Friday, September 25, 2009

Anna Karenina: The Official Haiku Review

Finally! After three renewals, six weeks, and 850-plus pages, I have managed to finish reading Tolstoy's classic Anna Karenina. It didn't take so long because I thought it was boring; it took so long because I've been very very busy. Anyway, let's get to the haiku review:

Poor Anna; she found
passion, but could have used more
mundane happiness

As the title suggests, Anna Karenina is a main focus of the novel; but the first sentence hints that she is only part of a wider story: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Besides Anna's family, which includes her boring, passionless husband and her son, there is the family of her brother Stiva, a spendthrift who cheats on his wife Dolly; Dolly's sister Kitty, who rejects the honest earnestness of Levin for the pretty face of Count Vronsky; Levin the farmer and his tubercular brother; and Vronsky and his class-conscious mother. When Anna meets Vronsky and they fall into passionate, obsessive love, it sets in motion several plot threads that end in both happiness and despair.

Anna's story is the tragic one; she finds real love and passion with Vronsky, but can never be satisfied after consummating the relationship. She becomes pregnant, the affair becomes public, and she must choose between giving up her son or giving up her lover. She chooses the former, but cannot feel at ease: she misses her son, and cannot bond with her new daughter because of it; she cannot marry Vronsky because her husband will not give her a divorce; she cannot go out in public because she has been made a pariah; and as a result she cannot stop worrying that Vronsky will abandon her and she will be left with nothing. Her anxieties eat at her, poison her relationship with Vronsky, and ultimately lead to her destruction.

This is all set in contrast with Levin's journey, and I would argue that Levin is really the main character of the novel, with Anna serving mostly as contrast and object lesson. Levin is of the nobility, but makes his living farming and is always seeking ways to improve things—not just for his own profit, but for those who work for them. He is a man of deep and sometimes contrary thoughts, which we see laid out in great detail as he considers farming, Russian politics, religion, and love. After Vronsky's affair with Anna, Kitty reconsiders Levin's suit and eventually marries him. This brings Levin great joy and great pain, as he must fight his jealous impulses and learn to be a good husband. In the eighth and final part of the book (in which Anna does not appear, as she met her end in Part Seven), we see Levin enjoying the mundane happiness of family life, appreciating his new son, and discovering his faith. Levin seems to be a stand-in for Tolstoy, who wrote about religious struggles of his own, and it's hard not find Levin the book's hero as he concludes that his discovery of faith may not change his character, but now "my whole life, regardles of all that may happen to me, every minute of it, is not only not meaningless, as it was before, but has the unquestionable meaning of the good which it is in my power to put into it!"

One last note on Anna Karenina: yes, it's very long. Yes, it's filled with details about farming, Russian politics, social movements, and religious musings. But unlike Melville in Moby Dick, Tolstoy knows how to make these interesting. We consider all these topics through the eyes and mind of Levin, who is continually struggling to make sense of the world. Where Melville's narrator gives us endless lists about whale parts, Tolstoy's Levin considers what new farming techniques mean to him as a landowner, an employer, even a human being. Anna Karenina has the quality of good historical fiction, where the details transport us into another world and another life, rather than bore us into a stupor.

So, you might have noticed it's now the fall. So much for my good intentions of reading lots of foreign-language classics for this summer's Remedial Lit Project. All those French classics will have to wait until next summer. I'm going to take a few weeks to read just for fun (I've also spent the last six weeks reading biographies for work), and then I'll bring back Janespotting. The library just ordered a copy of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters (!), and then I think I'm moving on to Northanger Abbey and its offspring.


  1. I agree. Esp with the part abt Moby Dick (shudders).


    Did you know the ending before you read it? I didn't and was happily enjoying it, about halfway through, when I ran into my friend Peter who said, "Yeah, but then she kills herself." Worst spoiler ever.

  2. Yes, I knew the ending before I read it, which added to the foreshadowing in the beginning and lent more of a tragic air to everything.

    And Worst Spoiler Ever? When my friend told me about Empire Strikes Back, "Hey, Darth Vader is Luke's relative and he's not his uncle!" I'm still not over it.