Purple Fig Club: Anna Karenina
With a book so large, it becomes nearly impossible to keep from going on endlessly, so I will try to keep this to a reasonable length (“try” being the operative word!). Obviously, I can’t share all of my thoughts, and I want to hear yours too, so I will try to edit myself.
I decided to start off with a few questions that occurred to me to help get things started. You can choose to answer them or not, but I wanted to ask them first so you can think about them without me influencing you and then I’m going to try to answer them below. After that, I’m going to do a quick discussion of Tolstoy himself and one overarching theme discussion called Death and Faith. Then I’ll wrap up.
Sound good? Let’s dive in!
Who is your favorite character and why?
Anna is a complex character who makes some risky decisions that most moralists would disagree with. Even so, do you relate to her in any way(s)?
Do you have a favorite scene, either a visual that the narrative created for you or an emotional connection you had to a particular event?
Anna Karenina is a book with many major characters. Why do you think Tolstoy named the book for Anna?
First, I want to say that I absolutely love Tolstoy’s writing style. The book is written so honestly, often describing aspects of human nature that people don’t talk about plainly: the way we perceive each other, the way we think, the silly things we do, the habits we become trapped in. It makes the narrative feel like a close friend is revealing to you some secrets that you always knew but hadn’t thought about clearly. And, in some cases, relieving you of the idea that you were the only one who acts or thinks in certain ways.
“…Kitty looked at him [Levin] in society, as one sometimes looks at those one loves, trying to see him as if he were a stranger, so as to catch the impression he must make on others…”
I love this little moment. Don’t we all do that?
Okay, here are my thoughts on the questions…
My favorite character is Konstantin Levin. It was strange to me to feel that way initially because I believed from the outset that he wasn’t the main character, so I didn’t expect to get so attached to him.
Things I love about him:
His desire to improve the world in spite of his dislike of politics due to his feeling that they never accomplish anything; his obsession with figuring out what gives life meaning; hislove for Kitty; his understanding of other people; his enjoyment of nature:
“Konstantin Levin did not like talking and hearing about the beauty of nature. Words for him took away the beauty of what he saw.”
I also enjoy how, through Levin’s story, Tolstoy repeatedly expresses man’s interest in things he doesn’t fully comprehend:
“…All this and much more that was done in their [Kitty’s] mysterious world he did not understand, but he was sure that everything that was done there was very good, and he was in love precisely with the mystery of the proceedings.”
“’Woman, don’t you know, is such a subject that however much you study it, it’s always perfectly new.’ [Stepan Arkadyevitch]
‘Well, then, it would be better not to study it.’ [Levin]
‘No. Some mathematician has said that enjoyment lies in the search for truth, not in the finding it.’”
Levin’s journey is perhaps the most interesting and the most relatable for me, but I’ll wait to discuss the other aspects of it until I get to my last section on Death and Faith.
Not being in Anna’s position, I can’t say what decisions I would have made in her place. It’s easy to say I would never have an affair, but I don’t feel the pressure to either. I do relate to certain things about her.
More than anything, I relate to her desire to hide from the unpleasant truths of her life. Even when we know we’re making/have made bad choices, we don’t always want to admit it to ourselves.
“’Very well, I will talk to her. But how is it she does not think of it herself?’ said Darya Alexandrovna, and for some reason she suddenly at that point recalled Anna’s strange new habit of half-closing her eyes. And she remembered that Anna drooped her eyelids just when the deeper questions of life were touched upon. ‘Just as though she half-shut her eyes to her own life, so as not to see everything,’ thought Dolly.”
My favorite scene.
I came to tears with the culmination of Levin’s internal wrestling match. His day spent out in the field, when he’s having that moment of realization, after all the months of agonizing over his purpose in life … reaching that moment, out in nature where he feels most at home, of understanding about life and death. I pictured the way the sunlight turns orange toward the end of day and I could feel, along with him, that moment where everything suddenly makes sense and is filled with hope again.
I’m not sure I can answer this question about the title of the book. I’m looking forward to hearing all of your thoughts.
In my mind, Levin’s is the uplifting story; he is the most complex and insightful character. If Anna and Levin are the two balance points to the moral aspect of the story, why single her out for the title?
Is it because Anna’s tragedy is the driving force of Tolstoy’s story? Meaning, would Levin’s final triumph have the same impact if it weren’t juxtaposed against Anna’s failure? And does this make her the most impactful character after all?
