Human Frailty: A Masterwork by Thomas Costello

Is There a Beyond? by Misha Busch


Human Frailty: A Masterwork by Thomas Costello 

A whirlwind of interest swept about Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina with the feature length film of the same name directed by Joe Wright and starring Keira Knightley in the title role. Though I can’t speak to the merits of the film, Tolstoy’s relevance has never wavered regardless of cinema. One of the most celebrated Russian authors of the 19th century, Tolstoy’s importance is undisputed. Asserting his claim as one of the great masters of literature, Tolstoy wove together one of the most layered, complex and powerful human dramas in modern history; spinning a formidable tale of the frailties of human desire and the strength of human resolve.

Set in Russia in the middle years of the 19th century, Anna Karenina’s title character is but one of many amongst a whole array of an unsettlingly human cast. Though primarily focusing on Anna herself and a family friend, Konstantin Levin, the myriad of supporting characters all play significant roles. From Anna’s lovable, if lecherous, brother Stepan “Stiva” Oblonsky - whose marriage she endeavors to save at the onset of the story, to Levin’s alcoholic elder brother, Nikolai, the whole of human experience is represented in multiple story arcs. Significant attention is paid to Anna Karenina’s plotline, of course, but Levin receives perhaps equal attention with his quest for spirituality, love and contentedness.

If nothing else, Anna Karenina stands as a testament to Tolstoy’s ability to keep a remarkable number of details in mind. To say the man was detail oriented would be short selling him to a remarkable degree. At times, keeping track of the innumerous nuances can be something of an overwhelming experience. Anna Karenina is a book best left enjoyed over a lengthy period of time (not that finishing it quickly would be feasibly possible; dependent upon your translation, there are as many as 870 pages or so) and with notes kept at your side. With that said, it is not a laborious experience in the slightest and finding themes or characters which resonate with your own self is very nearly inescapable. Every archetype is present, each contorted in some way as to instill inescapable humanity. From the virginal, forgiving and proud “Kitty,” to the sympathetic heroine - and harlot - Anna, and the obtuse yet pitifully lovable statesman, Alexey Karenin. Tolstoy’s strength of characterization keeps the novel compelling but is also his most powerful tool in his analysis of the human spirit as well the societies which we immerse ourselves in, for better or worse. Themes of passion, happiness created from the unhappiness of others - and the consequences thereof, the duties of society and the expectations therein find themselves in each of the characters.

The faultiness of happiness derived from the misery of others is perhaps the most major theme found in the book. This is most apparent in the woes of Kitty as her naive love, Vronsky, is essentially stolen from her via Anna. Ultimately, the liaison proves to be a source of heartache for Anna as well as her adoring, if often cold-hearted, husband Alexey. More still, we see Stiva Stepanovich’s lust for life (quite literal lust, at that) at the expense of his devoted wife, Dolly, ultimately leads towards failing expenses and later heartache. The primary lesson Tolstoy drills into us is that a total sacrifice of decorum and propriety leads to misery. On the same token, a total surrender to society is as much a source of misery as a rejection of it. This is best exemplified by Alexey Karenin, who himself is a slave to his political career. His reverence for decorum filters to his personal affairs. Once he becomes aware of Anna’s tryst, rather than revile her, he insists a necessity for discretion and class. This seemingly passionless approach to the situation causes an impenetrable rift between Anna and her estranged husband, with Anna as anarchy and Alexey as oppressive government and society. 

Foreshadowing is another important element to Tolstoy’s effectiveness as a writer. Though perhaps heavy handed at times with his use of the tool, without it it would be even easier to be lead astray and confounded by the interwoven arcs of the story. From the very beginning one has the sense Anna is a doomed woman, despite the book being essentially about her. This is established by her chance encounters with Vronsky, her characterization as young, full of vitality and charm and even the irony of her helping save a failing marriage. Though the ends of characters may come as no surprise, the twists to achieve that journey are interesting. 

The twists are not always so successful, however. Tolstoy has a tendency to be long winded and throughout the novel, multiple passages seem somewhat out of place or irrelevant in contrast to the rest of the story. Though we are made to understand that Kitty is a spiritual person and that Levin seeks spirituality, both of these topics seem to get a strangely large amount of discourse; particularly because they often feel tacked on to the rest of the narrative. If not for foreshadowing of events, extraneous details with seemingly large implications (though ultimately not so grand in comparison to the rest of the text) might overwhelm the reader or worse, confuse them. As cautioned before, Tolstoy is meant to be digested slowly rather than engulfed in huge mouthful. That said, the odd tangent aside, a sense of what will happen is consistently established, though the complexity and nuance of the drama keep surprises abound.

Not for the faint of heart or the lover of a bit of light reading, Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy is an impressive work in art. Impressive not only in magnitude, but also in the complexity of the narrative and the excruciatingly human portrayal of the characters presented, Anna Karenina is often regarded as a masterpiece and rightfully so. Few books can be thought of that so impressively put on display human emotion and frailty, with themes exploring all sectors of life. From society, expectations, love, happiness, despair, passion, spirituality, human frailty and politics all the way to humor and then back again, the sheer breadth of content is staggering. Though some concepts are more compelling than others (love and happiness are perhaps the most interesting, with spirituality lower on the list), every bit is worth a read. Lessons are to be learned from Tolstoy, most impactful of all being that one cannot build their empire off deception and misery. A happiness gained at the expense of another is doomed until the end, and in that lesson Tolstoy’s beauty is most profound.