After months of picking it up, reading for awhile, and putting it down again, I’ve finally finished Anna Karenina. And though it’s seemed more like a marathon than a simple walk through the park, its been very enjoyable. While I don’t find Tolstoy a page-turner, I’m amazed at how well he captures humanity, in all its coarse, unpolished and hum-drum details and therefore how well he captures what it means to be alive. It is glorious, and yet all so ordinary.
And in Anna Karenina Tolstoy manages to fit all turns of life: birth, death, youth, love, hope, disappointment, urban life, rural life, storms and elation. I’ll warn you right now that much of the rest of this post will include PLOT SPOILERS so don’t read after this paragraph if you don’t want to know about some of the plot twists and turns. Just know that I definitely recommend it!
I will admit, for awhile I wasn’t sure if I could finish it. I had stopped reading for a bit right when Anna and Vronsky start their affair, and I was so into the storyline that reading made me anxious and up tight about their fate, so I didn’t enjoy reading! But curiosity got the better of me, and I pushed through to find out that their affair did end up at least sort of working out, and then I got caught up in the love story between Levin and Kitty, and finished the rest without too much difficulty.
There were several poignant moments that I really loved, especially at the birth of Levin’s first child:
He only knew and felt that what was happening was similar to what had happened the year before in the hotel of the provincial town on the deathbed of his brother Nicholas. But that had been grief—this was joy. Yet that grief and this joy were alike outside all the ordinary conditions of life; they were loop-holes, as it were, in that ordinary life through which there came glimpses of something sublime. And, as in that case, what was now being accomplished came harshly, painfully, incomprehensibly; and while watching it, the soul soared to heights it had never known before, at which reason could not keep up with it.
and the tiny little details, like his reaction to his infant son:
And this consciousness was at first so painful, the fear lest that helpless being should suffer was so strong, that it quite hid the strange feeling of unreasoning joy and even pride which he experienced when the baby sneezed.
Watching Anna’s spiral downwards was fascinating and horrifying. It felt so easy to identify with Anna and what she was thinking, and yet at the same time to look at her from without and see how she was making herself miserable. And when she finally committed suicide, it felt so bizarrely understandable! And yet, so tragic. She knew that it wasn’t Vronsky and it wasn’t her, it was some evil force (which I read as depression or a similar mental affliction) that was bearing her under. The detail that Tolstoy put in about when she crossed herself, the great shadow lifted and she remembered what was beautiful in life again, but she went ahead with her suicide anyway, wondering all the while why her body was still moving on this seemingly unalterable course. So heartbreaking, those last few moments, as they seem so preventable.
And then, with the ending of Levin’s discovery of faith, through the words of the simple peasant:
Oh, well, of course, folks are different. One man lives for his own wants and nothing else, like Mituh, he only thinks of filling his belly, but Fokanitch is a righteous man. He lives for his soul. He does not forget God.
I can’t help bring the two together. The book is titled after Anna, and yet Tolstoy ends with Levin. Is the ideal to live for God and righteousness a comment on Anna’s life? One could argue that Anna has lived her life in ways meant to fill her emotional “belly” and not looking at what is the right thing to do but merely what she feels she needs. And yet, she also seems like a woman who’s happiness has been destroyed at every turn by the whims and strict structures of society. One can’t help but feel that she could so easily have been a successful, beneficial member of society. Yet, one can’t deny that she lived for her own happiness. She lived for what she wanted, and not what (in at least one sense) was the “right” thing to do. But then what is the “right” thing to do?
I must admit, I like Levin’s answer. To be a good person, even if it makes no logical sense and you can find no reason to defend it.