***Spoiler alert. If you have read this book, please proceed. If you are never going to read this novel (be honest with yourself), then please proceed. If you may read this novel, but it may be decades in the future, then please proceed. Trust me, you are not going to remember, no matter how compelling a review I have written. If you need Tolstoy talking points for your next cocktail party or soiree with those literary, black wearing, pseudo intellectual friends of yours, then this review will come in handy. If they pin you to the board like a bug over some major plot twist, that will be because I have not shared any of those. If this happens, do not despair; refer them to my review. I'll take the heat for you. If they don't know who I am, then they are, frankly, not worth knowing. Exchange them for other more enlightened intellectual friends.***
"He soon felt that the fulfillment of his desires gave him only one grain of the mountain of happiness he had expected. This fulfillment showed him the eternal error men make in imagining that their happiness depends on the realization of their desires."
Anna Arkadyevna married Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin, a man twenty years her senior. She dutifully produced a son for him and settled into a life of social events and extravagant clothes and enjoyed a freedom from financial worries. Maybe this life would have continued for her if she had never met Count Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky, but more than likely, her midlife crisis, her awareness of the passage of time, would have compelled her to seek something more.
"They say he's a religious, moral, honest, intelligent man; but they don't see what I've seen. They don't know how he has been stifling my life for eight years, stifling everything that was alive in me, but he never once even thought that I was a living woman who needed love. They don't know how he insulted me at every step and remained pleased with himself. Didn't I try as hard as I could to find a justification for my life Didn't I try to love him But the time has come, I've realized that I can no longer deceive myself, that I am alive, that I am not to blame if God has made me so that I must love and live. And what now If he killed me, if he killed him, I could bear it all, I could forgive it all, but no, he."
Her husband was enamored with her, but then so was everyone who met her, male or female. Maybe he was too contented with their life together and, therefore, took their relationship for granted. He was two decades older, so the passions of romance didn't burn with as hot a flame. She wanted passion from him even if it was to murder her lover and herself. Even if it was something tragic, she wanted something to happen, something that would make her feel... something.
I couldn't help thinking early on that the problem wasn't with her husband, certainly nothing that a new lover could fix for very long. The same face was always going to greet her in the mirror. The same thoughts were always going to swim their way back to the surface. We can not mask the problems within ourselves by changing lovers. The mask will eventually slip, and all will be revealed.
Ugly can be very pretty.
Is there such a thing as being too beautiful Can being so beautiful make someone cold, disdainful, and unable to really feel empathy or even connected to those around them Her type of beauty is a shield that insulates her even as her insecurities swing the sword that stabs the hearts of those who despise her and those who love her.
"She was enchanting in her simple black dress, enchanting were her full arms with the bracelets on them, enchanting her firm neck with its string of pearls, enchanting her curly hair in disarray, enchanting the graceful, light movements of her small feet and hands, enchanting that beautiful face in its animation; but there was something terrible and cruel in her enchantment."
My favorite character in this epic was Konstantin (Kostya) Dmitrich Levin. He was a well meaning, wealthy landowner who, unusually for the times, went out and worked the land himself. He got his hands dirty enough that one could actually call him a farmer. He was led to believe by his friends and even the Shcherbatsky family that their youngest daughter, Kitty, would be an affable match for him. Kitty's older sister Dolly was married to Stepan (Stiva) Arkadyich Oblonsky, who was the brother to Anna Karenina.
Stiva was recently caught and forgiven for having a dalliance with a household staff, but no sooner was he out of that boiling water of that affair before he was having liaisons with a ballerina. This did lead me to believe that life would never be satisfying for either Stiva or his sister Anna because there was always going to be pretty butterflies to chase as the attractiveness of the one they had began to fade.
Before Vronsky became gobsmacked by Anna, he was leisurely chasing after Kitty and leading her on just long enough for Kitty to turn Levin's marriage proposal down flat. That was like catching a molotok (hammer) right between the eyes as a serp (sickle) swept Kostya off his feet. Interestingly enough, later in the book Levin met Anna Karenina, after he has married Kitty (you'll have to read the book to discover how this comes about), and he was captivated by Anna.
It was almost enough for me start chain smoking Turkish cigarettes or biting my nails down to the quick while I waited for the outcome. Substitute Anna for Jolene, and you'll know what I was humming.
"She had unconsciously done everything she could to arouse a feeling of love for her in Levin, and though she knew that she had succeeded in it, as far as one could with regard to an honest, married man in one evening, and though she liked him very much, as soon as he left the room, she stopped thinking about him."
If she was irritated with Vronsky, one day maybe she would just seduce Levin for entertainment... because she could.
I must say that I didn't think much of Vronsky at the beginning of the novel, but as the plot progressed I started to sympathize with him. Tolstoy was brilliant at rounding out characters so our preconceived notions or the projections of ourselves that we place upon them are forced to be modified as we discover more about them.
Levin had his own problems. He had been reading the great philosophers, looking for answers. He found more questions than answers in religion. He abandoned every lifeboat he climbed into and swam for the next one. "Without knowing what I am and why I'm here, it is impossible for me to live. And I cannot know that, therefore I cannot live."
The problem that every reasonably intelligent person wrestles with is that no matter how successful we are, no matter how wonderful a life we build, or how well we take care of ourselves, we are going to die. It is irrefutable. Cemeteries don't lie. Well, there is a lot of eternal lying down going on, but no duplicity. None of us are going to escape the reaper. No one is ascending on a cloud or going to the crossroads to make a deal with the Devil. We all have to come face to face with death, and we can't take any of our bobbles, accolades, or power with us. So the question that Levin ended up asking himself, the Biggest question even beyond, why am I here is:
Why do anything
Without immortality, everything we attempt to do can seem futile. Some would make the case that we live on in our kids and grandkids. I say bugger to that. I want more time!
Well, there are ways to be immortal, and one of them is to write a masterpiece like Anna Karenina that will live forever.
By the end, I am ready to throttle Anna until her pretty eyes bug out of her head and her cheeks turn a vibrant pink, but at the same time, she seemed to be suffering from a host of mental disorders. She was so cut off from everyone and so disdainful of everyone. "It was impossible not to hate such pathetically ugly people." The "friends" she had had been ostracized from her by her own actions. I had to believe her loathing of people was a projection of how she felt about herself. She needed some time on Carl Jung's couch, but he was a wee tot when this book was published. She needed to find some satisfaction in the ordinary and quit believing that a change in geography or in lovers was ever going to fix what was wrong with herself.
She had such a destructive personality. Two men tried to kill themselves over her. She was maliciously vengeful when someone didn't do something she wanted them to do; and yet, I couldn't quite condemn her completely. Her feelings of being stifled were perfectly natural. We all feel that way at points in our lives. We feel trapped by the circumstances of our life. Her attempt to break free in the 1870s in Russian society was brave/foolish. She sacrificed everything to chase a dream.
The dream ate her.
This book is a masterpiece, not just a Russian masterpiece but a true gift to the world of literature.
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