Cross the Line: Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina

'Anna Karenina' gave Brian much food for thought. Source: Personal archive

'Anna Karenina' gave Brian much food for thought. Source: Personal archive

Brian Yeung, RBTH Asia’s contributor talks about how Anna Karenina inspires him to ponder on what it takes to cross the line.

Imagine you are married to a senior government official and live a life of wealth and status. You are the envy of everyone you meet. Would you give it all up for a chance at an all-consuming romantic love? Let’s turn it around: Could you fall in love with a married woman, or would the prospect of ruining her family stop you in your tracks? Imagine your wife has an affair. Would you make it easy for her to divorce you and start her life anew?

Written by Leo Tolstoy, “Anna Karenina” is a masterpiece that develops a slow-burning tension between desire and morality through the story of Anna, the wife of a senior government official who has an affair with the affluent Count Vronsky.

One cannot understand the real struggle of Anna, her husband Karenin and Count Vronsky without knowing the context of Tolstoy’s Russia. The acceptable grounds for divorce included: “physical defect in husband or wife; five years absence without news bulletin; adultery of husband or wife.”

“Adultery by mutual consent” appeared to be the most common claim for divorce. If you were Karenin, would you publicly declare your wife’s adultery? Even if Karenin grants Anna a divorce, would Anna, a young mother who betrayed her first marriage, keep her faith, her trust and sanity?

Tolstoy’s novel begs more questions and agony than answers. But the tragic end (spoiler alert)—Anna throws herself under the carriage of a passing train—allows us to reflect on what it takes to cross the line, the line that is defined by traditions and social norms.

Would you dare to take such a step?

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