Books that Built Us: ‘Anna Karenina’ by Leo Tolstoy
I read “Anna Karenina” on the school bus when I was 13. I took it a chapter a ride, shining a flashlight I kept in my backpack over the pages in the winter when the mornings were dark. It was my favorite part of the day — a stolen quiet moment, with just me and Anna and Kitty and Vronsky. I knew pretty much immediately that this would become the best book I would ever read, and even though 13-year-old me was wrong about a lot of things (I wore a lot of vests that year), I was right about this. The book grabbed at my heart in a way few pieces of writing — or anything, for that matter — have since. It made me feel full — like I was about to burst with all the feelings it incited in me. When I finally finished it, huddled under the covers at 3:00 in the morning, I cried for an hour, hugging the book tight to my chest. I woke up the next morning still holding it.
I’ve read “Anna Karenina” so many times that I’ve lost track of the number in the six years since that first encounter. It’s like my Bible, and I keep it by my bed for emergencies. The book is high melodrama — a story of infidelity, passion gone wrong, obsession, life, death and suicide. It’s grand enough that the most recent film adaptation placed the whole thing on a stage, putting the theatrics of the story to the foreground. But despite the opulence and drama of it all, Tolstoy’s magnum opus remains the most achingly human story I’ve ever read. The characters are so fragile, so delicately spun to life it’ll break your heart.
It took me a couple rereads to be able to see the cracks running between lines of the story proper, but eventually I saw that “Anna Karenina” exists in two dimensions. There’s the famous narrative of adultery and obsession and divorce and twisted love. But then there’s also this complicated web of the characters’ interiorities running in between all of that, filling in those cracks. It’s not till the very end of the book that you realize the two layers are inextricable, how the minutiae of the characters’ thoughts and feelings and interactions stack on top of each other to create such a towering tragedy. In the end, it was her inner world that ruined Anna. She just couldn’t stand the weight of her feelings.
An early scene, shortly after Anna and Vronsky first meet: “She felt as though her nerves were strings being strained tighter and tighter on some sort of screwing peg. She felt her eyes opening wider and wider ... something within oppressing her breathing, while all shapes and sounds seemed in the uncertain half light to strike her with unaccustomed vividness.”
Or this moment later on that’s not even a scene; it’s really more of an offhand description, but it’s one of my favorite lines of any book I’ve ever read. Kitty is lying in bed after she realizes the scope of her feelings for Levin, and it goes like this: “‘It’s late, it’s late,’ she whispered with a smile. A long while she lay, not moving, with open eyes, whose brilliance she almost fancied she could herself see in the darkness.”
I feel so holy about this. Sometimes when I read these moments in “Anna Karenina” I feel like I’m intruding, like it’s too intimate being privy to these intricacies of the characters’ most private thoughts. It’s hard to explain why my heart tightens whenever I read these moments, except maybe to say that it feels like a mirror being held up to the inside of my own brain. It’s just true, in a way that goes beyond relatability, but down to the bone marrow of what it feels like to be a person, to be this specific type of person.
Because it’s just not that I relate to Kitty. I’ve been Kitty, young and vulnerable and lying in the dark with my heart racing, feeling my eyes shining so bright I could imagine them brilliant enough to light up the room. I’ve been Anna feeling my nerves tighten with every passing breath, like the colors around me are too bright, like my body is a live wire being wound up.
Those moments woven throughout the story are what make “Anna Karenina” the book that taught me I have a whole internal world, secret and entirely separate from anybody else’s expectations or opinions of me. I’m so grateful I found it when I was 13, a time when every day contained what felt like a million punches in the gut. I spent — and still spend, as I think every young woman does — too much time paring down the jagged edges of my personality, my body, my whole self. It’s what so many girls do. Hate ourselves and hurt ourselves and hack ourselves into neat pieces that can fit into the tiny boxes built for us to live in, until we can’t take it anymore. A lot of girls survive it but some, like Anna, don’t.
“Anna Karenina” gave me the language to articulate the moments — so rare and tenuous that noticing them is like pinning a butterfly’s wings — when I can feel the full capacity of all the secrets I carry, all the things I want to do and feel and be. Kitty felt it lying awake in her room, fully aware of herself and her shining eyes. Lorde sings about it in “Writer in the Dark”: “And in my darkest hour / I stumbled on a secret power.” Fiona Apple, in “Every Single Night”: “I just wanna feel everything / So I’m gonna try to be still now.” Kesha, in “Rainbow”: “Now I can see the magic inside of me.” And Virginia Woolf, in “The Waves”: “I feel a thousand capacities spring up in me.”
The shining eyes, the power, the magic, the capacities — they’re all just different names for that same flash of understanding, that moment of vivid awareness when you can see yourself clearly for the first time in forever.
Anna wonders, as she feels herself unraveling in real time, “Is it really possible to tell someone else what one feels?”
If I could answer her, I’d probably say no — you barely understand what those moments mean most of the time, let alone find a way to talk about them. Unless you can write like Tolstoy, you probably won’t be able to find the words. Instead they usually become a delicious secret, a quiet covenant you make within yourself that forms the core of your identity. It’s a part of your world that can never be damaged or tarnished, though it can be buried deep inside.
Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe some things are worth hiding. Every now and then, though, something finds its way through the layers, into those innermost parts of you. When I was 13, this book worked its way in, and I’ve held it tight ever since. It’s a part of me now. I keep it as close as my deepest secrets.