Thursday, December 15, 2011

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in it's own way."

This was actually the book that I was supposed to post about a while ago, but it took me a very long time to read. I am not making any excuses for myself, but it is a really long book.

Anna Karenina is a book that follows the lives of several closely linked Russian families. Each family has it's good and bad times, but mostly bad times. It parallels the differences of lives led in the country and in the cities of Russia. Mostly set in the rural area of Russia at the home of Levin, and in the city of Petersburg at the home of Karenin, and in Moscow around the home of Oblonksy.

The three main families to follow are the Levins, Karenins, and Oblonksys. They are all related by marriage (at least by Part 5 when Levin marries the sister-in-law of Oblonsky. At some points I found it a little difficult to keep up with the separate lives of everyone since Tolstoy intermingles them so often. Once I found myself getting used to the jumps and the writing style it became more natural to associate the different passages with the different families.

I'd have to say that my favorite family would be the Levins. This is most likely because it's the family that is the least linked to the frivolous lifestyle of the city, and also the family that worries more about the contribution they make to society than the contribution society makes to them. Working on the farm before he is married Levin worries about the process and the labor used to work his land. He begins to write a book on the farming of the land based on the views of the peasants who were recently freed from serfdom. He works the land side by side, speaks with the peasants, and tries to find a way to include them in the working of the land so that they see it more as working for themselves than simply working for a wage. After he marries Kitty (Oblonksy's sister-in-law) he loses sight of his original goals, and feels the loss of freedom that comes with marriage. They have their marital disputes such as most couple face, and yet Tolstoy writes such love into their lives. I believe that Kitty and Levin end up being the only couple who find real happiness at all.

Oblonksy on the other hand is a rascal, a philanderer, and very wasteful in spending. During part one Dolly, his wife, finds out about an affair that he had with a previous employee of theirs. She is utterly heartbroken and threatens to leave him. Her thoughts of leaving are only swayed by the words of Oblonsky's sister Anna Karenina. She is convinced that she should forgive her husband of his exploits and change nothing in the way they live. She does this, and finds out very quickly that nothing can really ever be the same. At the same time Oblonsky has known for a long while that he is no longer in love with his wife, and continually has pursuits outside of the family situation. This never changes throughout the novel. Oblonsky is portrayed as a general man about town. He is well liked by everyone, and never puts an opinion out that would upset too many people at once. He is a politician that follows only the most current trends in everything including fashion and leisurely pursuits. Buy the end of the novel they are in such financial straits that he tries and obtains a job of which he has no actual qualifications in which he receives a much larger salary and doesn't have to leave office. For this family it is all about broken trust and money. I think more than any other family, this one disappoints me the most. I really hate that he got a position based on his general likableness and not on the grounds of actually having the means to accomplish the job well.

The last family of major importance is the Karenins. Of course, Anna Karenina is the one the book is named for. She is a woman married to a very famous politician and leading thinker in Petersburg. In her very first introduction she is shown as a sensible woman who doesn't lean towards excessive dress and shows unfaltering love for her only son. Then she meets Vronksy and it all pretty much goes downhill from there. Originally when they meet at the ball it seems like Anna is above the petty attentions of Vronsky and that she dances with him but refuses anything further. Vronsky has fallen deeply in love with her so soon, he follows her home to Petersburg when she goes. I believe the time frame is nearly a year before Anna breaks down to him and finally becomes his lover. She continues to live her daily life with her husband and see Vronsky when she can. Eventually it all comes out in the open, and her husband Karenin is made aware of the realness of the situation. A lot of things happen in the middle, but eventually Anna leaves Karenin and lives as a kept woman with Vronsky.

During the time that Anna lives with Vronsky it's made more and more apparent that she suffers from the loss of her son. She also becomes insanely jealous of anything that Vronsky does that doesn't include herself. She was jealous throughout the whole affair, it just gets so much worse now that she is placed in a horrible position in society. There is much discussion about a divorce so that she can become the rightful wife, and regain at least a little of her standing in society. And yet, Anna is so back and forth on the idea because she can't stand the thought of losing her son forever. Eventually the whole situation of her jealousy gets so out of hand that she makes a move, and it's for the worst.

While reading the novel I was never very concerned about Oblonksy, his wife Dolly, Karenin, Anna, or Kitty the wife of Levin. The two characters I felt for the most would be Vronsky and Levin. Levin had my love from almost the very beginning. He asked Kitty to marry him in Part One, she refused him then because she thought she was going to get a better offer. This really made me not like her. He went home to his farm and began to work more intensely on cultivating and learning what was going on. His passion was based on what was actually taking place in front of him, based in the real life instead of all the talk of higher powers and official business of the country. I've always appreciated someone who tried to improve the country by starting small instead of reaching for the stars without even getting a ladder.

Vronsky I enjoyed because his love continued even through all the bad times. Anna loved him to the point of nearly smothering. She needed him in her loneliness, needed to know without a doubt that he would never leave her nor betray her. And he never did. Seeing the situation from his side, I can feel the pressure and the constant struggle. He loses some love for Anna when they leave Petersburg together, and yet he remains faithful to a fault. Anna never really believes or trusts in his love when he isn't within her eyesight. There is a constant battle for him to prove himself more and more thoroughly. It's never enough for Anna, no matter what he says or does, she always loses faith in him when he goes away. All of this is wearing him down, but he knows she gave up so much to be with him, and he stays.

My boss said something really funny to me when he found out that I was reading Tolstoy. He said that "it's dryer than the driest desert." Surprisingly enough I actually ended up falling in love with this book. It was very long, and took me a very long time to read. But I made it through and enjoyed almost all of it. If you want something to read that you can savor for a very long time, I'd suggest this book. It's not all about romance though, a good deal of the book is based in questioning religion and science, and also a good deal about politics and philosophy. It's Russian, I'd expect nothing less. Either way, those are the kinds of things I like, so I loved the book. The real question is this: will I ever read it again? Not likely, it's not a book that you could just pick up for some light reading, or get any enjoyment out of reading just a couple chapters.

I already finsihed reading Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell and will post my review about that tomorrow and let you all know what I'll be starting to read tonight. I'd tell you now, but I haven't exactly decided. It's between three books from the list I previously posted.

Until tomorrow then, I wish you happy reading,


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