TIWMT Book Club: Anna Karenina

Try-It With-Me Tuesday, an interactive weekly time and place to foster connections that challenge and encourage the process to become a well-rounded person.

In Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina the themes of faith, family life and fidelity sit side-by-side with matters of politics, wealth and poverty, and worker productivity. Despite the bigger cultural impact of these issues, this story intrigues and involves me with its individual characters.

Tolstoy named his book after Anna, the unhappy society wife and mother who finds love outside her marriage. The individual lives of many characters including her husband, her lover, her friends, her brother and his extended family intersect with hers, making it their story as much as hers.

Since I loved to experience the story from each character’s perspective, I want to highlight it by considering the changes in several of the dynamic characters. I don’t know that any of these were my favorite or least favorite characters. I empathized with each of them; yet, each also pushed me away by their choices. None was a villain or a hero, just realistic characters with attributes that include both strengths and weaknesses.

Anna captured the attention and affection of her relations and even strangers with her beauty and  charm.  In the beginning when she soothed her sister-in-law Dolly and befriended Dolly’s sister, Kitty, I wanted her as a friend and confidant. Her manner of generosity and kindness, though, grew tiresome as her story progressed and her lack of sincerity revealed. The most obvious example of this is when she meets Levin, Kitty’s husband, at the end of the book, and Anna’s admits her desire to make him like her. Sadly, I realized she had been seeking something throughout the whole book and can never find it. Is it love? Belonging? Praise? Contentment? Friendship?

On the outside she looks and acts happy and content, but on the inside she has a confusion of feelings.  This contrast is most obvious to me when she is living at Vronsky’s estate that is being restored with modern and expensive material coverings. Despite appearances, she is wracked with mental anguish to the point of needing nightly doses of drugs to calm her. She continues to break apart emotionally, still trying to maintain the outward appearance, even in the closing scenes between her and Vronsky, when Anna “had a clear vision of what she was doing . . . but even though she knew it was her own ruin, she could not restrain herself. . .”

Vronsky, her lover, is for most of the story an egotistical character who lives for his own pleasure, but he, too, changes. After he recovers from shooting himself and Anna determines to go to him, Vronsky begins to take responsibility for his relationship with Anna. He sees the full scope of the situation, especially when he goes to St. Petersburg with Anna and she determines that she will go to the opera. Tolstoy wrote, “He looked at her. He saw all the beauty of her face and full evening dress, always so becoming to her. But now her beauty and elegance were just what irritated him.

Anna’s husband, Karenin, is not at all a likable character, which makes Anna’s unfaithfulness so complex. His actions certainly don’t encourage her to cling to her marriage. Mostly, though, he seems to be a product of a society where he gives in to the pressure around him. He married Anna because people told him it was right, he proceeded to set up a family life that feels superficial, and this story is the result of what they’ve created and what they are gong to do or not do to fix it. Despite all his weaknesses, one of my favorite scenes with him is when tends to Anna’s baby daughter. There he becomes human.

Kitty and her husband, Levin, are side characters to Anna’s story, but they are main characters in their own way who provide balance to the unfolding crises. Their lives are also filled with ups and downs, success and failure, happiness and sorrow, but with more moderate swings of life circumstances. As I read Anna’s story, I wondered about the necessity of exploring this other family. Are they more like us? Do we live the dramatic changes like Anna do we inch along in our progress like Levin?

Levin, an unbeliever, develops faith over time in quiet ways that seem more genuine than the faith of many others who do it for fashion or tradition. Kitty was not showy and extreme, drawing attention to herself, even at her wedding. Still, she showed her nurturing nature at the death of Levin’s brother that she developed while abroad. In this simple way, she showed the richness of her character to Levin and others in a time of need.

Some might see these characters as the boring and stodgy ones, but to me, they are the real ones. They reveal how faith and family and societal progress build upon a foundation, as Levin notes, that he will pass down to his son, as his grandfather had passed it down to him.

Rachel at Idaho Cheneys had this to say about Anna Karenina.

What did you think about Anna Karenina? How did you feel about the choices the characters made? The consequences of those choices? What were your favorite lines? How do you think the story relates to today?

Add your comments below or write a post on your own website and send the permalink to me at tj (at) tjhirst (dot) com or leave the link here.

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6 Comments

  1. Rebecca
    Dec 2, 2008

    Oy. Still working on this one. So I didn’t read your post because I don’t want to spoil anything! But when I do finish the book, I’ll come back and comment about it here.

    I can say that I really can’t stand that Vronsky. He should have just left Anna alone. And Anna should have had more courage to kick him out of her life.

    But then, I still have several hundred pages to go, so who knows how I’ll feel at the end of it all?

  2. Rachel
    Dec 2, 2008

    Great post on Anna Karenina! I’ve posted mine too!

  3. Rachel
    Dec 2, 2008

    I totally agree with your character summaries!

  4. Camille
    Dec 2, 2008

    I also decided not to read all of your post until I’m done. I’m at a pivotal point in the book with major changes occuring in the characters. But tomorrow I’ll share a couple favorite lines and thoughts I’ve had. It’s too late tonight, so come back in a day or two. I probably won’t finish the book too soon though. I do like it. I was a little bored with the politics and farming issues and skimmed them, but really like the characters and how well Tolstoy gets into their brains and hearts.

  5. Lisa
    Dec 9, 2008

    What a wonderful summary of the characters! It’s been years since I read the book, but now I want to go back & revisit them.

  6. Camille
    Jan 2, 2009

    I finished just an hour or so before we arrived at our Christmas destination and I was so relieved it ended the way it did. I had a feeling that Anna was on the road to destruction and so was not surprised with her end. But I’m so glad that Tolstoy ended with Levin’s “epiphany”. I appreciated the contrast of the character’s lives, Anna living with bad choices, Levin, able to live the life he wanted because he perservered and chose right. Anna’s life going down the drain because of her choices and selfishness, Levin’s life looking up because he found faith and love. I really like Levin for his continued searching. I also admired Karenin for his change. He never was really likeable, except for when he had such a turn around in character when Anna was on her deathbed and then his sweet feelings for Anna’s baby. But then even after his change, he didn’t do much to impress me or make me like him. Levin is definitely my favorite character. I’m glad I took the chance to read this, even if it did take me forever! It was worth it. Tolstoy developed the characters so well that I did feel sorry for them, feel joy with them, was upset at them for certain choices, and wanted them to find what they were looking for.

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