Anna Karenina is my favorite novel. Originally published in serial installments from 1873 to 1877, it is regarded by many as the pinnacle of realistic fiction. With its themes of fidelity and infidelity, city life versus country life, and depth of thought versus superficiality it addresses fundamental aspects of human behavior. It is narrated from a third person omniscient perspective that shifts from character to character allowing the reader to see the point of view of several of the main characters of the story. The title leads one to believe the book is Anna’s story, but for me it is the story of Levin and how he searches for (and eventually finds) meaning in a silent, meaningless universe.
One theme is fidelity and infidelity, especially the story of the married Anna and her unhappy love affair with Vronsky. The story begins with confusion and uproar in the household of Stepan (“Stiva”) Oblonsky. Oblonsky’s wife Dolly has just discovered that her husband has been having an affair with the maid. Oblonsky’s sister Anna Karenina arrives for a visit as does Oblonsky’s childhood friend Konstantin Levin, who plans to propose to Dolly’s youngest sister Kitty. On top of all of this, the visiting Kitty is being courted by a young army officer named Vronsky. Anna convinces Dolly that Oblonsky didn’t mean anything by the affair, and she soon forgets all about it and resumes her life as before. Kitty rejects Levin thinking she’ll get a proposal from Vronsky, but Vronsky is smitten by Anna and pursues her. She initially rejects him, but this just spurs him on. Anna returns to her husband, but is unsatisfied and thinks constantly of Vronsky. Levin goes back to his country estate and broods over his rejection by Kitty. Ultimately, Anna and Vronsky begin an affair and she becomes pregnant by him. Levin and Kitty become happily married.
As the story unfolds, we see that Levin is the deep thinker in this cast of characters. Some have said that many aspects of Levin’s personality reflect Tolstoy and his views. Levin struggles to understand what is true and what is false in life, and he finds transcendent pleasure in the exhaustion that comes from hard physical labor as he mows the fields with the peasants: “The longer Levin went on mowing, the oftener he experienced those moments of oblivion when his arms no longer seemed to swing the scythe …” The enjoyable times Levin experiences on his country estate suggest that simple country life is preferable to the chaos and bustle of the city.
Another theme is how some people reflect and feel deeply whereas others proceed through life in a superficial fashion. For example, Levin constantly questions the meaning of things and Anna and Vronsky experience deep emotional turmoil as a result of their illicit love affair. Oblonsky and Dolly however are very superficial and not bothered by deep thoughts. Oblonsky’s affair with the maid is quickly forgotten.
Although often a tortured, deep thinker, Levin also can be a delightfully goofy character at times. Just before he becomes engaged to Kitty, he is brooding about death and the insignificance of any individual life, but soon everyone and everything is wonderful and he experiences a heightened appreciation of every little detail on the night of his engagement. He is attached to and fond of everyone he runs into that night.
The last part (Part 8) of the book focuses on Levin's struggle to find meaning in life. At one point, he becomes very discouraged by the reality that all living things will die - the peasants he is fond of and even the farm horse. Levin concludes that absolute truth is beyond understanding and goodness is beyond reason and without cause or consequences: "If goodness has a cause, it is no longer goodness; if it has a consequence - a reward, it is also not goodness." That is, goodness is something to be strived for regardless of reward or punishment. There's no use worrying and trying to determine the meaning of life. Rather, each person must find their own meaning in life.