Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy (1878)

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.

 

annak.jpegOne 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 annak1between 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.

annak2Levin 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.”

My Thoughts

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.

 

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Title: Anna Karenina
Author: Leo Tolstoy
Publisher: Wordsworth Classics
Device: Paperback
Year: 1878
Pages: 806

Challenges: Readalong, winter 2019

Our Town, Thornton Wilder (1938)

 My Edition:ourtown
Title: Our Town
Author: Thornton Wilder
Publisher: Harper and Row, Publishers
Device: Hard cover
Year: 1938
Pages: 74
For a plot summary 

 

Jane Crofut; The Crofut Farm; Grover’s Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God

 

I have always found Thornton Wilder’s, Our Town fascinating. From the bare stage void of props and the only furniture benches, chairs and ladders, to actors miming a lot of the action, to the Stage Manager speaking directly to the audience and calling all the shots and especially to the “strawberry phosphate” that, to my 16 year-old self, sounded more like a science experiment than a soda fountain drink.

This 1938 play has a seemingly simple premise: a group of actors portray small town (population 2,642 “at the moment”) Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire during the early years of the 19th century through births, daily life, marriage and death. “The way we were.” The characters names are well-known in pop culture: Emily and George, the Webb and the Gibbs families, the Stage Manager.

Small town though this may be, there is an awareness that it is part of the vast greatness of the Universe. The characters are always looking up at the moon or the stars. They know their little lives in this little town is part of the collective of the larger world.

However, this awareness is unconscious until they die. When Emily, who married George and then died a few years later, tells the other inhabitants of the cemetery she wants to go back to the living for just a day, she has a rude awakening. She realizes in  life, no one looked at each other; they just went about their lives, going through the motions. “Mama I’m here. I’m grownup. I love you all, everything—I can’t look at everything hard enough.” “Let’s look at one another.” Finally, she pleads with the Stage Manager to take her back, “I can’t go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another.”

In this rereading I noticed something I hadn’t before. In one scene, the Stage Manager calls for Mr. Webb to give the audience “the political and social report” of the town (he’s the editor of the paper). Mrs. Webb calls to the Stage Manager to say her husband cut his hand on an apple, he’ll be right out. There are other times the Stage Manager starts and stops the action when something occurs to him that he wants the audience to know; or he feels the actors aren’t going fast enough so he stops them. That’s what you do at lectures or presentations when you have actors dramatizing certain points you want to make.

I suddenly had this thought: the play is actually a show, maybe a road show for people to come and learn about the town (representing Anytown, USA?) as evidenced when the Stage Manager invites the audience to ask questions.

What an odd idea. Our Town as a touring stage show to present to the moderns of 1938 an America on the brink of a really terrible war and what they would be fighting for? What America really stood for? What they have forgotten and need to rediscover?

The depth of the play obviously belies its simple plot and universal appeal. In fact, as I was finishing it yesterday morning, I got word that a friend of mine had died. I immediately thought about a passage of the Stage Manager’s and wrote it out to send to our mutual friends. It touched a chord in all of us.

Now there are some things we all know, but we don’t take’m out and look at’m very often. We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars. . . everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.

Our Town won the Pulitzer Prize in 1938. It just closed in Reston, Virginia, is on this season’s calendar at the prestigious Shaw Festival in Canada and if you hurry you can still get tickets for tomorrow’s production at the Eagle Theater in Hammonton, New Jersey. In modern parlance, it is safe to say, “this thing never gets old!”

 

This book is for the Reading New England Challenge and my Classics Club book list.