Many actresses have had the chance over the years to depict the tragic figure of Anna Karenina. Unfortunately, when comparing adaptations Vivien Leigh is almost universally overshadowed by Greta Garbo. I’m not entirely certain why, either, as having compared the two, I feel much more empathy toward Vivien than Greta, as her performance seems more raw and vulnerable. I actually felt tremendous sadness for her in the end, which is more than I can say for other depictions.
Tolstoy’s story is centered around a young woman who chooses to pursue a relationship outside her marriage, and the consequences of this both in society and her own life. It is a complex study of morality and religion, as well as an open condemnation of the sexism of Russian society in which an unfaithful man is welcomed in society but an unfaithful woman is scorned. I have seen three adaptations now of a novel I am continuing to read (sadly, my copy became due at the library and had to go back, but I was so intrigued that I have since obtained my own paperback edition) and all of them have their unique qualities, but this seems to be the lesser-respected adaptation than the Garbo film, and I am sorry for it. Not only is it closer to the source material, it also features more moving performances and a better script, in addition to gorgeous costumes.
One might be tempted to dismiss the story as being about one woman, but in reality it has a wider scope than that. True, Anna is the central focus and protagonist who must contend with her rising guilt and paranoia, but it is also about the men in her life and one might even say, essentially at is core it is about a female need for security. Modern morality or lack thereof emphasize female independence and highlight the “value” of multiple partners. It is easy for young women to buy into the belief that faithfulness from a man is not needed for happiness, or even that “bed-hopping” will fulfill their needs. At times it seems we have lost the truth about our own sensuality and chosen instead to act masculine. Is not feminism keeping the definition of feminine while obtaining equal respect and rights? Society is encouraging us to act like men — is that not counter-productive? It attempts to convince us that what turns men on, turns us on too.
On a short-lived criminal drama a few years ago, a woman was aggressively pursuing her young male attorney. He endured it for the sake of professionalism but toward the end of the episode stood up and informed her that just because she had become equal to men did not give her the right to act “like the worst of them.” In some sense, she was denying her feminine nature, which is nothing to be ashamed of. We are given gender roles for a reason. Being more mild-mannered, less aggressive, and gentler than the men in our lives does not diminish our equality in any way; in fact, it reinforces it, for we are different, not inferior. There are things that women need, whether they admit to it or not. One of the deepest desires of our heart is to be loved and kept safe.
Anna Karenina was in a loveless marriage because her husband was distracted by his political career. Rather than attempt to gain his affection or strengthen their relationship, she chose instead to be wooed by Count Vronsky. In some respects, I think their love was genuine even if it was inappropriate or misplaced. But like every relationship that stems from distrust (if she cannot be honest with her husband, how can she be honest with Vronsky? and if he would be involved with her as a married woman, what makes her think he will be faithful to her later?), it began to crumble as it grew older. Anna became increasingly more concerned, afraid she would lose his love because there was no “security” in their relationship. No marriage. Even when her affections for her older husband waned, she was still confident of remaining secure, knowing he would never leave her. But with Vronsky, she has no such security because it is an open relationship — he is free to leave whenever he chooses.
I am not a big fan of “open” relationships. I think if you intend to invest so much in someone — emotionally, spiritually, and physically — there should be an understanding and agreement between you that this is going to last. I’m not moving on whenever I get bored, and neither are you. Some young women hang on to a relationship by getting pregnant. Others wonder why their boyfriend has never popped the question. Well, if you are intimate with him and living with him anyway, what has he to gain from proposing? Nothing would change apart from your last name — not your mindset or your habits. And if you put up with an “open relationship” before the wedding, what makes you think there won’t be an “open relationship” after the wedding? Most marriages fail because the participants fall “out of love.” They get bored. It’s not as fun when there are bills to pay and mouths to feed and you figure out just how annoying his friends actually are.
Strong women exist in every walk of life. I admire all of them and hope that I am on my way to being one. I am fine on my own but I admit that like most of the other women I know, security and love is something I desire. Anna gave hers up for love, and then could not obtain security when she wanted it most. Her husband said no, I won’t divorce you. Not out of meanness, but to preserve his reputation and hers and because he wasn’t sure what would happen to her if and when Vronsky found another woman to toy with. It is, interestingly enough, this paranoia — not of her husband’s making, but her own — that leads to Anna’s unfortunate fate. Love is never jealous but this relationship progressed into jealousy and uncertainty. Anna could not trust him. She could not trust him not to abandon her. She thought the worst of him. Her guilt and shame caught up with her and sent her into a tailspin.
It was unnecessary, what happened, the consequence of a series of unfortunate choices that undermined her sanity. It is not a happy story but a melancholy one. Nevertheless, it serves to remind us that when our conscience tingles, we should listen to it, and admit that in a relationship, we need to feel secure. If it is serious, it needs to be serious — it needs to be permanent. That kind of a relationship can only be found within a devoted marriage, not a summer fling.