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(CN: spoilers, suicide)

At the start of the pandemic lockdown last spring, I caught up with classics I’d never read, including Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and the 2012 film adaptation. The story – of Anna, whose husband Alexei Karenin is a politician 20 years older, and hers passionate affair with Count Vronksy – is known to most readers. As I wondered when I could go public again, I thought about how the story of Anna and Vronsky blurred the line between public and private life. Some people may view the blurring of private and public aspects of life as a more recent phenomenon, but this novel suggests that in 19th-century Russia, at least among the aristocracy, these boundaries could be porous.

The Anna and Vronsky affair is shockingly public. They first meet at a train station, and once the relationship becomes sexual they often meet in the theater or at horse races. In the 2012 film, they even have sex outside in the open air. Although 2010s films were much more open about sex than 19th century novels, this film scene makes the public nature of their affair undeniable.

Trains are also public spaces that appear deceptively intimate to Anna and Count Vronsky. In 19th century literature, trains often symbolize modernity. Before the invention of trains, each town square had its own time. After the railways were built, the countries standardized their time. For Tolstoy’s characters, the train is a novelty that revolutionizes life and connects them with Western Europe. Most of the novel’s aristocrats speak French as a second language and watch plays and operas from Western Europe.

Of course, moves are also an integral part of the plot of the book. Anna dies by suicide in public by throwing herself under the train. Perhaps she does this in part because she feels she has already been publicly humiliated.

As an aristocrat, Alexei Vronsky lives on the borderline between public and private life. In recent history, the internet has done this more frequently, but it has always been possible, especially among the upper class. Vronsky believes monogamy is only for poor people, “the class of old-fashioned and ridiculous people. But there was another class of people, the real people. They all belonged to that class, and it was great to be elegant, generous, brave, gay, blushing without passion and laughing at everything else. “He has contempt for anyone he considers ordinary or sincere.

When acquaintances recognize Vronsky and Anna together in the theater, Vronsky can realize that she is “going through the sensations of a man in the stocks”. The stocks were public punishments that put people under scrutiny and public humiliation. Poor people convicted of crimes prior to the 19th century were often sentenced to stocks. Anna is not only humiliated, but also feels socially degraded.

After they leave the theater, Anna says to Vronsky and stops: “If you had loved me …” Anna implies: If you had loved me, you would not have put me through an examination. Vronsky doesn’t care about the public scandal and wants Anna to divorce Karenin in order to marry him. Karenin, Vronsky, and Anna have completely different expectations and deal breakers when it comes to marriage and infidelity. As a government official, Karenin is all about appearance and personal happiness. He finds the scandal in Anna’s affair more humiliating than the infidelity itself.

During one of his horse races, Vronsky is thrown from his horse. Anna cries when he falls and then expresses relief when he is unharmed – publicly revealing her true depth of emotions for him. This is a turning point in the novel and in her marriage to Karenin.

People have always had extramarital romances, but the politics in Anna Karenina seem as timeless as the affair. At the end of 2012, Rich Bellis compared the conspicuous consumption of the aristocrats in the 2012 film with the excesses of the recent US presidential campaigns. Vronsky’s friend Levin, another aristocrat, prefers to work on his farm than on the lavish events Vronsky enjoys. Levin’s chosen lifestyle in the 19th century corresponds to the life on the electricity grid. It’s also a way for the shy Levin to escape the public spectacle.

Nowadays anyone with internet access can strive for a certain level of brand awareness. People also share gossip about celebrity relationships and breakups. Living our lives in public and blurring public and personal life seems to be a new phenomenon. In earlier eras, these investigations and speculations looked different and were intended almost exclusively for aristocrats. Anna Karenina shows how humiliating it can be to expose private life. Although the details have changed, this is part of what makes Tolstoy’s novel seem timeless and understandable.

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