Book Report /Lit. Analysis of Anna Karenina
Anna Karenina Humanitarian and philosophical insight is usually the intent and achievement of both classic and modern literature. Tolstoy’s drama Anna Karenina embodies this sentiment flawlessly. It is inspired in its depth and intricacy, daring in the complexity of its characters, and powerful in its commentary on the influence of sociality and propriety in contrast to human nature and intrinsic behavior.
Oblonsky, a Moscow man of high society, cheats on his wife and nearly disbands his family; Anna, his sister from Petersburg, intercedes on his behalf with his wife and in the process meets the count Vronsky. Constantine Dmitrich Levin, a childhood friend of Oblonsky’s, comes to Moscow to propose to Katya (Kitty) Scherbatsky, whom Vronsky has been courting, and is consequently turned down by Kitty.
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Vronsky abandons Kitty to follow Anna home, as he has fallen in love with her, and persuades her (without much difficulty) to cheat on her husband; resultantly, they enter into a passionate love affair that eventually becomes destructive.
Almost directly after being rejected, Levin retreats to his home in the country to continue his book on farming techniques, completely unaware of Kitty’s situation, while she is devastated. Karenin, Anna’s husband, begins to suspect of her affair; when he confronts her about it, she denies it completely and makes him feel foolish for suggesting it, and his suspicions are therefore confirmed. When Anna finally declares her fallacy to him, Karenin unsurprisingly becomes despondent and is determined to have revenge on Anna by forcing her to come back to him and keep up old pretences and appearances.
Meanwhile, Dolly (Oblonsky’s wife) goes out to live in the country while Oblonsky is away on business, and convinces Levin that Kitty, in truth, does love him. He eventually proposes to her again, and is this time accepted.
In Petersburg, Karenin evicts Anna when she breaks his conditions of magnanimity, and is about to divorce her formally when she falls deathly ill during and following childbirth and he miraculously forgives her for everything; unfortunately for him, once she recovers, she still hates him, and (without letting Karenin divorce her) she leaves with Vronsky and begins traveling abroad with him.
Vronsky and Anna eventually make it back to Russia, and find a place in the country, and she obtains a divorce from Karenin; Vronsky and Anna as a couple are deteriorating and she eventually kills herself out of despair. Levin and Kitty, despite an initially rocky marriage, financial hardship, and Kitty’s near death in childbirth, live happily ever after. Anna is kind, beautiful, compassionate, and full of life – she is altogether perfect, and thus she is false. The selfish (occasionally to the point of cruelty) element of her nature begins to display itself after she meets Vronsky.
When she is informing her husband of her affair, she is blunt and brutal enough to say, “I was, and I could not help being in despair [in my love for you]. […]. I love him. I am his mistress; I cannot endure you, I am afraid of you and I hate you. ” (231) However, she can’t be completely condemned; she is an extremely complex character, and one can’t help but to sympathize with and pity her for her plight. Through the kindness she shows to those around her, both above and below, and her touchingly profound love of her son, we, as an audience, come to appreciate the ambiguity and convolution of her character and position.
On the one hand, she demonstrates definite cruelty to and hatred for her human and injured, if somewhat insensitive and slightly contemptible, husband and on the other, her beatific and untainted love for her son and the kindness and compassion she shows to her brother’s wife. Vronsky is shallow and fashionable, the epitome of Tolstoy’s commentary on reputedly high society. In the beginning of the novel, he is courting young Kitty, believing himself to be quite in love with her (as she is with him), and yet “[m]arriage had never presented itself to him as a possibility”. 71) Even from the beginning, Vronsky possesses no desire to be tied down in any way: he is the bachelor, through and through. Especially given Vronsky’s superficial disposition, it is by no means difficult to ascertain the original source of his fascination with Anna: “It was as though her nature was so brimming over with something that against her will expressed itself now in a radiant look, now in a smile.
