Saturday, April 12, 2014
Book Review: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Anna Karenin is the wife of a well known political figure in St. Petersburg, Russia. She leads a normal life for a woman of her position in the late 1800s, and she has an 8 year old son. One day when visiting her brother in Moscow, her life changes. She was in Moscow to convince her sister-in-law not to divorce her two-timing husband when she meets the man her sister-in-law's younger sister is in love with, Count Vronsky. Vronsky and Anna have an immediate and unexplainable attraction that they can never shake. They begin an affair in spite of Anna's marriage. Anna feels extremely guilty for what she's done, but can't separate herself from Vronsky. After much turmoil, the affair eventually causes Anna to lose her place in society and drives her into such a deep depression that she throws herself in front of an oncoming train.
That is the story that most people think of when anyone mentions Anna Karenina - inexplicable deep love and personal torment. This story is of course what the book is named for, but not what I would identify as the main point. The story is not just about Anna and Vronsky (gasp!) - the story is sort of split in two and shared between time to describe Anna's life as well as Constantine Levin, the man who is in love with Anna's' sister-in-law's younger sister, Kitty. Kitty is head over heels for Vronsky and all is going well until Anna shows up and unintentionally steals him away from her. Kitty is devastated. She had just refused an offer of marriage from Levin in hopes that Vronsky will ask her only to have him toss her to the side like nothing. Vronsky never feels remorse for this. He's a very self-centered man who is only out to please himself. Kitty and Levin then break for a while, understandably. Levin becomes very deep in work at his farm (in spite of his social status, he enjoys the manual labor of farming), and just goes on with life - but he never really forgets Kitty. Kitty grows up quite a bit, and quite a while later (I believe it's over a year later), she and Levin meet again and become engaged and get married.
It is safe to say that the story of Levin is to serve as a contrast to the story of Anna. If Anna's life is about throwing aside everything in the name of love, Levin's' story is more along the lines of good things come to those who wait. Both stories have one chief concern: the pursuit of happiness. Levin is a very good (and very stereotypically Russian) man, and he not only loves Kitty deeply, but he also devotes a good deal of his life to being a better person. He is on the quest for the meaning of life, and while he doesn't really learn "the meaning", he realizes a great deal about man's relation to God and why it's important. Levin is a very level headed and realistic person, while Anna is wrapped up in being what she believes Vronsky wants her to be, which aids her paranoia that he will up and leave her. She is so codependent it's crazy. She is obsessed with being attractive at all times, spends time reading books on subjects she knows Vronsky is interested in, and can't stand to be separated from Vronsky even for an evening. This mental state would drive anyone nuts, and eventually Anna decides that Vronsky's life would be greatly improved if she wasn't in it, so she kills herself. Levin, on the other hand, achieves healthy and sustainable happiness. He works for what he has and appreciates it, never taking any of it for granted and always striving to achieve more.
I realize this is a very small snippet of what the story actually conveys - it was an incredibly long book. I really enjoyed the entire story though. Not only is it a story about love and happiness, it's also a great look into Russian history in the time that lead to the crazy events that would change Russia forever. It's very interesting to get into the minds of those who lived in that time, and it really does make the Russian revolution in 1912 make much more sense. This was an excellently written book as well - I was quickly struck with how modern the writing style is in spite of it publication date. I can completely understand why this book has been cherished for its entire existence and it is really worth adding to your list. I give this book 5 out of 5 stars.