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Now Anna Karenina is all done and I liked it very much. I liked how Tolstoy took his time telling the story. I liked how the characters seemed like real people. I liked how there were bad decisions and good decisions and struggles and triumphs. I liked how all the characters had their flaws but no one was wholly bad or even completely good. The book was like a mirror being held up to life. The pages flew by and not once was I bored or had any desire to skim or skip ahead.

In my post about the first half of the book I said I didn’t feel sorry for Anna and I finished the book not feeling sorry for her. My coworker who finds Anna’s affair with Vronsky and her death so tragic thinks the story is sooo romantic and I am completely heartless. I feel compassion towards Anna most certainly. She was married young to a man 20 years older whom she didn’t love. She showered on her young son all the love and affection she could not feel towards her husband. Her husband, Alexey, is not a bad man. He was manipulated into marrying Anna by Anna’s aunt without being particularly in love with her. He is a well-to-do bureaucrat through and through in his professional and personal life. He lacks imagination but he is not unkind or ungenerous just stodgy.

So Anna meets and falls in love with the young and dashing Vronsky who is everything her husband is not. She gets pregnant, tells her husband everything, he forgives her, even offers a divorce. But Anna refuses the divorce because she would have to give up her son. Eventually she gives up her son anyway but by that time her husband has been hurt do badly by her that he refuses a divorce.

Vronsky loves Anna but Anna is so worried he is going to throw her over and move on to another woman that she starts pushing him away and then blaming him for not loving her enough. She even creates entire scenarios and conversations in her head:

All the most cruel words that a brutal man could say, he said to her in her imagination, and she could not forgive him for them, as though he had actually said them.

Anna’s ultimate punishment for Vronsky is to throw herself under a train. Anna pretty much brings on her own troubles and then makes them worse and worse.

But really the book isn’t about Anna, or rather, not just about Anna. Sure, it’s named after her, but I think that might be because she is the example of what not to do. We have two other couples held up for comparison. Stepan, Anna’s brother, and Dolly. Stepan is a most congenial man who overspends his income, forces his wife to sell off part of her property to pay his bills, and he chases after most anything in a skirt. The book opens pretty much with Dolly getting confirmation of her husband’s philandering ways. She is going to leave Stepan but Anna convinces her to stay. Dolly does for awhile, but then she eventually can’t take it anymore and she does leave him, finishing the book a much happier woman. No one dies, but it is obvious how Tolstoy feels about adultery.

The book, I think, is really about Levin who finally gets to marry his beloved Kitty. They are happy but they have arguments. Levin wants to put Kitty up on a pedestal but Kitty refuses and remains firmly planted on the ground. Levin, bless him, is a man with so much integrity and honesty that when he was engaged to marry Kitty and told he had to go to confession and get a license and profess his belief in God he was afraid he would not be able to get married because he could not lie and say he believed in something that he had so much doubt about. He is always on the brink of an existential crisis but he is never stuck in the same place, it is something different each time that takes him to the edge. And finally he has an epiphany and naively thinks that everything will suddenly be different and of course it isn’t. How I loved him for thinking that!

But finally Levin comes to understand

‘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.’

The thing about Levin is he never gives up his search for meaning, never gives up trying to understand his purpose, never gives up trying to know himself and see as clearly as possible. Anna in contrast refuses to see the truth about anything and purposely obscures the truth for fear of what she might discover. Stepan doesn’t even bother searching.

I could go on an on about Anna Karenina, it is such a rich, beautiful book. I enjoyed it so very much and have no idea why I waited so long to get around to reading it. If you haven’t read it yet and find yourself hesitating because it is so long or you think it might be difficult reading or for whatever reason, cast all your hesitation aside and dive in. Really. The book reads faster than you might think, it isn’t hard going, and the story is compelling and pulls your right along. After I finished the last page I felt as though the story had not ended, that the characters kept on living their lives. They were that real. Now I’m not going to go jumping into War and Peace, but I will read it soon I think, maybe next year. I want to see if the magic that was in Anna Karenina was a one-time thing or if Tolstoy really was a genius. I’m willing to bet he was a genius.

Thanks goes out to Arti for being the one who finally got me to read this!

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