Let Justice Be Done

In the 2012 adaptation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, which beautifully tells of how Anna fell in love with Alexei, there is a scene I find most striking. At the Oblonsky dinner, Count Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin, the husband of Anna Karenina makes a remark in response to a statement made. Now without boring you with too much details of the story, here’s a backdrop of events to help you put things in context.

The novel is woven around the extramarital affair of Anna Karenina and a young handsome man who also bears her husband’s name — Alexei. At the Oblonsky dinner, of which the diners include Anna’s husband and brother, an awkward conversation ensues. The discuss drifts towards the story of a man A, who fought and killed another man B, as a matter of honor and defending his wife’s honor. Alexei asks the table if the lover (man B) had killed the husband (man A), ‘would that have preserved the wife’s honor too?’. A lady responds saying “Still not many of us can say our lover died for love”. To which Count Alexei coldly retorts “Love? Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife!”.

Now this utterance comes more than halfway through the movie when the viewer has developed some sympathy for the protagonist, as is often the intention of most storytellers. With that sympathy comes the pandering to the feelings of the lovers. We indulge them. We see them as innocent victims of circumstance and Count Alexei (and the rest of society) the villain for refusing to condone their affair. That is until Anna’s husband makes that proclamation. One that is definitive, especially when taking into consideration the strong place Christianity held at the time.

When the viewer is reminded of the commandment, it serves as a violent wake-up call. In the calm austere voice in which it is said, it is loud and silences all dissenting voices. It stands and slays all arguments put before it. ‘Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife’, or as I would rather it be put ‘Do not let thyself lust after thy neighbor’s wife’.

As puritanical as this may appear, the purpose of this piece is not to discuss the morality of extramarital romantic enterprises — whether based on love or lust. I wish to borrow from the story’s narrative to draw attention to the absoluteness of Law — and Justice.

The character of Count Alexei, the husband, is one of principle and orderliness. He stands uprightly and works to bring about uprightness. The other Alexei, the lover, is younger and adventure-seeking. In some sense, his behavior can be described as chaotic. He is seen to be flirtatious and a more exciting company.

A relationship with the younger Alexei may seem more desirable, and Anna is proof of this, but, it is not devoid of its risks and the ensuing consequences. You cannot court chaos, however exciting or pleasing, without suffering. You may hear of the tale and sympathize with Anna. You may revel in the fantasy that is their love story. You may wish for Anna’s escape from the menace of society. You may convince yourself that it is love and not lust. You may choose to believe that their actions are based on good and noble intentions. You may justify their actions. You may stand by Anna’s side as one who chooses to stand by the oppressed. But with that simple statement at the dinner table, all falls to naught.

Such is the nature of Justice. Justice remains dispassionate and indifferent. It takes not into account the impulses of the individual, of one’s whims and caprices. It has no place for desires and feelings. It pardons not the good-intentioned nor does it forgive the ignorant. It matters not how pleasant or pleasing a thing is. It matters not how inconveniencing it is. It matters not how easy or difficult it is.

All of man’s preferences do not matter and become irrelevant in the face of Justice. Justice dispenses to each that which is their lot. It carries out this duty with absolute accuracy. It is this unswerving absoluteness that men of old reckoned with the truism: ‘Fiat justitia ruat cælum; Let justice be done though the heavens fall’… and the heavens doth fall!