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[146] Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy considers Anna Karenina his most complete novel. Critics might be thought otherwise, and pick War and Peace as the quintessential novel, one of the greatest in the species. Tolstoy views the latter no more than a historical chronicle. Anna Karenina is known the first novel because Tolstoy has deliberately embraced the conventional limits of the novel genre. The polemic of the book rests on the ordinariness of its small group of characters, who are related by birth and marriage. It sets in the present of Tolstoy’s time and deals with the personal side of upper-class family and social life. White it is considered an act of defiance at that time owing to its sarcastic nature, the novel delves in some of the most ordinary issues of the day. It’s a tissue of polemics on all the questions then being discussed among aristocrats and the newspapers. There are opposing views of Orthodox Christianity and atheism, arguments with the aristocracy as well as with the nihilists on feminist issues; with the conservative Slavophiles as well as with the radical populists on the question of the exact geographical location of the Russian soul; with both landowners and peasants on questions of farm management; and with advocates of old and new forces of political representation. All these issues, which seem extraneous to Anna and Vronksy’s adultery, is mediated by Konstantin Levin, who withdraws from his hope for the happiness that marriage is to have given him after Kitty has rejected him.

Of course, the enigma of Anna Karenina is at the heart of the novel, which for the most part explores the values of marriage and how women’s little control over their life deprives them of happiness. An inevitable question raises in my mind: Why would Tolstoy allow this fate for Anna, who is beautiful, wealthy, educated, and has an adored son and loving husband, consider that Tolstoy holds rather conservative views on women issues. For him, marriage and child-bearing are a woman’s essential tasks and family happiness is the highest human ideal. It is not until about half way through the book that we find out about how Anna comes to marry, at the age of eighteen, a man who is twelve years her senior, mistaking her wish to shine in society for love, how she discovers her full femininity only at the age of thirty. So Tolstoy portrays Anna not as guilty but as only deserving of pity, with diabolical passions and impulses like that she demonstrates at the ball when she entices Vronksy from Kitty.

Even though Tolstoy might sympathize with the adulterous wife and gradually enlarges the figure of Anna morally, the power of love as life purpose could not save her. Not only is she rejected by the snobbish society and ostracized, her husband refuses to grant a divorce. This tension in the individual between freedom and excitement of her own passionate imaginations is best demonstrated by Anna’s pursuit of love and happiness. She’s eddied in this personal conflict in which she feels so guilty that she will forever be the source of unhappiness to her husband. Not only does she later, in a state of delirium, renounce her happiness, she also imagines the cruelest words Vronksy could have said to her. This is when death presents itself to her clearly as the only way to restore the love for her in Vronsky’s heart. Her intense love and passion have turned into retribution–to punish and to triumph over Vronsky.

Levin’s only meeting with Anna finally reveals the subtle link between the “two sides” of the novel–the most obvious is the contrast of the happy marriage of Kitty and Levin with the tragic relation of Anna and Vronsky. This meeting reveals Anna’s truthfulness for she does not even conceal from him all the difficulty of her situation. Lies under the moral problem of adultery is also death, which Anna struggles and later to which she surrenders. While Levin struggles with suicidal thoughts as he loses the purpose of life, his realization that religion is the ultimate meaning of live, Anna perishes with the worldly love and desire that are just part of the plan to perfecting life. Her love for Vronsky cannot redeem her, and the death only fetters his life.

11 Responses

  1. Ahh, yes. I’ve always wanted to read this novel, but I’ve not yet tried to overcome its daunting size.

  2. Matthew, thank you so much for your Anna Karenina series! I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned it before, but I’m to scene of Vronsky’s horse race and you’re inspiring me to pick it up again.

  3. I’m so excited to read everything you have to say, but I don’t want to read it till I’m done!!!

  4. Andi:
    You’ll be flipping through once you get into the book that you won’t be aware of the daunting size! 🙂

  5. Literate Housewife:
    You’re very welcome. Ah…it’s after Vronsky’s race and his injury that the novel takes a very pivotal turn, in terms of Anna’s passion and the whole dynamics of their affair changes.

  6. Jordan:
    Hope you’re enjoying the book. 🙂

  7. I don’t think I can get away this time with your series of notes and commentaries. I’ll read this and finish it this time! 🙂

  8. John:
    It’s really not as difficult as the daunting size of the book might have bespoken. I’m sure you’ll enjoy Anna Karenina. 🙂

  9. […] [146] Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy […]

  10. […] Challenges Tentative List 1. Le Bal, Irène Némirovsky 2. The Kreutzer Sonata, Leo Tolstoy 3. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy 4. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov 5. Heart of a Dog, Mikhail Bulgakov 6. […]

  11. […] year’s Day. Last year, synchronized with my students from Russian literature class, I read Anna Karenina, War and Peace, and The Brothers Karamazov. To step outside of obligation, I would like to read […]

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