thoughts on books: anna karenina

Anna Karenina, another tome by Leo Tolstoy, is a magnificent and sweeping book that focuses on two story lines – and three marriages: Anna and her husband Karenin, Dolly and her husband Stiva Oblonsky (Anna’s brother) and Kitty (Dolly’s sister) and Konstantin Levin. The dashing Alexei Vronsky is also in the picture as a key source of intrigue in two of the marriages. The book encompasses the history of Russia in the late 19th century by exploring how the changes in Russia affected and were affected by these characters who are trying to adjust to underlying evolution that sometimes seems a little too slow in their estimation. Because this book is so driven by the individual storylines, it’s difficult to summarize this evolution and the eventual changes to the characters – it is the movement by many small steps driven by a series of events.

The Anna storyline combines the challenges of love, the responsibility of commitments, the unexpected attraction to someone, and the roles in and rules of a confining and unsympathetic society. Anna is not in love with her husband, with whom she has a child. At first, she has reconciled herself to life with her husband, who can be stern. She finds herself in love (and in a relationship) with Vronsky that is, at best, unstable. This storyline parallels the opening up of a conservative and traditional society that does not accept women moving on from an unhappy marriage. Although Karenin initially forgives Anna’s affair, she cannot let Vronsky go and she grows to hate her husband. Yet, another challenge for her is that Vronsky is not suited to a “settled” life – he cannot really give Anna what she needs or wants. She becomes jealous as he (the man) is free and she (the woman) is scorned. This is a complex set of relationships that is not easily described without context. Let’s just say, it ends badly for all, but especially for Anna.

The Levin storyline brings together the story of newlyweds who are learning to live together and who manage a large farm at a time when the agrarian revolution was coming to the fore. Levin not only exemplifies the growing peasant-oriented approach to farming and agriculture but also the growth of a politically active class of land owners and community representatives. While Anna’s storyline gets the attention and the movies, I was more interested in the Levin story. Kitty and Levin seemed to be the more modern couple – though bound by gendered roles and power distribution, they (mostly) seemed to like each other and work together. Their life on the farm and in the city seems comfortable and successful. They have children, Levin embraces faith and they both value their conventional lives. Levin also embraces farming and views the farm, its work, and its workers as good and valuable and building something beyond himself. Although he is not always a happy person, he brings a philosophical connection to the land and work that enriches his life. He desires to grow and prosper as a farmer and as a person – he becomes a happy person who is able to embrace his life.

As with Russian/Tolstoy stories, the changes in society provide a backdrop to very interesting stories featuring not only the main characters but a host of others who play a role in the both the primary story lines and the overall broader movements in society. The opening line sets the stage for both Anna and Levin, as well as the three marriages: All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Anna was unhappy for much of the book and believed at the end that her life had no purpose, stability, or value. Levin, while unhappy at the beginning, came to see that his life had value and stability and that he had the power to do good. These interwoven storylines present an interesting contrast. I rated the book as 5/5.

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