By Sergeevskiy Alexander
Everything you think / feel has been thought of / felt before. While the specifics are unique to you, the underlying themes have all been explored. Literature teaches us about ourselves.
Anna Karenina (pronounced AH-na ka-RAY-ni-na) is a departure from a typical romance novel; it’s a (rolling / waving / sweeping) commentary on human affairs (grand & minute), from trivial tête-à-têtes to large-scale politics in the Russian theater. Set in the 19th century, the story spans years, following the lives of the Russian aristocracy as they travel from city to country, Petersburg to Moscow, Vozdvizhenskoe to Pokrovskoe. The novel (1) explores relations between serfs and landowners (2) expounds the role of gender and class (3) unveils a game of politics amidst a shifting Russian state. All the while unraveling the hidden fabric that ties human relations – gossip, etiquette, roles & expectations.
Dostoevsky explores the psyche of the most desperate personnes committing the most wicked acts under the most destitute conditions, Tolstoy builds characters that are somehow more relatable, as they deal with everyday people and everyday life. From the (sociable / jealous) Anna to the (headstrong / cold) Vronsky, to the (independent / irritable) Levin to the (kind / naive) Kitty, everyone has their own blessings and shortcomings. They are well-rounded characters, not caricatures. They live and laugh and love and hurt. They behave in ways they don’t expect; they change their views over time. You might relate to Levin’s boredom at social gatherings, or Dolly’s insecurity of losing her beauty to age, or empathize with Vronsky’s annoyance at being falsely accused of liking another woman. No character is perfect. Anna Karenina a story without heroes nor villains.
Voilà. An inquisition into the human mind; an exposition of Russian culture; and the most extraordinary tale of ordinary life.
Anna Karenina isn’t exactly a mystery. To read the plot in lieu of the book is like reaching the destination but having skipped the journey. In other words, it’s kaput.
Context: In 19th century Russia, a girl’s husband was decided by family. Marriages without love were common. Entering a marriage means you are in it for life. Separation is legally shaky, it ruins the reputation of the wife, and it leads to an inevitable scandal.
Innocence is highly valued; prostitutes were treated as second-class citizens. Infidelity and divorce were much more consequential than they are today.
Premise: Anna is married to Alexei, but falls in love with Vronsky.
“To speak of it with my husband is unnecessary and impossible. To speak of it — would mean giving importance to something that has none.”
“Vronsky did not even try to fall asleep all that night. He sat in his seat, now staring straight ahead of him, now looking over the people going in and out, and if he had struck and troubled strangers before by his air of imperturbable calm, he now seemed still more proud and self-sufficient. He looked at people as if they were things. A nervous young man across from him, who served on the circuit court, came to hate him for that look. The young man lit a cigarette from his, tried talking to him, and even jostled him, to let him feel that he was not a thing but a human being, but Vronsky went on looking at him as at a lamppost, and the young man grimaced, feeling that he was losing his self-possession under the pressure of this non-recognition of himself as a human being and was unable to fall asleep because of it.
Vronsky did not see anything or anybody. He felt himself a king, not because he thought he had made an impression on Anna — he did not believe that yet — but because the impression that she had made on him gave him happiness and pride.”
“To calm herself completely, she went to the nursery and spend the whole evening with her son, put him to bed herself, made a cross over him and covered him with a blanket. She was glad that she had not gone anywhere and had spent the evening so well. She felt light and calm. She saw clearly that everything that had seemed so important to her on the train was merely one of the ordinary, insignificant episodes of social life, and there was nothing to be ashamed of before others or herself.”
“She felt that at that moment she could not put into words her feeling of shame, joy, and horror before this entry into a new life, and she did not want to speak of it, to trivialize this feeling with imprecise words. But later, too, the next day and the day after that, she not only found no words in which she could express all the complexity of these feelings, but was unable even to find thoughts in which she could reflect with herself on all that was in her soul.
She kept telling herself: ‘No, I can’t think about it now; later, when I’m more calm.’ But this calm for reflection never came; each time the thought occurred to her of what she had done, of what would become of her and what she ought to do, horror came over her, and she drove these thoughts away.”
“Now he experienced a feeling similar to what a man would feel who was calmly walking across a bridge over an abyss and suddenly saw that the bridge had been taken down and below him as the bottomless deep. This bottomless deep was life itself, the bridge the artificial life that Alexei Alexandrovich had lived. For the first time questions came to him about the possibility of his wife falling in love with someone, and he was horrified at them.”
“The attachment he experienced for Anna excluded from his soul the last need for heartfelt relations with people. And now, among all his acquaintances, there was no one who was close to him. There were many of what are known as connections, but there were no friendly relations. Alexei Alexandrovich had many people whom he could invite for dinner, ask to participate in an affair that interested him or to solicit for some petitioner, and with whom he could candidly discuss the actions of other people and the higher government; but his relations with these people were confined to one sphere, firmly defined by custom and habit, from which it was impossible to depart.”
