Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Anna Karenina is widely considered to be one of the top novels of all time, and I certainly wouldn’t disagree. There are aspects of this book’s greatness, however, that keep bringing me back to it every few years. As I get older, I see more and more amazing insights into human nature in this book than I ever noticed before. Tolstoy tells us, without telling us, that we should serve others, go deeper, and travel further in, and we leave his novel wanting these things for ourselves.
Here we see two all-time great personalities with incredible depth, Anna Karenina and Kostya Levin and eagerly follow their lives. Many other interesting characters live inside these pages, but in general they exist to shine more light upon the two major ones. Sadly, the reader isn’t aware for much of the novel that one character is on the ascent and the other is descending. Both are very sympathetic and engaging in very different ways.
Themes that this book undertakes that might have been unpopular at the time of writing abound. One major theme is that of the loosening of restrictions on the common class, the rural peasants who were enslaved serfs not too long in the memory of the characters. This change in the social fabric of Russia is seen in clear contrast to the often-frivolous, excessive lives of the urban wealthy elite. Another major theme is that of sanctification versus decline. Sometimes characters who early on appear to have a broad excess of humanity find themselves in a downward spiral just as other characters who struggle to understand themselves and others improve and begin demonstrating goodness and grace to others. As Kostya Levin, an impulsive and argumentative landowner discovered late in the book, “if goodness has causes, it is not goodness; if it has effects, a reward, it is not goodness either. So goodness is outside the chain of cause and effect.” This realization is a major breakthrough for Levin, who is struggling mightily to discover his purpose and place.
Throughout the book, it is hard not to adore the character Anna Karenina herself. She reminds one of the classmate in school who was confident and well-liked and didn’t understand or care about why. Anna comes from a lesser background but has easily made a charming path into the acceptance of the nobility. Her ability to be very decisive during challenging times turns into a flaw, though, and her life — unnoticed by anyone — begins to unravel.
This is a long book with incredible amounts of detail. As a writer myself (mediocre at best in comparison to Leo Tolstoy), I found many admirable examples where Tolstoy fits a beautiful, surprising set or event into the story in ways that seem natural and obvious. The book will be challenging, and therefore valuable, to any who struggle with the attachment of too much value to material things. Tolstoy reminds the reader over and over that the elements of one’s life that constitute goodness owe no debt to wealth and possessions.
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Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy