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Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

First published 1878

Thank you for your answers to the survey question: What comes to your mind first when you think of Anna Karenina? Top survey answers were: Russia (6); train(s) 4; long (3); snow, passion, romance (2 each). Survey answers are highlighted in blue in the paragraph below.

Who is Anna Karenina? If you're saying "I don't remember the story," here's a brief summary. Anna Karenina is the tragic heroine of the long, some might say too long, novel by Russian author Leo Tolstoy which opens with the famous sentence: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” (Find a short analysis of the sentence here.) Indeed, while Dr Zhivago-like images of a beautiful woman wrapped in warm clothes, sharing love and passion on a snowy sleigh ride is ultra-romantic, the story has many layers, and what seems like passion winning over oppression is more dark and complicated. The austerity of the harsh Russian winters is a backdrop to the turbulence and anguish in Anna's soul as she plunges headlong into infidelity and ultimately suicide, jumping in front of a train. Although not written as a historical novel, stirrings of revolutionary ideas can be detected in Anna's refusal to accept social norms, and in the character Levin's discomfort with inequality and his search for meaning in life outside of tradition. Don't let the many pages or the sometimes confusing Russian names keep you away from this worthwhile novel.

In spite of the passion and anguish of Anna's story, what struck me the most was Levin's search for the meaning of goodness. He kept asking, what is the purpose of being "good", of doing "good", what is it for? I couldn't wait for him to find the answer. One day helping the peasants working his land, it finally hit him: Goodness is for its own sake (or one could say for the sake of Faith). It's not for any reward; it's right and just. He should do what is right simply because it's right. He then goes home to his wife Kitty, excited at his realization, although he remarks, a bit surprised, that nothing has changed. Home is still home, for better or worse, there is still work to do, marriage is still challenging with its ups and downs, life hasn't changed. Only he is different; his outlook has changed.

Tolstoy, too, was changing. Anna Karenina was the last novel he wrote before what the French call his "religious crisis". Instead of writing epic novels, he questioned traditional religious and social norms, envisioning and working towards a world where everyone would be equal. He and Gandhi shared many of the same ideas, and exchanged letters which are available online or in various publications. Tolstoy's ideas and actions put him at odds with most of his family; he died in a railway station trying to escape his privileged life.

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