If I were given the task of teaching an alien race about what it’s like to be human, I might start by giving them Anna Karenina to read. Tolstoy follows his characters deep into their heads and lays out, in detail, how each one thinks and feels, what motivates them to act, and even how they think about their own thoughts. He does this with an uncompromising realism and absence of judgement: there are no heroes and villains, only people acting in ways that make sense to them at the time. I’m guessing that which characters are more likeable and sympathetic will depend very much on the reader’s own perspective. I certainly have my favorites, but for nearly every character there came a moment where I thought, “Yes, I have felt like that, exactly.”
Coupled with the depth of individual characters, the breadth of scope is impressive. While the slice of life Tolstoy presents is mostly confined to one class — we would probably call it upper middle class — the experiences cover a wide range of the human spectrum. There is marriage, both loving and loveless. There is birth and death. There is politics and social change, religion and skepticism, work and play. There is charity that looks like selfishness and selfishness that looks like charity. Most of the things that I worry and wonder about in the course of my life are explored somewhere in the book, and often in different lights and from different perspectives.
Although it’s best known as the story of Anna Karenina’s tragic love affair, less than half of the book is dedicated to Anna, her husband Karenin, and her lover Vronsky. Friends and relatives of these people have their own lives, and their own stories play out in counterpoint to Anna’s. The story begins with Anna’s brother Oblonsky and his family, and through the course of the book a third family is formed, and the three families by themselves could make up an entire course exploring the nature of marriage, family, parenthood, and love. Most impressive to me was the way social and external forces shape, and are shaped by, the feelings and relationships of the characters. Often we have a habit of viewing a love story as something set apart from the rest of life, with its own beginning, middle, and happy or unhappy ending determined only by the qualities of the people involved and the strength of their love. Reality is more complicated: human beings need social support and material provision as well as love, and just as love changes our view of friends, family, and material needs, these things change the way our love affair plays out.
Anna Karenina is not a book you read to find out what happens: even if you’ve missed hearing the major plot events, nothing that happens in it is much of a surprise. It’s not a book you read to ease the complexities of life with a simpler, clearer narrative. It’s a book you read to meditate on your own life, to come out with a deeper, broader understanding of how different life feels to different people, even people who are going through outwardly very similar events. For me, reading it left me with a swell of compassion, both for myself and for others, walking this road of life that is difficult and confusing and sometimes very rewarding.
This is my first review for Cannonball Read 5, a group blog where people pledge to read and review 52 books a year (or 26, or 13.) Mindful of my grad school requirements, I’m only doing 26 this year, but I hope to do the full 52 in the future!