Tolstoy’s Russia

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

It is easy to see why Anna Karenina is known in many circles as the greatest novel ever written.  It seems impossible that the lives depicted are apparitions of the author’s imagination; they are too true and passionate to have not actually existed.  Tolstoy has offered his readers his interpretation of Russian society, an interpretation that still resonates today.

In terms of plot, the story of Anna Karenina is juxtaposed with that of the book’s true hero, Konstantin Levin.  Per my edition’s introduction, Levin can almost be read as Tolstoy’s mouthpiece.  With this knowledge, I deeply scrutinized Levin’s portion of the book.  We are introduced to Anna as the beautiful and charming wife of Alexey Karenin, a wealthy government figure.  Anna loves the son she shares with Karenin, Seryozha, but little else about him.  She meets Count Alexey Vronsky (it should of course be noted that Anna’s men share the same first name) and throughout the novel pursues her tragic relationship with him.  While the novel details the demise of Anna Karenina, it also portrays the rise of Konstantin Levin.  When the reader meets Levin his proposal of marriage to Katerina “Kitty” Schterbatskaya is being rejected and he is reconciling himself to a life of loneliness and work out in the countryside.  However, circumstances change for Levin and he eventually marries the woman he loves, fathers a son to carry on his name and life’s work, but at the novel’s end he has finally reached spiritual maturity.  Indeed Anna’s legacy is tarnished while Levin’s will flourish.

Anna Karenina is a complete, but deeply flawed, character.  Tolstoy does not hesitate to promulgate Anna’s stunning physical beauty and irresisible charm, but he also does not flinch in highlighting her penchant for jealousy, selfishness and immaturity.  Because of her flaws, Anna is not a likable character.  However, her relationship with Vronsky is deeply alluring.  Like its participants, the relationship is passionate and exciting.  However, because the relationship is founded on the need for escape for Anna and whimsical excitement for Vronsky, it is destined to deteriorate.  Anna has sacrificed too much for the relationship and at the relationship’s end, commits violent suicide.  True to his character, Vronsky is passionately heartbroken exits the novel a tragic figure himself.

Levin, however, is the Tolstoy’s success story.  He pursues the proper avenues in order to learn true happiness.  The book culminates with Tolstoy/Levin’s treatise on the meaning of life.  Levin determines that meaning is found in the nurturing of the soul.  Levin divines that humans are, after all, not simply base animals.  We are born with the ability to differentiate right from wrong, and using our intrinsic knowledge as a guide, we should aim to live as rightly as possible.  He realizes, however, that humans are flawed, and simply knowing what is right does not always mean that the right path will be taken.

Anna Karenina is a truly great novel.  Its themes and characters continue to affect its readers and resonate as well today as they did more than a century ago.  Anna’s and Levin’s dynamic stories will stay with me for a long time to come.


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