Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Anna Karenina: The Need for Reality

*Note: This is my first book review on this blog. My reviews may contain minor spoilers, but I will try to refrain from sharing plot elements except the bare minimum necessary to make the review meaningful. I hope you will find that to be the case. Read on.

“There is less charm in life when one thinks of death, but there is more peace.”
-- Leo Tolstoy in Anna Karenina 

It all began the day Anna Karenina stepped of the train and the rail worker stepped in front of it. The sight of the rail worker’s death causes quite the disruption in Anna’s seemingly peaceful life. The beautiful Anna is the dutiful, if not loving, wife of the respected, but much older Karenin, a public official. Anna has resigned herself to this life, but she has not truly devoted herself to it. Anna imagines she has come to Moscow on a goodwill mission to reconcile her sister-in-law, Dolly, to Anna’s unfaithful brother, Stiva. After seeing the untimely and disturbing death of the rail worker at the Moscow station, Anna perceives a bad omen, but she cannot understand it. Her peaceful life is about to be run over by a train of its own, a train of her own making. 

Tolstoy’s study and critique of hypocrisy in his contemporary Russian society play a vital role in the novel. Anna’s undulating path begins with her own hypocritical choice to accept the advances of Count Alexei Vronsky even as she reconciles her brother to his wife after his own latest affair. Anna hypocritically refuses to halt Vronsky’s advances, allowing his attention to come between her and Karenin. She begins to compare him unfavorably to Vronsky, not Vronsky as he is, but Vronsky as she has come to create him. 

Anna’s egoism does not allow her to account for the perspective that society brings to her relationships. She attempts to maintain and regain her position in society despite the fact that she has chosen to break with it. Society itself is built on the trustworthy relationships of individuals. Society cannot exist when this trust breaks down. Anna places herself outside of society, but she cannot understand why society cannot be for her in her own choices. Tolstoy wonderfully places us within Anna’s own thought as she wrestles with social opinions and the society that she would have for herself. She cannot impose her own egoistic conception on those around her, so she tries to place it on those closest to her, especially, Vronsky. When she cannot control even Vronsky, she realizes that she has been lying to herself all along. It is all outside of her control, unwilling to turn upon herself and accept a new standard of control her only alternative is to let herself go. As she has made the choice to live beyond the established order, she loses all sense of order. Anna, like all of us, only has power within the ordered context of society. By placing herself outside and above this context, Anna loses all power. Through the novel, we painfully watch her realize this fact without acknowledging it. 

Tolstoy drives this point home in Anna’s overuse of drugs to help her to sleep. As she experiences the loss of control over her environment, Anna loses the ability to control her own psyche. Here lies the contrast between Anna and the novel’s deuteragonist, Konstantin Levin. Levin also does not appreciate the hypocritical tendencies of society, but he does not attempt to place himself beyond it. Instead he retreats to the society in which his life can have for him the most meaning. He does not abandon. Levin finds in the country and through the hard working peasants on his farm the context in which he can exercise his beliefs. Levin though must learn to integrate into this context the close relationship with Kitty, his eventual bride. 

Providence works through the questionable choices of Anna as her attraction takes Vronsky from his attentions towards Kitty. Kitty reaches a point of depression that actually allows her to grow by reexamining her core worldview and strengthen her commitment to a life freed from the hypocrisies seen all around her. Her relationship with Levin masterfully displays their individual and collective maturation as they deepen their faith and commitment. This maturation allows them to resist the evil influences of city social life that proved to be too much for the egoistic Anna. 

Levin finds new and deeper love for Kitty by allowing her a place at his side as they work together. They are brought together not only by a love for each other but by the fact that they are motivated by the same principles. This is on display as Kitty joins with Levin in the caring for Levin’s dying brother. By working with each other, Levin and Kitty create new and deeper bond. Kitty raises her estimation in Levin’s eyes and his love for her grows allowing them to weather the troubles of their young marriage. Despite the many struggles, Levin and Kitty grow closer and each renders the other more effective in their work. 

Adversely, Anna has no place in her husband's work. She has no direction for her love and her relationship with him. While she appears to be safely within the marriage, it is not a marriage at all as the novel plays out. Her love and devotion have no directing force or principle beyond herself and this leaves her open to the choices, which cause her downfall. This too is Tolstoy’s critique of his society, particularly in the cities of his contemporary Russia. Society expected the faithfulness in marriage without giving its members the opportunity to act out the very purpose of marriage. Levin and Kitty are able to do find this purpose and develop a rewarding relationship from it, while the lack of purpose in general society can only bring unhappiness and demise, as Anna so tragically demonstrates. 

Tolstoy has created a masterpiece that many have declared the greatest novel ever written. Even Tolstoy's contemporary Fyodor Dostoyevsky called it perfect, and he may be right. Tolstoy brings the reader close to his individual characters through his narration and allows us to decipher their thoughts motivations within a beautifully constructed drama. This constant movement between the psyche of the characters and the intensely realistic story allows the reader to interact with both more deeply. If you have never read Anna Karenina, make sure you do. If you have read it, go back and appreciate it again.

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