With Part VII ding in such a fury of action at the train station, I was surprised to find a whole two months had passed in the turning of a page. Part VIII skips the weeks following Anna’s death, and we meet our characters as they attempt to move on from the tragedy.
Vronsky is off to war with the Turks, and Levin’s brother Sergei Ivanovich praises his courage and speaks much of “the people’s” desire to help their “Slavic brothers.” Meanwhile Levin is one of the few doubters that (a) this is really what the people of Russia want, and (b) even is if is what they want – is it the right thing to do. Even Vronsky admits he is not particularly interested in the war itself, but has nothing more to live for, so might as well throw his life away on the battlefield.
The discussion of the war and the reasons to be involved is among the most interesting pieces of social commentary in the novel. Tolstoy uses these chapters to air his own pacifist views (and when first submitted for publication, when the Russo-Turkish war was still waging, the manuscript was rejected and had to be softened and resubmitted twice.)
Levin, having become so anxious about his lack of faith and the possible consequences for his son, is questioning spirituality with such fervor he becomes almost suicidal – until a chance conversation convinces him that he is and has always lived for the greater good, which is what Christianity is all about.
And with that (Part VIII was by far the shortest part of the book) I have finished reading Anna Karenina. Was it as fabulous as I hoped? Unfortunately, no. Would I recommend it? Absolutely. It is not fast-moving or adventurous, but Tolstoy has a gift for creating characters and getting to the heart of human emotion and passion. If you have the patience to get through its 800+ pages, Anna Karenina is unlike any book you have ever read.
I feel like I ought to be able to say more. This is Anna Karenina. This is classic literature. All I can come up with is “unlike any book you have ever read.” Maybe in time I will write a summary post, but having already written seven other “reviews” on the novel, I am not sure what else I can add.
OK, maybe not. But you will. Things have gotten interesting again.
Anna and Karenin are sharing a house, but living like strangers. He makes a point of seeing her once a day, so as not to arouse suspicion, but will not eat at home. She is miserable and hating him more every day.
“Oh, why didn’t I die? It would have been better!”
She breaks her word and in invites Vronksy to the house while Karenin is out. Except he is not out, having returned early. Bad things happen. Divorce proceedings commence. Anna dreams that she will die in childbirth, and we are led to assume Vronsky has the same dream. When she is near death, she begs Karenin for forgiveness. In a rare display of emotion, he forgives her and Vronsky, even seems to discover a love for his wife, though underneath he knows it is too late.
In short: everyone is miserable and consumed by hate, passion or desperation (or some combination of the three).
“She had done all she could–she had run up to him and given herself up entirely, shy and happy. He put his arms round her and pressed his lips to her mouth that sought his kiss.
She too had not slept all night, and had been expecting him all the morning.”
Levin and Kitty finally reunite, discover they are still in love, and plan to marry. It is so sickly sweet, over-the-top romantic that I feel like something must go wrong soon. I am holding onto the hope that as they seem to be present in the story to provide a rational contrast to the desperate love affair of Anna and Vronsky, that things will continue to work out for them – this after all is what happens to the virtuous. At least in fiction.
I continue to be disgusted by Stiva’s shallowness, amused by Levin’s aloofness and angered by Karenin’s coldness. Vronsky continues to be shallow (his disappointment in Anna’s weight gain, during her advanced pregnancy, had me seething). Anna has moved from fascinating to desperate and heart-breaking (though perilously close to whiny and annoying).
On to Part V.
Well the action has certainly picked up. There is no way to discuss Part II without spoilers, so there will be many. You have been warned.
Anna is back in St. Petersburg, and Vronsky has followed her. She knows this should upset her, but it does not. Quite the opposite really. Anna is changed, and it is not unnoticed. She shuns her old morally upright society companions, now favouring the fashionable set – which of course includes Vronsky and his cousin Betsy – now Anna’s constant companion. Her new BFF, if you will.
Anyone who has lived in a small town or been part of a smaller community in a large town will be familiar with this. Anna and Vronsky are the subject of continual chatter and gossip, with their friends the worst offenders.
“Alexey Alexandorivich had seen nothing striking or improper in the fact that his wife was sitting with Vronsky at a separate table, in eager conversation with him about something. But he noticed that to the rest of the party this appeared to be something striking and improper. He made up his mind that he must speak of it to his wife.”
