My unforgettable art appreciation professor mentioned Anna Karenina when he was discussing realism. I don’t exactly recall how it came about, but what I remember is that he told us how the novel ends. Nobody was disappointed except for me. I groaned quite audibly and squirmed on my seat, but he went on to tell us that the would-be reader has a lot of reasons to pore through all the novel’s pages despite knowing the fate of the eponymous heroine.
It was not until after college when I decided to read this book. In fact, instead of taking on it first, I opted for the considerably longer War and Peace. After finishing that with much appreciation, I thought yes, my professor must have a point.
So I organized a read-along, what we prefer to call a buddy read, in our book club. Unfortunately, our lives took over our reading and each of us had to read at his own, breaking away from the agreed pace. I do not take this against anyone especially now that I am writing this because I feel that I gained something from reading the book. Not only is it a doorstopper that would give you a sense of victory after flipping the last page, it is also an epic in the truest sense of the word where the characters live longer than the reading time expended, and probably even longer than our human lives.
The novel is hailed as one of the most enduring love stories of all time, and yes indeed, it’s core is the love story of Anna Karenina. It explores the darker facets of marriage (read: adultery), the joy (or misfortune) of having a family, philosophical farming, the mystery of death, and the meaning of our existence.
‘No, joking aside, I think that in order to know love one must make a mistake and then correct it,’ said Princess Betsy.
‘Even after marriage,’ the ambassador’s wife said jokingly.
‘It’s never too late to repent.’ The diplomat uttered an English proverb.
‘Precisely,’ Betsy picked up, ‘one must make a mistake and then correct oneself. What do you think? She turned to Anna, who with a firm, barely noticeable smile on her lips was silently listening to this conversation.
‘I think,’ said Anna, toying with the glove she had taken off, ‘I think … if there are as many minds as there are men, then there are as many kinds of love as there are hearts.’
Anna Karenina is beautiful, charming, intelligent, and enchanting. At first, we see her as the embodiment of a strong woman who can think and take care of herself. This is best shown when she gives Dolly, her brother Stiva’s wife, advice during a tumultuous time of their marriage. Their marriage was saved thanks to Anna. She herself is married to Alexei Karenin, a government official. So far, life has been very good to her until Vronsky, a dashing military officer, meets her.
Vronsky is expected by Kitty, Dolly’s sister, to propose to her, but her romantic longings for the officer shatter during a ball where Vronksy dances with Anna. It is evident that Vronsky has fallen in love with the married Anna, and this is where the challenges in Anna’s life begin.
This is a giant novel with many characters, but we need to focus only on seven. I already mentioned six, and the seventh one would be Levin, the main male character who will provide us with the a major story arc aside from Anna’s. It was noted that Levin seems to be the personification of the author and that he allegedly used him as the channel to communicate his opinions on various matters. It is not entirely incorrect to rename the novel where his name would be included, but that would be an altogether different topic.
The novel takes place in Russia during the turn of the century where many changes are taking place. People are becoming more liberal and technological advances are being introduced. The changes coming upon them are particularly evident in the resistance of the Russian farmers to accept the new farming technologies that Levin tries to implement. Although he does it out of the belief that this will improve production, he doesn’t succeed and succumbs to the belief that the old Russian farming techniques are still better.
Levin, aside from being an old-fashioned man and farmer, provides us most of the philosophical insights in the novel. He goes out of his way to study the works of various philosophers, but he just ends up robbed of the inner peace that he is constantly seeking. He will come to achieve his peace once he struggles to settle as a husband and father. I believe that his achievement of philosophical contentment is one of the best things that I’ve ever read, and it will come at the last page. So to the would-be reader, be patient.
Now, let’s return to Anna. She is condemned by the Russian society for desecrating her marriage. She is expected to stay away from everyone unless she is granted a divorce, but she goes on to live her life according to how she wants it. It could have been easier for her if she persisted in getting the permission of her husband to divorce her, but since that would also mean losing the custody of her son, she continues to live boldly despite the disgrace that are borne out of the choices that she made.
There isn’t really anything admirable with her choices per se, but she remains a real heroine because of the way she dealt with the consequences of her actions. She keeps her grace, and constantly follows her heart and passion amidst the difficulties that she is facing. She is left without the support of her old friends, but she carries on with an inner strength that she draws out from her guiding principle which can be summed up in three words: love conquers all.
Anna may appear to be selfish and fickle, but if we take a closer look, she is a real independent woman who will go out of her way to follow her life’s principle. She will infuriate a number of characters, and readers as well, but at the end, at that last moment where she asks for forgiveness, I don’t think the reader can manage to keep disliking her. As one of my friends put it, she acted only out of love.
It seems to me that Levin was the one who triggered my art appreciation professor to discuss the novel in our class, thanks to Tolstoy’s lavish albeit almost dragging depiction of his country life, particularly his farming. Realism, simply put, is a faithful representation of everyday life, and in this novel, we see mundane family and peasant activities taking place from sunrise to sunset. The sweat trickling down the farmers’ backs can be easily felt by the reader, but there are also Anna’s thoughts on that day at the train station that will make one shudder with amazement at how deftly thought processes are captured just as they had been in our own minds.
On second thought, it must have been Anna who prompted it all.