Saturday, December 1, 2012

Anna Karenina - How to find happiness

Anna Karenina is one of the most widely read and thoroughly studied books in the Western canon.   It is also a very long book, however, the story is nicely laid out in the first few chapters of the book:

Anna meets Vronsky; they fall in love.  However, Anna loves her son and doesn't want to lose him (which will happen if she divorces her husband).  Levin proposes to Kitty - he's initially rejected but then she later accepts him with open arms.  Stiva cheats on Dolly and she remains largely unhappy (or unfulfilled) the rest of the novel.

That is in the first 11 chapters - and there are another 237 chapters left.


To me one the most important things to discuss is the influence of society on our decisions and our happiness. In Russian society at the time, social structure, decorum, protocol and the perception of others played on a significant role on what one was allowed to do.  For Vronsky, as an army officer, an affair with a married women is a badge of respect to his comrades.  For Anna, it makes her a high society pariah and her husband a cuckold.  Anna can never have the normal life she had before - going to the opera causes a scene and people do not want to be associated with her.  All she has left in this world is her illicit lover.  When Vronsky shows the slightest wavering in his love for her, Anna gives up on life and throws herself beneath a train.  She cannot create her own definition of happiness without the affirmation of Russian society. 

Comparisons are often drawn between Madam Bovary and Anna Karenina.  What I remember from my reading of Madam Bovary was a woman who could not find happiness.  Like Anna, she eventually commits suicide.  However, Emma Bovary's death is tied more to ennui and a lack of purpose, although losing her lover does contribute.  Anna's death is more connected to her lover - and her relationship is more destructive to all the parties involved. 

Tolstoy seems to suggest that emotion, dominating rational thought, can be lead to one's downfall.  However, we also find that emotion may be the only way to understand life and death.  When Levin's brother is dying, Levin is paralyzed by his intellect.  His wife Kitty reacts with compassion and thoughtfulness to comfort Nicolai, and she does not dwell on the great questions of life and existence.  Emotion has a place in this world - it helps us deal with situations where rational thought cannot.  However, our emotions can also lead us astray if we cannot control them.

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