“In those three months he had spent with Anna abroad, Vronsky, on meeting new people, had always asked himself how this new person looked at his relations with Anna, and had found that the men, for the most part, understood it ‘in the right way’. But if he or those men who understood it ‘in the right way’ had been asked what that understanding was, both he and they would have been in great difficulty.”
“At that meeting Vronsky had understood that Golenishchev had chosen some high-minded liberal activity and as a result wanted to despise Vronsky’s activity and rank. Therefore, on meeting Golenishchev, Vronsky had given him that cold and proud rebuff he knew how to give people, which meant: ‘You may or may not like my way of life, it makes absolutely no difference to me: you must respect me if you want to know me.’”
“Seeing her husband, she thrust her hands into a drawer of the chiffonier as if hunting for something, and turned to look at him only when he came up quite close to her. But her face, to which she had wanted to give a stern and resolute expression, showed bewilderment and suffering.
‘Dolly’!’ he said in a soft, timid voice. He drew his head down between his shoulders, wishing to look pitiful and submissive, but all the same he radiated freshness and health.
She gave his figure radiating freshness and health a quick glance up and down. ‘Yes, he’s happy and content!’ she thought, ‘while I . . . ? And this repulsive kindness everyone loves and praises him for — I hate this kindness of his.’ She pressed her lips together; the cheek muscle on the right side of her pale, nervous face began to twitch.”
“One change that Vronsky noticed in him was the quiet, steady glow that settles on the faces of those who are successful and certain that their success is recognized by everyone.”
“She saw that in the areas of politics, philosophy and theology, Alexei Alexandrovich doubted or searched; but in questions of art and poetry, and especially music, of which he lacked all understanding, he had the most definite and firm opinions.
“I’ve always loved you, and when you love someone, you love the whole person, as they are, and not as you’d like them to be.”
“When Levin thought about what he was and what he lived for, he found no answer and fell into despair; but when he stopped asking himself about it, he seem to know what he was and what he lived for, because he acted and lived firmly and definitely.”
“But the longer he listened to the King Lear fantasia, the further he felt from any possibility of forming some definite opinion for himself. The musical expression of feeling was ceaselessly beginning, as if gathering itself up, but it fell apart at once into fragments of new beginnings of musical expressions and sometimes into extremely complex sounds, connected by nothing other than the mere whim of the composer. But these fragments of musical expressions, good ones on occasion, were unpleasant because they were totally unexpected and in no way prepared for. Gaiety, sadness, despair, tenderness and triumph appeared without justification, like a madman’s feelings. And, just as with a madman, these feelings passed unexpectedly.
All through the performance Levin felt like a deaf man watching people dance. He was in utter perplexity when the piece ended and felt great fatigue from such strained but in no way rewarded attention. Loud applause came from all sides. Everybody stood up, began walking, talking. Wishing to explain his perplexity by means of other people’s impressions, Levin began to walk about, looking for connoisseurs, and was glad to see one well-known connoisseur talking with Pestsov, whom he knew.”
“In order to undertake anything in family life, it is necessary that there be either complete discord between the spouses or loving harmony. But when the relations between spouses are uncertain and there is neither the one nor the other, nothing can be undertaken.”
Many families stay for years in the same old places, hateful to both spouses, only because there is neither full discord nor harmony.”
“In his Petersburg world, all people were divided into two completely opposite sorts. One was the inferior sort: the banal, stupid and, above all, ridiculous people who believed that one husband should live with one wife, whom he has married in church, that a girl should be innocent, a woman modest, a man manly, temperate and firm, that one should raise children, earn one’s bread, pay one’s debts, and other such stupidities. This was the old-fashioned and ridiculous sort of people. But there was another sort of people, the real ones, to which they all belonged, and for whom one had, above all, to be elegant, handsome, magnanimous, bold, gay, to give oneself to every passion without blushing and laugh at everything else.”
“Anna Arkadyevna read and understood, but it was unpleasant for her to read, that is, to follow the reflection of other people’s lives. She wanted too much to live herself. When she read about the heroine of the novel taking care of a sick man, she wanted to walk with inaudible steps round the sick man’s room; when she read about a Member of Parliament making a speech, she wanted to make that speech; when she read about how Lady Mary rode to hounds, teasing her sister-in-law and surprising everyone with her courage, she wanted to do it herself. But there was nothing to do, and so, fingering the smooth knife with her small hands, she forced herself to read.”
“‘And it’s the same with the one-mindedness of the newspapers. It’s been explained to me: as soon as there’s a war, their income doubles. How can they not think that the destiny of the people and the Slavs . . . and all the rest of it?’
‘There are many newspapers I don’t like, but that is unfair,’ said Sergei Ivanovich.
‘I would just make one condition,’ the prince went on. ‘Alphonse Karr put it splendidly before the war with Prussia. ‘You think war is necessary? Fine. Send anyone who preaches war to a special front-line legion — into the assault, into the attack, ahead of everyone!’
‘The editors would be a fine sight,’ Katavasov said with a loud laugh, picturing to himself the editors he knew in this select legion.