Alexei Karenin: Divine Love Vs. Religion


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.

Gifs found here and here.

23 thoughts on “Alexei Karenin: Divine Love Vs. Religion

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  1. Poor Karenin, and poor Anna. You have to wonder what would have happened if he had given her the divorce. Marriage, legitimacy, perhaps a return to social station, fulfillment of a sort, and potential sincere repentance in the years to come. I almost wish the story could have ended with her near death at the birth of the baby. It is Karenin’s finest hour. He really is a solid warning to followers of Christ: do not be arrogant in your faith, do not be prideful in false superiority over others, acknowledge your own sins and love others in spite of their failings just as God loves you. I suppose the countess meant well, but so much damage was done through her manipulations of Karenin. I wish she’d never come into his life.

    Brilliant post, btw, lots of great food for thought.

    (Was WordPress down the last few days? I couldn’t get your blog to load since . . . last Thursday. I think.)

    1. Anna found torment, because his refusal kept her aware of her sin. Remarried, she could forget it. There would be no true repentance, I think, because it is “all right” now. Anna did not care about right or wrong in that moment; she cared what society said about her. She wanted back IN society. Like her husband, society, not morality, governed her actions. Remember, he was willing to condone her adultery as long as she kept it quiet. “I will look the other way,” in essence, “as long as society thinks you are my wife.”

      They are… caught by society, lost in a charade, the same one governing the society whose approval they crave. That society cares not about morals, so long as the act is discreet.

      I agree with you, that the story would be better if it ended with her death after the birth of the child. It is the moment of redemption for all of them. Anna truly feels remorse. Alexei truly forgives her and Vronsky. Vronsky truly feels ashamed for his selfish behavior. Then, she lives. For a time, Alexei is faithful — and loving. He intends to give her what she wants. She hates him for being so forgiving. Instead of embracing that forgiveness, she rebels against it.

      It is rather like going to God for forgiveness, then hating him for giving it to you. You have no INTENTION of ceasing your sin, so that He forgives you chafes at you. That’s crucial — once the fever broke, Anna had no intention of abstaining from her sin. Her desire for forgiveness was false.

      The Countess… makes me sigh. She brought Religion in to kill true faith. It reminds me of an anecdote my father tells after he was a new Christian, so excited about God. He expressed delight over an idea — and an older believer shot it down. “That’s stupid. That’s not how it works.” The balloon popped. The smile vanished. The joy faded.

      We must be so, so careful, not to stamp out love, hope, and faith, with careless condemnation, with piety, with the pretense of holiness. It only takes one stomp to kill a flower.

      (It may have been.)

      1. Christians are really good at popping one another’s spiritual balloons. I’m guilty of it myself sometimes, as you’re well aware and that usually means when I’m tempted to shoot someone down, it’s better to just not say anything. Your poor father. I expect that’s happened in Christendom far more than we ever realize or would be willing to take credit for.

        See, I can’t get Anna. If I’ve been forgiven, truly forgiven, then why in the world would I keep on in the same way, only this time I’m resenting the forgiveness extended to me! I don’t understand her at all. I’m grateful that the Lord picks me up when I fall, that He’s already forgiven me when I mess up. Because I do and will mess up, but I am comforted in His forgiveness, in knowing that I can never mess up so badly that He’ll say, “Nope, not this time. You’ve struggled with this sin once too often and I’ve had it, you’re on your own.” He doesn’t do that.

        My Mom knew a gal whose family escaped from Vietnam during the war, into Canada. This gal was just a little girl at the time, but she remembers them going to church, seeking for something, and thinking they might have found it. A Christian said something. No more church. No more seeking. Another thing that happens far more often than we like think about.

        1. People get crushed easily. I need to remember that more. 😦

          That you repent rather than resist shows a malleable heart toward God, which Anna lacks. Submission is foreign to her. She knows what (she thinks) she wants. She has felt true passion. To repent, she must walk away from that happiness, that freedom, that excitement, that love, that lust.

