Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (Final Thoughts)

Now more than ever before in my life I see how the person you are when you read a novel effects how you react to it. Lesley and I first discovered this in our shared read of The Thorn Birds. I found it to be true again not a month later with Anna Karenina.
The first time I read Anna Karenina I was in college. Anna’s obsession with Vronsky made sense to me then. I couldn’t understand why my paper which compared her to women everywhere was received with scorn by my Russian Literature professor. “She’s a cold fish,” I thought to myself, and dismissed her opinion as easily as Anna dismissed the voice of reason expressed all around her.
When I saw that the film was being released this November, Arti and I decided to read it together this autumn. I also suggested it to my mother’s book club, to which I have been kindly included for the past twenty years. As the leader for our discussion I opened with, “Can’t you relate to Anna? Isn’t she like women everywhere?” I was met with a combination of blank looks and disbelieving eyes. “No,” they said, “she’s not like us at all.”
Of course, when well past one’s twenties, one finds more rational thought than Anna expressed in Tolstoy’s novel. She’d languished in the force of Vronsky’s gaze, she’d trembled at his touch, and soon she’d abandoned everything for his love. Her marriage, her son, her place in society were all replaced by an ever consuming love for Vronksy which was eventually poisonous in its expression. The depth of her emotion was poisonous to him, and ultimately poisonous to her, resulting in her own demise. Unlike Madame Bovary’s lover, Vronsky truly loved Anna but nothing he could do would convince her that was so.
And suddenly, remembering the man who was run over the day she first met Vronsky, she realized what she must do. With a quick, light step she went down the stairs that led from the water pump to the rails and stopped close to the passing train. She looked at the bottoms of the carriages, at the bolts and chains and big cast-iron wheels of the first carriage slowly rolling by, and tried to estimate by eye the midpoint between the front and back wheels and the moment when the middle would be in front of her.
‘There!’ she said to herself, staring into the shadow of the carriage as the sand mixed with coal poured between the sleepers, ‘there, right in the middle, and I’ll punish him and be rid of everybody and of myself.’ (p. 768)
In the ultimate act of selfishness, Anna throws herself in front of a train. To some this act is viewed as despair, to others it is a way to ‘make him pay’ for not loving her enough. But, what is enough? As my dear friend Carol said to me the other night over a cup of tea, “She was chasing after that which could never satisfy.” We cannot find our fulfillment in another human being. Surely we can love. Surely we can find joy and laughter and passion in the presence of our lover. But our needs can never be entirely met by someone else.
I believe that Tolstoy hints at this when he tells the story of Konstantin Levin. His wealthy landowner life parallels that of the St. Petersberg/Moscow life which Anna and Vronsky pretend to enjoy. He works hard with the peasants, in some of the most beautifully written passages I have ever read.

Not understanding what it was or where it came from, in the midst of his work he suddenly felt a pleasant sensation of coolness on his hot, sweaty shoulders. He glanced at the sky while his blade was being whetted. A low, heavy cloud had come over it, and big drops of rain were falling. Some muzhiks went for their caftans and put them on; others, just like Levin, merely shrugged their shoulders joyfully under the pleasant freshness.

They finished another swath and another. They went through long swaths, short swaths, with bad grass, with good grass. Levin lost all awareness of time and had no idea whether it was late or early. A change now began to take place in his work which gave him enormous pleasure. In the midst of his work moments came to him when he forgot what he was doing and began to feel light, and in those moments his swath came out as even and good as Titus’s. But soon as he remembered what he was doing and started trying to do better, he at once felt how hard the work was and the swath came out badly.” (p. 251)

