Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
’Tis the season to slow down the hectic pace, relax a little, and enjoy some of our favorite things. For that very reason, I decided to indulge myself and re-read one of my treasured Russian classics – Anna Karenina.
In Anna Karenina Tolstoy presents an array of characters from the later half of 19th Century Russia who provide plenty of scenarios that illustrate various customs, controversies, social attitudes, and religious beliefs… those we find in both good and bad behavior. And apropos to Santa’s list, Tolstoy, being of high moral and ethical standards, was not about to let the naughty Anna K. be rewarded for her inappropriate behavior.
Poor, poor Anna… beautiful, sexy, intelligent, kind, and caring. Lovely Anna. Her biggest crime against humanity was falling in love with Vronsky – a wildly attractive playboy – giving in to her passion and deserting her family. That was unforgivable in Tolstoy’s eyes, even though Anna was trapped in an arranged marriage with a man old enough to be her father whom she found to be boring and repulsive.
During this era in Russia there was clearly a double standard for women. The opening scene of the book involves Anna’s married brother Stepan who – caught having an affair with the French maid and trying to justify it as unavoidable says, “there are two women. One (the wife) insists only on her rights, and those rights are your love, which you can’t give her; and the other (the mistress) sacrifices everything for you and asks for nothing. What are you to do? How are you to act? There is a fearful tragedy in it.” A tragedy indeed.
Juxtaposed with Anna is sweet innocent good-hearted Kitty who also falls in love with Vronsky but is spared the creative wrath of Tolstoy. She finds a more appropriate love and is justly rewarded. And Stepan’s polar opposite it Konstantin Levin – the social conscience of the novel – mirroring Tolstoy’s own beliefs. He’s a highly respected country gentleman who works his own farmland alongside the laborers and enjoys nothing more than intellectual debates with his many friends and acquaintances. Aside from the role of heroically saving Kitty, he is Tolstoy’s outlet for expressing political, religious and philosophical views… touching on issues like government waste and corruption, the starving peasantry, education, industrial modernization, and Russia’s role in foreign affairs.
Set in the heart of Russia towards the conclusion of the Tsarist autocracy, the story is rich in history. The traveling back and forth between Moscow, St. Petersburg, and the lush countryside offer the reader a backdrop of graphic descriptions, memorable scenes of birth and death, love trysts and domestic quarrels, social gatherings and political meetings, hunting expeditions, horse races, the opera, and vacations… everything that made up the typical life style of upper class Russian citizens of the time.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky declared the book “flawless as a work of art.” His opinion was shared by Vladimir Nabokov, who especially admired “the flawless magic of Tolstoy’s style,” and by William Faulkner, who described the novel as “the best ever written”.
All contents © 2014 Lois Weisberg. All rights reserved.