Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Anna Karenina is a great novel, sweeping in scope and intimate in detail.  Set in the Russian aristocracy under the czars, the first sentence proclaims its theme:  “All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  With the next sentence we are plunged into the confusion of Stepan Oblonsky’s household, where his adultery with the governess has just been discovered by his wife.

Adultery and the devastation it causes to both perpetrators and their families rages like a wildfire through this novel.  Anna, Stepan’s sister, has what she describes as “a nice life, a life to which I am accustomed” with her husband, a well-respected diplomat, and their young son.  However, she is pursued (nowadays we might even say “stalked”) by the handsome young officer Vronsky, who is obsessed with her beauty and determined to obtain her.

Anna tries to resist his advances, but she is led, step by step, toward her downfall.  It is agonizing to see her gradual disintegration as former acquaintances shun her until all she has left is what Vronsky has to give.

The “happy” family of the novel centers around Levin, the owner of a large country estate, who is a thinly-veiled representation of Tolstoy himself.  In contrast to the dashing Vronsky, Levin is shy and clumsy in his attempts to mix with society.  He is plagued with self-doubts, but he is a great innovator and thinker who successfully runs his estate while treating the peasants who work for him fairly.  His marriage to Kitty, the sister of Oblonsky’s wife, is a beautiful love story, but it does not come without much patience, perseverance, and self-searching, as well as Levin’s own temptations and trials.

In the words of a peasant who works on his estate, Levin is a good man because he “remembers his soul.”  Levin, who thinks of himself as irreligious, is surprised to hear himself thus described.  However, Tolstoy is helping us see throughout the novel what the “soul” is and what it means to remember and care for it.  These words of Jesus might be seen as a final summation of the novel:  “But what does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”

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