Whether you're lounging poolside or commuting to work, why not put the "rrrr" in your reading with a torrid Russian love affair? Take a journey back in time with Oprah's Book Club selection—Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy!
Oprah's doing something she's never done before! For the first time, she's chosen a book she's never read so she can read it along with you! Oprah says, "This book has been on my 'must read' list for years, but I was scared of it. Let's not be scared of it. I'm going to team up with all of you, and we'll read it together. It's one of the greatest love stories of all time."
From its very first provocative line the novel sucks you in: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." This is a novel about something everyone can relate to: family and the need to feel loved. Pick up your copy of Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition of Anna Karenina and start reading along with Oprah today!
What Happens in Part One of Anna Karenina
Hello book clubbers!
Our Anna Karenina adventure has begun! Are you moving right along? As I finish Part One, I must say...I'm not that scared anymore! It's a big, sprawling saga—but I'm starting to feel like 19th century Russia can be mastered!
From Stiva's debts and infidelity to Levin's idealized dream of a wife and family—from Nikolai's drunken Communist rants to Kitty's naive and passionate heart—Tolstoy weaves an extravagant web. Complex social mores are entwined with deeply personal struggles. Right vs. wrong...honor vs. hypocrisy...relevance vs. obsolescence—who are the victims, the villains, the heroes? So much to think about as we explore this foreign land!
People told me the love triangle between Kitty, Vronsky and Anna was going to be juicy, but I had no idea! Kitty has turned down Levin's marriage proposal, certain that Vronsky's own proposal is imminent. Yet her world is shattered in the moment she realizes that she's lost Vronsky's ardor:
"Kitty looked into his face, which was a short distance from hers, and long afterwards, for several years, that look, so full of love, which she gave him then, and to which he did not respond, cut her heart with tormenting shame." (p. 80)
Kitty is powerless to halt the mounting passion between Vronsky and the older, married, captivating Anna. It is even more crushing since she herself had been so drawn to Anna. Kitty is heartbroken and humiliated. Crumpled in a chair, "she felt destroyed." (p. 82)
Like Kitty, I'm not sure I know if Anna is enchanting...or somehow "terrible and cruel."
Anna leaves Moscow to avoid the rapture she feels for Vronsky—but she can't escape her own feverish excitement. On the train back to St. Petersburg, even the English novel she tries to read leads her back to guilt and agitation over Vronsky. "She felt her nerves tighten more and more. ... 'What am I? Myself or someone else?' ... Anna felt as if she was falling through the floor. But all this was not frightening but exhilarating." (p. 101)
I love the symbolism as Anna steps off the train to get a breath of cold air. Is Tolstoy talking about the weather outside...or the dark passion to come when he writes: "The storm would subside for a moment, but then return again in such gusts that it seemed impossible to withstand it." (p. 102)
Were you surprised that Vronsky followed Anna to St. Petersburg? His love is stormy and stubborn...romantic and scandalous! There's no denying what his intentions are: "You know I am going in order to be where you are. I cannot do otherwise." (p. 103) Are you cheering for Anna to learn from her brother's mistakes and stay faithful to her husband? Or are you secretly hoping that Vronsky will find a way to steal Anna away from Karenin?
I'm headed outdoors right now to sit under the trees and see what further rules will be broken. Which ideals will stand—family and honor, or the heat of the heart?
Let's keep reading, y'all!
What Happens in Part Two of Anna Karenina
To all my reading friends,
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!
What Happens in Part Three of Anna Karenina
We're in the thick of it now! As Part Three unfolds, the play of truth and lies—authenticity vs. pretence—come into their full force. It's "reality check" time for most of our main characters!
