Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is one of the most famous love stories of all time. Yet, the tale is a tragedy. At the heart of its woeful ethos is the deceptive promise of courtly love, as explained by Slavoj Zizek in his 1994 essay “Courtly Love, or, Woman as Thing.” The “Lady,” or the beloved, is unattainable, Zizek proposes, because she is not real—she is a culturally constructed mechanism that paradoxically precludes authentic love. The romantic notion of spiritual love is narcissistically projected onto the vacant Other (2408). The lover can never truly see the beloved, and the result is perpetual separation (2413). In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy presents two stories as possible outcomes of love, but the “fantasy matrix” of courtly love leaves all parties—the lover, the loved, the faithful and the betrayed—ultimately and sorrowfully alone (Zizek 2426).
The lover can never truly see the beloved, and the result is perpetual separation.
According to Zizek, courtly love is not an earnest pursuit of relationship, but rather “a social game of ‘as-if’” based on the masochistic dynamic of man as the victim and woman as the master (2409). “It is the victim (the servant in the masochistic relationship) who initiates a contract with the Master (woman), authorizing her to humiliate him. . .” (2409). In Anna Karenina, Count Vronsky pursues Anna, the wife of an esteemed politician, after an exchange of passionate glances and a night of dancing. He follows her; she tells him to forget her, all the while yearning for his advances. “I beg for only one thing,” he tells her in the novel. “I beg for the right to hope, to be tormented, as I am now” (Tolstoy 140). Vronsky plays the role of the victim to the object of his passions. He convinces Anna to run away with him, and when they are finally together, and she is his, he becomes restless for the life he used to lead.
“The Object, therefore, is literally something that is created—whose place is encircled—through a network of detours, approximations and near-misses,” Zizek writes. The obstacles elevate the value of the unattainable Other, which Zizek describes as the “’black hole’ around which the subject’s desire is structured (2412). In a parallel love story in the novel, the character Levin, initially rejected by Kitty, retreats to his work in the country but cannot forget her. After being abandoned by Vronsky for Anna, Kitty realizes that Levin was the one who truly loved her. They marry, have children and live his ideal country life. But Levin finds his soul still yearning. He becomes obsessed with the meaning of life surrounded by all that he desired: “And, happy in his family life, a healthy man, Levin was several times so close to suicide that he hid a rope lest he hang himself. . .” (Tolstoy 789) The promise of his great love was an illusion: Once the obstacles are removed he still finds himself, as always, alone with his doubts.
Zizek argues that the object of courtly love does not represent the metaphysical good, but rather symbolizes evil—a sense of perversion which compels wrongdoing because it’s wrong (2417). But the masochistic play of courtly love never reaches full-blown violence (2410). In Tolstoy’s novel, Anna crosses that boundary, taking courtly love to its ultimate tragic end. Feeling her love slip away—the love she sacrificed everything for—she throws herself under a train. But she leaves behind a whole society that lives on in the theater of the “as if.” Levin, aware of the emptiness at the end of the rainbow, continues to live a tortured but steady life. Regardless of the outcomes, the result is the same, Tolstoy seems to imply: We are all alone in our narcissism. This is what Anna realizes on the eve of her suicide: “Aren’t we all thrown into the world only in order to hate each other and so to torment ourselves and others,” she thinks (746). In Anna Karenin, suicide symbolizes the effect wrought on the lovers by courtly love: The very device used ostensibly to bring intimacy and union ends in irrevocable separation—end of game.
Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Penguin Group, Inc., 2000. Print.
Zizek, Slavoj. “Courtly Love, or, Woman as Thing.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch et al. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010. 2407-2427. Print.