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Thoughts Whilst Reading Anna Karenina (Parts I – IV)

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Once again I’ve put down the Tolstoy; this time it’s not long-term, it’s more a slowing down. The same reason, more or less, as last time – Levin – but as this is the third time I’ve paused in these two years of reading it I’ve worked out exactly what the problem is.

It is the agriculture and Levin’s thoughts, it’s Levin taking time away from Anna’s story that continues to make me wonder why this book is named for the one character when it’s about so much more than her. (Affairs And Agriculture would definitely fit well beside two-subject-plus-‘and’ War And Peace.) But my pausing has to do with the amount of thinking. You know me, I love books about social issues, but the number of characters going on about various philosophies makes for a dull lesson and my thoughts stray whenever Anna’s not in the scene… I’m a bit like Vronsky in that respect.

Anyway, despite these problems I’ve concentrated on some of it and have thoughts in mind, namely that I like, in a literary way, the results of Levin’s similarity to Tolstoy. It helps to know the reason there’s so much agriculture is that it fits Tolstoy’s philosophy. The book is the author’s brainstorm, so to speak – in many ways he’s using his novel to explore and further his opinions. At the same time he allows the other side full rein, showing the chaos of an undecided mind.

Levin reminds me of Marie Antoinette – his dreams of peasanthood are a written version of the French queen’s dressing up as a shepherdess. It’s all so simple… but Kitty’s a princess, he loves her, he’s well-off himself, so can’t really be a peasant. Levin’s actions strike me as minor appropriation, a grass is always greener attitude. He helps the workers on their level, yes, but they know what he’s about and no one’s really thinking he’ll continue. At the same time, however, Levin is in effect bridging the gap between nobility and peasantry whilst the rest of his family stay snug at home.

It’s not just Levin, though. You have Karenin’s thoughts on racial minorities, that is to say the Russian minorities. Karenin stays noble whilst thinking about the problems, enabling lengthy conversations between him, Oblonsky, Levin and Levin’s brother. Their conversation includes this line (Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translation):

It’s a vicious circle. Women are deprived of rights because of their lack of education, and their lack of education comes from having no rights.

This part is interesting, characters suggesting that if they, men, can’t be wet nurses, women can’t expect to be high in the world. It’s compelling in the way that it sums up the argument well, shows the lack of thought given to the fact there were far more things a man could do compared to a woman, also that there were so many both could do or could have done with the same ability and result.

Moving on to something completely different, I’ve been intrigued by the way Tolstoy presents Vronsky post-reveal, how it’s all so great and he’s in love right up until the moment he sees he’s not going to get his duel with Karenin. Without the need to fight for them, to show he’s more powerful than Karenin and knowing that Karenin doesn’t care for a duel, Vronsky’s feelings for Anna nose dive. Does he still love her? At this moment quite possibly not. The fun and naughtiness of it has gone, he’s not going to get what he was expecting. (We don’t see him expecting it but as Tolstoy provides the point of view of various characters some things were going to be left out and he illustrates through anecdote the basic concept of duelling.) What fascinates me is that suddenly and without saying anything, Tolstoy throws the whole affair into speculation. Did Vronsky ever love Anna? Could we say it is and was infatuation?

What’s missing here is the baby – I’m waiting for Vronsky’s next light bulb moment wherein he realises he’s going to be a father. I wouldn’t expect him to have any particular feelings given the situation but an acknowledgement would be nice. Perhaps Tolstoy’s onto that (hindsight moment: he kind of is).

It might’ve been better if I’d had my own economic philosophy to bore you with because the concept surrounding what Tolstoy’s written is good, there’s just too much of it. I’m going to concentrate on the fact there’s lots I have focused on and appreciated. Perhaps the thing to do would be to re-read the philosophy at a later time. It strikes me as a fair companion, study-wise, to the David Cannadine I have on my shelf, or perhaps it could be the push I need to read Adam Smith.

I’d love to hear from you: what did you make of all the philosophy and what did you think of Vronsky’s literal change of heart?



October 17, 2015, 4:52 pm

It took me about a year to read this book. I literally couldn’t read more than a few chapters at a time, then I needed a break.

I found most of the digressions too long–some of the writing was very moving, but I got the point without needing Tolstoy to go on for quite so long.

I actually was more interested in Levin than Anna/Vronsky, both of whom I found fairly uninteresting as characters. In terms of story, the Anna/Vronsky story could have been a short story and worked better, but then I wouldn’t have met Levin.

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