All along we've seen Karenin's hypocrisy, but now, he is downright cruel! When Anna admits she loves Vronsky, she unleashes Karenin's vengeful side. He'll do anything to keep her from being happy, even if it makes him miserable. "In the depths of his soul he wished her to suffer for disturbing his peace and honour ... and above all, to punish her." (p. 282)
Karenin is willing to abandon his son if Anna won't live the lie of their "proper marriage." But Anna is desperate to follow her heart: "I've realized that I can no longer deceive myself, that I am alive, that I am not to blame if God has made me so that I must love and live." (p. 292) Can't you feel Anna's hopelessness? "Try as she might, she could not be stronger than she was. She would never experience the freedom of love, but would forever remain a criminal wife." (p. 293)
Worse yet for Anna, she's starting to doubt Vronsky's love for her. Clearly, Vronsky can't save her. Not only is he struggling to settle his own debts, he's not above ambition himself. I felt heartsick as Vronsky started to see his love for Anna as an obstacle to his career. Where will she turn?
All this "city scandal" stands in contrast to the "peace" of summertime in the country. For Levin's intellectual brother Sergei the country is a respite from work. Dolly thinks living in the country will be comfortable and cheap. But the "truth" of country life, as Levin well knows, isn't romance and ease—it is the full truth of life: joy, work, family, struggle and physical labor.
Even as Levin accepts the reality of country life, he's still idealistic about love and family. It doesn't surprise me that Levin comes most alive with Dolly's children—they recognize his honest heart. "Whatever Levin's shortcomings were, there was no hint of sham in him, and therefore the children showed him the same friendliness they found in their mother's face." (p. 267)
And yet Dolly is a master of illusion, deceiving herself the most of all. Whether she's faced with Stiva's affairs, life in the country or the "profile" of her children, Dolly chooses what she "wants" to see. She feels a thrilling pride as she imagines the church congregation admiring her children's beauty and behavior. In that very same day, though, "darkness comes over her life" when Tanya and Grisha's fighting makes her realize her children are ordinary. (p. 272) Her joy and pain come from the outside in, rather than the inside out. That can't lead to true happiness.
In contrast, Levin continues to struggle with the truths inside his heart. In one moment, taken by the simple, physical joy of peasant life, Levin is prepared to abandon the "nonsense" of his privileged life. But a mere glimpse of Kitty riding by in a carriage—stops him dead in his tracks. "No, however good that life of simplicity and labour may be, I cannot go back to it. I love her." (p. 278) A huge fact of Levin's life is his frustrated love of Kitty.
But that isn't the ultimate truth for Levin. Confronting his dying brother Nikolai, Levin is overwhelmed by undeniable reality. For each of us, the ultimate truth is that death is the inevitable end of everything. Helpless, hopeless, in their terrible moment of truth, neither brother can say what's in his heart. "Everything else they said, without expressing the one thing that preoccupied them was a lie." (p. 347) Levin is left alone, feeling his own mortality.
What does Levin do, overcome by his sense of death and gloom? "He had to live his life to the end, until death came." (p. 352) He clings to his plan for transforming his farm—a plan for the future, no matter how illogical it seems. "He seized it and held on to it with all his remaining strength." (p. 352) Levin doesn't give up—he moves forward! I believe real strength comes from our ability to stand up, face our fear and resistance, and walk through it. Like Levin, our deepest struggle will produce our greatest strength.
And so we all move ahead to Part Four!
What Happens in Part Four of Anna Karenina
Dear Book Lovers,
Part Four was a quick read, but it packed quite a punch, didn't it? Deathbed reconciliations, a suicide attempt—even a marriage proposal and a new birth! Through all the drama, I was struck by Tolstoy's themes of love and forgiveness.
Did you ever think Karenin could go through such a real awakening? He gives himself over to compassion and forgiveness, and opens himself up. For the first time in his life, he feels a deep and genuine love—for baby Anna. He feels spiritual joy, and wants to save everybody. "Above all the very joy of forgiveness made it so that he suddenly felt not only relief from his suffering bit also an inner peace that he had never experienced before." (p. 418) He's even willing to allow Anna and Vronsky to continue their relationship as long as he's not deprived of the children.
And what about that moment at Anna's deathbed? Anna begging Karenin...Karenin taking Vronsky's hands from his face—and, tears streaming—forgiving him? I felt Vronsky's shame, Karenin's deliverance, and Anna's delirium, all at once!
The tragedy is that Anna simply cannot love Karenin. She's afraid of him, repulsed by his presence and intimidated by his magnanimity. She doesn't see the beauty of his transformation at all. Forgiveness frees Karenin, but somehow that same act twists something in Anna and Vronsky's hearts.
