It’s hard for me to even begin writing anything remotely interesting after having read these two parts (especially Part 4) of Anna Karenina. So much happened so quickly that I just want to write a crazy, fanatic-esque post about it. Now, I really should have expected this because it is the climax of the story after all, but Part 3 seemed like a drudge so I figured I’d read Part 4 before posting about it again because it was only an extra 84 pages. Man, was I wrong; I really should have let Part 4 be a stand alone review because there’s just so much to talk about in it. In fact, I don’t think I can adequately write about yet as I feel the need to see how everything resolves itself before passing judgment. So — with that being said — I’ve decided to write about my favorite elements of the novel thus far.
(In approximate chronological order…)
1.) Speaking French and English nonchalantly in conversation.
If you ask me, which I suppose you are by reading this, the use of Western languages in the elite Russian circles is one of the most important elements of Tolstoy’s story as well as one of the most interesting. The obvious reason he emphasizes the use of different languages is to reveal the pretentiousness of the elite society. You could — if you so chose — stop all analysis of it there, but that would take all the fun out of it, wouldn’t it? The foreign languages are used as a mask. Now, you might say “Duh,” because the act of pretension is inherently the putting on of a show. However, although Tolstoy clearly demonstrates this component of it, with the central characters the languages take on a much different role than that of pretension. For example, when Anna tells Vronsky that she is pregnant during Part 3, Vronsky begins to speak in French to her. This is because he doesn’t dare use the informal speech of Russian with her for fear the servants would think it inappropriate. He also could never bring himself to use the formal speech of Russian because it would be too false to his feelings. Therefore, he uses the french, which is neither formal nor informal, to convey his feelings to Anna. This sort of situation has occurred several times throughout the story so far, and Tolstoy has always been careful to explain that the foreign languages are used to escape the formal-informal structure of the Russian language. In this way, the characters are able to deceive the people around them while still conveying their true feelings to each other. So, I would argue that — at least in Anna Karenina — foreign languages in conversation reveal true feelings instead of becoming the mask of pretension. Only the side characters, like Lydia Ivanovna and Princess Tverskoy, use French and English solely to demonstrate their own status.
2.) Kitty’s time at the spa with Varenka.
These chapters touched my heart. The exact reason eludes me, but it’s not hard to guess. A passion in my life is helping and advocating for the underprivileged and systemically abused people in this world. So, to see Kitty’s character so completely transform during this period in her life was magical. She tried desperately to become selfless and was overcome by the fact that nothing and no one can be purely altruistic. This is a phenomena I know well. Unlike Kitty, I came to terms with it and learned a balance that feels morally sound. (Side note: Kitty is certainly not the character I am most like, however.) Unfortunately, Kitty is too swayed by the opinions of superiors like her father. This is what prevented her from true growth. She left the spa refreshed, but still wanted the same things she always had, practically still acted as she had before her heart was broken. Even though Kitty’s fate is not what I would have wanted, the scenes at the spa remain in my Top 3 moments of Anna Karenina so far. It was enchanting to read, particularly because of Varenka’s character. Moreover, I had so much hope restored in me for Kitty’s character while reading it regardless of how things turned out for her there.
3.) Levin cutting the hay with the muzhiks.
This section was a tad bittersweet to read for me. I’ve spent many months of my life working on farms around the United States and know the draw of the hard labor well. However, like Levin, I did not grow up in that world. I was raised in a family home in what is essentially a suburb in an upper-middle class family. I chose the world of farming because it called to my soul, as did Levin. However, again like Levin, I know in my heart that I could never live out my life as a farmer. This is because I grew up in a world less physically demanding than the word of a farmer. It is also because I look to farming as a pleasure, a pastime, an intimate ritual with nature. So, to make it my work to farm would not only be sacrilege but also would probably create a resentment in my heart because I would be obligated, necessitated to do certain things at certain times. There would be a demand for it that would break the happiness which farming is for me. So, to get back to the point, reading about Levin’s love for the work of the peasants nearly broke my heart. I understood his love and longing all to well. However, I also understood his conflicted heart, one part searching forever for the pantheistic freedom and the other finding such a life too taxing.
4.) Dolly getting her children baptized.
I particularly enjoyed this scene because of the thick satire with which Tolstoy wrote it. Now, it’s not the sort of thick satire that is evident in the likes of The Taming of the Shrew or Candide, but it’s still seeping with it if only one knows anything about Tolstoy. Tolstoy — loathing the life of the rich which he was born into — finds the religious act of the upper class hypocritical and offensive. Hardly anyone of that caliber believes in religion or takes the rituals seriously (as is alluded to when Dolly remarks that she hasn’t taken the children to church in at least two years), and Tolstoy makes a point consistently throughout his stories to demonstrate this. He makes it clear that if you feel social pressure to uphold religious rituals in your life, then you are nothing more than a pretentious, anti-intellectual.
5.) Vronsky’s tour of Russia with the German prince.
This was delightful solely for the purpose of symbolism which Tolstoy so masterfully implements. In the beginning of the novel, Vronsky represents pure pleasure; he does what he wants when he wants and listens to no one. During the same time, Anna represented the pinnacle of society’s expectations of women. By the time Vronsky tours the German prince around Russia, all this has changed. Anna has followed her heart and conceived Vronsky’s child. Now, she is the emblem of pleasure. She did what she wanted when she wanted and listened to no one. Vronsky, on the other hand, now hates the life he once lived. He despises the German prince for his promiscuity and lack of regard for other human beings. He has grown tired of Anna, regrets his choice to throw away promotions, and wants nothing more than to be rid of all excess. So, now Vronsky has become the one who cares about obligations and societal pressures. It is an interesting turn of events. The question that has yet to be resolved is whether or not he will act upon this change of heart. My guess would be no because, at the end of Part 4, he heads abroad with Anna — yet to be divorced. The only true observation I can make as of yet is that pleasure causes pain; it has caused nothing but regret for both Anna and Vronsky. Anything else I would say now about Tolstoy’s interpretation of pleasure would merely be speculation. But, repression leads to pleasure and pleasure to repression; it is the cycle of life. Not only do I believe this, but Tolstoy agrees. He writes, “Levin had long ago observed that when things are made awkward by people’s excessive compliance and submission, they are soon made unbearable by their excessive demandingness and fault-finding.”