I recently finished Anna Karenina, despite the warnings of a friend that Russian novels are tedious and that I would better spend my time chewing cardboard. Yes, it was lengthy, but tedious? Certainly not!
The depth to this book was incredible. It was witty, enchanting, heart-breaking, and thought-provoking all at once. However, I disagree with most readers (or… movie watchers) about the most important theme of this book. While most argue that the theme of Anna Karenina is love, whether forbidden love, maternal love, wedded love, or sisterly love, I would argue that Leo Tolstoy’s real intent was to display through wonderfully flawed characters the universal struggle between spiritual truth and our own pride.
What leads me to this conclusion is the ending of the book. (I know, it took over 800 pages to get there, but it is worth it!) Throughout the book, the individual struggles of an enormous cast of characters are related in detail. This is common to classic literature and at first seems tedious (more than once I have sighed in aggravation: “Get on with the love story, Tolstoy!”) but it results in a more well-rounded piece that features a caricature of nearly every type of person, revealing his or her unique struggle and the ultimate resolution of that struggle.
In order to avoid spoilers, I’ll use Constantine Levin as an example rather than the alluring Mrs. Karenina. At the beginning of the novel, Levin is introduced as a hard-working yet sensitive farmer. He makes it clear to all who meet him that he is an agnostic, something shocking to the hypocritical Russian aristocracy of the late seventeenth century. Throughout the novel, Levin holds fast to this view, even when he marries… (No spoilers! Read the book!) a devout Christian. Despite his insistence that his logical mind prevents him from accepting Christianity, he is in turmoil, always pursuing something more through farming, writing, or marriage, but never quite satisfying the void in his life. Finally, when he had gained success in the eyes of society and should have been content, he allows himself to admit his hopelessness. He had everything he had desired: a thriving farm, a lovely wife, a healthy son, and plenty of friends, but his soul was lost. At last, after reflecting alone over his struggles and questions, he reached the conclusion that what he had truly been missing was faith. As soon as he realized this, the anguish he had hid for years fled and he breathed in the peace he had been yearning for, stating:
“I have discovered nothing. I have only perceived what it is that I know. I have understood the Power that not only gave me life in the past but is giving me life now. I have freed myself from deception and learnt to know my Master” (Tostoy 785).
Thus, the meaning of this book is not that “if one loves, one loves the whole person as he or she is,” although that is definitely a major theme. Rather, the overarching claim of this novel is that there is hope for the soul in agony. Some characters, such as Levin, found this hope or possessed it from the opening chapter, and some (again, no spoilers, so I won’t say who…) continued to careen down the paths of selfish desire that they paved for themselves, ultimately ending in tragedy.