Vronsky and Anna may still feel passion for one and other, but I doubt they truly love each other. Vronsky is most drawn to her when he thinks he's lost her forever. Anna gives him her body, but is totally preoccupied with divorce, her son—even death. Instead of feeling relief or unburdened, they seem lower than before and more helpless. Vronsky shoots himself to avoid the humiliation. Anna abandons her son and runs away to Italy with her new family. They seem destined to an unhappy ending.
Now, Kitty and Levin are another story! Their love seems to shed light and life on them both. I love how the most ordinary moments—a boy, a pigeon, the smell of bread—make Levin laugh and weep in his loved filled trance! Neither Kitty nor Levin are perfect. Kitty's vanity kept her from accepting Levin's first proposal and Levin isn't as pure or religious as Kitty—but they want to love each other completely and honestly. Levin easily forgives Kitty. He thinks she's innocent and he had never stopped loving her. And when Levin risks all by letting Kitty read his diaries, he is trusting that her love will prevail. Even in her grief, she forgives him. Their love is strengthened more than ever.
In Karenin, in Levin, and in Kitty, we see an open heart transformed by love and forgiveness. That is spiritual power!
On to Part Five—we're halfway through the book!
What Happens in Part Five of Anna Karenina
Hello to all my book club friends!
Just when you think Tolstoy has covered every major literary theme, he turns the page and guides us into the biggest theme there is! In Part Five, Tolstoy tackles the raw truth of death...and its influence over how each of us chooses to live our lives.
While the reality of death is the great definer of us all, the most powerful truth...is love. Tolstoy expresses in one simple and brilliant gesture just how powerful this theme is to him. The only chapter in the entire book that's titled is Chapter XX—Death.
As Kitty and Levin travel to Moscow to help Levin's dying brother, we travel the road of life and death in excruciating depth. While Levin searches for intellectual answers to the unknowable, and trembles in fear around his brother, Kitty's pity fills her with the instinctive need to help—and above all—hope. Paralyzed by the power of death and in awe of Kitty and Agafya's compassion, Levin realizes that even the greatest masculine minds don't know a hundredth part of what women know about life and death. "The proof ... lay in their knowing, without a moment's doubt, how to act with dying people and not being afraid of them." (p. 496)
I love Tolstoy's description of Kitty's force as she takes care of Nikolai. "She had in her that excitement and quickness of judgment that appear in men before a battle, a struggle, in dangerous and decisive moments of life, those moments when once and for all a man shows his worth and that his whole past has not been in vain but has been a preparation for those moments." (p. 497) War might define a man's purpose; ministering to life and death defines a woman's.
In a moment that gave me goose bumps, Tolstoy creates a visceral scene of anguish. Levin literally feels death in his brother's bones, and doesn't know how to accept or express his love and fear. "The sick man [Nikolai] kept his brother's hand in his own. Levin felt that [Nikolai] wanted to do something with his hand and was drawing it somewhere. Levin yielded with a sinking heart. Yes, he drew it to his mouth and kissed it. Levin shook with sobs and, unable to get a word out, left the room." (p. 495)
The horror of death is matched only by its power and mystery. As Levin watches his brother's face and listens to his dying words—of all things—he is jealous. "For the dying man something was becoming increasingly clearer which for [Levin] remained as dark as ever. 'Yes, yes, it's so,' the dying man said slowly, distinctly. 'Wait.' Again he was silent. 'So!' he suddenly drew out peacefully, as if everything had been resolved for him. 'Oh Lord!' he said and sighed heavily. ... [Levin] felt that he lagged far behind the dying man. ... If he had any feeling for him now, it was rather envy of the knowledge that the dying man now had but that he could not have." (p. 501)
Even a nine-year-old boy knows the secret that escapes Levin: Love conquers all, even death. Although Countess Lydia and Karenin have told Seryozha that his mother is dead, or at least dead to him, Seryozha doesn't believe the people he loves can die. Seryozha's innocent faith is reinforced when Anna wakes him with kisses on his birthday. His dream is real...his love has triumphed over death.