          We all do this, only in different ways. The Lord says, “I’d like you to give up this.” “No,” we cry, holding it close; “I cannot imagine life without it! I WANT IT.”

          It can be anything. As simple as a movie or as complex as a dream. We all fight. We all resist. We all cling to what we want. Sometimes, like Anna, we feel remorse and repent on a superficial level — but repentance is only true if it sticks, and if we literally change. The man who hits his wife, cries, apologizes, promises to do better, then hits her again is not truly repentant. The man who hits his wife, feels true remorse, cries, promises to do better, and never hits her again — in fact, he not only doesn’t hit her, but cares for her with gentle devotion — is repentant.

          In a way, this story is sad because everyone comes to the verge of repentance, only to slide back into sin — it’s just that Anna’s sins are tangible, and Alexei’s are abstract. Her sin is adultery, his is pride. He nearly gave it up — and then didn’t. Brilliant, but sad.

          1. In many ways it’s those hidden sins that can do the most damage. I don’t mean, like we’re keeping secret sins, but sins we may not even be aware of, things like pride. You can’t see it, but it’s there and it manifests itself in ways that we think we can justify, just like Karenin. He was such a gentle, compassionate man and pride ruined him. I’d never seen such a kind man turn so cold so fast. He literally stopped caring and because of his lack of compassion, everything steamrolled from there.

          2. (I don’t know if you know this, but if you are logged into wordpress, there’s a little ‘comment bubble’ on the right hand top side that lets you continue commenting in a single thread even when the ‘reply’ button disappears.)

            We watched a sermon the other day about the Prodigal Son, which reminded me of Alexei. The position presented was that both sons were equal in their sin — one wore his sin on the outside (rejection of his father, taking his inheritance before his death, which was very dishonorable in that culture, squandering it) and the other wore his sin on the inside (refusing to honor his father, in attending the feast, but more importantly — as the single remaining heir, not going out and BRINGING HIS BROTHER HOME, as was his duty in Judean culture — the context is lost on modern audiences). The end of the sermon asked, which kind of sinner are you?

            The one who wears their sin openly, through things like lust, greed, deceit, gluttony, etc?

            Or the one who wears their sin inside, through things such as pride, moral superiority, unkindness of heart, and secret sins?

            Christians have been very, very good for a long, long time at despising superficial sins (immorality) and doing nothing about what C.S. Lewis would call the DEEPER sins — not of the flesh, but the mind.

            It’s like in “The Great Divorce,” when he implies that Lust can be given up easier than something like Arrogance. One is something you DO, the other is what you ARE. Actions are far easier to correct than thought patterns. 😛

            I understand Alexei very well. He was a dutiful man, content with his life. I do think he loved Anna. He “tolerated” up to a point, until she crossed the line — letting her lover into the house, when he expressly forbid it. His pride did not want others to know of his disgrace — thus his fierce denial to the Countess early on (“My wife is above reproach,” when he knows damn well she isn’t). Feeling that it was public knowledge anyway, he thought — why not drag her through the mud with a public divorce? She deserves it. I’ll take our son while I’m at it. She’s immoral, she deserves punished. (He’s a bit like Javert, actually — you’re bad, you should SUFFER. :P)

            The only time he has no pride is at her bedside. That breaks him. His anger at being mistreated, his name maligned, etc., fades away. He feels sorry for her. He forgives her.

            I should also mention something the miniseries doesn’t cover but that the book explores — her affair ruins him. He was on the fast track to success, the most notable young politician in Russia. Social disgust over Anna’s behavior destroyed his career. He never rose higher, doors shut to him, and he knew that he would never get another promotion or chance to excel beyond his current position. He is not just angry about her infidelity — she RUINED HIS LIFE.

            (Sorry, another long response. As you can see, I’m delighted to talk about these things… for hours!)

          3. It is entertaining to see how long these discussions of ours are going right now! I must be intellectually starved at the moment and this is helping.