Or perhaps the answer is a simple one: Stories about people’s mistakes are the most intriguing.
One of the most powerful statements of the whole book occurred to me from these two excerpts:
“How often he [Vronsky] had told himself that her love was happiness; and now she loved him as a woman can love when love has outweighed for her all the good things of life—and he was much further from happiness than when he had followed her from Moscow. Then he had thought himself unhappy, but happiness was before him; now he felt that the best happiness was already left behind. She was utterly unlike what she had been when he first saw her. Both morally and physically she had changed for the worse. She had broadened out all over, and in her face at the time when she was speaking of the actress there was an evil expression of hatred that distorted it. He looked at her as a man looks at a faded flower he has gathered, with difficulty recognizing in it the beauty for which he picked and ruined it. And in spite of this he felt that then, when his love was stronger, he could, if he had greatly wished it, have torn that love out of his heart; but now, when as at that moment it seemed to him he felt no love for her, he knew that what bound him to her could not be broken.”
“The innocent festivities over the election, and this gloomy, burdensome love to which he had to return struck Vronsky by their contrast. But he had to go, and by the first train that night he set off home.”
How miserable! It’s as if, in choosing to pursue the affair, they ruined their own best qualities. In striving to have each other, they became people that neither wanted. What a warning to us.
This may still not quite answer the question as to why the title solely bears Anna's name, but perhaps, as in the quote I included with the image at the top, the beauty of life truly does consist of both light and shadow.
Some Thoughts About Tolstoy
A little research shows that Tolstoy was somewhat promiscuous in his youth, married and had 13 children, and later in life, he experienced a radical moral change and finally set off as a wandering asceticist just before his death. Immediately after reading his biography, it struck me.
At first, I thought he was relating himself through Levin’s spiritual awakening. Then, I thought that perhaps he was actually revealing himself through both Anna and Levin, one as his younger self making mistakes and one as the moral person he later became.
But the more I read, the more I felt like he was possibly expressing himself through just about every major character in the story.
He had 13 children; Dolly had more children than she wanted at times.
He became a proponent of non-violence, a later influence for Ghandi himself. I thought of Alexey Alexandrovitch:
“The duel had particularly fascinated the thoughts of Alexey Alexandrovitch in his youth, just because he was physically a coward, and was himself well aware of the fact. Alexey Alexandrovitch could not without horror contemplate the idea of a pistol aimed at himself, and never made use of any weapon in his life. This horror had in his youth set him pondering on dueling, and picturing himself in a position in which he would have to expose his life to danger. Having attained success and an established position in the world, he had long ago forgotten this feeling; but the habitual bent of feeling reasserted itself, and dread of his own cowardice proved even now so strong that Alexey Alexandrovitch spent a long while thinking over the question of dueling in all its aspects, and hugging the idea of a duel, though he was fully aware beforehand that he would never under any circumstances fight one.”
In the last days of his life, Tolstoy embarked on a life of spiritual wandering, which recalled to my mind Kitty’s friend Valenka, who was basically a selfless missionary figure.
This is speculation, but perhaps in his middle years, he felt like Stepan Arkadyevitch, not knowing exactly what to think:
‘Oh, no, countess, I thought Moscow people had the reputation of being the firmest in the faith,’ answered Stepan Arkadyevitch.
‘But as far as I can make out, you are unfortunately one of the indifferent ones,’ said Alexey Alexandrovitch, turning to him with a weary smile.
‘How anyone can be indifferent!’ said Lidia Ivanovna.
‘I am not so much indifferent on that subject as I am waiting in suspense,’ said Stepan Arkadyevitch, with his most deprecating smile.
There are many more comparisons like this. I found it fascinating to think that you can take just one person’s life (Tolstoy’s) and express all the complexities of it through so many vastly different characters. Humans are intricate beings.
Death and Faith
I think there comes a point in everyone’s life when they start to realize that one day they’re going to die. Certainly we don’t think about dying when we are very young.
Early on in the book, Levin reaches this point of realization, which is catalyzed by his brother Nikolay’s illness. Truth be told, this is probably the same time that Nikolay starts to face the reality of death himself:
“Here one would think that to get out of all the baseness and the mess, one’s own and other people’s, would be a good thing, and yet I’m afraid of death, awfully afraid of death.”
