Thursday, September 22, 2011

Reading Anna Karenina: Part II

After a nice two-week break, I finally got back to Anna Karenina and finished it in time for our Idlewild book club discussion last week.

You know what I thought of Anna Karenina, Parts V-VIII? Mostly...BORING. Maybe it was because I already knew the characters; maybe because Tolstoy seemed to go on endless detailed rants, even more so than before; maybe because I was reading on long subway commutes and was being gently rocked to sleep anyway. But whatever the reason, I was just itching to finish.

My final thoughts on the book are pretty consistent with my original thoughts—more than consistent; those thoughts were completely reinforced!

  • The level of detail that I griped about back during the first half of the book seemed to take over certain sections. Long-winded chapters about hunting trips and dinner discussions and political elections about bore me to tears. I definitely zoned out for all of these sections during those long train rides mentioned before.
  • I thought the book's strongest point is that Tolstoy handles each character with such detail that they seem realistic—neither one way nor another, neither black nor white. This was particularly poignant in Tolstoy's treatment of his women characters. Anna is, at one point or another, intelligent, confident, irrational, jealous, passionate, apathetic, and ultimately her hysteria takes control and she spirals out of control, leaving you to wonder what happened to all her strong, independent characteristics.

I know that one of the notable features of Anna Karenina is that Tolstoy does address the issues of society in 19th century Russia, but as I mentioned, they bore me, so I don't have much to say on those. My favorite feature of the story, though, is how Tolstoy juxtaposes his characters and couples to create a story about relationships and how they are affected by the society in which they are built and by the individual personalities involved. The reader is constantly comparing Anna/Vronksy to Kitty/Levin because their stories are presented side-by-side.

One of the most important things to note upon finishing this book is—why is it called Anna Karenina? Sure, it's the plot line that everyone knows, the focus of any movie adaptations...but Anna's story is not the most important one in this novel. Yes, it's the most dramatic (a love affair, a fallen woman—ingredients for a headlining story), but Tolstoy spends most of his attention on Levin and his own personal awakening. The entire eighth part of the book, in fact, has moved entirely beyond Anna and Vronksy and is devoted entirely to Levin and his own struggle with reason and meaning. It leaves you wondering: What story did Tolstoy intend to write? Was Anna's only purpose to grab readers with a "dramatic" plotline? And if so, why did he name the book after her?

I never had to read this book in high school, but many other book club members did and noted how different their opinion was this time around as adults—when you understand complex relationships and recognize the grey areas. I have to wonder if I would've brushed this book aside ten years ago without thinking further about it.

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