Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Monday, April 03, 2017

TOLSTOY: Anna Karenina (Summary)

Modern Americans are familiar with the advice that we need to get out of our comfort zones.  One of the lessons readers take away from Anna Karenina is a different piece of advice.  Stay in your comfort zone.  If you don’t have a comfort zone, find one.  If you can’t find one, make one.  Very few characters in this novel live in a comfort zone, even the ones with plenty of money and social prestige.  Many of the peasants seem to live contentedly, if modestly, in their environment.  They live close to nature and aren’t bothered by the problems created by city life in Petersburg or Moscow.  They do their own work on the farm, raise their own children, and believe in their own God.  Life is simple and personal and their problems are close at hand and can be solved.  Tolstoy was romanticizing but that was his vision of a comfort zone.

The main characters in the story lived in the upper echelons of society.  They mostly worked in cities, served on committees, and had to meet the considerable expenses associated with sophisticated urban living; “balls, concerts, dinners, matchboxes, ladies’ dresses, beer, restaurants” and so forth.  In the upper classes children were mostly raised by a governess.  Religion, for many of these urban socialites, was optional.  It was trendy among them to reject the idea of a personal God in favor of the more enlightened views offered by science and reason.  In this kind of environment comfort zones were rare.  There was an expensive club for rich men to find refuge from the worries of city life.  And a few characters lived relatively comfortably amidst all the affluence and luxury and decadence.  The old prince (Dolly and Kitty’s father) was one example.  He was comfortable in his own skin and in being who he was, even if he was considered something of a curmudgeon by his associates.  Lvov found happiness by giving up his lucrative foreign post in order to raise his own children and personally direct their education. 

Most characters weren’t so lucky.  Dolly had to come to terms with her husband’s repeated infidelities.  Sometimes she dreamed of a better life.  But her comfort zone consisted entirely of her relations with her family and her children, excluding her husband Stiva.  Stiva himself found city life stimulating but a little too expensive.  He could only find comfort by living beyond his means.  Levin’s brothers never found much comfort.  Nikolay never achieved anything by his social activism and devoted his unhealthy life to booze.  “Sergey was clever, cultivated, healthy, and energetic and he did not know what use to make of his energy.”  He wrote a book but it didn’t amount to much.  He thought seriously about marrying Varenka but that didn’t amount to anything either.  The main focus of the story centered on two characters: Anna and Levin.  Did they ever find their comfort zones?  The answer is: no, and maybe.  At the beginning of the novel Anna is vaguely unhappy.  By the end of the novel she’s not vaguely unhappy; she’s truly miserable and commits suicide in a gruesome fashion.  No comfort zone there.  At the beginning of the novel Levin is vaguely unhappy too.  He wants a wife and a family.  By the end of the novel he has both.  Maybe more than he bargained for.  He has a son and a big portion of Anna’s family has come out to his farm estate for a visit.  But Levin’s comfort zone doesn’t come from the outside.  It comes from within his own soul.  He finally comes to terms with his relationship to God, to his family, and to his fellow man.  Levin finally accepts his place in the world.  He’s not ecstatically happy but he’s found a deeper sense of comfort in fulfilling his role as a husband, a father, and a productive member of the community.  He makes his own way in the world by hard work and gives up many of his own comforts for the benefit of others.  This isn’t exactly a comfort zone and at the end of the novel Levin has many years of life left.  Unhappiness could be lurking just around the next corner.  But at least for now he’s found a way of life that brings him a certain amount of contentment.  That may be the only comfort zone most of us will ever find. 


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