✨📖 Anna Karenina (1878) by Leo Tolstoy📖✨
Pop culture hates old people. In recent years, having previously immersed myself in all things modern and millennial, I have come to pick up on certain trends in how our modern discourse agrees on certain topics:
- Anything old is bad and backwards, and needs fixing. I won’t argue that that’s not always true, but I will argue that that discredits how bad ass, and inherently human, our ancestors really were (see Point 1);
God forTwitter and modern-day social justice warriors, because it is merely through their tireless work online, that we get to have ‘real discussions’ on societal problems about inequality (see Point 2); and
- Despite everything, modern life sucks (see Point 3).
Somewhere along my many years on the internet, it seems I internalized these thoughts. For one, I consciously avoided anything old, assuming that it would be boring and I wouldn’t be able to relate to it. Old movies? Probably boring. Old books? Probably boring too. (To be fair, the last time I read a book from the late 1800s, it was Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities as a school assignment and that really was boring. Don’t come for me Dickens’ fans!)
As you can imagine, when I picked up Anna Karenina, I picked it up with a bunch of reservations and judgement. In fact, I picked it up because it was the only book I had at home that I hadn’t read before, due to its notorious 800+ page span. I expected lengthy dry scenery descriptions about boring “old” people. Instead, I was met with charming characters, witty conversations and more ‘modernity’ than I could’ve ever imagined for 1878.
Here’s three main ideas (+ one funnier bonus one!) that surprised me about Tolstoy’s flagship novel, that I think perfectly showcase how we’re not so different after all:
POINT ONE: OLD = BAD(ASS) 👨🦳
Like I said, I picked up this book with big reservations. If the current consensus today was that our older generations are boring, prudish and backwards, what could I possibly expect from characters written in the late 19th century? (To contextualize the time period: all the characters still used horse carriages to move around and there’s not even any telephones around. They exclusively wrote letters to each other and delivered them by horse.)
The book opens with Anna’s brother, Stiva, who almost comically complains at how unfortunate his life is, because his wife found out about his affair. How could she be so “selfish” and not put his needs before hers? The humor and wit with which some of the characters’ everyday issues are explored could stand the test of time and be broadcast as a stand-up comedy show even today. The characters are complex, completely aware of their environment, and even critical of it. In fact, they’re actually not that different from us! Turns out, humans – and their flawed and real emotions – were always bad ass.
POINT TWO: SOCIAL JUSTICE A LA 1870s RUSSIA ✊
One thing I (perhaps naively) believed is that the fight for equality really is a defining movement of the west and the 21st century, what with all the “This is what a feminist looks like” t-shirts and what not. I mean, I understand that the ideas of communism, workers’ and women’s rights are not ideas of our time – but I also didn’t think they’d be ideas that would be freely discussed at family dinners in 1870s Russia, much like they are today.
Anna Karenina’s plot frequently features banquets and small gatherings and, to the dismay of many a social justice warrior on Twitter who’d like to monopolize the noble fight, the characters frequently engage in vivid discussions on social issues, that stand the test of time. I thought old people were supposed to be dumb and didn’t care about social issues? Turns out they actually did, a lot.
POINT THREE: LIFE ALWAYS SUCKED (BUT IT’S STILL WORTH IT) 🌹
Without getting too gloomy, I’d like to do some self-reflecting on my own perceptions of life in the past. As mentioned in previous posts, I have come to dislike our modern fixation on social media and the internet and have seen myself slip into the comforting arms of nostalgia for an idealized, simpler past. A past without social media and internet.
While Anna Karenina didn’t have to care about her Instagram likes, she still had to care about being liked. Turns out, the pressures of society and the pressures of living in a community were just as rigid then as they are now. Anna’s life wasn’t as peaceful and stress-free as I’d have imagined, and all of that stress came from society’s condemnation of her life choices (read: affair). While her brother’s affair is glossed over in a comical manner at the start of the book, hers is the main plot that carries on throughout and causes her a life of hardship and isolation and (spoiler alert!) ultimately, drives her to suicide.
The idea that life is just suffering is also explored through the eyes of Levin, a character modeled after Tolstoy himself. Throughout the novel, he struggles to find meaning. In the end, the way I understand it (and perhaps, I am projecting a little!), is that he accepts that, even if life sucks, there is still meaning in life’s mundane moments at home with his family. Wholesome AF!
BONUS POINT: RUSSIAN MEDDLING IN THE BALKANS 🇷🇺
Okay, this one is more of a joke, but it really does happen. Towards the end of the book, after the final climax of the story, as I was expecting a predictable resolution to the novel’s loose ends, I was instead met with a final set of chapters about numerous young Russians getting ready to volunteer in a war for their Slavic brothers in … wait for it … Serbia! I chuckled.
I hope you decide to give the book a try! And if you’ve already read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it as well.