Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Leo Tolstoy: Anna Karenina

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

These are among the most famous lines in literature, and the opening lines to Anna Karenina. This is essentially a story about three marriages:

Levin and Kitty are truly in love, but they still need to work through their misunderstandings and miscommunications.   At a deep level they connect, and they have the stability and stamina to survive any assault on their marriage. Levin is Tolstoy's autobiographical projection in this novel (not surprisingly he is heroic).

Stiva and Dolly are in a staid, lifeless marriage of conventiality.  In the beginning of the novel, Stiva is caught in an affair with the household's French governess.  Dolly is unhappy and she is essentially a single parent (Russian elite-style), raising their children without Stiva's help. She is a "mother hen" with her chicks, married to a husband who is draining their fortune, but she cannot leave. 

Anna Karenina is married to the cold and disciplined Alexey Karenin.  Recoiling from this, she falls into a passionate affair with the young, rich and handsome Alexey Vronsky.  Although initially a rational character, Anna loses self-control and abandons reason for her new love.  This affair ultimately leads to her destruction - as well as ruining the lives of her husband and Vronsky. 

Before I dive into a review of Anna Karenina, let me tell you something about the book.

First, there are A LOT of characters.  I would guess close to a hundred.  Tolstoy gets inside everyone's head - even Levin's dog has an internal monologue!  In addition, each character has up to four names.  There is the first and last name, the patronymic (which varies if they are female or male) and there is also each character's sobriquet.  It intially made it quite difficult to keep track of all the characters.

The major characters (click to enlarge)

Anna Karenina is like War and Peace - it is a very long book.  There are many sequences where Tolstoy introduces his own political and spiritual philosophy, which reminds me of reading Ayn Rand (another Russian author I've reviewed).  However, I did enjoy reading about what life was like for the Russian aristocracy in the 19th century.  It does not seem at all surprisingly that the Communist Revolution took place seven years after Tolstoy's death. I do not understand all the political problems of that time period, however, Tolstoy hints that socialism would be a preferable form of government for the masses of newly freed serfs (i.e. peasants).  I think Tolstoy was either quite prescient or his novels helped usher in the revolution he foretold.

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