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Book Review: Anna Karenina

I guess I'm trying to class the joint up with a book review. I love this book and agree with Maurisa that it is the clearest novel on why selfishness and confused romanticism is destructive.

I've always shied away from this novel. I am just not a fan of adultery story lines. I've seen several different versions of Anna Karenina on video, but the story was always romanticized. I just can't sympathize with adulterers and I cannot see how such stories are romantic. Still, I'd heard this book was wonderful, and Leo Tolstoy is often lauded as the world's greatest novelist. Being a fan of classic literature, I finally decided I'd try and read it. I was not disappointed. Unlike movies based on this work, Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky's love affair is far from romantic. It is tragic. Even before Anna's despair drives her to suicide, their relationship is tragic. Their selfishness does irreparable harm to Anna's son, her husband, Vronsky's career, Anna's reputation, and to their own child.
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7 comments:

Mike said...

Yeah but it's got nothing on Android Karenina http://www.csmonitor.com/Books/chapter-and-verse/2010/0115/Android-Karenina-no-end-in-sight-to-mash-up-novels

Nzie (theRosyGardener) said...

Tolstoy's an incredible writer, but the philosophy behind Anna Karenina is deeply troubling in my opinion. I read it for a class, however, where we spent tons of time analysing it.... from a post I wrote when the book was much fresher in my mind:

What really bugs me is his way that there is one set path to happiness, and I'm surprised that other modern readers aren't bothered by it. To Tolstoy, his way is the only way. But he can't even convince himself in the end-- his golden couple, Levin and Kitty, don't share their most intimate thoughts. And Levin, the good man, and Vronsky, the bad man, are in the same place psychologically, the verge of suicide. That is the true beauty of the novel-- his rejection of the ideology he tries to stuff down the readers' throats for over six hundred pages falls apart into a true and honest expression. I loved the end, sad though it was, and it was his most powerful writing as well, in my opinion, because finally we see the true soul of the artist himself, not what he tried to convince himself, but his real thoughts. And they're sad thoughts, that any meaning life has beyond the temporal is just beyond our grasp or beyond our ability to share; that all paths lead to emptiness, loneliness and despair; that no ideology is a safehaven from the outside world or our own inner struggles. [I don't agree with that view, but it's more honest than the didactics from the first 600 pages.] That is a beautiful novel; if only the rest of it had been that way.

His views on technology, social classes and the west became so prevalent that it's in good measure why Russia wasn't industrialised and that classes didn't fade out. [Note the use of the train-- it's the embodiment of the city and all its evils- and who enters on a train?] The communists inherited practically no industry, and the existing industry had outdated machinery; a highly illiterate population (Tolstoy actually didn't educate any of his numerous children, either); and a lot of luddite-like attitudes. I'm not a fan of theirs in general, and I hate Stalin in particular, but they did teach people to read and bring Russia into the 20th century-- kicking and screaming all the way from the 18th, which is where they had been.

--
Anna and her foil, Kitty, are also examples of his strange philosophy. I don't get into a feminist frenzy just because people didn't think women should work or what have you, but Tolstoy's ideal woman, Kitty, is like a child-- she interacts at the level of a twelve year old-- and the only tasks she's good at are giving birth and nursing the dying. That's kind of strange.

~Nzie

Anonymous said...

"and the only tasks she's good at are giving birth and nursing the dying. That's kind of strange."

To my mind, that's rather Holy. I doubt I'd be good at either: I'm better at quantum mechanics. But I would not hold up the latter as more virtuous than Kitty's ability to care for those entering and leaving this life.

At the risk of a Fr. Z "rabbit hole" I assert that Jane Austen's Fanny Price is likewise misunderstood in modern parlance as "passive." Yet, Austen has Fanny sitting in the "wilderness" whilst the active, walking characters come to her: none are unaffected. Likewise, there is a scene where Fanny stands by a window in the dark whilst the others sit in candlelight about the fortepiano. Edmund, torn, moves toward the light; but did he really? Austen's juxtipositions are powerful. Perhaps Tolstoy as well (as with Myshkin in The Idiot )?

Nzie (theRosyGardener) said...

Again, been tainted by an academic reading. I have little sympathy for modern critiques of traditional views, but Kitty's just horrendously flat as a character. She's an adult woman but sounds like a child (cf. that part when she babbles on about her nieces/nephews' costumes just as a child would about her friends), and then suddenly she's an angel of death, so to speak. And that's all we get of her. I don't cheer Anna, but his characterisation of her, though all the while stomping all over her, is much better than his one of Kitty, who is an idealised but flat heroine-- a poor foil for the tremendous Anna.

And again, even Tolstoy can't stomach his own philosophy at the end. He spends 600 pages shoving a messed up ideology down my throat to only get the good stuff for the last 150, ending with everyone on the verge of suicide, heros and villains alike. It collapses because finally he too realises how shallow it is-- the final conflict between reality and fantasy, for him personally being that even following his own theories was no guarantee of happiness (being a severely depressed person).

Maurisa said...

I wrote the linked review and have to agree with most of what you say, Nzie. I tried to keep my review simple, for such a complex novel, and focused on the two main characters I felt were in juxtaposition. I didn't take the time or space to address my feelings on Kitty, and this is where our opinions greatly diverge.

I, personally, identified most with Kitty. I'm not sure what that may say about me. Instead of flat, I found her character to be simple and unaffected, especially in comparison to Levin and Anna.

I'm glad I waited to read this novel outside academia. I can't stand when my reading is affected by outside influences, other than my own experiences.

I'll have to read up on Tolstoy. From the brief snippets I've gathered, he seemed pretty befuddled and confused philosophically.

Anonymous said...

Tolstoy clearly was reading his Mansfield Park when he wrote Anna Karenina.....

Arnie Perlstein said...

(reposted "nonymously")

Tolstoy clearly was reading his Mansfield Park when he wrote Anna Karenina.....


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