Tuesday, October 28, 2008

No Way Out

Anna Karenina
by Leo Tolstoy

There are so many directions in which I could go, so many themes to contemplate about this book. It may even require a second post at some point. My husband E. and I have an ongoing conversation about what makes a classic book a classic. We have not settled on a precise definition yet - I suspect that we never will - but as I read more books that (theoretically at least) fall into the category of "classic" literature, I have to admit that there is some kind of quality - largely indefinable - that sets these time tested favorites apart from the majority of other books. Part of it is quality of the writing, but that is not the whole thing. Anna Karenina and Willa Cather's The Song of the Lark had the same effect on me. We do not so much read these books as experience them. E. even said that I devoured Anna Karenina. It is hard to explain, but it is as if the writer does not so much tell a story as construct a world, a world of which the reader comes to feel more and more a part. The first couple hundred pages I read at a pretty slow pace, as if I were getting acquainted with the characters and the setting of the story. As I was progressively more drawn in, however, I found it harder and harder to put the book down. I felt truly invested in what on earth was going to happen to Anna and Vronsky, and whether or not Levin and Kitty would find happiness in each other.

As I said, there are zillions of questions that Anna Karenina calls us to explore - class differences in 19th century Russia, the nature of faith and its impact on life, double standards regarding sexual behavior, the endurance of love (or lack of endurance), women's options and roles in Russian nobility, the causes and purposes of war, the causes of despair, forgiveness, reconciliation - these are just a few of the issues that Tolstoy raises in the narrative of this story. Any of them could probably fill up a post on their own. However, the main thing I want to raise today is the question of Tolstoy's intentions. One theory that I read said that Tolstoy deliberately set up a contrast with two of the main characters - Anna's sin is meant to be set up against Levin's virtue, showing that the sinful come to a bad end while the virtuous prosper.

We all know, though, that it's not that simple. I would love to ask Tolstoy what HIS opinion of Anna is. She is an adulteress, and in keeping with the times is considered "fallen" and "criminal." I do not condone adultery, but all the same I found myself sympathizing with Anna. She is drawn to Vronsky because she feels that her life is empty and has no meaning, but given her status and position in society there are not too many choices that she has for ways to fill up her time. Given the cold, mechanical, and distant demeanor of her husband, one can hardly blame her for taking companionship and comfort where she can find it. The contrast that really struck me was Anna's ostracism from society when she and Vronsky go public with their affair, while her brother Stiva is a total rake who sleeps around on his wife all the time and everyone tolerates it with wry amusement. In any case, I find Anna a sympathetic character, but would love to know if I am interpreting the story through my 21st century lens or if Tolstoy intended for us to identify with Anna's growing desperation, loneliness, and claustrophobia.

If you have not read Anna Karenina, but think you would like to someday - stop reading here. I do not want to give away the ending.

OK, anyone who has read this book - did you see it coming? Did you know the end that Anna would come to? I suspected what was brewing, but was still devastated when it happened - I kept hoping she and Vronsky would find a way out of the impasse that they reached, but I think that was the point. Given the social conventions of the time, there WAS no way out. Anna definitely became shrill and paranoid and even ugly to Vronsky, but to me her despair was palpable. Vronsky was not blameless, either, but most of the time was trying to create a household and relationship within which the two could live and even thrive. As it unfolded, though, several times I thought "Someone is going to die." I became more and more sure that it would be Anna. When it finally happened, though, it seemed like such a waste. Here she had sacrificed her relationship with her son, lost all of her so called friends, and even been judged by family members, and for what? To reach a point where she could no longer be with the one for whom she had made all this sacrifice, and to throw herself under a train.

My bet is that Vronsky did not survive either. His mission in going to war two months after Anna's death bore all the marks of (if not outright suicide) a major death wish, which he all but admits to Sergei Ivanovich when they last meet.

I am not yet sure what constitutes a "classic," but you know it when you see it. Anna Karenina is quite an investment of time and energy, but well worth the effort.

Reverent Reader


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