Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (Part Four)

Fiction — eBook. Translated from the Russian by Constance Garnett. Project Gutenberg, 2010. Originally published 1877. 1441 pgs. Free download.

I finished Anna Karenina! I am both elated and relived as I managed to tackle a fear of Russian literature and finish a classic piece of (translated) literature spanning 1,441 pages. What a way to end 2011!

This post covers Part Six to the end of the final section, Part Eight, and will include spoilers because I cannot resist discussing the ending in this post. I will say this before moving into spoilers, please do not be afraid of this book. It is surprisingly accessible and my fear of Russian literature has been greatly abated by Tolstoy’s classic.

Am I the only one who thinks Tolstoy’s novel went out with a whimper? Part Seven ended with a “bang” in the form of Anna’s suicide whereas Part Eight ends with Levin deciding that he does not need a religious conviction to meaningfully orient his life towards goodness.

“I shall still be as unable to understand with reason why I pray, and I shall still go on praying; but my life now, my whole life apart from anything that can happen to me, every minute of it is no more meaningless, as it was before, but it has the positive meaning of goodness, which I have the power to put into it.” (pg. 1440)

I understand Levin’s realization largely mirrors that of Tolstoy’s own struggle with religion but to not end the book with the title character seems an interesting choice to me. There was also no mention of Anna after her suicide despite the intertwining relationships of these characters. Odd choice, indeed.

Anna’s realization of her crumbling relationship with Vronsky was particularly poignant. There’s a particular phrase that came to mind while reading this – Anna has made her bed and now she must lie in it. Her flirtatious manner may have unconsciously aroused in Levin a feeling of love “yet as soon as he was out of the room, she ceased to think of him” (pg. 1239). She can wrap men around her finger and make them, and occasionally herself, fall in love. She realizes in Part Seven that she at one time felt something akin to love for Karenin but eventually stopped feeling this way for one reason or another and moved on to Vronsky.

“We are drawn apart by life, and I make his unhappiness, and he mine, and there’s no altering him or me. Every attempt has been made, the screw has come unscrewed.” (pg. 1343)

Now, her “love” from Vronsky has dissipated. She may appear to be jealous of him and worry that he has another mistress but it is really her jealousy that he has not lost his standing in society for the same actions. They both had an affair, they both had a child out of wedlock, and they both ran off together without obtaining a divorce. The cost for her, though, was much higher and now she has not only lost her access to the highest realm of society but also to her son, Seryozha.

“I thought, too, that I loved him, and used to be touched by my own tenderness. But I have lived without him, I gave him for another love, and did not regret the exchange till that love was satisfied.” (pg. 1343)

She claims that she love Seryozha more than her daughter with Vronsky, also named Anna. This may or may not be true to the realization that her relationship with Vronsky will never be enough to overcome that sacrifice of her son and the loss of her good name proves to be too much. At first, she turns to opium to alleviate her pain. Then, she decides suicide is her only escape. Interesting enough, though, it appears that she changed her mind during her (successful) attempt.

“And at the same instant she was terror-stricken at what she was doing. “What am I? What am I doing? What for?” She tried to get up, to drop backwards; but something huge and merciless struck her on the head and rolled her on her back. “Lord, forgive me all!” (pg. 1350)

And that’s the end of Part Seven. No clear moral message just a massive amount of commentary on hypocrisy, faith, fidelity, family, society, marriage, carnal desires, peasants versus elites, and religion. The translator of the Penguin edition, Rosemary Edmonds, wrote that one of the novel’s key messages is that “no one may build their happiness on another’s pain”. Anna tries to build her happiness with Vronsky on the pain of her husband and son; Vrosnky tries to build his happiness with Anna on the pain of Karenin and Anna herself. It’s a vicious, repetitive cycle. And thus we are brought back to the beginning of the novel:

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” (pg. 1)

Read-A-Long at Unputdownables:

I read this book for Wallace of Unputdownables’ read-a-long, which ran from October to December 2011. The book was divided into twelve sections to be discussed over twelve weeks. Each week, on Friday, participants were urged to share their thoughts about the previous week’s reading. The selection for January 2012 is The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Sign-ups are now up!

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