“But the law of loving others could not be discovered by reason, because it is unreasonable.”
Who would have thought a book written in the 1870s would immortalize so perfectly the human nature in all its forms, be it merciless decisions or unalloyed love?
Never has a book created such a bewildering waltz between life and death, hatred and pure love. Lev Tolstoi’s Anna Karenina is a book which I go back to every couple of years only to discover that each time I understand the characters there a little differently, perhaps feeling them grow with me. Once a terrifying Russian classic, it has become a hedonistic read for me, combining both the comfort of an all-too-familiar story now and the novelty of each read with finding something new and enticing everytime.
The story begins with the shards of a broken family’s picture- Stepan ”Stiva” Oblonsky‘s affairs determine his wife, princess Daria ”Dolly” Alexandrovna to call for her sister in law’s help, none other than Anna Arkadyevna Karenina– prefiguring the main character’s own destiny later on. Oblonsky’s childhood friend, Konstantin Levin arrives in Moscow at the same time, wishing to propose to Dolly’s younger sister, Kitty, who was also being courted by count Alexei Vronsky, a cavalry officer. Vronsky irremediably falls in love with Anna, leaving Kitty-Dolly’s younger sister- heartbroken because she had already rejected Levin’s proposal. Mother of Serghei (Seryozha) and wife of Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin, a politician and part of St. Petersburg’s elite, Anna cannot abide the emotionless conventiality of her marriage, neither can she defer social exile in the religion-dominated Russian society of the time. Having painted a minuscule picture of the book’s mise en scène, I’ll build the frame by saying that I perceive this book as an amalgam of contrasts. Various parts of the book focus on different families and conflicts, carving the distorted image of a mirror which illustrates the traditional Russian mentality of the late 19th century.
“All the variety, all the charm, all the beauty of life is made up of light and shadow.”
The tumultuous and passionate love story between Anna and Vronsky draws together two opposite characters: a ravishing, graceful yet delicate beauty with an art loving soul alongside the ”dark knight” in the person of a military officer, whom I view as a cold soul because of how the flame dies down as soon as the allurement of the romance fades.
Levin’s philosophical endeavor keeps him torn between religion and atheism, loneliness and love and his quest for ensuring that the people on his land live better lives alongside his choice in marriage and compassion in death showcase one of the kindest souls, an alter ego for Tolstoi himself. The discrepancy between Levin’s thoughts and the adulterous couple’s struggles is unmistakable; as ever, master of detail, Tolstoi reveals this difference in the architectural description of the houses: Levin’s country home has a warm and welcoming feeling, while Vronsky’s estate is cold and stark, an art gallery inhabited by 3 lonely souls.
As for the ending, I’m still wavering as to be at peace with it or despise it. Somehow, the punishment has reestablished the equilibrium according to the traditional Eastern European morals, yet the tragedy leaves an inconsolable feeling of guilt to have witnessed the fall.
This book is like a scratched mirror- it reflects a reality we may not recognize at first, but it is our own.
“Rummaging in our souls, we often dig up something that ought to have lain there unnoticed. ”