While I’m not the first, and I very much doubt I will be the last, I thought I’d share some ideas that were roused in me after reading Anna Karenin (even that sentence shows I’ve been reading Tolstoy). Seeing as it is such a well-read tome, I won’t go into the overall plot too much. Needless to say, at 900 pages, it is a little hard to summarise anyway. If you haven’t read it yet, or seen the film, there are a few spoilers here. You’ve been warned!
It goes without saying that of course I was troubled by his female characters. From the ridiculous Kitty, who flitters about at the beginning of the book, only to find her true solidity and sense of purpose when nursing someone or becoming a mother. Of course, now she has started fulfilling her role as a caregiver, the true calling of womanhood, she is complete. Perhaps the most raucous statement of her feelings are when she is in the throes of childbirth. “She rejoiced in her suffering,” apparently. If ever a man had a romantic notion of the intense pain of giving birth, that was it. Although perhaps he most truly captures the suffering of women in poor Dolly. At the whim of her cheating husband, she finds herself trapped in an endless cycle of pregnancy and nursing, the appeal of her good looks long gone. Nothing but the management of a household that is losing money because of her husband’s careless attitude and gambling is left to keep her busy. If ever an early argument were put forward for contraception, it is in Dolly’s musings over how her inability to control when her womb will be filled completely dominate her life.
And then, of course, there is Anna. From the outset she is insufferable, and only gets worse. Proudly showing off her beauty, by the end openly using it to attract the attention of another woman’s husband, she winds up in a sorry state, consumed by unfounded jealousy. To be honest, by the time it got to the point where she was thinking about topping herself, I was quite pleased. Anything to shut up her incessant whining about her life. And such a jealous, narcissistic being.
From this, it’s quite clear what Tolstoy’s lesson is. The evil woman who gives into temptation meets a sorry end, and is never made to be particularly pleasant, only charming in a superficial way. While Oblonsky, who is guilty of exactly the same crime, winds up getting bailed out by his brother-in-law. While it may well be argued that this is exactly Tolstoy’s point – the inequality in treatment for the two, and the very different outcomes, I feel that the way he created their characters is quite different. While at the end the reader is encouraged to be incredibly weary of Oblonsky, one is not positioned into finding him as objectionable as Anna, and so we are led to believe that perhaps Tolstoy shares society’s view.
To move to other matters, I loved the way that he ridiculed the life of the gentry. Through the simple eyes of Levin, the indulgent eyes of Oblonsky, or the vain eyes of Vronsky, the cream of society is revealed in all its flaws. A greedy and opulent set of people, who argue heatedly about matters they seem to know nothing of. It feels like a precarious nobility on the verge of collapse, doomed for their own frivolities and for the lack of understanding of themselves and those around them. Yes it is a little indulgent in the praise of the pastoral, the beautiful simplicity of a peasant’s life is overly romanticised, but I did appreciate the way that, even then, no-one is entirely sure if what they are doing is the correct way to go about living your life.
What struck me particularly was the way he presented the arguments happening between the gentry. For the most part, each man has his own singular opinions, and repeats them ad infinitum, especially when he is met with confrontation. Levin provides a counterpart to this. When someone presents a decent argument, he is swayed, and takes the time to consider the other side. This often means that he ends up contradicting himself, or changing his mind. While to others this habit shows nothing but weakness and inconsistency, I found it rather charming. At the end of the book, Tolstoy gives Levin a sense of purpose through religion, after throwing him into philosophical turmoil. In a way, I rather wish he hadn’t. It is his ability to weigh other opinions, consider ideas carefully and try out new ideas that makes him by far the most appealing character in the book (not that he doesn’t have his flaws).
It reminded me of a TED talk I listened to, with regard to trial and error. It is something that economics writer Tim Harford calls the God complex – this ridiculous idea that, despite all evidence to the contrary, humans have the definitive answer when solving problems. In an example in the talk, he tells us about a nozzle produced by Unilever for a particular brand of detergent. Scientists spent ages putting together what should have been the perfect nozzle. It didn’t work. Instead, they decided to use trial and error. They made a number of prototypes, and then each time carried forward the elements of it that worked best. In the end, they came up with a perfect nozzle, but none of them could explain what it was that made it work so well.
This, to my mind, is the genius of Levin. Rather than assuming that he knows better than everyone because he’s an educated nobleman, he looks at those around him, reads a huge variety of texts, and struggles to understand things. It is only he that fully grasps the complexity of the world around him. To be fair, this does mean that he spends a fair part of the novel being rather vexed, as he can’t find the answers to life in his approach to the world.
But we could all learn a lot from Levin. As Tim Harford says in his talk, we all claim to know that trial and error is the way forward, but how much would we trust a politician if they said they were committed to raising educational standards, but weren’t exactly sure how? Arguably, until we begin to use this sort of approach to complex problems, rather than assuming we know what is best, things will not improve. We all know what happens when politicians who have little knowledge of a topic start making bold claims and legislation. It doesn’t end well.
So, rather than a tale of obsession and vengeance, I would rather see Anna Karenina as a novel of questions. If we take this reading, we can see very clearly Tolstoy’s wisdom, as he mocks all of his characters, no matter what their choices are, and doesn’t encourage us to particularly side with anyone. Except possibly Levin. If there were anything this novel could teach us, it’s that perhaps we shouldn’t take our own ideas too seriously, and need to be more open to moulding our ideas in light of new discoveries and perspectives.