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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.

Anna Karenina: Love and Happiness

Anna Karenina Series 2

The adulterous and tragic affair of Anna and Count Vronsky is intertwined with the story of Levin and Kitty’s love in one of the world’s greatest novels. Kitty is pursued by two suitors. Levin is a wealthy landowner from the provinces who could move in aristocratic circles, but who prefers to work on his estate in the country. Levin tries unsuccessfully to fit into high society when wooing the young Kitty Shcherbatsky. She rejects Levin (the awkward intellectual, similar to Tolstoy himself) in favor of the more glamorous Count Vronsky; although deep in her heart she does feel affection for Levin. However, Kitty was just a plaything to Vronsky, to whom marriage life is a foreign concept. He soon falls in love with Anna and abandons Kitty, who lapses into a morbid irritation for which she takes covalescence at a German spa. Rejected by Kitty, heartsick Levin quits his bureaucratic job and returns to his country estate. He throws himself into developing new agricultural tools and working side-by-side with the peasants. His efforts with the peasants are not successful. Besides the wound of unrequited love, a depressed Levin has been questioning the meaning of life.

“First he decided from that day on not to hope any more for the extraordinary happiness that marriage was to have given him, and as a consequence not to neglect the present so much. Second, he would never again allow himself to be carried away by a vile passion, the memory of which had so tormented him as he was about to propose.” [92]

Late Levin and Kitty meet again–and both of them have changed. Levin wins her only when he allows himself to be himself.
The joyous, honest and solid relationship of Levin and Kitty is continually contrasted in the novel with that of Anna and Vronsky, which is tainted by its uncertain status (marriage) resulting in constant upheaval, backbiting, and suspicion. So by the time Anna commits the tragic act that takes her life, Tolstoy supposedly did not want readers to sympathize with her supposed mistreatment, but rather to recognize that it was her inability to truly commit to her own happiness or self-truth which leads to her ignominious end.

“He had often felt that sometimes during an argument you would understand what your opponent loves, and suddenly come to love the same thing yourself, and agree all at once, and then all reasonings would fall away as superflouous; and sometimes it was the other way round: you would finally say what yourself love, for the sake of which you are inventing your reasonings, and if you happened to say it well and sincerely, the opponent would suddenly agree and stop arguing.” [396]

That is, when Levin becomes comfortable in his skin, and says it sincerely, she responses. The most beautiful thing happens after Kitty has read that he has written his diary with her in mind. She knows his whole soul through love, and in his soul she sees what she wants. How often do we really get to know someone but only let our stubborn reasonings get in the way of something that might flourish?

Further Reading
Anna Karenina: Quintessential Personal Conflict

Anna Karenina: Quintessential Personal Conflict

Anna Karenina Series 1

We all (maybe not all, but those who are familiar with the story through the movie) know the story: Anna Karenina is charmer. She has beauty, social position, wealth, a husband, and an adored son—except that her existence seems to be empty. When she meets Vronsky on the train to Moscow from Petersburg, ironically on a trip to help reconcile and mediate her brother’s marriage, she rejects her marriage and turns to him to fulfill her passionate nature. No she is not Madame Bovary, because Anna has the power to put people under her influence and make them fall in love with her. While her comrades feel that Anna is perfectly simple and keeps nothing hidden, but there is in her some other, higher world of interests, inaccessible to them, complex and poetic.

Like in War and Peace, Tolstoy does not confront us at the outset with the familiar lengthy description of a character, nor does he take refuge in the awkward flashback. The revelation of personality in real life comes about over a period of time by slow accretions, by the accumulation of much detailed information and understanding through innumerable small actions and intimacies. Maybe the slow progression makes Anna appear to be more likable even when she commits adultery that leads to devastating consequences.

Even though Vronsky importunates her with his presence, speaks to her whenever he can about his love, she never gives him any cause. But her soul has lit up with the feeling animation that has swept her on the day they first met. She clearly understands that from the sadness which has come over her that she is deceiving herself, that Vronsky’s pursuit not only is not unpleasant for her but constitutes the entire interest of her life. This book is about an agonizing personal conflict, with scattered notions of marriage values.

‘Then do this for me, never say these words to me, and let us be good friends,’ she said in words; but her eyes were saying something quite different.
‘We won’t be friends, you know that yourself. And whether we will be the happiest or the unhappiest of people—is in your power.’ [140]

This sentimental exchange seems almost too familiar to me!

Twitters on War and Peace

I want to share my students’ feedback on the novel and their reading experience. The depth of their insights, the enthusiasm, and perseverance (you need it for a 1400-page book) have truly inspired me and helped me gain a better understanding of the book.

Tolstoy is able to go in and out of his creations’ lives with simplicity and without exaggeration, whether its in relating the most common moments of their daily lives or the climaxes of their earthly existences. This is what kept me engaged.”

I never thought I could finish this book. It was a challenge to even think about signing up for this course. “War and Peace” gave me a much greater respect for Tolstoy than I had previously held (having read Anna Karenina, among others).”

The size of the book was daunting. If I had to pick only one novel that I would ever be able to read again, it would have to be War and Peace. The lectures on realism, Tolstoy’s style, and digression of Napoleon also made it very fun to read.”

Don’t be put off by the length, it’s quite possible to pick up and put down (although we were on a very rigorous schedule!) It maintains its power and vividness of scene and character however long you leave it alone. The war scenes are as gripping as the peace scenes, and there is a great deal to learn from Tolstoy, even us, even now.”

