Shannon's Reviews > Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
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Feb 05, 10

** spoiler alert ** So I finally finished reading this! After several months of reading I still feel a bit baffled by it, like there's some key element that I missed completely. In the last hundred pages or so I did finally start to feel like I could see what the novel is about, but I'm not sure it's the same thing Tolstoy thinks the novel is about.

For me it's this: Anna can't live because she's a full person in a world that doesn't allow women that luxury. Her death could be read as a moral judgment, but she's not the only adulterer in the novel. Oblonsky and Vronsky are as guilty as she is, but they both get to live. Not only in the literal sense, but in the sense of having lives of their own. They are each free to walk out of the house and find some work to do or some social space where they're still welcome. Anna doesn't have that, and so she goes crazy in the way you might expect of a person locked alone in a house, with only one other person to rely on who's free to come and go as he pleases.

The book got interesting for me in the brief moments when it described the internal struggles of women. Dolly has two periods of questioning her circumstances -- at the beginning when she has to decide whether to forgive her husband, and closer to the end when she travels from Levin's country house to visit Anna and Vronsky. Kitty has what felt to me like a George Eliot moment, after Vronsky has rejected her for Anna and she senses there must be something more to life than being the object of romantic attachment, and before she sinks back into the childish dramas of what Tolstoy seems to think is the model of a happy marriage. The times when we see inside Anna's head are painful. You can see objectively how crazy she is becoming, how it will destroy the limited happiness available to her, and still understand exactly why it's what she has to do.

I had a much harder time with the novel's men. I liked Oblonsky best, which surprised me. He's unprincipled and overly sentimental, but still always likable. I feel like I've met versions of him in real life. I felt from the beginning that Vronsky was no good, and I almost wrote him off completely when he shot himself. What a stupid and melodramatic thing to do. Later on, though, I felt like that moment represented his basic problem better than anything else we see him do; he's passionate enough to shoot himself for love, but not competent enough to hit his mark. He could see Anna the person just well enough to fall in love with her, but not well enough to have any understanding of why or how much she suffered. He couldn't help her, so he left her to suffer alone.

After 800 pages I have no tolerance left for Levin. His sections were always the parts where I got stuck. The introduction in my copy of the book informs me that he's the most autobiographical character Tolstoy ever wrote, which kind of confirms my suspicion that I just don't like Tolstoy very much. In Tolstoy's favor is the fact that he seems to have this hazy sense of Anna as a person too complex for the world she lives in. But Levin's relationship with Kitty is a definite mark against him in my mind. The moment she gets married Kitty turns into nothing more than a compilation of myths about feminine instinct wrapped up in a sweet temperament. Levin, meanwhile, wanders the fields like a sulky adolescent, thinking of killing himself because he has no easy answers to life's broadest questions. He's even more obnoxious when he's at home, wavering between idolizing his wife and having a fit every time she talks to a man who's not her relative. I kept hoping something interesting would happen to change their relationship, but that ended when Kitty had a baby. That seemed to put to rest any possibility that she might still wonder about important things in life beyond her own narrow and sheltered experience.

In the end, the men get to live in the world and the women manage to give it up without too much struggle. The only one stuck somewhere in the middle is Anna, which makes it impossible for her to live at all. I think I would have cared more if the book had been more about her from the beginning. Instead she ends up seeming like an unlucky bystander, killed by the momentum of the ordinary lives lived by the people around her.
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