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Ten Things I’ve Learned from Anna Karenina

October 7, 2014
1) Leo Tolstoy portrays the peasants as barefoot on a regular basis. (This isn’t the most important point, but this is a barefoot blog, so I thought I’d get it out of the way first.) In the picture above, Tolstoy himself is barefoot. I don’t know if this is out of self-identification with the peasants – which would be his style – or out of his mixed spirituality – a blend of Orthodoxy, Deism, and non-Orthodox beliefs of 19th century Russia – or if he simply liked living barefoot, too.
2) I don’t like Anna. She is a spoiled prima-donna. Maybe I’m just not getting it, but she is unfaithful to her husband (20 years her senior, a wealthy statesman, the father of her son – whom she loves – and he has been a faithful, dutiful man, if not very romantic). Anna finds the man of her dreams (Vronsky) who is handsome, young, smart, and well-heeled. And yet, it isn’t good enough. She leaves her husband, son, and family for Vronsky and yet, she wants more. Nothing is good enough. After she has her daughter (by Vronsky), she’s unhappy with everything. She acts like a spoiled brat and it doesn’t resonate with me. She becomes a morphine addict and the young woman with everything to live for throws it all away under the carriage of a train.
3) Infidelity has always been around. I didn’t really learn this from Anna Karenina, but it always surprises me when someone breaks their wedding vows. (Yes, always.) I have often had this idea that until the “sexual revolution” of the 1960’s, most people were pretty staid and confined (if unhappy) about marriage and faithfulness. But it appears that marriage vows seemed to mean little in old Russia (except to the peasants, as Tolstoy points out) as much as in the rest of the world.
4) Doubt, though strong, is not sin. When Levin goes to confession before his wedding, he goes as an unbeliever – a non-believer, as Tolstoy puts it. He confesses his doubts to the priest and yet the priest tells him, “Everyone doubts, tell me your real sins” (my paraphrase). Tolstoy, through the priest, recognizes the humanity of doubt… we want God, but it is our human nature to doubt. God invites us to doubt. Through our own questions, doubts and seeking, we find God.
5) Royalty is a sham. Anytime anyone thinks they are somehow privileged simply by their birth they are grossly delusional. Tolstoy’s treatment of the petty-nobility of Russia spoke to me. Snobbery, indifference to the plight of the peasants, and a fixation on things that don’t matter (fashion, china patterns, who’s whom at the ball, etc.) are characteristic of “royals” – to paraphrase Tolstoy again, “who needs it?”
6) There is nothing like a good day’s work outdoors. Tolstoy’s depiction of Levin’s work with his bailiff and crew on the harvest is nothing short of genius. The sense of fulfillment and pride Levin experiences in his work with them – the sweat, the exercise, the camaraderie – are brilliantly portrayed by Tolstoy.
7) Country mouse vs. City mouse has always been a thing. Again, I thought that  the rural-urban divide of life began with the urbanization of the world during the Industrial Revolution and was accelerated by the changes in life created by the Great Depression and the rise of “agribusiness.” Not so, in Anna Karenina. I am definitely a “country mouse” and maybe that’s why I related much better to Levin than to other characters of the book. I like the practical, pragmatic way. I love the beauty of the countryside. I like the rural rhythm of life. I am glad that Levin’s wife and son become “country mice” rather than vice versa. There are times when the city is a necessary evil – like Levin’s dreaded trips to Moscow – but country is where there is peace and real living.
8) The Church must go beyond the institution of itself. This isn’t a lesson I’ve learned anew, but it is a lesson I’m glad to have had re-affirmed. Repeatedly, the institutional Orthodox Church of the novel is (justifiably) depicted as aloof and insensitive to the non-nobility citizens of Russia. And repeatedly, Tolstoy depicts through Levin’s conversion and conversations with God, that faith is present when we least expect it and usually outside the formal walls of Christendom.
9) A novel is still not my favorite form of literature. I prefer non-fiction. I have enjoyed Anna Karenina, but I’m also looking forward to reading something more solid and factual.
10) The “book is better than the movie” is still true. I haven’t seen the 2012 film version (with Kiera Knightly), but I don’t think I want to. I have seen Vivien Leigh’s portrayal (1946) and I would like to see Greta Garbo’s if I can find it. Vivien Leigh’s was good, but there was so much omitted – if I hadn’t read the book, I wouldn’t know what was happening. The 2012 edition I’ve only seen in previews. Just seeing the previous I can tell that eroticism has replaced nuance, that flagrant sexuality has replaced the subtleties of real romance, and that the producers were more interested in telling a skewed version of Anna’s story – the beleaguered, spoiled, adulteress who is somehow justified in her infidelity – rather than the full story of family, the strength of good relationships, and the tragedy of losing all in a futile attempt to please everyone.
Finally, I wish there were a way to get back to a way of life more like Tolstoy depicts here: where people read books, write letters, interact, and work hard.

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  1. I am not a big fan of Leo Tolstoy but thank you for reading a Russian book! Whose translation was it?

    If you only could find good translations of Nikolay Gogol and Nikolay Leskov, I would recommend those two brilliant Russian authors. They are my favorite.

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