I have read the novel before this course but only vaguely remember the details. Thanks to the mini lectures on historical background, Tolstoy’s writing style and the critical analysis of characters that make this journey very enlightening. the book presents plenty of interesting philosophical and scientific (“science of history”) ideas. The chief one is undoubtedly the question “What causes and shapes historical events?”. Contrary to the popular dogma that historical events are the result of actions of single notable persons (such as Napoleon or king Alexander), Tolstoy believes that such persons don’t really cause events, but rather can only affect them in some ways once they are already in existence. He claims that what really changes history is the amalgam of human actions, built from thousands, nay, millions of small decisions, desires and ambitions of the people.”

I really enjoy reading the book and the discussion on how “peace” really has an implication on the people–how they eventually come to terms of themselves and the society, how they find peace among themselves. “War and peace” but may also mean “War and society”, since “peace” and “society” are homonyms in Russian. There are differences of opinion as to which Tolstoy actually meant when he authored the book. It is very obvious that Tolstoy places a lot of emphasis on society in the book.”

The novel is quite long, and that is the reason I found that I picked up this book in the past and then put it down (not completely grasping the naming structures and not having time I felt to give it my full attention). However, after having finally taken the time to read this great manuscript, it really is a simple story about life, love (true or not), loyalty, friendship, responsibility (real accountability or feigned) and leadership. It is also once again a story of families and their love for each other and how they are able to show their love for one another or how the love is still present; but remains emotionally hidden or ineffectual. And it is a story of how one must understand the true meaning of life and must be content in one’s own skin; before love can truly blossom and be realized.”

We’re having a little party to celebrate the completion of the chunkster in class today. Then we’ll move on to The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevksy.

War and Peace Schedule

I have included here the partial syllabus for the summer Russian novel class. We’re to read Tolstoy’s War and Peace for the first 5 weeks of the course. It would be fun if some of you bloggers can join us.

*All readings are to be completed by the day assigned. Pages are based on the Penguin Classics edition. If you’re reading another editions, read in accord to the book assigned.

Week 1
Monday, May 19 Introduction to the Course: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Bulgakov

Tuesday, May 20 Mini-Lecture: Russian Literature before Tolstoy

Wednesday, May 21 Reading: War and Peace, Book 1, pp. 3-114.
Mini-Lecture: The Napoleonic Wars on the Eastern Front

Thursday, May 22 Reading: War and Peace, Book 2, pp. 117-213.
Mini-Lecture: The Russian Gentry at its Apex

Week 2
Monday, May 26 Memorial Day Holiday – No Class

Tuesday, May 27 Reading: War and Peace, Book 3 & 4, pp. 217-373.

Wednesday, May 28 Mini-Lecture: Tolstoy’s Discourse Style

Thursday, May 29 Reading: War and Peace, Book 5, pp. 377-453.

Week 3
Monday, June 2 Reading: War and Peace, Book 6, pp. 457-534 & pp. 1395-1415.
Mini-Lecture: Structural Features of War and Peace

Tuesday, June 3 Reading: War and Peace, Book 7, pp. 537-588

Wednesday, June 4 Mini-Lecture: Masters and Peasants
*In-class writing assignment. Discussion of Paper #1 topics.

Thursday, June 5 Reading: War and Peace, Book 8, pp. 591-664

Week 4
Monday, June 9 Reading: War and Peace, Book 9, p. 667-757
*Proposal for Paper #1 Due

Tuesday, June 10 Reading: War and Peace, Book 10, 761-914
Mini-Lecture: Men and Women in War and Peace

Wednesday, June 11 Reading: War and Peace, Book 11, pp. 917-1034.

Thursday, June 12 Reading: War and Peace, Book 12 & 13, pp. 1037-1141.

Week 5
Monday, June 16 Reading: War and Peace, Books 14 & 15, pp. 1145-1250.

Tuesday, June 17 Reading: War and Peace, Epilogues 1 & 2, pp. 1253-1351.
Mini-Lecture: Freedom or Determinism?


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Who is your favorite female lead character? And why? (And yes, of course, you can name more than one . . . I always have trouble narrowing down these things to one name, why should I force you to?)

Good question but difficult to answer, for I worship the style and language more than characters. Off the top of my head at this moment would be Vianne Rocher from Chocolat by Joanne Harris. While the priest pits himself against Vianne, who opens a chocolate shop in town, and contrives to thwart the festival planned for Easter Sunday, she has fulfilled a grandmother’s wish, encouraged an unhappy woman to start living for herself, consoled a man whose dog passed away, and welcomed a group of gypsies whom the town despise. The novel just pulls my heart-string with its brimming humanity and warmth.

On the same note but with more edge is Aliena from The Pillars of Earth by Ken Follett. The doomed heiress has proven to be one of the most noblest and admirable characters in literature. Living the life of an incessant revenge’s victim, she stood her ground but not without qualms. William whom she rejected to marry, had ruined her father, raped her, taken her castle, burned her wool trade and exiled her brother, but every time the villain thought he had crushed her she came back again, rising from defeat to new heights of power, wealth, and strength. She’s a true fighter.

Last but certainly not the least, inspired by my inner biased voice, is Anna from Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. She’s probably the one female character in any literature I’ve read that most resembles my scope of love. Don’t get me wrong, I do not have a tinge of an intention to kill myself, nor plan to exile myself from the society. I share the governing principle of her life–love is stronger than anything, even duty. She is powerfully committed to this principle. She rejects Karenin’s request that she stay with him simply to maintain outward appearances of an intact marriage and family. Anna’s greatest worry in the later stages of her relationship with Vronsky is that he no longer loves her but remains with her out of duty only. Her exile from civilized society in the later part of the novel is a symbolic rejection of all the social conventions we normally accept dutifully. She insists on following her heart alone.