The novel does not end with Anna’s death. It ends with Levin’s beginning. He has come to understand the very foundations of faith, of belief in God, and I can’t think of a better way to sum up a novel which focuses on happiness. On needs. On our ultimate fulfillment as human beings.
‘This new feeling hasn’t changed me, hasn’t made me happy or suddenly enlightened, as I dreamed – just like the feeling for my son. Nor was there any surprise. And faith or not faith – I don’t know what it is – but this feeling has entered into me just as imperceptibly through suffering and has firmly lodged itself in my soul.
‘I’ll get angry in the same way with the coachman Ivan, argue in the same way, speak in my mind inappropriately, there will be the same wall between my soul’s holy of holies and other people, even my wife, I’ll accuse her in the same way of my own fear and then regret it, I’ll fail in the same way to understand with my reason why I pray, and yet I will pray – but my life now, my whole life, regardless of all that may happen to me, every minute of it, is not only not meaningless, as it was before, but has the unquestionable meaning of the good which it is in my power to put into it!’
The End

I read this with Arti of Ripple Effects. You can find her thoughts here, Care’s here, and Stephanie’s here.


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40 comments

  1. but my life now, my whole life, regardless of all that may happen to me, every minute of it, is not only not meaningless, as it was before, but has the unquestionable meaning of the good which it is in my power to put into it!'

    It's been 17 years since I read this novel and I felt the same way about Anna as you did. I related to her and thought she was like most women. I have a feeling I would have a different reaction to now if I were to read it a second time. I'm anxious to see the movie, though! I wish we lived closer so we could go together.

  2. I read this shortly after college. I liked the book immensely but never related to Anna's obsession, her willingness to toss everythig for Vronsky. There are people like Anna, I've known one, who for what ever reason can't accept themselves apart from that OTHER person.

  3. I know!!! I've so often wishec we lived closer, and if Illinois continues to be the worst run state in the union it may happen one day!

    It's been so interesting to me to discover with you how reactions to a novel change depending on one's age/point if reference. Maybe now that we're both happily married we can't really compare ourselves to Anna's situation.

    I was initially disappointed when I saw Kiera Knightly cast in Anna's role, but from the previews I've seen I think it might actually work quite well. The setting looks fantastic in any case.

  4. Wonderful reflection — I read this book about ten years ago and felt very miffed at Anna but I wondered then if I envied her dramatic love life. Now, I suspect I'd feel the way you do — seeing her selfishness. I suspect so many novels I read in college that I adored wouldn't hold up to reread — I loved me some dramatic, insane heroines.

  5. Your wonderful review makes me more excited about seeing the movie! Thank you for sharing your thoughts on Anna Karenina, Bellezza. (I think many people–especially young women–want to be completely “swept up” by romantic love, without regards to the complications or outcomes.)

  6. Thanks Bellezza for an eloquent and thoughtful wrap-up. I've appreciated your sharing the different responses you've had comparing now with the days of thy youth. ;) I've already written mine, but I'll stick to the scheduled date of posting, which is Nov. 15, that's tomorrow. I've been longing to post it so to open the pond for pebbles to be thrown in and see how the ripples go. I can tell you, you just might find some interesting things we share in common… Do stop by Ripple Effects tomorrow.

    Again, thanks so much for taking this journey with me. I've enjoyed the camaraderie of reading together. So, hopefully we'll do another title some time in 2013. Don't you wish we could go to watch the movie together?

  7. I call it the Disney Curse, Suko. You know, being raised on films where the heroine sang, “Some day my prince will come.” Many females are just that vulnerable that they believe it, whereas I was raised with the idea that if he came, good for me, but if he didn't I'd better be prepared to manage on my own. Emotionally and finacially. Well, there's a whole new kettle of fish in this response of mine, so let's just say some sweeping up sounds good. Just not so much that “I” lose track of who I am. (I'm glad I didn't have the tricky job of raising a daughter. ;)

  8. Hi Arti, I sat down to compile my thoughts last night worried that I'd miss the 'deadline' you'd set up for November 15 and when I hit “schedule” I apparently put midnight for the wrong day. Math and I, never the best of friends. Anyway, you can be sure that I'll stop by to see what pond you filled, and to throw in some of my own pebbles. We so often see eye to eye I won't be surprised to see some common thoughts, but I know you'll have your own special take which will widen my eyes even further.

    I love reading with you! Sorry I bailed on Midnight's Children, but it's a rare thing for me to ever break a committment, and don't say hopefully we'll read another title in 2013 together. Let's say we will. And yes, I'd love to see the film with you, as you are an aficionado in 'moving pictures'.

