Critic’s Corner: Shattered ideals and accepting reality in ‘Anna Karenina’


I didn’t know I could love a novel about adulterers so much.

Leo Tolstoy’s novel “Anna Karenina” is full of characters who are so realistic that you could go outside and meet them (if you were a lady or gentleman of high Russian society in the 1800s). They are all flawed people in a flawed society, just trying to figure out how to live and be happy – a reasonable goal!

Most of the novel follows certain characters dealing with adultery and infidelity, but it also deals with themes of shattered ideals. Time after time, characters struggle because they have some idealized vision of the way they’d like life to be, and this vision is inevitably unattainable.

As someone who struggles with this dilemma, I realized I was finding bits of myself in different characters. I think Tolstoy would invite you to do the same.

Konstantin Levin, one of the main characters, has heightened ideals for himself. At various points in the novel, he dramatically resolves to live differently – he’ll be happy staying single, he’ll apply himself to his work in a new way, he’ll live a perfect Christian life, etc. Do any of these resolutions sound familiar?

However, when Levin goes to face his life with these ideals, he wrestles with reality being more challenging than he expected. Why can’t he just decide to be the best version of himself and then go be it?

This is a mentality I think a lot of us, myself included, carry around. It’s easy to become frustrated when we don’t live up to the person we want to be.

Levin knows he could give up on reality or let go of his ideals, but instead he chooses a third option: reconciling the two. At the very end of the novel (spoilers, I’m so sorry), he realizes that he might never live up to all his ideals, and that is okay. He can strive to be better and enjoy life the way it is at the same time.

Levin shows us that it’s possible to live in a flawed world with a flawed self and not give in to despair. Reconciling ideals with reality is difficult, and sometimes it’s a choice we have to make every day, but it’s a choice worth making.

Anna Karenina, the title character, does the exact opposite. Her main frustration is not with herself but with the people around her who rarely live up to her expectations. She has some unnamed, unattainable vision of these people in her head, like a daydream where they act, look and talk exactly the way she wants them to.

If we’re honest, this is an easy temptation for anyone: imagining the people in your life, especially the ones you love most, as perfect means that in this dream world they can’t let you down. Ironically, that’s exactly what happens when you see them in reality.

As the novel turns to tragedy, Anna exemplifies the danger of never reconciling ideals and reality. She becomes so disappointed and lost that she believes the only way to stop her pain is to die. Is this the way we want to live?

Between the examples of Levin and Anna, we find a relatable middle ground in Darya Oblosky. She doesn’t constantly make declarations of how she wants to live her ideal life, nor does she take drastic measures to deal with reality. She has to find a way to live well in between the good and bad.

While she has loving parents and friends, Darya’s husband is unfaithful and her children are not the best behaved. Darya struggles between what she’d like her life to be and the realities of the people around her, but the conclusion she comes to makes all the difference.

She says, “When you love someone, you love the whole person, as they are, and not as you’d like them to be.”

Lately, every time I see imperfections in my family members, friends and self, this quote pops into my mind. Maybe it’s not the most profound thing you’ve ever heard, but it’s extremely true.

We all have areas of our lives that are great, average and unpleasant. Whenever we are disappointed by how far reality falls from our ideals, whenever a person doesn’t act the way we wanted them to, whenever we are weak and disappoint ourselves, what will our reaction be? Tolstoy’s characters show us that we can give into despair or we can choose to live right where we are, flaws and all.

A flawed life is still worth living. Flawed people are still worth loving. And with all my heart I tell you, “Anna Karenina” is a novel worth reading.