Self-Destructive Love

JAN / FEB 2013: BY CHARITY BISHOP

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Love can be complicated. And no story more fully explores the different kinds of love than Leo Tolstoy’s tragedy, Anna Karenina. It covers maternal, unrequited, passionate, enduring, nurturing and dutiful love. Anna Karenina is a story about two “love” stories: the pure, innocent, forgiving love of Levin and Kitty, and the wild, forbidden, lustful love of Anna and Vronsky. In the course of repairing her brother’s marriage (damaged through his adultery), Anna begins an affair that forces her to choose between her loyal love for her husband, her maternal love for her children, and her passionate love for a man she cannot have.

Their love is ultimately self-destructive. Since it isn’t based on trust and is frowned on in society (where divorce and remarriage or even a “quieter” affair wouldn’t be). Anna grows increasingly insecure in the fear that her lover will leave her to marry another. Their adulterous love can’t prosper, as it is built on the unhappiness of others.

This is contrasted in the relationship of Kitty and Levin. He sees her as pure and knows he is unworthy of her love, yet still she offers it to him. In Kitty’s forgiveness of his past sins, and her willingness to choose compassion instead of condemnation when dealing with his brother’s immoral lifestyle, Levin finds faith in God and happiness. Their union brings them not only closer together but closer to God, while Anna and Vronksy’s union alienates them from society and causes both shame and guilt.

Finally, there is the love of Karenin, Anna’s husband. It is not passionate, but it endures even when tested. It revives after a period of hatred. It seeks to protect her from abandonment and offers her redemption, but it is her choice not to accept it. This platonic love “bores” Anna, but it is through it that Karenin also finds peace in faith. When Anna is convinced she will die, she summons her husband to her bedside and asks him not only to forgive her, but to reconcile with his enemy, Vronsky. Out of love for her, Karenin does this and is freed from his torment. Yet, his enduring love seems an impenetrable, cruel barrier to Anna… he will not divorce her (thus leaving her destitute, for as she is in the wrong, she will not be able to remarry) and so continues to protect her with his good name, reminding her daily of her sin.

Anna’s abandonment by her friends reveals their own limited ability to love, as well as their double standard: many of them are not faithful in their marriages, but her public affair causes them to turn away from her… all except for her sister-in-law, Dolly, who treats her with the same open forgiveness that Anna convinced her at the start to offer her husband. Thus, despite all the scandal and passion and torment, it is Kitty and Dolly who show the purest and most godly form of love, in loving where others will not, in having compassion for lost and hurting souls, and in forgiving where forgiveness isn’t deserved.

Anna Karenina has a happy ending for Levin and Kitty, but not for its heroine and her lover. In the end, it asks us to ponder whether or not love can prosper, grow, and enrich others lives when it begins with unfaithfulness. ■

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Charity Bishop would dearly love to spend all her free time mulling over, theorizing, and philosophizing on the vast spiritual / moral lessons of cinema and Victorian literature, but alas, she must make a living, so her days are spent doing editorial work. She devotes her free time to babysitting her bipolar cat, writing books, blogging, and searching for spiritual truth in all aspects of life… when she isn’t editing Femnista!

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