And then Levin’s thoughts:
“Levin could not sleep for a long while, hearing him (Nikolay). His thoughts were of the most various, but the end of all his thoughts was the same—death. Death, the inevitable end of all, for the first time presented itself to him with irresistible force. And death, which was here in this loved brother, groaning half asleep and from habit calling without distinction on God and the devil was not so remote as it had hitherto seemed to him. It was in himself too, he felt that. If not to-day, to-morrow, if not to-morrow, in thirty years, wasn’t it all the same! And what was this inevitable death—he did not know, had never thought about it, and what was more, had not the power, had not the courage to think about it.
‘I work, I want to do something, but I had forgotten it must all end. I had forgotten—death.’”
Indeed, it gets to the point where Levin is almost paralyzed by the fact that despite all of his plans, it would all end someday. It became a weight on him: “Life had to be got through somehow till death did come.”
If you’ll allow me to digress briefly, I want to say how much I love how Tolstoy took this serious time between Levin and his dying brother to show how we place these crippling restrictions on our relationships that only serve to make our lives harder. It’s such heartbreaking insight:
“Levin felt himself to blame, and could not set things right. He felt that if they had both not kept up appearances, but had spoken, as it is called, from the heart—that is to say, had said only just what they were thinking and feeling—they would simply have looked into each other’s faces, and Konstantin could only have said, ‘You’re dying, you’re dying!’ and Nikolay could only have answered, ‘I know I’m dying, but I’m afraid, I’m afraid, I’m afraid!’ And they could have said nothing more, if they had said only what was in their hearts. But life like that was impossible…”
After Nikolay’s death, it takes months more for Levin to work through everything.
His initial idea is to set new goals for himself to try to make himself feel better about his life. I really relate to this. I do this all the time with small things (fitness, diet, work goals, hobbies), but I also do it with my faith. If I can just volunteer more this year or pray more, then I’ll be on the right track. Somehow these resolutions never fail to make me feel better about myself immediately after making them. Perhaps that’s the real payoff behind New Year’s resolutions. Not actually achieving them (because we so often don’t) but simply feeling good that we’ve made them, if only for a short time.
“…he always felt the injustice of his own abundance in comparison with the poverty of the peasants, and now he determined that so as to feel quite right, though he had worked hard and lived by no means luxuriously before, he would now work still harder, and would allow himself even less luxury. All this seemed to him so easy a conquest over himself that he spent the whole drive in the pleasantest day-dreams.”
Finally, he has a spiritual breakthrough at the very end of the book. He realizes that perhaps death is inevitable, but the purpose of life is to breathe goodness into others. Suddenly, having faith, life is no longer meaningless. This is akin to C.S. Lewis’ basic argument for faith in his book Mere Christianity: the sense of a morality outside of humanity.
“’This new feeling has not changed me, has not made me happy and enlightened all of a sudden, as I had dreamed, just like the feeling for my child. There was no surprise in this either. Faith—or not faith—I don’t know what it is—but this feeling has come just as imperceptibly through suffering, and has taken firm root in my soul.
‘I shall go on in the same way, losing my temper with Ivan the coachman, falling into angry discussions, expressing my opinions tactlessly; there will be still the same wall between the holy of holies of my soul and other people, even my wife; I shall still go on scolding her for my own terror, and being remorseful for it; I shall still be as unable to understand with my reason why I pray, and I shall still go on praying; but my life now, my whole life apart from anything that can happen to me, every minute of it is no more meaningless, as it was before, but it has the positive meaning of goodness, which I have the power to put into it.’”
I love how he recognizes that even though he’s begun to change on the inside, he won’t automatically be a perfect person from here on out.
I really enjoyed the overarching theme of death -- Anna’s succumbing to it and Levin’s final triumph over it.
There are so many things that I left out (I could talk about this book for hours!), but I wanted to share, as a final aside, a couple of notable moments in the book that reminded me of Oscar Wilde’s witty style and made me giggle:
“’And my husband tells me just the same, but I don’t believe it,’ said Princess Myakaya. ‘If our husbands didn’t talk to us, we should see the facts as they are.’”
“’Love those that hate you…’ Darya Alexandrovna whispered timorously.
Alexey Alexandrovitch smiled contemptuously. That he knew long ago, but it could not be applied to his case.
‘Love those that hate you, but to love those one hates is impossible.’”
Okay, everyone, hit the comments. Ask your questions. Answer some of mine if you feel like it. Point out things I didn't write about. Let's discuss!