Watching Anna Karenina (the 2000 miniseries) is always a mistake. I get caught up in over-thinking Anna’s husband and ponder nothing else for days. I could run in all directions with it, but I’ll cut you a break and choose one.
Nothing kills godliness more than religion. One is a transforming heart experience that brings love; the other, a distant set of moral rules that often leads to fear, shunning, shame, and pride. One only need compare Christ’s treatment of sinners to the Victorian attitude toward sin to see how distant a “religious” society is from godliness.
Karenin endures the humiliation and grief of his wife’s infidelity, only to reach a point where he wants to inflict punishment on her by subjecting her to a public divorce. When begged to reconsider, he retaliates with, “I do not want to forgive her. I hate her.” Fearing she is about to die of childbirth fever, Anna pleads for his forgiveness and reconciliation – and he gives it. That changes everything in an instant. His transformation is so radical that it shames her lover into attempting suicide. He cannot live with himself knowing how much he has wronged Karenin, who was noble enough to shake his hand. Anna, similarly, hates Karenin even more after surviving the fever, because he continues to love her. Both ignore their guilt and run off together, refusing his polite offer of a quiet divorce so they can marry one another. (Anna fears if she agrees, she will never see her son again.) They reject the Selfless Love that could have (literally) saved their relationship.
Social isolation and public shunning eventually wear on Anna enough to want the divorce after all, but it’s too late. Karenin has had another change of heart, this time through converting to religion through the influence of a family friend. She informs his son that Anna is “dead.” She urges Karenin to have nothing to do with his wife. She convinces him divorce is a sin, and that he is a saint. His refusal, and later, eventual distancing of emotion from Anna’s plight under the mantra of “doing what is right,” contributes to her psychological downward spiral.
Karenin found God and lost Him again, because he became Religious, which eradicated Divine Love. Karenin’s emotional journey, climaxing in the scene where he miraculously forgives Anna out of pity, led him to Love—not merely for Anna, but Vronsky too. It was something he could not have managed on his own; it was an encounter with the Divine. Most mortals are simply not capable of that degree of unconditional love, but from that moment on, he felt no animosity for either of them. The Self-Loving Pride driving him onward throughout the first half of the story surrendered to Love.
Then Pride ensnared him again, this time of a different sort. The Countess introduced him to “religion” devoid of love; her notions of “goodness” soon replaced genuine love, exchanging selflessness for a sense of moral superiority. Karenin’s choices from then on sounded right, by moral standards, but contributed to his Pride. He argued that he could not divorce Anna, because she would need the protection of his name when abandoned by her lover; it would be morally wrong to divorce her. This makes him out as the “sacrificial, long-suffering, devoted, devout husband, protecting his wife.” The Church forbade divorce; in being “holy,” Karenin kept her in sin. Had he not been so worried about “doing the right thing,” his divorce would have let them marry and legitimize their child. Anna would never have gone insane out of paranoia and guilt, and killed herself. Where formerly he was willing to think the best of Vronsky, and believe they would marry, later his attitude was that inevitably, the man will leave her – because that is what immoral men do. I, however, being of stronger moral stuff than that, will not abandon her even if she begs me to.
This plight has befallen many over the centuries – Christ’s message of “love one another,” lost beneath centuries of Rules, coached in terms of Moral Superiority. Pride loves nothing more than to be part of a select “chosen” group who does not “sin” as the masses do; and there, loving hearts go to die. This reflects in the Victorian society in which Anna dwells; an immoral, prideful, scornful society who rejects her as a “fallen woman,” but only for making her sins public. Those governing “moral laws” led to terrible actions done in Christ’s name. Morals thus became God, instead of Unconditional Love.
I cannot know if these parallels are conscious on Tolstoy’s part, but what I find truly sad is how his later life reflected Karenin. He set out to self-insert through the side character of Levin, but his later life went the way of religious fanaticism. Tolstoy “found God,” purged himself of his past sins (much like Levin, through confession to his virginal, horrified wife), and then… encountered religion. His newfound desire to be “selfless” gave his wife no end of misery. The “love” he held for the Russian people ended with her, destroying their marriage in its final weeks and causing her no end of pain.
Religion, despite its many rules, is easy, because it leads us to Moral Superiority. True godliness is not something we can manage on our own, because it is hard. Putting to death Self every day only happens with Divine Love on our side.