            Lewis is right. Those deeper sins are the ones that define who and what we are, how we treat others, how we view ourselves and the world around us. I know some of my inner sins, but not all of them, or I do know them, but don’t want to look at them too deeply because I’m ashamed to admit I might think that way or behave that way. The development of our character is something that takes years, and I imagine deconstructing an already formed character that needs work might take even longer. There’s a scary thought.

            I suspected that Anna was Karenin’s ruination. It only made sense that the horror of his home life would have affected his political career. So I’m not surprised. Saddened, but that’s the accuracy of real life. Why would he have advanced farther if he couldn’t even maintain a happy home life? Which is ridiculous considering the actions of his wife were actions most of the people of Russia were also doing on the sly. They were just entirely too clever to get caught. I cannot stand those double standards! Do what you want, just don’t get caught, because if you do we will burn you! ARGH!

          4. Intellectual starvation is a common illness.

            I think God shows us our inner sins in time — when we are ready to work through them, with Him. Something like latent, unconscious bigotry toward others (unbelievers, opposing political parties, etc) may be running in the background, humming without our noticing it. But we will neither listen to the prompting, nor be honest enough to see it in ourselves, until the right time.

            Alexei’s shunning was all appearances based — we cannot have a High Ranking Politician who has not played the game, and kept his wife’s adultery under wraps. Thing is, as Vronsky pointed out, EVERYONE KNEW about the Princess’ affairs — but as long as they did not appear in public, or seem attached, or flout convention, it was all right. Anna “broke the rules.” She flouted it. She made public scenes. She ran off with him.

            It’s all very… Victorian morality. Better morals in previous eras, my foot. No, it’s just HIDE THINGS.

  2. I know what you mean, about those stories that get you thinking forever and ever and ever so that you can’t even stop 🙂 “Pride and Prejudice” is like that for me.

      1. Every time I read the book or watch one of the movies–or even hear the story mentioned, really–it gets me thinking about Lizzy Bennet’s character . . . trying to analyze her motives and actions; trying to understand exactly why she’s never been my favorite JA heroine while she seems to be so many other people’s favorite; analyzing about her relationship with Mr. Darcy; trying to decide precisely how her character ought to be played on-screen. The last-mentioned line of thought inevitably ends in the conclusion that none of the existing film portrayals are perfect . . . which, in turn, leads me to the question of who *I* would cast to play Lizzy if I were in charge of a new adaptation. Lately, I’ve been thinking that Daisy Ridley would be the best choice–IF BBC would ever cast her, which I doubt. But I think she’d be pretty near perfect.

        I also love thinking about Mr. Darcy’s character . . . but that’s not anywhere near as complicated a process because I feel like I understand him much better. I’m not sure I’ll ever quite understand Lizzy, even though I like and admire her.

        1. Daisy would be an interesting choice.

          I’m not sure I have a favorite Austen heroine — I’m fond of most of them, but none of them really stand out to me as being particularly memorable. Brandon is probably my favorite Austen hero, however.

          1. Fanny Price is my favorite, I think. I admire her very much, but can also relate to her easily; so I really like her. I do like all the JA heroines (even Emma, though she drives me nuts), but Fanny is the one that stands out most to me.

            YESSSSSSSSSSSSS. Colonel Brandon forever. He’s awesome.

          2. Yes . . . I remember being deeply impressed by her fortitude in “suffering in silence” the first time I read the story. (I was like 15 at the time.) I’ve always been a very secretive person, too, so I can relate to her somewhat.

  3. Excellent post. Its amazing how often art imitates life. I’ve seen many fall prey to “religion” (myself included) and lose the love they have for others. Alexei’s initial forgiveness of Anna drew me to him, unfortunately he lost his way and he probably lost his son in the process.

    1. I’ve always been tempted to write a short story or longer work about their lives after her death — but the fact that it is widely considered “the greatest novel in Russian literature” stops me. Little intimidating, that. I would like to think he found his way back to grace and away from fundamentalism, but life doesn’t always work that way. 😦

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