I have to admit that it was Oprah who got me started on this book. I had wanted to read it for a long time, having heard that it is one of the greatest novels ever written. A few years ago I stole a copy from the M&D Library, but it was only last summer when Oprah’s Book Club started reading it that I pulled it out and got started.
Oprah’s AK readers made a t-shirt that said “I wasn’t scared” but really there was nothing to be scared about. Eight hundred pages of engrossing drama is a pleasure rather than an ordeal. The only technical difficulty is the Russian names, but a handful of index cards helped me keep track of all that. I learned to write down the name of every character (over 50 of them, including Laska the dog), no matter how minor they seem at first, because they may become important later. Place names also got their own cards (the worst was Vozdvizhenskoye), as well as they ocassional inscrutible vocabulary item (kvass anyone?).
CAUTION: Spoilers ahead!
I’m not really qualified to give a literary assessment of Anna Karenina, particularly as I read it for pleasure rather than studying it seriously and taking notes. As a person of faith I very much enjoyed Levin’s revelation at the end that the meaning in his life is simply to do good, and not to get too wrapped up in theological questions that may be beyond our ability to answer. But I’m not sure I have an overall sense of what Tolstoy was trying to say and how all the parts of the novel fit into that message. Obviously he took a dim view of adultery, but wasn’t it a little ham-fisted to drive Anna and Vronsky to suicide (active and passive, respectively)? Oblonsky suffered no such fate. Were they punished so severely because they tried to masquerade as a married couple? Was there some sexism involved in the fact that it was Anna’s mind that got eaten away by jealousy and suspicion? And what of Levin’s views on the peasantry? I don’t know enough about the politics of Russian serfdom to understand what Tolstoy was getting at.
I had a minor problem with his thesis that women are completely fulfilled by motherhood; not that it’s not fulfilling, but Tolstoy seems to be saying that it is the only thing that brings happiness and mental health to a woman. It seems to be somewhat of a romantic, idealized view, and I’m not sure what he knew about the subject, being an unhappily married man. I did find the eucharistic images around Dolly and her children’s visit to the country church and subsequent picnic with the peasant mothers very touching (alas if I had taken notes I’d know what chapter that was; vain to flip through 800 pages looking for one passage).
Obviously this is a book that must be revisited in a more serious way. But if there’s anyone out there who hasn’t read it yet, don’t be afraid, all 800 pages are a pleasure to read.