Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

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Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy is a novel about love and marriage among the Russian aristocracy in the 1870s. Anna is young, beautiful woman married to a powerful government minister, Karenin. She falls in love with the elegant Count Vronsky and after becoming pregnant by him, leaves her husband Karenin and her son Seryozha to live with her lover. Despite the intervention of friends such as her brother Oblonsky, an adulterer himself, she is unable to obtain a divorce, and lives isolated from the society that once glorified her. As a man, Vronsky enjoys relative social freedom, which causes Anna to have increasingly intense fits of jealousy. Because of her constant suspicion, she thinks that Vronsky’s love for her is dwindling. Their story is ended by an exciting finale that moves the reader.
Interwoven with the story of Anna, is the tale of Levin, a thoughtful, passionate young man who seeks to marry the Princess Catherine Shcherbatskaya, known as Kitty. Kitty rejects his first proposal because she believes that Vronsky, who flirted with her before he met Anna, intends to marry her. Levin is devastated and withdraws to his country estate and works on a book about agriculture. But the couple reunites through another appearance of Oblonsky, Kitty’s brother in law, and they discover that they are deeply in love. Kitty joyfully accepts Levin’s second proposal. Once married, they live happily in the country, host their families and guests during the summers, and have a son. Levin's philosophical doubt and religious skepticism trouble him despite his domestic happiness, but, after a spiritual enlightenment, he finally recognizes that the capacity for goodness is innate. He devotes himself to living for his loved ones, and to giving his life meaning by advancing the will of God.
Anna Karenina is a timeless classic and has been acclaimed by many literary critics as the best or one of the best novels of all time. One critic tells us that “the character development throughout is what makes this novel a classic,” and goes on to say, “This is one of the best books I have ever read.” The character development is a very intriguing part of the story and keeps the reader turning the page to see what each person goes through next. There are so many characters that a reader might lose track if they are not paying close enough attention, but each one has their own captivating story to tell.

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Anna and Vronky’s relationship is the one most closely examined by Tolstoy. The two start of as esteemed individuals in society. Vronksy is a self-assured and elegant young man and Anna is a beautiful and elite woman. Her love with Vronsky became an intense affair. Soon after their first affair, Anna says to her lover, “Everything is finished…I have nothing but you now. Remember that.” Vronsky replies, “I cannot fail to remember what to me is life itself.” But, through much toil and tribulation, despite Vronsky’s unfailing love for her, Anna becomes deceptive, jealous, and spiteful. Their kind and loving discourse becomes arduous and hurtful quarrels. Because she has given up everything, she becomes possessive of him and his affections. “And though she was sure that he had begun to grow cold there was still nothing she could do; it was impossible for her to change her relations with him. It was just as it had been before—it was by love alone, by her charms, that she could hold him. And just as before, it was only by busying herself during the day and taking morphia at night that she could stifle the terrifying thoughts of what would happen if he fell out of love with her.” There is an exiting finale which confirms the status of their relationship. And although, “when she poured out her usual dose of morphia, and thought that all she had to do was drink the whole phial in order to die” and “started thinking once again with enjoyment of how he would torment himself, repent, and love the memory of her when it was already too late,” towards the conclusion of the book, she did not overdose on morphine. One of the greatest themes in the novel is love, marriage, and relationships. Anna and Vronsky’s is little more than a romantic entanglement in which sex and passion, especially for Anna, is more important than anything else. This flawed basis is the cause of their downfall as a couple.
The next most closely examined character is Constantine Levin. Levin is Tolstoy’s heroic figure in the story. He is logical, candid, and honorable. His one true love is Kitty, Anna’s sister in law’s sister. “The place she was standing on seemed to him an unapproachable shrine, and there was a moment when he was on the verge of leaving, he was so filled with fear…He stepped down, avoiding a long look at her, as though she were the sun, but he saw her, just like the sun even without looking.” He is grief-stricken when she at first rejects him, but cannot ignore his love for her. “There were no eyes on earth like those. There was only one creature on earth able to focus all the light and meaning of life for him. That was she—Kitty.” Fortunately for them, both, they come together again and have a devoted love for each other. Their relationship undergoes some hardships similar to those of Anna and Vronsky. They too have to deal with traces of jealously and petty arguments, but they quickly reconcile with each other. Levin is often found pacifying his loving wife. Their entrance into marriage is described in a beautiful metaphor. “At every step, he felt as a man might feel who, after admiring the smooth, cheerful motion of a boat on the water, actually gets into the boat himself. He saw that apart from having to sit steadily in the boat without rocking, he also had to keep in mind, without forgetting for a moment where he was going, that there was water beneath his feet, that he had to row, that his unaccustomed hands hurt, and that it was easy only when you looked at it, but that doing it, though it made you very happy, was very hard.” This is a very accurate description of the affect married life can have on a beginner. Levin and Kitty constantly admire even the most trivial traits in one another, unlike Anna, who tends draw out and or even create Vronsky’s weaknesses. Levin undergoes a spiritual crisis towards the end of the novel which concludes in bringing him an inner peace. The marriage of Kitty and Levin is typical of what Tolstoy considered ideal. It is a voluntary match between a man who is happy in his work and spiritually at peace and a woman who feels that her purpose in life is to devote herself to her family.
This long, but rewarding book is full of rich language and thought provoking passages. Tolstoy says at one point early in the novel, “As Levin went into the yard, and like a tree that in springtime still doesn’t know just where and how its young shoots and twigs, still imprisoned in their buds, are going to turn out, he himself had no very clear idea of just what he was going to start doing now on his beloved farm, but he felt himself full of the finest plans and resolutions.” Tolstoy uses such vivid and brilliant metaphors that clearly illuminate themselves in the mind of the reader. Oblonsky, in pleading to Karenin to arrange a divorce, he says about Anna, “And she’s been living in Moscow now for six months, expecting your decision. Every time she meets anyone it’s like twisting a knife in her heart. It’s just like keeping a man condemned to death with a rope around his neck for months, promising him either death, or perhaps, a reprieve.” Tolstoy uses theses descriptions to provide a greater comprehension of the information given. In describing Levin soon after his spiritual enlightenment, he uses yet another rich analogy. “Just as the bees, which were now buzzing round him, threatening and distracting him, deprived him of complete physical tranquility and forced him to shrink way to avoid them, so the worries that had beset him from the moment he got into the gig deprived him of his peace of mind; but that only lasted as long as he was in their midst. Just as his bodily strength remained intact in spite of the bees so his newly realized spiritual strength also remained intact.” The delightful writing of Tolstoy helps to keep the reader enthralled.
One review states that “it is one of the finest, subtlest, most exciting, most romantic, truest, most daring, charming, witty and altogether moving experiences anyone can have.” The critic goes on to say, “Anyone who believes in the power of art, especially literature, must buy and read this book. I promise it can change your life. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.” This novel has changed the life of past readers and still enriches the lives of many. All serious readers should look into this classic work that bares the Russian soul through the souls of its powerful characters. I highly recommend it.
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