Just as Anna is life and love for Seryozha, so Kitty is for Levin. The powerful cycle of life, love and death goes on and on. It's poignant and fitting that Chapter XX—Death—ends with the beginning of a new life! "No sooner had one mystery of death been accomplished before his eyes, and gone unfathomed, than another arose, equally unfathomed, which called to love and life." (p. 505) Kitty is pregnant!
The ultimate mystery is death. The ultimate answer is love...and life goes on. Keep reading!
What's In a Name?
Our literary guide Liza Knapp has been busy answering your questions this summer, like this one from npace: "I find Levin and Kitty to be as rich and fascinating as the downfall of Anna, Vronsky and Karenin. Why did Tolstoy choose Anna's name as a title instead of something more general?"
Liza Knapp responds: "You're right—the title is misleading. Usually a novel named after a main character will focus on that one character. Take David Copperfield, for example. Dickens introduces us to a number of different characters, but David is what holds the novel together. Because he is also the narrator, the "I" who tells the story, we get a heavy dose of him. One explanation for the title may be that Tolstoy intended for the novel to focus more narrowly on Anna. His drafts show him starting out with Anna's plot and adding others' later.
"In the case of Anna Karenina, the multiple plotlines and the title are in conflict. We're left with the question of what Levin's life has to do with Anna's. And what does farming have to do with adultery? Plenty of readers and critics have wondered why Tolstoy bothered to intertwine the two plots at all. Do they really belong together? Some have even suggested that Tolstoy was so self-absorbed that he simply couldn't keep the focus on Anna and her loves and kept reverting back to his own life story, which he fictionalized in the Levin sections of the novel.
"Thanks to the multiple plotlines, we see various characters responding—directly and indirectly—to Anna. Dolly, at one point, has to ask whether Anna is to blame for wanting to live and whether she herself would have done otherwise. Is she any better than Anna or just luckier because circumstances never tempted her in this way? The same might be asked of Kitty. By telling Anna's story alongside her brother's, Tolstoy forces us to ask all sorts of baffling questions about why Anna suffers so for falling in love with Vronsky, whereas the serial adulterer Stiva seems to get off scot-free.
"Perhaps one function of this title is to remind us of Anna, even when everyone else seems to forget about her. As the novel progresses, Anna is often absent, not only from the action, but from the minds and hearts of many of those who should love her..."
What Happens in Part Seven of Anna Karenina
I almost don't know where to begin!
Part Seven brings us to the dramatic collision of every character, theme and tension Tolstoy has woven so far! All our characters are waiting—Anna and Vronsky for her divorce, Lenin and Kitty for their baby. Their anticipation is fraught with so much nervous energy, I could almost feel it radiating off the page! Once and for all, our main characters struggle with the meaning of life and love, faith and truth. And their struggles unfold with velocity!
In Moscow, Anna and Vronsky are "settled in like a married couple," but her world is far from calm. Having abandoned her son, her responsibilities and the anchors in her life, Anna is reeling toward disaster. Levin, too, struggles with Moscow life. Uprooted from the clarity of his country duties, preparing for his new child, Levin searches for answers about life, God, and the meaning of it all.
Anna's path toward destruction collides with Levin's journey toward understanding when they meet for the very first time. Does she even understand what she's saying when she speaks of energy and love? Her words gave me a chill. "Energy, you say. Energy is based on love. And love can't be drawn from just anywhere, it can't be ordered." (p. 699) Anna doesn't know why she loves whom she loves...she is simply driven by passion.
Momentarily bewitched by Anna's beauty and charm, Levin has no idea Anna's heart is empty. "Though for the whole evening she had unconsciously done everything she could to arose a feeling of love for her in Levin ... as soon as he left the room, she stopped thinking about him." (p. 704) She can think only of Vronsky, driven by a need that can never be fulfilled. "If I have such an effect on others, on this loving family man, why is [Vronsky] so cold to me? ... Do I live? I don't live. ... I can't do anything, start anything, change anything." (p. 704) Anna is immersed in herself. She can't see outside herself, and so she is lost.
