Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Russian Literature in General and Anna Karenina in Particular

Last week I finished reading Anna Karenina. It was tragic, depressing, passionate, inspiring – with a cast of unforgettable characters and many themes. This story is tightly woven, consisting of a few families that are related in some way, by blood or by marriage. There are many themes in this novel, including inevitable social change in Russia, farming techniques, family life, forgiveness, adultery, death, and marriage. It’s heavy, thoughtful reading – and it often led me to become philosophical and/or thoughtful at times. Be warned – my review/synopsis is rife with spoilers that give away the plot of the book. If you haven’t read it, this blog post might take the enjoyment out of the various surprises and plot twists.

      Levin, one of the two major protagonists, was the easiest character for me to identify with. His religious struggle, his search for meaning in his life, his social awkwardness, and his inability to understand (or tolerate) bureaucracy mirrored some of my own life experiences. His love for the country, for hunting, and for the general welfare of the peasants working on his land endeared me to him quickly. He’s a deep man; he likes to read philosophy – but he busies himself not with an academic occupation, but with a hands-on, labor-intensive one: agriculture. I almost cried for him when Kitty refused his first proposal – it speaks to Tolstoy as a writer that I felt Levin’s anguish at being rejected. Levin is independent and thinks for himself – but does not purposefully challenge society like Anna does.
      Anna, the second protagonist, looks to me like a woman who lets her feelings and moods dictate her life. She is led around by love, by hate, by the refusal of shame. She’s a victim of the double-standard that still exists in society today: if a man is unfaithful, it is ignored – when a woman is unfaithful, she meets with scorn and derision. Regardless, put up next to Levin’s search for happiness – which is for the most part spiritual - Anna’s search for emotional and physical happiness seems selfish in comparison. She eventually performs the ultimate selfish act – suicide – by throwing herself beneath the wheels of a train. She is a tragic character – one who desires love, but is never satisfied; one who desires happiness, but is never satiated.
Vronsky, Anna’s lover, is to me, a repulsive character. He is designed as a hero character, with flaws, yes, but someone to be admired. To be completely honest, I found him petty and shallow. He cared more about how Anna’s damaged status affected his rank in society than he cared about his proposed love’s pain. He cared much about making his child truly his – since their child was born while Anna was married to Alexy Karenin, the child is officially and legally a Karenin, not a Vronsky. He is self-centered and petty. He does have one outstanding quality – although his love for Anna eventually fades a little, he still does love her, and mourns at her passing.
      Anna’s husband, Alexei Karenin, is a high-level bureaucrat with little personality. He is emotionally self-contained and is not very affectionate towards his wife. He has a son with Anna, Seryozha, with which he is unable to truly connect. Anna loves her son dearly, which is much different from the new daughter with Vronsky – she doesn’t seem to be able to connect with her, and lets the staff take care of the baby. Alexei uses this love to his advantage – treating his son as a pawn in game that is the relationship between him and Anna. Later, Alexei is deeply influenced by a society woman who is interested in religion and spirit mediums to refuse a divorce – which influences Anna’s suicide.

There are many other characters that come alive in this novel:
      Sergei Ivanovich, Levin’s half-brother, is a cold intellectual and writer. He and Levin often duel intellectually. While Levin’s arguments sound well-thought-out and well-rounded, Sergei’s seem cold and rigid, and not backed up by any serious thinking or experience. Levin’s brother Nikolai is sickly and thin – he’s an intellectual radical and a drinker. He is cared for by his reformed prostitute girlfriend, Marya. He is a short-lived character, but a pivotal one – his sickness and death is a catalyst for Levin’s spiritual anguish.
Stepan(Stiva) is Anna’s brother, a man who lives for enjoyment and thinks of responsibility later. He has constant money problems throughout the book, and he also indulges in affairs. The first affair starts off the book, with Anna being called in to reconcile the couple. His actions in this regard – the affair – highlight the double standard of adultery. He is chastised lightly, and continues to have affairs, while Anna does the same thing – and is shunned by society and disgraced. Despite this, he is a bright, happy character that it’s hard not to love. He is boisterous and charming, and I was delighted when I read that his wife lamented the rouble he spent sending her a telegram to inform her of some political matter that she could care less about. He sent it, she said, because when he has a few drinks, he can’t help but do it. Ladies and gentlemen, this here is a 19th century DRUNK-DIAL
      Stiva’s wife Dolly is a Shcherbatsky – and sister to another character, Kitty. Dolly has several children with Stiva, and seems to revel in motherhood - and although she does contrast her life with that of Anna (to be free!), she decides she loves her children more than she would enjoy the freedom that she would gain by leaving them. Sadly, Dolly spends most of the book as a victim – of her husband, his infidelity and irresponsibility- and not until later in the book do we actually hear some of her candid thoughts. By the end of the book, she transformed – she was caring, faithful and loving towards her family and friends – in fact, she was one of the only people who would visit Anna despite her ruined reputation.
      Dolly’s sister, Kitty is an interesting character. Although naïve and sheltered, she is loving, religious, and eventually, an attentive wife and mother. Her light, airy religious beliefs contrast to that of her husband, who is consumed with thoughts of death, the meaning of life, and his own mortality. Prince Shcherbatsky (Kitty, Dolly, and Natalie’s father) favors Levin for a suitor of his daughter in the beginning of the novel, while the Princess unwisely prefers Vronsky. When Vronsky fails to do what is expected of him – propose – it doesn’t take long for the couple to argue, then make up. The impression that I got of their marriage was positive – it was a healthy, loving marriage – they aren’t afraid to fight, and they make up quickly – they are very well suited for each other. I also believe that they have the best interests at heart for their children – even if they disagree on the action to be taken.
      In the end, Levin resolves his spiritual anxiety and delights in being a good husband and father, while Anna’s unhappiness drives her to a desperate act. They stand in stark contrast to one another, although what they were searching for was the same: happiness.

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