"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Monday, February 22, 2010

Thoughts on Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
My first impression of Anna Karenina is that it is an excellent novel about a man named Konstantin Levin. I would be curious to know if Tolstoy regarded Anna as the main character. If he did, I would fault him for doting so much on Levin’s story at the expense of Anna’s. Regardless, Anna is the social centerpiece of Tolstoy’s critique of 19th Century Russian society. Still I never came to see her as the main character of the storyline, which is not to say I found the novel less than wonderful.

On a thematic level, Anna Karenina explores the consequences of self centeredness. To the degree characters fixate on their own wants, they self-destruct. Tolstoy also does a great job of dramatizing how fear and excitement mingle to produce pleasure and a willingness to gamble. The utility role religion plays in social matters intrigued me. Even for non-believers, Christianity remains a valuable social credential. In Tolstoy’s hands, institutions like religion and marriage are as good or bad as the participants. That strikes me as compelling.

What I remain most in awe of is Tolstoy's ability to delve deep into the human soul and explore inner turmoil. For the most part he is able to do it without stalling the story. His depiction of Anna is masterful. Tolstoy makes her hard to peg. Anna is not a hapless victim, nor is she entirely to blame. Still, as Tolstoy all but says with the last section of the novel, enough about Anna. Let's get back to the main character: Levin.

Before we meet Anna, and after her fate is decided, Tolstoy fills many leaves focusing on Levin. He is a great earthy character, genuine, sympathetic, but volatile and clearly improved by the influence of a good woman. One of my favorite chapters involves Levin working away his anxieties by joining the muzhiks in the fields for a day of hard labor. It is invigorating reading. I also loved the humor and awkwardness of Levin and Kitty’s wedding. Easily the most heart-rending passage of the novel for me was reading as Levin endured Kitty's labor pains. Um...yeah, I wrote that last sentence right. And if it bugs you, talk to Tolstoy, because that is what the birthing chapter is about: Levin enduring Kitty's labor pains.

Perhaps because of the subject material--domestic drama--I remained a restless reader. Is this a novel about Anna and her lover Vronsky, with a parallel subplot involving a farmer named Levin? I argue it's the other way around, but that's not a criticism of Tolstoy's amazing novel. It is a criticism of whoever wrote the inadequate synopsis printed on the inside flap of my otherwise excellent Penguin Classics edition. Bottom line, this may be as good as novel writing gets. I recommend it almost as much as War and Peace.

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