December 4, 2013

Anna Karenina

I know it's the movie poster, but you get all the main characters this way.

We follow two love stories in this novel. We start with Levin, arriving in Moscow to woo Kitty. Anna arrives at the same time to comfort her sister-in-law, Dolly (Kitty’s older sister), in the wake of the revelation that her husband has cheated on her.

In a collision of worlds, Levin proposes to Kitty, but Kitty refuses because she’s in love with Vronsky, a young army officer. Kitty is convinced that Vronsky is about to propose, and even though she loves Levin, she’s blinded by the romance of Vronsky’s courtship. Vronsky meanwhile has just met Anna at the train station, where someone has been hit by a train, and has fallen instantly in love with her, forgetting all about Kitty, whom he never loved, but did like. At the ball following Levin’s proposal, Kitty sees that Vronsky has completely forgotten her and is in love with Anna, whom she had thought of as a mentor.

Levin leaves town painfully hurt at Kitty’s refusal and goes to his country estate, where he spends most of his time. Kitty plunges into depression caused by the double blow of losing Vronsky and secretly realizing that she would have been happy with Levin but she gave him up for nothing. Anna leaves to return to Petersburg to her husband and son. Vronsky leaves for Petersburg for the purpose of following and courting Anna with the hope of becoming her lover.

Anna and Vronsky do become lovers.  Kitty finds consolation through friendship while traveling abroad to recover from her depression. Levin spends a lot of time pouting and trying to improve farming methods on his estate.

Things come to a head for Anna when she finally explodes at her husband and tells him about her affair. Divorce at the time was possible, but very messy and socially anathema. Her husband decides he’d rather save face and tells her that she can do what she wants as long as she doesn’t embarrass him. A short time later, however, he finds Vronsky at his house and in a fury he takes a trip across the country bent on divorcing Anna on his return. Incidentally, she’s also pregnant with Vronsky’s child at this point, but nobody seems to remark on it. The husband rushes back to Petersburg when he gets a telegram telling him that Anna is dying in childbirth. He rushes in and in a moment of divine inspiration, forgives her everything, forgives Vronsky, and adores the baby girl that is not his. Anna recovers, but her spirit is broken under the benevolence of her husband and her own feelings of disgust at her behavior. Vronsky is so upset that he shoots himself in the chest, but doesn’t die. After all that, Anna and Vronsky take the baby and go off to live abroad like a married couple with her husband’s blessing.

Levin eventually has the courage to meet Kitty again and they quickly realize that despite their past, they love each other. Levin immediately proposes and Kitty accepts.

Anna and Vronsky are not happy abroad, in Petersburg, Moscow, or the country. Because Anna is not divorced no one will even acknowledge her in society. This creates such neediness in her that Vronsky feels suffocated and they begin to grow apart. Finally Anna is plunged into a jealous depression and throws herself under a train because of a supposed slight by Vronsky. (Circular story telling!)

The Levins meanwhile have their first baby and generally very happy. The novel wraps up with Vronsky heading off to war, a hollow man after Anna’s suicide, and Levin finding God and happiness in his family circle.

Other Thoughts:

  • So long. So very, very long. But what made Anna Karenina ever so much more readable is the fact that, unlike War and Peace, it sustained a narrative arc the whole time. It was a long story, but it was all story and characters. There was still some philosophizing on the state of the peasant, but much less.
  • AK has one of the most famous openings in literature, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” That line holds true throughout the novel. You can tell just from my synopsis that the Levin story line, the happy one, is much more easily summed up than Anna’s story line, which is full of unhappiness. There are a few times too when Levin is so happy that he admits that he simply agrees to whatever arrangements are suggested to him because it’ll all be fine and he just doesn’t really care because he’s so in love.
  • I feel the most sympathy for Vronsky, of all characters. I wouldn’t have thought to feel sympathy for the guy who stole the married woman, but he is an upstanding, nice guy.  He’s a decent man, a man of honor, and he really does love Anna. It’s really her own unhappiness and the changes they produce in her that begins to drive him away. I can easily see how it would be difficult to be around someone who is always upset, mad, or nitpicking. She can’t go out, she has no life other than him, and so it drives her to absolute distraction when he tries to have a life. Even so, he gives up his army career, which was bright, and his social standing to be with her. He wants to marry her and is the main force encouraging her to get a divorce. Also, he adores his daughter and it kills him that because she was born while Anna was married, she doesn’t legally belong to him. When Anna dies, it nearly destroys him and he feels very responsible for it.
  • I was talking to a good friend while I was reading this one and when she heard what I was reading she said something along the lines of, “I tried to read that in high school. It was awful!” I was pretty surprised, because it really wasn’t bad and actually quite entertaining in its way. As I thought about it, I realized that if I had read it when I was a teenager, I definitely would have hated it too. You have to have a good amount of patience to read a book that long where plot lines develop over the course of years and you can read whole chapters that don’t actually advance the plot at all. It also helps to just have more life experience sometimes. If it ever comes up, I will definitely tell people not to read AK until they’re 30 at least.

Next up is David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. Somehow I don’t think that one’s short either. We’re nearing the half way point. I’ve got 47 books down. I’ll have to start thinking about some sort of half way blog party. Feel free to post ideas!

1 comment:

  1. I've never read it, but I will one day. I took a Dickens survey in grad school and read four of his books at once (to simulate the serial nature of their publication). It was a doozie of a class, but so good! Dickens is long but far more approachable than Tolstoy IMHO. Good luck! (And maybe you just need to steal my idea and start writing about people when you get to the end of your book list!)


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