I recently finished Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel Anna Karenina (the 2001 translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, which is masterful), which was one of the most interesting books I’ve read for a couple of reasons: 1) It took me several months to read entirely because I started reading in the summer when I had the time to devote to it (all 864 pages), and school interrupted the process, forcing me to wait roughly 7 months before I could finish the last of it; and 2) the book itself is fascinating, albeit tragic and almost perplexing at parts.
I’ll try not to spoil the book for anyone who’s interested, and certainly the book itself is an incredible read, jumping through so many spheres of life in the late 19th century that it’s almost mind-boggling. You get a view of the aristocracy in Moscow and St. Petersburg, as well as rural life in Russia and life abroad in Europe. You see life through the elite, through the very poor, and through the fallen (I think this of Nikolai Levin’s portrayal especially).
But I have to say, I was disappointed with the ending.
You see, the ending to me isn’t really an ending. For me, the story died (literally – but again, I hope I’m not giving too much away) in Book 7, even though the novel itself has eight parts. The story is about Anna Arkadyevna Karenina – well, or at least it purports to be (from the title, you know). Karenina is the most fascinating character in the story, certainly; Tolstoy purposefully paints a picture of her as a stunningly beautiful woman, and it is her weakness, her moral failure (remember, Tolstoy is writing in the Victorian era, even if he is not himself a Victorian writer), her misery that moves the story. When Anna’s name appears on the page, the effect is that which Tolstoy describes near the beginning of the story when she would walk into a drawing room – utter fixation. The tragedy of her descent is the compelling element by which Tolstoy unravels his genius.
And he wraps up the Anna story in Book 7. Why continue? My original thought was that he would continue to describe what happened to the rest of the characters in the aftermath, how they were affected by the tragedy. I was partially right in this: There is mention of Vronsky’s misery as a result. But most of Book 8 is about the Serbian war and Russians debating whether or not to get involved or even if involvement is morally obligatory – certainly issues of the time, but hardly significant in light of the previous events.
Even more perplexing to me is the very ending, which focuses back on Konstantin Levin. I think I understand Tolstoy’s interest in Levin fairly well: the character Levin is somewhat autobiographical for Tolstoy, representing quite a bit of the struggles that Tolstoy faced before and during the writing process of Anna Karenina. The most obvious struggle (evident in Tolstoy’s later writing) is his struggle with faith.
So we can guess why Tolstoy returns to Levin and faith at the end of the story, especially given that Tolstoy has earlier (around the time of Levin’s marriage to Kitty) alluded to Levin’s struggle as an atheist between belief and disbelief. Ultimately, faith wins out for Levin, but to be perfectly honest, I found the ending rather trite as a result.
The biggest thing for me is that it almost makes light of the tragedy: we can’t let the story end badly, so let’s have an atheist tearfully convert to Christianity (the religion of his wife – Victorian theme, anyone?) to give us a happy ending.* The second biggest is that the conversion seems forced – again, like the conversion occurred more as the result of necessity rather than the natural progression of the story.
Maybe I’m just jaded about this. Maybe I see Levin’s conversion as the unnecessary abandonment of a rational thought process for something emotional. Levin obviously wanted to have faith – his admiration of Kitty was one reason, besides somewhat of an innate desire for God – and in the end, he simply succumbed. While it may have been intended to be a genuine conversion, it just doesn’t seem so.
The ending, however, doesn’t spoil the book entirely; it just weakens it a touch. The story of Anna’s fall is (as previously noted) extremely compelling, and it shines some light on the hypocrisy of Victorian ideals. Anna is the angel when she saves the somewhat superficial marriage of Stepan and Dolly Oblonsky (and on somewhat superficial terms) but considered a slut by Petersburg society when she has what appears to be a genuine relationship with Vronsky (at least at first). One of the greatest tragedies that contributed to Anna’s mental decline was her inability to move on with her life (especially in gaining a divorce from her husband Alexei) and her utter disconnection from her previous life, mostly from her son Seryozha. Vronsky is not stigmatized and is only vexed by Anna’s frustration with her situation, which leads to a disconnection between the two. Finally, Anna becomes disconnected from herself and from reality, and the only thing left is…well, her fate. These disconnections – from society, from loved ones, and from sanity – are what cause Anna’s breakdown, and one cannot help but think that Anna was (at least in part) innocent. Certainly it is easy to empathize, and Tolstoy’s critique of many of these social elements (and others that come through the thoughts and characterizations of Levin) is excellent.
Highly recommended; this translation is especially easy to work through, unlike (I’m told) some other previous translations. This work is a masterpiece, and it is well worth the read.
*I can’t actually remember if there were tears shed when Levin had his grand epiphany, but it was quite sentimental nonetheless.