Monday, May 1, 2017

Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina is a historical fiction novel set in 1870s Russia written by Leo Tolstoy, who is best known for being the author of War and Peace.
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I read Anna Karenina over a fairly long period--perhaps three weeks.  It is a little over 900 pages long, significantly shorter than War and Peace, but it still a rather dense and complicated read.  This book is not silly or fluffy, and you must be prepared to deal with some rough themes throughout.

The central conflict is Anna Karenina's adulterous relationship with a man named Vronsky, the social problems it creates, and the internal struggle she has because of this.  Karenin, her husband, wrestles with how to deal with his wife's infidelity without causing too much of a scandal, and Vronsky suffers with a similar problem, only in the reverse; how to make things work in an acceptable way.

An elaborate subplot revolves around Constantine Levin, a farmer and deep-thinker who is first introduced as a refused lover to Kitty, who at the time is sure that Vronsky will propose to her.  Vronsky never does, and is swept up with Anna.  Kitty goes through a long period of conversion during which she realizes she was always in love with Levin and they fall in love and get married.  Their story of an early marriage paints a clear parallel to the the rapidly deteriorating marriage of Anna and Karenin.

Image result for war and peace book coverAnna Karenina is set during a very tumultuous time in Russia, just like War and Peace.  War and Peace deals with times of war between conservative ideology and more liberal-Western ideas, and times of peace.  This is one of the many ways that War and Peace is named.

Similarly, Anna Karenina showcases the war and peace between traditional Russian ideology, practices of marriage, social acceptance, philosophy of labor and work, etc. and newer Western ideas like democracy, capitalism, different trends in society, etc.

This struggle is the backdrop to the main focus of the story, that is Anna's adultery and the havoc it wreaks on her world and her family's world.

One thing I rather appreciated about Anna Karenina is that it doesn't focus entirely on the fact that adultery is horribly un-Christian (which it is) but actually explained sort of why it is un-Christian.  What I mean is that it didn't say that it is bad "because God said so", it showed why it is bad, and why God said so.

You can see Anna's life completely fall apart, to a point where she has no relationship with her dearly beloved son, completely abhors her husband, loses her home and possessions, and almost dies from a terrible illness.  Eventually the stress and angst of such a precarious relationship drives poor Anna to take her life by throwing herself in front of a train.

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My favorite character in Anna Karenina was surprisingly Oblonsky, the brother-in-law of Anna.  He is the first character introduced in the story, and is really a terrible husband.  He cheats on his wife Dolly, and even once she forgives him, he quickly forgets his apology and doesn't remain faithful to her.  While I don't like Oblonsky's actions, I appreciate his inclusion in the story because he was at least a somewhat jolly face in the book.  He had a very complete character (with many flaws) and that's why he was my favorite to read about.

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Should you read Anna Karenina?  

Well, first of all, have you read War and Peace?

If your answer is yes, did you like it?  If your answer is no, then skip to the next question.

If you read and enjoyed War and Peace, then you will like Anna Karenina.  If you read War and Peace and didn't care for it, skip to the next question.

Do you like history, particularly Russian history around the turn of the nineteenth century?

If your answer is yes, then you should read Anna Karenina.  If your answer is no, then skip to the next question.

Do you like novels that are focused on characters and carefully craft realistic and relatable people?

If your answer is yes, then you should read Anna Karenina.  If your answer is no...I don't even know how to help you.

Do you like classics, or at least being able to say that you understand what people are talking about when they reference classics?

If your answer is yes, then read Anna Karenina!

Practically anyway you slice it, Anna Karenina is worth picking up at some point in your life.  It may not be an especially entertaining or fast-paced read, but it definitely offers some valuable insight into the mysterious "human condition" and that is never something you want to pass up.

Also, pro tip.  If you do decide to read Anna Karenina, keep an eye on any instances where trains pop up.  They are very important, symbolically, foreshadowing, and plot-wise.  They are very important to Russia in general.

I hope you enjoy Anna Karenina if you decide to read it.  If you have already read it, what did you think of it?  Better or worse than War and Peace?

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