I have spent the past month reading the great book Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. When I saw there was a movie coming out last fall, I realized I wanted to read it, and wanted to do so before I saw the movie. The book is very long (almost 1000 pages), and luckily I had a few snow days where I could really dig in and read large sections.
I first want to say that I extremely enjoyed reading this novel. It was so good and I can see why it is considered one of the best novels of the nineteenth century. It takes some determination, but I hope that I inspire at least one person to go out and read it!
The books is split into eight parts and follows two main characters, Anna and Levin. The chapters move seamlessly between narrators, including other people who are important in the text. This includes Anna's brother, her lover, her husband, her child, Levin's wife, and various other characters along the way. We can see an entire view of all of the characters because we are always changing points of view. Never does the text seem forced, and I always believe and understand that character's motivations.
Anna Karenina tells the story of Anna, who is unhappily married, but doesn't realize it until she meets Vronsky, a young man who is currently courting another woman, Kitty. Kitty is also being pursued by Levin. Levin is a land owner out on the Russian countryside and considers himself to be agnostic.
The two main characters, Anna and Levin, and somewhat foils to each other. Anna lives a life for herself, trying to find her true happiness, while Levin struggles with the question of what is good and right in life. Both characters represent the two sides of humanity, the two sides that is in each of us. Their characters represent the duality that is found all throughout the novel and life itself.
They know all of the same people, but only meet at one point in the book, which I would argue is the climax of the novel. It is also important to point out that these characters are the upper-class, aristocracy of the late 1800's Russia. There is a clear divide and contrast between their lives and those of the workers, most often seen working on the farm and who are called peasants. The social inequities of the time, ideas of representative government, technological progress (think: railroads), are all ideas that run throughout the novel. One idea that is scoffed at by all male characters (except, possibly, Levin) is that of female rights and intelligence.
While reading about Anna's actions from other characters, she appears selfish and terrible. The writing is so convincing, and we understand the other character's mind so well, that we, too, start to find her terrible. Come to find out, the next chapter goes in depth to Anna's mind and how she views her own actions; she tells her own side of the story, if you will. Tolstoy plays on our emotions so much in this writing style. It does not only work that way for Anna and Levin, but for all of the characters. After finishing the book, I feel like I have lived in their world, and known all of their problems, as if we are old friends.
The writing of the book is simply beautiful. A passage that particularly moved me was near the end: "A feeling similar to the one she always experienced when about to enter the water to bathe seized her now and she crossed herself. The familiar gesture of making the sign of the cross aroused in her mind a whole series of memories of her childhood and girlhood, and suddenly the darkness that enveloped everything for her was torn apart, and for an instant life presented itself to her with all its bright past joys." (p. 884).
Another example is something Levin thinks while he is grappling with the question of our existence. "Without knowledge of what I am and why I am here, it is impossible to live, and since I cannot know that, I cannot live either. In an infinity of time, in an infinity of matter, and an infinity of space a bubble-organism emerges which will exist for a little time and then burst, and that bubble am I." (p. 908).
I particularly identified with Anna while reading the book, which I think we are all meant to, and are all to feel a bit disturbed by. She is a "fallen woman", but she is searching for happiness, even if that comes at the expense of others. This rings too true for what our society and culture values. This is one of the many reasons why the ideas, though written almost 150 years ago, are still relevant today. It is in our human nature to want happiness. It is also in our nature to recognize that life is about more than just ourselves. Anna and Levin.