it in the first place. This poor communication leads to her insanity, jealousy, and blame for Vronsky’s infidelity- even when it was an outcome completely synthesized in her head.

Kitty and Levin’s relationship was never completely devoid of problems, even after they had married. Both experienced pain and jealousy, but the reason why they worked is because each valued honest communication and trust. They chose to understand rather than blame, to talk rather than hide. Anna disallowed herself to think that it was anything but her truth- but perhaps if she had simply talked out her concerns with Vronsky, could future misery have been avoided.

Final Thoughts

Once I had finished this novel, I was tempted to conclude that Anna was not a good person- but it was a statement which I could not entirely agree with. Is it fair to rule Anna as an intrinsically bad person?

Before meeting Vronsky, Anna was kind, graceful, and had a quality that naturally attracted everyone. Anna was also compassionate towards others, as she came to aid her brother and sister in law during their own marriage crisis and was fiercely protective of her son.

Readers should acknowledge the historical disposition of her time where women were given no real power over their lives, due to the insurmountable pressure to get married young and the taboo of divorce. Society plays a huge role in the outcome of events. It isn’t fair to label someone as a bad person when there is so much of the world pitted against them.

Despite Anna Karenina being written a hundred and forty-three years ago, Tolstoy provides invaluable lessons about relationships for the youth of today. Tolstoy’s approach to love isn’t exactly synonymous with rainbows and sunshine but rather with torture and curses- but in this darkness does he reveals the truth: not everything about love is agreeable and predictable. Most of the time, love takes the shape of fear and uncertainty- but when you find confidence and honesty, both in a partner and in yourself, will you be able to experience true love.