Modern readers conditioned to cheer for true love at any cost may find it easy to paint Karenin as the cold-hearted villain who stands in the way of Anna's happiness. But Karenin is as much a man trapped by expectation as he is a stranger to his own emotions. Anna's affair will do more than ignite his wrath—it will thaw the ice around his heart.
What Happens Behind Closed Doors
Generous and fair-minded, Karenin tries at first to rationalize away his young wife's affair. He squashes his feelings of jealousy and instead pleas with Anna not to give anyone reason to gossip. As long as they can preserve the status quo, Karenin can feign ignorance of her infidelity and keep his—and her—reputation in tact. He tells Anna he loves her but Anna doubts that he even knows what love is.
Anna cannot live by his rules and tries to force him to let her go. Frustrated by her refusal to be saved, Karenin "closed, locked and sealed the drawer in which he kept his feelings for his family." (p. 201) Holding the fate of their son and their marriage in his hands, Karenin decides against divorce so that he may extract his revenge on Anna in private. When Anna calls Vronsky to their home Karenin's quiet indignation boils over. Usually so calm and cold that Anna often refers to him as a machine or a puppet, Anna is struck by Karenin's resolution and firmness. Immune to her insults, spurred on by her pregnancy, Karenin is driven to action. The only way he can hurt Anna now is to expose her as a criminal wife and take their son Seryozha away from her.
The Thin Line Between Love and Hate
A dark side of Karenin emerges as he puts his plans for divorce in motion and tries to break ties with Anna's family. From one duped spouse to another, Anna's sister-in-law Dolly pleads with him to forgive Anna. But Karenin's hate has left no room for forgiveness. "I am not a wicked man, I never hated anyone, but I hate her with all the strength of my soul, and I cannot forgive her because I hate her so much...Love those who hate you, but to love those you hate is impossible." (p. 394)
Torn between revenge and propriety, Karenin tries to keep his emotions in check. "Each time he had encountered life, he had drawn back from it." (p. 142) But his cold and reasonable nature actually masks his greatest weakness—tears! Other people's suffering produces an "inner disturbance" in his soul, which usually makes him angry. (p. 278) Standing at Anna's bedside thinking that she is dying, already feeling guilty for desiring her death, watching Vronsky cry, Karenin gives himself over to that feeling and finds not weakness or anger but inner peace. Instead of thinking that he should forgive and love his enemies, "the joyful feeling of love and forgiveness of his enemies filled his soul." (p. 413) Overcome with emotion, he sobs like a child.
Why Karenin forgives Anna and Vronsky