Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Penguin (1873). 960 pp.
For years, this book has sat on my shelf, intimidating me. I bought the book–or rather, wrote it on my Christmas list–as a culmination of three irresistable qualities this novel has: It is a masterpiece of classic literature, it is Russian, and it is a part of Oprah’s Book Club.
Needless to say, that book ended up under the tree in a brightly-colored, paper-wrapped box. But, until this past July, the cover remained uncracked.
Before I delve into the thematic struggles of the book and all its contents and characters, I think it’s important to show my reasons for packing this 817-page monstrosity on a 12-hour road trip and spend 3 months of my life juggling Levin, Anna, and Oblonsky alongside D.H. Lawrence, Joseph Conrad, and Virginia Woolf. I didn’t know what to expect from this novel. I had never read anything by Tolstoy before. I guess I kind of placed hi on a pedestal right alongside Dostoevsky and Dante. They intimidate me, and before July I’ve been too scared to read them. This summer when I was looking at books to read, I stared at the binding and said to myself, “grow a pair, Kate. You are 21-years-old; an adult. You can conquer this.” So I began to read.
If anybody is reading this and gaining the courage to read it themselves, allow me to offer a piece of advice. Get the Pevear/Volkhonsky translation (cover pictured). It is very good. Another word of advice: Please don’t read any further into this post. I give spoilers.
This may be the first novel where I couldn’t decide if I liked the protagonist. I do like Anna because I find her sympathetic and she holds a sense of passion that we don’t generally find from a character anywhere near this time period. Especially from a woman. In more European works (I’m thinking of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte) the female protagnoists either fight against society over what is appropriate, or zip their lips and wrestle internally. Here, Anna blatantly rejects her marriage in favor of Count Vronsky, and goes off to live with him. What’s more, she doesn’t really seem to care what everyone says about it. She may not leave her home much, but we don’t get a lot of internal struggles between her decision and society’s reaction.
That being said, I was not love-struck by Anna. For starters, she completely rejects her husband and son. In the past two months I have found myself much more able to relate to married characters, and I simply cannot understand this. Karenin is a very open-hearted man who clearly loves his wife very much. A part of me believed wholeheartedly that had she come back home and asked for another chance, he would have given it to her. Also, I didn’t like how she handled everything in the end. She had so many options. She could have straightened things out with Vronsky, she could have tried to patch things up with Karenin. But Anna would not be Anna without a motivating sense of self. She doesn’t know how else to eliminate the drama from her life, so she sees no other option than to eliminate the commonality.
I’m not surprised at all that Oprah has this novel on her book list. So much of it applies to society today. One very intriguing element of the book is the dichotomy of instant gratification versus lasting satisfaction. The two main parties of this novel surround Anna and Levin. Anna represents instant gratification. She leaves her husband and son for a man who offers her passion. Anyone in a long-term relationship will say that passion is fleeting. At least the passion that Anna continuously seems to need. After awhile when Vronsky settles into a routine and stops devoting every waking minute to Anna’s desires, she is immediately convinced that he’s having an affair. It makes sense that she would think that: After all, she’s cheating on her husband. The relationship she is so worried about is technically an affair itself.
On the other side of the spectrum is Levin. He represents lasting satisfaction. For almost half of the novel he is head-over-heels in love with Kitty. To the joy of my hopelessly romantic heart he gets the girl, and they assume the natural roles of husband and wife.
I mentioned earlier that passion is fleeting, and then I clarified. Levin holds a passion for Kitty throughout the whole novel that every man should hold for his wife and every wife for her husband. He puts her first every time.
American culture in the twenty-first century has become a century of Annas. We like things that satisfy our needs now. On the small end there’s things like fast food and credit cards. But look at the big picture. Every other marriage ends in divorce. People are making their partners sign pre-nups beforehand so in the future, when they do split, no one gets jipped Something that used to be revered as a sacred bond now is little more than a legal document for tax purposes. Tied along with that, more and more people simply forego the legality of marriage and would rather live with their partner instead. That way they can enjoy all of the benefits of “marriage” without the responsibility. And why shouldn’t they? Marriage isn’t a sacred union anymore: people are losing “it” as young as 13-years-old.
Tolstoy sums up (what I believe to be) the over-arching theme in the last line of the novel. Levin says: “but my life now, my whole life, regardless of all that may happen to me, every minute of it, is not only meaningless, as it was before, but has the unquestionable meaning of the good which it is in my power to put into it!” This is a very existential line. Which is good, because this is a very existential book. These characters get out of life exactly what they put into life. Levin cares so ardently for his wife, and in the end it is his family that saves him, both emotionally and spiritually. In contrast, the only person Anna cares for consistently throughout the novel is herself. At the end, she is alone.
A part of me thinks that Tolstoy wanted this book to seem as a sort of warning. Yes, you will get out of life what you put into it, but this applies as much to the negative as to the positive. Today we call this karma. I don’t know how I feel about that, but I do know that regardless, it is another post for another blog.