She deliberately shrouded the light in her eyes but in spite of herself it gleamed in the faintly perceptible smile”. 71) However, this vivaciousness and beauty, and particularly her consciousness of it, began to grate on him; he would feel, sometimes, that she would use her loveliness to manipulate him and soften him. Now that he knows her completely and her element of mystery is lost, Vronsky realizes his ebbing appreciation for her charm and mystique: “But he felt utterly different towards her beauty now. In his feeling for her now there was no element of mystery, and so her beauty, though it attracted him even more than before, gave him now a sense of injury”. 575) As Anna’s jealousy, misery, and craving for love grows, Vronsky becomes progressively more estranged from his initial sentiments, eventually ending in Anna’s ultimate despair at losing both the man she loves and the son she loved so dearly. Though somewhat awkward and uncomfortable around members of sophisticated society, Levin is a kind-hearted man with a strong sense of morality and high ideals.
His brother, Koznyshev, is a philosopher highly educated and positively revered in urbanity, respected throughout many circles as a brilliant man of the world.
Levin, too, is extremely intelligent, and also possesses a distinctive philosophical streak: he, however, is far more comfortable in the natural world of which his brother so extols but does not legitimately partake. All the same, he is highly successful in his own right. Levin is driven by constant introspective questioning in relation to his work on the farm, and later his love and familial life with Kitty. A rather unconventional book exploring the relationship of the Russian peasant to farming techniques occupies most of his time, but he occasionally finds solace in manual labor with the peasants.
As a result of his general avoidance of societal conventions, Levin’s surprise at figuring out that his and Kitty’s relationship was not in fact totally unique in its interactions, altercations among those, was an interesting baring of Levin’s naivete.
The novel closes with Levin’s finally contented and closed philosophical musings, tying together Tolstoy’s illustration of the goodness of a life close to the earth. Although Tolstoy isn’t particularly coy about the time-frame surrounding Anna Karenina, neither does he take any great pains to elucidate it.
There is a general impression of many ideas present around the time of the American Industrial Revolution and the First World War, but very few direct references. A slightly skewed allusion, however, is made by Levin’s brother (Nikolai the sickly) to symbols of Fascism, a possible indication of time-period and yet another hint of the atmosphere: “He pointed to a bundle of iron bars tied together with string, lying in a corner of the room. ‘Do you see that? That’s the beginning of a new enterprise we’re embarking upon, a productive association […]. You know that capitalism is strangling the worker.
” (102) This underlying tone of political instability is personified nicely by the confused court-election proceedings that Levin attends, and further captured by the consistent, subtle hints at a recent transition from the medieval institution of serfdom. The most effective insertions of these hints occur almost unnoticeably, such as when Levin and the peasants are mowing, and “they had cut the whole of the big meadow, which used to take thirty men in the time of serf labor”. (274) Moscow and Petersburg are the representatives of the high society and the busy but fairly frivolous lifestyles of the members of that society.
In the city, we find that the characters within, especially those that originate from elsewhere, experience hardship and unhappiness within. Levin and Kitty, when they go to Moscow for Kitty to give birth, provide an unexpected exception to this general rule: though they nearly go bankrupt and Kitty almost loses her life to her unborn child, the city (at first) gives respite from Levin’s previous fits of jealous unreasoning. The idea of a peace attained through agriculture and a connection to natural world – “He thought of nothing, wished for nothing, except not to be left behind and to do his work as well as possible”.
273) – seems to crop up rather frequently in Karenina. The dangers and disadvantages of social, economic, and industrial “progress” are well-characterized by the constant aversion of Levin’s hired laborers to work with new methods and tools, the general unhappiness of those who are “progressives” like brother Nikolai and Golenishchev, and the railroads as perpetrators of harmful events (such as the “bad omen” of the killed railway worker at Vronsky and Anna’s first meeting, Vronsky’s initial stalking of Anna, and Anna’s eventual suicide).
The peace and happiness that can be achieved by surrendering to a higher power, whether it be religion like Karenin’s, in his newfound Christian fervor, the acceptance of the inevitable, where Levin comes to acknowledge death and determines to live as though he had no purpose but to perpetrate goodness. Conversely, Anna is utterly destroyed when she tries to fight against her own nature and against propriety.
Tolstoy expresses a somewhat conformist message for his time, but communicates it in a rather profound manner nonetheless. Tolstoy’s overall commentary of the “high and noble” society he illustrates seems to be critical, but he captures it thoroughly in all its intricacy, uncertainty, and bewilderment.