Saturday, January 09, 2010

Reflections: Anna Karenina

As a gift from my father, Anna Karenina has been longingly sitting on my shelf for quite a while now, with Anna's piercing portrait throwing accusing and pleading glances at me to pick her up and read her story. I attribute my delayed reading to the only deterrent - the monstrous size of the book, threatening to seriously injure my wrists if I were to so much as lift it nonchalantly. But, as part of my resolutions, I slogged like a diligent student burning the midnight oil in preparation for a serious exam, and now I bear the same sweet exhaustion that one has after accomplishing a strenuous feat. This is in no way to imply that my read was tedious. It was pleasantly intense - heavy with emotions, saturated with thoughts.

It's hard to assimilate my thoughts on a book of such high ranks. It's a book not just on the life of Anna, but represents a chunk of time that reflects life in late 19th century Russia. Tolstoy, as was Dostoevsky, was not merely an author to have created this masterpiece in literature. His astute perspicacity in so many fields - philosophy, psychology, sociology, and religion, is the reason why his name and this book still reside in esteemed hallmarks.

Tolstoy probes into the fundamental facets that plague our existence - love, marriage, children, infidelity, hypocrisy, societal duty, religion, spirituality, morality, philosophy, existentialism, birth and death. With a book so exhaustive, I;m trying to comb for meaningful words in a tangle of thoughts. Anna's story is legendary. A bewitchingly charming lady, she is a mother of a young boy, and a devout, albeit forlorn wife of a stately diplomat. To many, the term "loveless marriage" produces the sensation of grating nails on a wall. At large, a conservative society cannot fathom or produce an iota of empathy or sympathy for such a situation. But Tolstoy's words drive home the meaning of being unhappy, cold and isolated in a societal charade called marriage. When she unexpectedly gets caught in the talons of passionate love, Anna's soul awakens anew and longs to live its life. She heedlessly follows her heart and her passions, and leaves behind a bitter and fiery trail of misery and torment. Anna's act doubtlessly surfaces as a thoughtless debasement of her crude passions, but when we journey into her deepest inner turmoil, the hardest of hearts will find a trace of sympathy for her.

So far, I have been able to clearly demarcate infidelity as something to be censured. But for the first time, my feelings and thoughts fluctuated between reproach, sympathy, censure and pity for Anna. Despite Tolstoy's subtle exposition that being a slave to our passions is bound to lead one to a fractured and peace-less state, his portrayal of Anna, of the characters and her life, cannot be more objective and immersed in reality. He never thrusts an overpowering message of right or wrong. He brings out the black and white in each of us, the true dilemmas, and the true demons that haunt us. When society ostracizes Anna, he fires anger at our constrained and tightly bound rules, when Anna's son is abandoned and is traumatized, he brings in admonition tainted with helpless pity towards Anna, and when Anna spirals down with her inane and irrational emotions when her life with her lover gets arduous, he creates plentiful abhorrence towards the very lady whose plight the reader would have amply sympathized with in the previous page. Only an adroit writer can achieve such realistic evocations. Anna stands pitiful and helpless, despite her foibles, which try as we might, cannot be subject to harsh judgment.

With Anna's story forming the heart of the novel, Tolstoy culls out the meaning of marriage and the ironical way in which our society is framed with hypocritical importance paid to the legalized branding of a husband and a wife. Anna's life with her lover is cast in comparison with her former married life with her husband, and the fake life of another woman, who is legally bound to her husband, despite his salacious activities. The age old question - is it much worthier to please the unknown eyes of the society, by remaining in a sham called marriage, wherein both people have drifted apart, retain no love or companionship for each other, but stick together for the sake of children and security in society? How is a non-legalized relationship that epitomizes the true spirit of matrimony, immoral? Anna's marriage was arranged by her family. So should the perils of one such a mistake be undergone all through one's life? Many are bound to see Anna's emotions as immature and profane, but I truthfully don't know how to evaluate such a situation. In my simpleton view, when children are involved, one has to consider them as important factors in the equation. There is no excuse to evade such a responsibility. My view of morality encompasses only the sphere of children, nothing more. Society and religion dissolve for me. Yet I can't rebuke Anna, for the reason for her tragedy and incessant torture was because of her guilt and pangs for her son. It's like watching a car that accidentally veered into a slippery turn, slide down hill with very little control to revoke that single impulse of a mistake. Precisely the reason why I feel it's unfair that the rules in our society have to be so unrealistically and mercilessly tight, that they fail to embody any realm of forgiveness, empathy or compassion.

In the heat of such traumatic revelations, Tolstoy deftly shows how the strength garnered from religion and spirituality can guide a man into noble and virtuous directions. He shows how forgiveness can envelope the soul with the much needed peace and clarity, and how hatred and harbored negativity lacerates our presonality, awakening an embittered, cruel side of us. As much as he emphasizes the glory of spiritual strength, he also takes an unbiased view of how religion, when applied without thought or meaning can be used as a double-edged sword to bring out the worst in a person. A staunchly religious person who merely conforms to the external decorum of rules and society and doesn't look into the integrity and purity of his thoughts and actions, is probably much more of a sinner. Through an array of characters in this novel, Tolstoy analyzes the thought process of a spiritual and religious skeptic. Agnostics teem aplenty amongst us, keen on using reason and science to deduce the meaning of life and everything around us. But Tolstoy shows how even a skeptic is rooted with an inherent need to grasp onto some form of higher faith when he confronts the many uncontrollable forces of our lives. The meaning of life is shown to be something imbibed deep within each of us, which cannot be attempted to be explained with reason, and articulated with words. We are all aware of a deep need to live true to our inner souls, and to work in the way of goodness; probably these are the only real purposes of our existence. To live, learn and follow our ingrained intuition of doing good. Perhaps it is our disappointment and denial that our purpose in life could be so simple and trite, that makes us delve into finding the meaning behind everything that exists around us. While I partially agree with this view, I guess I still have a long way to go to realize such a truth, and understand the design of our lives and the universe.

Finally, Tolstoy also threads in discussions on socialism and communism in connotation with Russia's social upheavals. Despite such heavy themes packed into this gigantic book, the prose is fluid, florid and deeply meaningful. The translation could not have been better. As with all classics, the characters in the book leave a lasting impression of having lived with you. It is truly incredible that Tolstoy can expertly and accurately articulate the emotions and thoughts of different kinds of people - a protective father, a controlling yet loving mother, an obedient daughter, an abandoned son, a lonely wife, a jilted husband, an anguished woman caught up in insecurity and jealousy, an unconditional friend, a relentless intellectual, and a passionate lover. It is astonishing that Tolstoy could verbalize those very unique and deep emotions that make us women ambiguous and capricious to understand. Here are a man's words spilling out those very evasive secrets on how a woman's mind and heart work.

Anna Karenina's haunting life is sure to live fresh in my memory for a long time to come.

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