Like Anna, Levin is struggling, but his heart has remained open and giving. Where Anna is rootless, he's grounded in love and responsibility. Ultimately, he finds the answers he seeks in an overwhelming life moment—the birth of his child. Watching the pain and endurance of Kitty's labor, he instinctively turns to the God he's questioned. "In that moment ... all his doubts ... blew off his soul like dust." (p. 709) "In spite of so long and seemingly complete an estrangement, he was turning to God just as trustfully and simply as in his childhood." (p. 713) I think he's had the answers all along!
In sharp contrast to Levin's path toward faith, Anna continues on a doomed path. Jealousy and fear take their toll on Anna's mind and soul. The loving, charismatic Anna who Vronsky fell in love with is slowly replaced by a vengeful, out of control woman. She blames Vronsky for the storm in her soul, blind to the truth that she is pushing him away—creating her own misery. Completely distraught and bitter, Anna imagines her death is the only way to make Vronsky love her again.
Anna's world becomes as dark and ugly as she feels. Standing on the platform at the train station, Anna knows Vronsky isn't coming to rescue her; there is no escape. She remembers the man who was run over by a train the day she first met Vronsky. To our horror, she "knows" what she must do. She resolves to "punish him and be rid of everybody and myself." (p. 768) Making the sign of the cross, she gives up all her "anxieties, deceptions, grief and evil," and is gone forever. Anna leaves the novel the same way she entered it—with all the impact of a speeding train.
I find myself feeling just as much compassion for Anna as I feel for Levin in his steadfast humanity. We each create our own paths—through our beliefs, our questions and our actions.
I look forward to finishing this masterpiece with you!
The Title of the Book
Our literary guide Liza Knapp has been busy answering your burning questions about Anna Karenina. In our featured Q&A, Oprah's Book Club member npace asks: "Why did Tolstoy choose Anna's name as a title instead of something more general?"
Liza Knapp answers: "Perhaps one function of this title is to remind us of Anna, even when everyone else seems to forget about her. As the novel progresses, Anna is often absent, not only from the action, but from the minds and hearts of many of those who should love her. This gap creates an eerie feeling. Is the message that the only way of surviving is to avoid and forget about the unfortunate and dangerous Anna Karenina? Or is it that even faithful husbands, happy family men whose lives seem so far from Anna's, face some of the same existential questions she does?"
The Meaning of Anna Karenina
To all my brave book club friends—congratulations!
One book...14 weeks...817 pages... We did it! See, I told you there was no reason to be scared! I know you're feeling a sense of accomplishment now that you're finished! To everyone who took on the challenge—I applaud you!
So many upheavals, so much love and loss—and so much to think about! For all of its sweeping drama, the power of Anna Karenina, for me, comes down to Levin's thoughts in the very final lines of the very last page.
Throughout the book, Levin has been searching for meaning—the meaning of his work, his people, his homeland—his life itself. Always the thinker, never the believer, Levin looked for the meaning of life outside of his own heart, in books, philosophies and intellectual debate.
But it's only when Levin stops searching for answers outside himself that he begins to find the essence: "When he did not think, but lived, he constantly felt in his soul the presence of an infallible judge...he felt it at once." (p. 791)
Levin instinctively lives for others—his family, his people, his heritage. And it's that very bond to others, his innate willingness to give to others, that guides Levin to the faith and joy he had within him all along—despite the agitation of his soul.
In the smile of his infant son; the fear of losing his wife and child in a lightening storm; the beauty of Dolly's love for her brood; the muzhik who "lives for the soul" and "remembers God"—the taking care of the mundane details and responsibilities of the people he loves—Levin finally finds the meaning he's been seeking.
When you live in the grace of every moment, like Kitty does in her instinct for the cycle of birth and death...like Dolly does with her children...like the peasants do with their bond to the land and each other...your purpose and meaning are ever present.
And, when Levin finally feels the grace of every moment—his answers are clear. "My life now, my whole life, regardless of all that may happen to me, every minute of it, is not only not meaningless...but has the unquestionable meaning of the good which it is in my power to put into it!" (p. 817)
That is such a powerful truth! It is what we give to others, the good that each of us has the power to put out into the world—that ultimately gives meaning to each of our lives. I believe that with all my heart!