I feel that I am flying headlong over some precipice but must not even try to save myself. And I can’t…I have no wishes at all. . . except that everything were at an end.
One of my biggest accomplishments this year is reading my first Russian novel. I am not sure what I feared all of these years, but it was unfounded. At over 800 pages Anna Karenina is full of unforgettable characters and their stories of triumph and tragedy. Though there were parts that felt a little tedious, especially the politically philosophical sections discussing the responsibility of land-owning aristocracy over the peasants, I was so engrossed I don’t think I skipped one word. That one of my favorite characters was part of these conversations, I plowed through.
While the action centers on three couples and includes the rites of courting, marriage and infidelity, the book is also about other kinds of relationships. The elite of the novel divide themselves into the city elite and country elite with high passions defending the perspective of each. There is the relationship some have with the Church and some who are disbelievers. And in each character whether rich or poor, man or woman, government official or country land owner, they are fighting the relationship with the inner demons of their personal truth.
The action takes place during the 1870s and centers around the extramarital affair between Anna Karenina and a young cavalry officer, Count Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky that scandalizes the community of Saint Petersburg when Anna makes the decision to make public this liaison by leaving her husband. The pair to flee to Italy and try in vain to live a normal life. Happiness eludes them and they return to Russia, where everything gets worse.
There are several parallel and revolving stories including Anna’s brother Prince Oblonsky and his wife, Dolly who themselves are dealing with an extramarital affair, his. Kitty, Dolly’s sister, is of marriageable age and is being courted by Konstantin Lëvin, a wealthy country landowner. Kitty has to work through her attraction to Vronsky, before she is able to accept Levin’s marriage proposal. Levin has issues with the management of his estate, because he is caught between the traditional feudalistic aspect of the landowner/peasant relationship and the new reforms that see workers as autonomous beings. He is also plagued by his struggle to accept Christianity, a necessity in order to marry.
There is so much going on in this novel that held my interest whether it was watching a character’s journey or enjoying the details of daily life; even the descriptions detailing the bureaucracy of the system of government at that time kept my attention.
In my edition, the front matter includes a three-page character list, with Russian names that are themselves long! I found that extremely intimidating wondering how I would keep everyone straight, but due to Tolstoy’s very well drawn characterizations and the themes that make up this book I needn’t have worried. And the struggles the characters go through hold interest in their universality: love and marriage; infidelity that is expected for men, but scandalous for women; the power of the Church in matters of relationships, raising of children and divorce; the issues of peasants rights at a time when a feudal society is changing.
I did not like Anna at first, because she had no guilt about her feelings toward Vronsky and how this affected her husband or child, especially after their affair came to light. But in a system that gives only the wronged party the power to divorce when feelings change in a relationship, leaving with your lover may be the only recourse. And as the pair try to live a normal life as a couple, it is clear they will never be free to do so, because her status makes her a pariah within the Russian expat communities in which they socialize.
Vronsky is able to move more freely through society. He considers Anna his wife and wants her to be treated as such. But in a society where female agency is not recognized, the act of leaving a husband and living with another man is shameful and their peers react accordingly. Vronksky sees their kind of relationship as a modern construction and believes in the sifting progress of “public opinion” regarding such relationships.
But he very soon noticed that though the great world was open to him personally, it was closed to Anna. As in the game of cat and mouse, the arms that were raised to allow him to get inside the circle were at once lowered to prevent Anna from entering.
Anna’s inability to move freely causes her great mental and spiritual pain, in part because her forced seclusion keeps them from forming a social life as a couple. Vronksy spends time with his friends and she fears he will tire of her, something his mother would like to see. As the months in this liminal state drag on, Anna’s anxiety over Vronsky’s willingness to stay with her reach a breaking point. After a heated argument, Anna is convinced he will leave her and as her mental state breaks down further thinks of suicide as her only relief. As one of the world’s classic novels and as the subject of many films Anna’s fate is well-known, but her end is still shocking.
Tolstoy illustrates his themes against a backdrop of a changing Russian sensibility in all areas of life. Levin, the land owner, is caught up in the new land reforms developing throughout Europe and there is a considerable amount of discussion over whether these reforms would work in Russia. Levin wants to understand the people who work his land and some poignant scenes include his working alongside them, experiencing the celebratory effects of physical labor and working communally. How different is his life compared to his friends in the city.
Levin: You can’t imagine how strange it all seems to me who live in the country…We try to get our hands into a state convenient to work with,…but here people purposely let their nails grow until they begin to curl,…we try to get over our meals as quickly as we can, so as to be able to get on with our work, here you and I try to make our meal last as long as possible….
Oblonsky: Of course, the aim of civilization is to enable us to get enjoyment out of everything.
Levin is my favorite character, especially as he wrestles with his questions about the existence of God, a disbelief which concerns Kitty. The other characters seem to take the Church for granted whether they believe or not participating in its rites because ‘that’s just what one does.’ Levin is an agnostic struggling honestly with his disbelief. After a lightning storm catches Kitty and their son when they are outdoors their safe deliverance causes in him a change of heart in that he understands that he does believe at least in the goodness of God even though he will always have questions and may never feel as righteous as others. He understands that his belief cannot be reasoned out, but “I shall still pray, and my life, my whole life, independently of anything that may happen to me, is every moment of it no longer meaningless as it was before, but has an unquestionable meaning of goodness with which I have the power to invest it.”
There is no adequate way to write a blog post about this novel. From all the details of daily life–there is a lot of eating and different kinds of food in this book which I particularly enjoyed!–that show the corruption of those in government jobs, to the differences in the way city people live against those in the country who work the land, to the role of established Christianity in major life-cycle events and with those who struggle to believe.
It is easy to invest yourself in the outcome of each character’s story, because their struggles feel very present; they transcend time and place. Tolstoy manages to show the major issues that plague the personal, the political and spiritual are really universal and concern 21st century folk as they did in the 19th.
Title: Anna Karenina
Author: Leo Tolstoy
Publisher: Wordsworth Classics
Challenges: Readalong, winter 2019