Did you ever expect a 19th century Russian novel to be such a page-turner? What a saga!
Finishing Part Two, I feel like I'm starting to appreciate the ironies of Russian society. And I love how deftly Tolstoy reveals what's in the heart of each of our main characters—Anna's guilty desperation; Vronsky's coldness; Karenin's hypocrisy; Levin's idealism; Kitty's searching heart. This is great writing!
From the pompous doctors who examine Kitty, to the gossipy "circles" of Petersburg society, Tolstoy doesn't seem to look too favorably on the people who blindly follow both "modern trends" and old social rules.
Karenin is the icon of those old social rules. He's a master of propriety, self-deception and affectation. "Each time he encountered life itself, he had drawn back from it." (p. 142) In his heart, Karenin knows Anna is deceiving him, yet he can't begin to face the truth. He's devastated, but he can only respond by demanding propriety—and closing his heart: "It was too dreadful for him to recognize his real position and in his soul he closed, locked and sealed the drawer in which he kept his feeling for his family—that is, his wife and son." (p. 201)
For Anna—reckless and guilty as she is—Karenin's ways are repulsive to her very soul. Of Karenin she thinks, "Nothing but ambition, nothing but the wish to succeed—that's all that's in his soul." (p. 207) But even as I read of her hatred for her husband, I doubt that it can end well for her and Vronsky. And what about that moment during the race when Vronsky breaks the horse's back? Wasn't that horrible? We knew that race couldn't end well, but I didn't think it would be that disastrous! The debacle of the race must be an omen of things to come, don't you think?
Karenin and Vronsky each have a closed heart of some kind—and their fates will reflect that, I think!
In contrast, Levin is pure-hearted in his loyalty to the land, and his dream of love and home. The beautiful spring countryside strengthens him. Even in his humiliation over Kitty, he tells Stiva, "I rejoice over what I have and don't grieve over what I don't have." (p. 162) To me, these words reveal quite simply how humane and humble Levin is. I think he could wind up being the hero of the book! And what of Kitty, whose heart is searching for its truth and purpose? Here's a woman who needs a good dose of self esteem! Recouping at the European spa, she meets, admires, and "falls in love" with the nurturing Varenka. She longs to have the peace of mind she sees in the charitable woman, saying to Varenka, "How good, how good you are! If only I could be a little like you!" (p. 222) Varenka's simple response holds the key to all Kitty's searching—if only Kitty can hear it. Varenka says, "Why do you need to be like anyone? You're good as you are." (p. 222)
Two big truths: Be grateful for what you have...and know in your heart that you're good as you are. And we're only in Part Two!
I'm officially loving this book!