  9. Wonderful review! I especially liked 'Her marriage, her son, her place in society were all replaced by an ever consuming love for Vronksy which was eventually poisonous in its expression.' I thought the book amazing, on many levels.

  10. Me, too, Care. “On many levels” is key here because the story is certainly not only about Anna.

    I'm worried that the film will focus on her to the extent that the other stories/themes will be diminished, or worse, lost.

  11. Oh no! Now I know how it ends! But that's okay, I'll still read it anyway. I love your post, as always. It shows how reading can be a testament to our maturity. I haven't read Wuthering Heights in recent years and I adored it as a kid because of the wild and melancholic romance. Your post makes me think how different I might perceive Catherine now.

    Btw, completely irrelevant. Mr Linky isn't working any longer for me at the JLC6 site.

  12. Oh no! I shouldn't have put the ending, which I try not to do in posts. I just assumed, incorrectly, that the ending is well known. I'm so sorry, Claire.

    Off to check the Mr. Linky. I know it's been a bit off, and I had to fix something a few weeks ago; now I might have to add just another link above the one that was there. Thanks for the heads up. (Isn't it fun to have Tony's January in Japan challenge?)

  13. No worries about the ending ha ha! It's one minuscule dot in the tome. What matters to me in reading is the journey. :)

    Very excited about January in Japan! I was thinking of reading The Tale of Genji, which means I probably won't be able to read anything but one book all month. Although I'm tempted to read Kawabata or Mishima or Soseki too ha ha, but where to fit them in? Genji is over 1000 pages.

  14. Goodness, who knows about that cover?! Was it trying to be alluring? If so, it fell far short of the goal in my opinion. More than one person has said, “Huh?” as in “Violets above bare knees, I don't get it.” Neither do I.

    I know this edition was a very easy one to read, but then again so was Constance Garnett's. Both are equally good in my opinion.

    I've always wanted to read A Tale of Genji, but as you say, then I could only fit in one book for all of January. It's a beast! I do have the abridged version, though, and I was just sent The Tale of The Heike which looks like Beast 2, although a worthy one. :)

  15. What a wonderful post! I had never read the book before so I had a hard time understanding why everyone thought Anna's such a romantic love story. But you just explained it all to me since you have had the pleasure of reading it twice at two different ages.

  16. Unfortunately I will never know what my twenty something year old self would have thought of this but I definitely want to read this before the movie comes out. I have a feeling that at almost 50 I will be less forgiving of Anna's obsession with loving the wrong man but it will be interesting to find out!

  17. I guess Anna's story has been perceived as such a romantic one because of its drama. But the drama I once yearned for is now replaced with a need for peace and assurance; the difference, I suppose between being in one's 20s and 50s.

  18. It's so true, Kathleen, that the older we are the less…tolerant, perhaps, is the word…we become. At least speaking for myself. I don't have time for foolish games, for wasting what is the good in my life.

  19. Perhaps you'd like to do what Care did in that she listened to it on audio. Maybe that would make the 'task' less strenuous. Believe me, Russian literature, especially the ones which are 900+ pages, can be very daunting.

  20. I really didn't think I was interested in re-reading this one, but the passages about Levin you quoted have made me rethink it. It's rare to see manual labor and its rewards so beautifully described – or so realistically.

    And here's a stray thought that came to me. Levin observes that “In the midst of his work moments came to him when he forgot what he was doing and began to feel light, and in those moments his swath came out as even and good as Titus's. But soon as he remembered what he was doing and started trying to do better, he at once felt how hard the work was and the swath came out badly.”

    The same holds true in relationships. One of Anna's characteristics is her obsessive self-awareness – the kind of “trying too hard” at relationship that makes things turn out badly. It would be worth the read just to explore the parallels between Anna and Levin.

  21. Linda, one of the (many) things that I love about you is how you succinctly say what I want to point out in a few simple paragraphs. Your insights are profound, and you even cause me to rethink what I myself have written. You are a blessing in so many ways.

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