Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Oprah's Anna

           As we wrap up the book, I’m curious what you all think about how the book has been advertised. The 2000 Penguin edition translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky has a very romantic cover (romantic is a kind word-- I've yet to see how hydrangeas and knees fit into the story). The 1981 Bantam Classic edition I brought from home has a more topical cover bearing a portrait of a sad rich lady (boo hoo) and describes the book as “A magnificent drama of vengeance, infidelity, and retribution” and “the moving story of people whose emotions conflict with the dominant social mores of the time.” For a truly bizarre (in my opinion) take on the book, skim the Oprah’s Book Club page, which describes Anna Karenina as “An extremely sexy and engrossing read, this book tells the tale of one of the most enthralling love affairs in the history of literature—it truly was the "Harlequin Romance" of its day.”
            I guess it’s just surprising to me that these descriptions of the book are so sympathetic to the emotional drama of the characters (particularly Anna), since for me at least, none of the characters are particularly likeable. In fact, I find myself especially disliking Anna, who the back of my book describes as “a woman who dares to transgress the strictures of a patriarchal world.” To me, the most compelling part of this book has not been the relationship drama, but rather the way that Tolstoy presents Russia on the cusp of European “progress,” posing questions about the monumental social changes that occurred between Pushkin’s time and the Russian Revolution. How would Russia fare in this transition—how much culture could it retain while responding to the changing world around it? Most importantly, what would it give up? This question is especially interesting when applied to the nobility we see in Anna Karenina, whose privilege in some ways may be coming to an end. 
            Is Oprah right? Is the book primarily a portrait of human passion and suffering? I haven’t read it that way, but the readers of the approximately 900,000 copies of Anna Karenina sold after Oprah's endorsement may have been led to think differently. In short, what do you think is valuable about the novel, and do you find descriptions like Bantam's and Oprah's as jarring as I did?


  1. I think "jarring" is the right word for these descriptions of the novel. While there's certainly "vengeance, infidelity and retribution" in Anna Karenina, I don't think that's what the book is about... nor is Vronksy and Anna's relationship anywhere near "enthralling!"

    I wonder if the interpretation of those 900,000 readers changes at all if they go into Anna Karenina with the expectations set forth by Bantam and Oprah's marketing. For me, one of the most important questions the novel asks isn't at all about passion and suffering but rather about the nature of happiness since all of the characters have very different ideas of what it means to be happy.

  2. I would like to think that people who are perpetually happy are typically not very deep thinkers. Searching for happiness in life may well be about passion and, in turn, when love is not returned in an "expected" way, suffering. To clarify myself, to some people, for at least a few moments, passion may equal happines, and that seems to be completely natural. Of course, social milieu and historical circumstances may or may not matter. I think they are important in the narrative of the novel; yet I believe that individual search for happiness occurs irrespective of "environmental" surrounding or historical moment. If it is ingrained in one's nature, it would happen. Hence the book, I think, can be understood as a portrait of human passion and suffering, but also as a search for happiness since the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive.