Thoughts: Anna Karenina

25 Apr

Anna Karenina Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For me, this book bloomed from exceptionally good to incomparably illuminating. Tolstoy first impressed me with his style; not for its lyrical or poetic qualities, but for its clarity, its thorough and deep intuition into characters and thought processes. These elements extend the narrative, not an uneconomical or excessive wordiness. In fact, I thought Tolstoy chose his words carefully without pomp or haughtiness. He treats the story like a natural scientist; comparing and contrasting characteristics, circumstances, occupations, choices, reactions, philosophies, etc. And for a personally attractive touch, the story contains several criticisms of nobility, urban aristocracy, government, organized religion and social love customs.

The story resolves with Levin’s extraordinary epiphany. Most stories traverse the protagonist’s character change but, ironically, Levin’s realization, which I won’t recount here (Part VIII, Chapters 12 and 13), does not inspire an outward change but gives him peace from doubts and self-deprecation. Yet the book is titled Anna Karenina and she changes irrevocably. Though she exchanges one misery for another.

Tolstoy explores the question of happiness; how to recognize it and how to attain it. Considering that marriage and love propel the characters’ vehicles toward illusionary happy endings, I found it intriguing how they fantasized about and reacted to the institution. When characters contemplated their happiness at someone else’s side, those partners were considered pieces to a puzzle. However, male characters, in particular, rarely thought of themselves as pieces to the other person’s happiness. If they devoted themselves in the pursuit of someone else’s happiness, as fervently as they naturally pursue their own, and found someone devoted in kind, inevitably, both would enjoy the illusive happiness so highly valued. Similarly, if Levin’s agricultural model were implemented, in which self-interests of the landowner and peasant are aligned, theoretically, profits would accumulate at a greater rate than if peasants were forced to work without self-interest, as they worked under serfdom. In marriage, the groom and bride, interested in their own individual happiness and not the other’s, only need to align their interests, the spouse interested in the happiness of their betrothed as well as their own.

Specifically, Anna’s thoughts, entirely devoted to her own idea of love, have little space for the desires of others. Though her choices to pursue true love and free her natural character appear justified and enviable, her obsessive preoccupation with maintaining that love without the assistance of social custom cause her to imagine a world in which all people hate each other and exist simply to survive. Her shame entirely penetrates her disposition and effecs her perspective on nearly everything; cynicism, pessimism and loathing of the world and those who find happiness in it. All this suffering is conjured by her shattered psyche; a mirror to the way she sees herself.

…the struggle for existence and hatred are the only things that hold people together.

Whereas Levin realizes that living for good, for the soul, regardless of ones theories and philosophies about life

And not only the pride of intellect, but the stupidity of intellect. And, above all, the dishonesty, yes, the dishonesty of intellect. Yes, indeed, the dishonesty and trickery of intellect

give meaning and happiness to a troublesome existence.

Though Levin seems a literary manifestation of Tolstoy himself, he asserts very little as to absolute truth. One might see a condemnation of aristocratic marriage but would think twice after Anna’s demise. One might consider Levin’s theories about agricultural economy, his condemnation of earning large salaries without labor, a key to the common good but his spiritual realization preoccupies him from executing his plans. One might commend Karenin’s Christian magnanimity only to see it transform into a self-glorifying superstition. One might consider Oblonsky’s amoral self-gratification deplorable but feel unfulfilled at the absence of consequences. Despite these ambiguities, Tolstoy thrills his readers with insights, enviable to writers like Fitzgerald, and philosophies garbed in plain speech; thusly representing the inconsistency of real world social living centered around self-indulgent plans to satisfy a desire for unendurable happiness.

View all my reviews

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Posted by on April 25, 2012 in Leo Tolstoy


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