Sunday, May 31, 2009

#80 - "Anna Karenina" by Leo Tolstoy

After reading the famous and classic novel, Anna Karenina (1878) by Leo Tolstoy, on and off for the past two months, I'm finding the task of writing about it rather daunting. Anna Karenina consists of eight hundred large, dense pages of 19th Century Russian society, history, and philosophy with themes of love, betrayal, and questions of the meaning of life. Knowing I can never do justice to this novel, I'm not even sure where to start. So, I guess I'll just half-ass it.

When I had previously thought of Anna Karenina, I assumed it was only the story of an adulterous love affair. I had no idea that it is really two stories in one. One is the story of the adulterous affair between Anna Karenina and Alexey Vronsky and the subsequent collapse of Anna's marriage to Alexey Karenin. The other is the story of Levin, his love and marriage to Kitty Scherbatsky, and his struggle to succeed and find meaning in his life. Apparently the story of Levin and his life closely mirrors something of Leo Tolstoy's life. These two story lines are tenuously connected partly because high Russian society is relatively small and incestuous but also because Anna's brother, Stepan Arkadyevitch, is married to Dolly, Kitty Scherbatsky's sister. Also, Kitty was in love with Vronsky and wanted to marry him before Vronsky met Anna. Interestingly, the one time Levin actually meets Anna Karenina, he is immediately besotted with her. Something could probably be read into the fact that Kitty and Levin might have loved Vronsky and Anna respectively more deeply than they love eachother.

I found the story of Anna Karenina and Vronsky slightly more dramatic than Levin and Kitty, even though both are compelling in their own fashion. While Levin and Kitty try to do what is expected of them and make the best of their situations, Anna and Vronsky are ruled by their passions, ignoring the dictates and consequences of society. I found the juxtaposition of the collapse of Anna and Alexey's marriage with the engagement and marriage of Levin and Kitty very interesting. The sweet and optimistic beginning of Levin and Kitty's relationship showed me what Anna and Alexey's marriage might have been in the beginning, before either knew what marriage really meant.

I was most impressed by Tolstoy's ability to get into the head and show the perspectives of each of his characters. I once even learned the attitude of one of Levin's hunting dogs during the story. But Tolstoy's descriptions of Kitty and Levin's expectations and viewpoints as they go into marriage and forge an existence together are rather brilliant. They both have rather naive ideas of each other and marriage and they completely misunderstand each other. Levin anticipated that marriage would in some ways fulfill his life and in others not change it at all, but although Levin and Kitty love each other and create a "successful" marriage they end up being two strangers who live together. Similarly the breakdown of the love affair between Anna and Vronsky is littered with misunderstandings, heartbreak, and pride. Even though Anna and Vronsky continue to love each other, their relationship inexorably falls apart. Tolstoy is sympathetic and understanding to both of them.

Tolstoy also delves into political questions of the time, such as women's rights, western influence from Europe over Russia and various political ideas of the time. Although this sometimes became a little tedious--I was very ready for a local election scene to end--it gives the book a rich context. And even though I often found Levin kind of annoying, I saw myself in him more than any other character. He was idealistic, wanting to succeed and change the world. He questioned religion, had little patience with the niceties and requirements of town society, and he was looking for the meaning of his life. Compared to Dostoyevsky, there is very little focus on the lower classes in Russian society. Tolstoy's characters come from the Russian aristocracy and besides some conversations of what to do with the peasants there is little focus on their life. But I can see why Anna Karenina is a classic. Tolstoy has a knack for capturing personalities and relationships in a way that resonates with honesty even today.

No comments: