Monday, March 17, 2008

The End of Anna K, aka Train in Vain (Spoiler Alert!!)

It's done!  This morning I finished Anna Karenina, a book which I've lived with for the past month.  I'm celebrating by writing this blog post and a having a nip of 12 year old Van Winkle Rye Whiskey.  It's a delicious vintage that they don't make anymore, just as they don't write novels like this anymore either.  Or maybe they do, what do I know?  I do know, though, that this was a great book, although frankly it got weird at the end.  First of all, Anna totally loses it.  She and Vronsky move back to Moscow, where she becomes impossible...she loves him, she hates him, she quarrels, she gets all clingy and jealous over nothing...yikes!  What happened to her?  How could the bold, confident woman from the novel's start turn into this nightmare?  I think the big reason is that she's trapped.  She's totally ostracized by society, and can't really appear in public, and has no friends, and so must stay at home alone all day while Vronsky can go to the club, hang with the guys, and toss a few back.  Yes, there's a double standard towards women in Olde Russian Society (and there still is today, in America, my college roommate liked to point out, a guy who sleeps around is a stud, while a girl who does so is a slut).  Tolstoy seems to want to make us feel that a woman's place is in the home, or at least that she should not surrender to her passions, come what may, as she'll end up crazy and/or dead, and her children will be forever scarred, forced to grow up with their cold, distant, failure of a father.  Which is what happens here...Anna ends up throwing herself under a train and is killed.  A scene which, by the way, is nicely foreshadowed in the scene where Vronsky first meets a train station, where someone falls under a train and is killed, and Anna takes it as a bad omen; she was correct in that assumption.  Anyway, Anna dies and Vronsky becomes a broken man who goes off to fight against the Turks, explaining that the best soldiers are the ones who care not if they live or die.

But before all this happens, Levin finally gets to meet Anna.  The two pivotal characters in the novel, and they only get one short scene together.  Stiva (Anna's brother) goes to visit Anna and he drags his friend Levin along.  Anna flirts heavily with Levin, and Levin is quite taken by her.  Indeed they seem to have a mutual attraction and understanding.  Levin then goes home to Kitty, where she can immediately tell he's been smitten, and she is not happy about this at all.  But then all is forgotten because she goes into labor.  Levin totally freaks out.  He's a kind hearted man, but he cannot handle pressure (not only Kitty's labor, but when his brother was dying).  But after a long labor, and a feverish panic attack by Levin, Kitty has her baby, and all's well.  

The story shifts away from Levin, back to Anna and Vronsky until after Anna's death scene.  And that's when the novel goes completely weird.  I mean, WTF??  The last section of the book is this weird coda, which is all about Levin and his "spiritual awakening", if you can call it that.  This part sort of lost me, and I couldn't follow all that was going on in Levin's mind.  But basically, after returning to his country home following the baby's birth, he starts reading a bunch of the great philosophers, trying to figure out the meaning of his life, and as Tolstoy would have us believe, almost committing suicide because he can't figure it out (a weird parallel to Anna).  But then, in a conversation with a peasant (who else, when it comes to Levin) he figures it all out.  The peasant talks about someone who "lives for his soul and does not forget God".  And suddenly, Levin "gets it".  He seems to gain faith in God, and decides his life is now transformed.  Well, just a few minutes later he gets angry with his carriage driver, and realizes that he's not all that changed, but still, the demons he was wrestling with seem to be assuaged.  In today's parlance he might say he was "born again".  Levin the unbeliever now believes.  He can't defend his new feelings to his intellectual brother, so he doesn't bother trying.  He and Kitty and their son are happy, and all is well, living under God's grace.  The End.

Odd.  It just seemed like the book suddenly swerved away from its previous self.  But whatever, it's a great book.  Still, there's one unresolved mystery, mentioned in an earlier post:  the book's epigraph is "Vengeance is mine: I shall repay".  I thought the book would shed an obvious light on that, but alas it did not.  So what does it mean?  Beats me.  My best guess is that it means God...that it is up to God to punish Anna, and not society, which is all to eager to do so.  But that explanation doesn't seem totally satisfying.  So yes, I'm stumped.  But that will give me something to ponder while I move on to the next book on the list...something completely different:  Treasure Island.


Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

That epigram has puzzled many a reader. God? Tolstoy? Society?

I had forgotten that the book ends with Levin's crisis. I always imagine it ending with Vronski's toothache.

Justin Hamm said...

A.K. is one of my very favorite books of all time.

I once tried to write an essay that showed how the plot of A.K. advanced much like a detective novel because it depended for forward progress on people constantly visiting one another and obtaining information.

I can't think of a relationship in all of literature that I wanted to work out more than I did Levin's. For some reason, I really identified with the guy.

Robby Virus said...

I totally agree with your thoughts about Levin. He just seems like such a nice, ernest guy, that I couldn't help but root for him.