Once upon a time, several atheist bloggers formed a reading group called the Nonbelieving Literati. As I recall, the idea was that we would read and discuss one work of fiction each month, since many of us spent a lot of time reading non-fiction works about science, history, philosophy, etc. (Of course, when my first turn to choose a book rolled around, I broke the non-fiction rule and selected Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own; big surprise, I know.) The thing that got me thinking about the literati was a recent post by ubi dubium, in which she shared her thoughts about Madame Bovary. I found it intriguing that she had just finished reading (or, rather, listening to) that book at approximately the same time I finished reading Anna Karenina. Based on what ubi dubium said in her review, my impression is that both books, which were written in the mid-19th century, explored many similar themes.
If the literati could have made their way through Tolstoy’s lengthy Karenina tome in one month, I suspect they may have found both much to love, and much to hate, in the book. One thing I love is Tolstoy’s striking depiction of life in 19th century Russia. Since the bulk of his narrative occurs in the Russian countryside, Moscow and St. Petersburg, he is able to portray social, physical, economic and political conditions as experienced by many members of rural and urban societies. To take one example, his description of the annual harvest process is thoroughly engrossing. Another thing I love about the book is its no-holds-barred portrayal of the hypocrisy that permeates patriarchal societies. Anna’s lover, Alexey Vronsky, suffers no social penalties for his – let’s say, breach of etiquette – in stealing another man’s wife. On the other hand, Anna, who leaves her husband and son to be with Vronsky, is ostracized and condemned as a whore by the very same people who continue accepting Vronsky as their equal. One final thing I love about the book is Tolstoy’s intense examination of the psychology of his characters. His portrayal of Anna’s descent into despair, madness and seemingly inevitable suicide is particularly riveting.
The thing I hated about the book, and which I think would have annoyed my fellow literati, was Tolstoy’s use of an avatar, in the character of Konstantin Levin, to explore his own spiritual journey from doubt to Christian faith. The final section of the book dealt almost entirely with Levin’s spiritual renewal. Blech! It read as if Tolstoy couldn’t figure out how to close the story once he had dramatically crushed the title character under the wheels of a train. I think he should have ended it at the point when Anna’s lover led a group of volunteers to war. Sending the grief-stricken Vronsky, who had already attempted suicide earlier in the book, to die on a battlefield in a foreign land would have been plausible, and perhaps even fitting. Instead, Tolstoy moved to the fringe of fiction and entered the realms of quasi-autobiographical and philosophical rumination, and totally – I mean absolutely, positively, thoroughly – fucked up the end of his book. It’s a shame that he did so, because up until that point, it was a damn good read. If you ever read Anna Karenina, feel free to stop when she jumps off the platform. If you don’t, and you continue reading to the end, I guarantee you’ll find yourself wishing you had jumped with her.
– the chaplain