Married to a powerful government minister, Anna Karenina is a beautiful woman who falls deeply in love with a wealthy army officer, the elegant Count Vronsky. Desperate to find truth and meaning in her life, she rashly defies the conventions of Russian society and leaves her husband and son to live with her lover. Condemned and ostracized by her peers and prone to fits of jealousy that alienate Vronsky, Anna finds herself unable to escape an increasingly hopeless situation.
Set against this tragic affair is the story of Konstantin Levin, a melancholy landowner whom Tolstoy based largely on himself. While Anna looks for happiness through love, Levin embarks on his own search for spiritual fulfillment through marriage, family, and hard work. Surrounding these two central plot threads are dozens of characters whom Tolstoy seamlessly weaves together, creating a breathtaking tapestry of nineteenth-century Russian society.
From its famous opening sentence — “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”—to its stunningly tragic conclusion, this enduring tale of marriage and adultery plumbs the very depths of the human soul.
Book Review: ★★★★★★
Some books I read because they are simply fascinating to me — and then there are others that I read because as classics they simply need to be read. Which begs the question — what makes a book a classic? For me classics are books that deal so completely with the human condition that they give us insight into what it truly means to be human in all of its gory detail. These are the books that challenge our thinking, and force us to look at the various sides of life that in polite company we would normally like to pretend didn’t exist. These are books that challenge the though process — exposing the truly ennobling characteristics that allow men to rise to the absolute pinnacle of human goodness. They also look at the characteristics that debase us to the point of abject degradation, humiliation, and depravity. In short — they are books that honestly speak of the human condition. Anna Karenina is one of those books.
And yet my response to this particular book was both engrossing and irritated. Which is perhaps why it continues to be identified as a classic. The backdrop of the entire story — Russian upper class “society” — absolutely drove me to frustration in the extreme. But I think that this type of setting in books suffers today — not because the backdrop is untrue — but because the pendulum has swung so far in an opposing direction that it is hard for modern day readers to identify with the situations. Class structure as was know in the past does not carry the influence it once did. That is not to say that it doesn’t exist any longer — but that those outside of the upper classes no longer particularly care, or even acknowledge those divisions as important. Combine that with the dramatic change in the world economy, and the demise of the gentlemanly pursuits in the face of industrialization — and you end up with a very different world, which has a hard time imagining the kind of influence the class structure had on people’s lives in the past ages.
However, it is the plight of the characters themselves that make this book an insightful, and even powerful read. This book, particularly through the characters of Anna and Levin speaks of the basic elements of human nature. Their quest for self fulfillment and self discovery speak a great deal to the core instincts of human beings. The need to be loved, understood, accepted, and find spiritual and emotional peace drives each of us — and in a great way goes into defining what our lives become. This book also demonstrates to what degree we are each capable of going in order to find those elements that make us whole and complete.
But Tolsoty also explores the realm of what happens when the individual fulfillment of needs lies outside the socially acceptable definition of what is appropriate. The heart ache, sorrow, pain, and even spiritual and emotional upheaval that results in the very human need to find peace in our own lives — and how that need can bring devastation and ruin to those around us, while at the same time bringing peace and fulfillment to ourselves is troubling at the very least. This irony, as brutally devastating as it can be suggests that the only true fulfillment that we can each achieve is only for ourselves — and that no one else can bring that fulfillment to us. But that fulfillment also does not guarantee that it will bring the same peace and happiness to others, no matter how much we may love and admire them.
Finally, Tolstoy suggests in no uncertain terms that no matter how much we seek happiness, love, acceptance, and peace in our own lives — we can never escape their opposite counterparts. Just as love, happiness, joy, and fulfillment are a part of the human experience — so to are sorrow, pain, suffering, and desolation. And until we come to understand that they all exist in the same scope of the human condition — we will never find true fulfillment in any realm of our lives.
This is a book that is worth the read — but it isn’t an easy one. And the more removed we become from the society in which it was created — the harder it becomes for us to relate to the more subtle elements of the work.
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When it comes to controlling human beings there is no better instrument than lies. Because, you see, humans live by beliefs. And beliefs can be manipulated. The power to manipulate beliefs is the only thing that counts. — Michael Ende, The Neverending Story