Karenin’s reaction to his wife’s behaviour is most interesting. He does not feel jealous, as to him jealous is illogical (which is an opinion I share, making his internal musings of particular interest to me). But whereas Anna knows her feelings for Vronsky are wrong and feels much guilt for them, Karenin is less concerned with right and wrong and more concerned with appearances. If his wife is going to have improper relations with another man, she should at least have the courtesy to hide this. Anna struggles with her passion and the need to feel and live out her feelings, Karenin is willing to hide all feelings in order to maintain his status (really, he often doesn’t seem to have feelings, so hiding them should not be a problem).
I was surprised and impressed that after all the build up there was no seduction scene, description of the lovers succumbing to their passion. Merely a mention that time had passed, and that the relationship had been consummated. Because the book is not about the sex. It is about the passion, the buildup, and the consequences. In the first mention that they were now lovers, all we see is how miserable and desperate the affair has made Anna.
It does not get better as you read further: Anna reveals her pregnancy to Vronsky, Vronsky falls from his horse during a race and Anna cannot hide her distress from those in attendance, including her husband, and finally in a fit of rage & desperation she confesses the affair (but not the pregnancy). In response, all Karenin can say is that he expects her to keep up appearances. So even in confession, Anna still does not find the release she needs, and is expected to continue to live a lie.
I cannot help but wonder: if Karenin was able to express even a little of the care and concern for his wife that he admits to himself, might things have gone differently? This is really what attracts her to Vronsky, is it not?
KItty and Levin are still in the picture as well, though not so dramatically. At least not yet. Perhaps that is coming. Levin is back in the country, dealing with the humiliation of Kitty’s rejection by throwing himself into work on the farm. Kitty, having realised Vronsky never did love her, is thrown into a state of depression, makes herself ill, sees a series of doctors and is finally taken abroad.
While in Germany, under the influence of new friends, Kitty begins to learn there is more to life than balls, parties and pretty dresses, and resolves (as only a naïve young girl can do) to do more good, be a better person, etc. As we know, no good deed goes unpunished – but I think overall, these are important learnings for Kitty which will shape who she becomes later in the novel.
I should perhaps have more to say about these two, but my interest in this part of the story was all about Anna and Vronsky.
Thoughts from other readers? I know many of you are behind. According to my Kobo, I am 30% through the book after 2 of 8 “parts” which leads me to conclude the rest of the sections will be shorter, quicker reads. So catching up should not be a problem.
Oh, the unhappiness. We start with chaos in the Oblonsky household, with Stiva’s affair with the governess having just been discovered by his wife Dolly. While presented like a central storyline, but by the end of Part 1 it becomes clear that is is instead a foreshadowing of larger marital stife and affairs to follow.
He went down trying not to look long at her, as though she were the sun, but he saw her, as one sees the sun, without looking.
Anna Karenina is well-known as a novel of romance and passion. But it is not a happy, shiny kind of romance. Levin is rebuffed in his proposal to Kitty. Kitty is in love with Vronsky – who is quite enamoured with her until he meets Anna. Anna is of course, married and off-limits, but this does not mean she does not enjoy his attentions (at this point in the story, his attentions are all she is enjoying).
But how marriages were made now, the princess could not learn from any one. The French fashion–of the parents arranging their children’s future–was not accepted; it was condemned. The English fashion of the complete independence of girls was also not accepted, and not possible in Russian society.
The Russian fashion of match-making by the offices of intermediate persons was for some reason considered unseemly; it was ridiculed by every one, and by the princess herself. But how girls were to be married, and how parents were to marry them, no one knew.
Set among the Russian nobility in the 1860s (I believe?) there are also deeper themes than love & romance: urban vs. rural living, aristocracy vs. peasantry, and the overarching questions of what it meant to be Russian. Our characters speak in French and English, read English books, and follow European traditions. Levin is the odd one out, leaving his post on district council and returning to a rural life in an attempt to discover his identity and purpose. The rest accept their society without question, happy with their elevated status and ignorant of or indifferent to the problems around them.
Considering she is the title character, at the end of Part 1, which my Kobo tells me is 14% of the novel, we know very little about Anna Karenina. A friend who recently read the book pointed out that the novel could easy have been named for at least one other character, so I was somewhat prepared for that.
I have thoughts on the character of Anna (intriguing and mysterious), Levin (the most ‘real’ so far) and Stiva (amusing but borderline contemptible) – the others I don’t feel we know well enough yet to comment on – but would prefer to stop now and ask other readers what they think: Are you enjoying or annoyed by the characters? Is the story what you expected so far? Other thoughts?
Just a quick update post to remind you / encourage you to keep reading. I am eight chapters in, and off to read a few more before bed. Remember – the goal is to finish Part 1 by Monday. You have lots of time, in a happy coincidence, Monday is preceded by a weekend.