On Reading “Anna Karenina”

anna karenina

I think I journal about books, rather than review them. Reviews seem so soulless. Or perhaps I am simply trying to justify the fact that this will be one lengthy post after over a month of nothing.

This novel provoked a multitude of thoughts — a particularly attractive quality in a novel — and all of them jammed inside of my head, competing, I could not organize my thought-process.

“‘I remember, and I know that blue haze like the mist on the mountains in Switzerland. That mist which covers everything in that blissful time when childhood is just ending, and out of that vast circle, happy and gay, there is a path growing narrower and narrower, and it is delightful and alarming to enter the ballroom, bright and splendid as it is.… Who has not been through it?’”

I thought about humans. Clearly, the book contains much exploration of human nature and other neighbouring concepts.

What is the value in writing about people? The phrasing of the question may already hint that I believe there is value in describing the lives of ordinary people, and Tolstoy just reassured me of it.

Reading Anna Karenina has convinced me once more that humans are so very similar yet so distinctly different. Each has hopes, dreams, weaknesses and fears. What distinguishes each is the way we decide to treat those. Some may seem bulletproof and above it all, like Anna seemed to Levin, but at the core we all experience life with all of its baggage.

Exploration of human characteristics is central to the novel. Right from the start, Levin and Vronsky are meant to be compared. They both love Kitty, which already sets them up for comparison in the eyes of the reader, but otherwise are completely contrary to one another. When Levin meets Vronsky for the first time, he sees him as a rival, and Tolstoy suggests there are two ways for rivals to compare each other: either they embellish the positive qualities, seeing how much they themselves lack, or they focus on the negative and channel hatred through such observation. Levin immediately assumes the first method in praising Vronsky and recognizing why Kitty would be enthralled by a man such as him. When Vronsky sees Anna’s husband (his natural rival), he only notices the flaws in the way he walks and carries himself. This struck me as a drastic difference between the two, especially since Tolstoy constructed these scenes for comparison, and the novel contains many more.

By the end I discovered that we are supposed to see Levin and Kitty as the “right” way to be, while Vronsky and Anna are an example of what goes wrong when people lose sense and follow their passion.

Then I thought about Anna in particular. In the very beginning, as she is going back to St. Petersburg, Anna reads a novel on the train, and that scene told me a lot about her character. She is driven by passions and romantic ideals. She wants to live the novel, if you will. The life with an older, richer, famous man and an eight year old son is not enough for her, and she craves the drama which Vronsky brings into her life. I am still tormented by doubts about whether she truly loved Vronsky or convinced herself she did. I really wanted to like her, before I started reading, but I found that I could not even force myself to do that. Whenever there was something positive in her, it would always be marred by something. I thought of my mother, and how she loves Anna, while firmly believing that Tolstoy wrote her with the intent to criticize her. I couldn’t love her, and I barely managed to pity her — although pity is the most clear emotion she instilled in me. As I’ve discovered upon reading the afterword, this is exactly how Tolstoy wanted to write her. His wife describes in her diary entry that he thought of a certain type of woman, and his mission was to make her only pitiful and not guilty.

This led me to think about the novel from an external point of view. Can we ever judge fictional characters as beings separate from author? Or do we always, even if unconsciously, consider the author’s thoughts and motives for writing them? This idea stuck with me for a while and made me reconsider the way I write. I don’t know if my characters could exist on their own. Nevertheless, Tolstoy’s characters seem to.

The afterword (now I try to skim through them, as they are goldmines of contextual information) discussed the creation process behind Anna Karenina, and I wondered how knowing it would affect my opinion about the novel. Turns out that the conception of the book was inspired by Pushkin, specifically a collection of his short stories. Tolstoy had the core idea for Anna’s character but nothing else, until he reread some Pushkin. Apparently, the influence was so tremendous that Tolstoy at first considered naming the lead character Tatiana (after Pushkin’s wife, presuming). The opening lines of the novel also experienced many transformations, and intially not at all resembled the famous statement about families. Reading all of this made me more and more interested in the process an author undergoes between idea and finalized version. I would like to continue pondering this in the future as I read, perhaps even academically.

Overall, there was so much going on in my mind as I read Anna Karenina that I cannot possibly put it into words or organize it into a coherent flow of prose. Suffice it to say that when a book produces such an effect on me, I can certainly say it is a good one.



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