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Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

The novel was published 1873-1877 in The Russian Messenger. Fyodor Dostoevsky, Vladimir Nabokov and William Faulkner were all very impressed by it. Faulkner even claimed it to be the best work ever written.

The meeting of two women will irrevocably change their lives forever. When Anna Karenina gets to know Kitty Shcherbatskaya, she also gets the chance to know her acquaintance Vronsky. Kitty, on the other hand, has to get to know herself before knowing who she should get to know. The two women are the very opposites of each other but after this day they both begin to transform. The graceful Anna is destined to condemnation and the childish Kitty is destined to insightfulness - give or take a few years. It’s not until then that their true destiny can be revealed.

To follow the conventions of the time was essential, and much of the unhappiness in the book is due to the common view. In this way, the characters are trapped in the conventions of society and people's expectations, not free to make their own choices. Not until they decide to stop caring. Perhaps Karenin isn’t more unhappy than the society forces him to be. Perhaps Kitty’s feelings for a man that suites the aristocracy are not her own feelings. How do one know what’s true and what’s not when constantly affected by one’s environment? To what extent do people’s expectations around us influence us? This shows Tolstoy’s opinion of the higher social levels of society. He was himself apart of it, and didn’t like it. The character Anna, on the other hand, sacrifices not only being part of society but other things as well for the life she wants to live. It seems women often had to make these decisions. In a world of hypocrisy, Anna's brother, Oblonsky, is constantly unfaithful to his wife, while Anna’s situation makes her fall from grace. She is banned from the very same circles that receive both her brother and lover. 

Anna, a kind of feminist of her time, builds up a facade of indifference and seductive charm. Holding her head high, refusing to accept herself as a condemnd, fallen, disgraced woman, she is fighting with all the means accessible to her. Being dependent of a man outside marriage is slowly poisoning her. Behind the facade, her world is beginning to fall apart. Is it really possible for love to rise above social conditions?

Tolstoy writes in a magnificent way. Many themes are masterfully spreading a light over the Russian society in a very interesting time. Discussions about industrialization, agriculture, politics, education and religion reveal a country on the verge of turmoil. Parts of Russia wanted the country to Europeanize, while others wanted it to maintain its traditional values. There was an identity crisis, where the population spoke French while at the same time discussed what it meant to be russian. Russia was torn between people wanting to overthrow the tsar, while others wanted to industrialize agriculture for the country to become as modern as the west. All this is explained through the eyes of the characters. It’s fascinating to feel the dissatisfaction boiling beneath the surface, thriving and growing, the beginning of which would finally escalate into the Russian revolution.

Every chapter feels necessary to get to know and understand the characters. The only flaw is the sometimes long, tedious parts. Even though Levin with his existential philosophic pondering - not unlike Tolstoy himself - is a favorable character, the mowing was really tiresome. It can't be necessary to know so much about mowing. It isn’t even interesting in the first place. But Levin comes alive and shines in the presence of hard work with his peasents. In line with his own book where he describes that a man is influenced by his surroundings, he is himself influenced. When in town, he becomes a different person, but in the country he is always Levin.

What makes Tolstoy’s characters so convincing? Perhaps their tendency to be totally convinced at one time, and doubting the next. To be totally in love with someone, and the next moment not really sure. To be cynical, and from a sudden inspiration see people’s goodness. Their personalities are floating like waves in the sea, indefinite forms, evolving, changing, but never altering shapes. Tolstoy was a master when it came to character development. All these vivid contradictory characteristics make them human. They come alive before the reader's eyes. Anna with her perseverance and fear of abandonment, Karenin with his emotional torments and vengeful manner, Vronsky with his struggle of feelings and lack of understanding family bonds, Kitty with her naivety and attentiveness, Levin with his humanity and fits of jeolusy and despair, Varenka with her goodness and inspirational manner, Dolly with her endurance and indulgence, and Oblonsky with his love of women and way of giving advice.

In the center of it all stands Anna and Vronsky. We get to see a relationship from the first innocent glance, to a flourishing relationship, and to the final destruction. Anna and Vronky tear their relationship apart by circumstances caused by conventions. The contrast between the two main couples is strong. While one is evolving and prospering, the other is falling apart.

Time Magazine’s J. Peder Zane, along with William Faulkner, considers it to be the best book ever written. I think it’s definitely a must read for everyone that is in the least interested in a time of change, character development caused by internal but also external factors, and how it intertwine with human destiny. Not only does the book paint a picture of the former Russian society like a theater, where people have different roles to play on stage, judged by their appearance rather than their personal, authentic goodheartedness, and how this leads to one of the world's greatest love tragedies. It can also, with a little imagination, with a little imagination, be applied to the society of today.

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