Now more than ever before in my life I see how the person you are when you read a novel effects how you react to it. Lesley and I first discovered this in our shared read of The Thorn Birds. I found it to be true again not a month later with Anna Karenina.
The first time I read Anna Karenina I was in college. Anna's obsession with Vronsky made sense to me then. I couldn't understand why my paper which compared her to women everywhere was received with scorn by my Russian Literature professor. "She's a cold fish," I thought to myself, and dismissed her opinion as easily as Anna dismissed the voice of reason expressed all around her.
When I saw that the film was being released this November, Arti and I decided to read it together this autumn. I also suggested it to my mother's book club, to which I have been kindly included for the past twenty years. As the leader for our discussion I opened with, "Can't you relate to Anna? Isn't she like women everywhere?" I was met with a combination of blank looks and disbelieving eyes. "No," they said, "she's not like us at all."
Of course, when well past one's twenties, one finds more rational thought than Anna expressed in Tolstoy's novel. She'd languished in the force of Vronsky's gaze, she'd trembled at his touch, and soon she'd abandoned everything for his love. Her marriage, her son, her place in society were all replaced by an ever consuming love for Vronksy which was eventually poisonous in its expression. The depth of her emotion was poisonous to him, and ultimately poisonous to her, resulting in her own demise. Unlike Madame Bovary's lover, Vronsky truly loved Anna but nothing he could do would convince her that was so.
And suddenly, remembering the man who was run over the day she first met Vronsky, she realized what she must do. With a quick, light step she went down the stairs that led from the water pump to the rails and stopped close to the passing train. She looked at the bottoms of the carriages, at the bolts and chains and big cast-iron wheels of the first carriage slowly rolling by, and tried to estimate by eye the midpoint between the front and back wheels and the moment when the middle would be in front of her.
'There!' she said to herself, staring into the shadow of the carriage as the sand mixed with coal poured between the sleepers, 'there, right in the middle, and I'll punish him and be rid of everybody and of myself.' (p. 768)
In the ultimate act of selfishness, Anna throws herself in front of a train. To some this act is viewed as despair, to others it is a way to 'make him pay' for not loving her enough. But, what is enough? As my dear friend Carol said to me the other night over a cup of tea, "She was chasing after that which could never satisfy." We cannot find our fulfillment in another human being. Surely we can love. Surely we can find joy and laughter and passion in the presence of our lover. But our needs can never be entirely met by someone else.
I believe that Tolstoy hints at this when he tells the story of Konstantin Levin. His wealthy landowner life parallels that of the St. Petersberg/Moscow life which Anna and Vronsky pretend to enjoy. He works hard with the peasants, in some of the most beautifully written passages I have ever read.
Not understanding what it was or where it came from, in the midst of his work he suddenly felt a pleasant sensation of coolness on his hot, sweaty shoulders. He glanced at the sky while his blade was being whetted. A low, heavy cloud had come over it, and big drops of rain were falling. Some muzhiks went for their caftans and put them on; others, just like Levin, merely shrugged their shoulders joyfully under the pleasant freshness.
They finished another swath and another. They went through long swaths, short swaths, with bad grass, with good grass. Levin lost all awareness of time and had no idea whether it was late or early. A change now began to take place in his work which gave him enormous pleasure. In the midst of his work moments came to him when he forgot what he was doing and began to feel light, and in those moments his swath came out as even and good as Titus's. But soon as he remembered what he was doing and started trying to do better, he at once felt how hard the work was and the swath came out badly." (p. 251)
The novel does not end with Anna's death. It ends with Levin's beginning. He has come to understand the very foundations of faith, of belief in God, and I can't think of a better way to sum up a novel which focuses on happiness. On needs. On our ultimate fulfillment as human beings.
'This new feeling hasn't changed me, hasn't made me happy or suddenly enlightened, as I dreamed - just like the feeling for my son. Nor was there any surprise. And faith or not faith - I don't know what it is - but this feeling has entered into me just as imperceptibly through suffering and has firmly lodged itself in my soul.
'I'll get angry in the same way with the coachman Ivan, argue in the same way, speak in my mind inappropriately, there will be the same wall between my soul's holy of holies and other people, even my wife, I'll accuse her in the same way of my own fear and then regret it, I'll fail in the same way to understand with my reason why I pray, and yet I will pray - but my life now, my whole life, regardless 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!'The End
I read this with Arti of Ripple Effects. You can find her thoughts here, Care's here, and Stephanie's here.