On the Importance of Work as an Identity
It is strangely refreshing for a book like Anna Karenina, a novel where its themes and settings focus mostly on high society and the people in that world, to have the concept of work as one of its main themes. This is because throughout the novel, the fancy lives of the main characters, all belonging to high society in one way or another, are described in such an intricate and intimate detail. These details of the characters’ lives are described in such a masterful manner that I often feel like I am a silent member of every scene. Great halls, affluent master bedrooms, the endless scenes of servants and porters in lavish dining halls; and then followed by gossips and conversations which mainly consist of theatre performers, clothes, politics, and positions in high society. It seems that in this kind of setting, the importance of work would be a minimal to a non-existential theme.
To my surprise, the concept of work is not only casually mentioned in the book, but rather, it is a major theme. There are chapters where a character is described while he is working; and, most of the time, their thoughts consist of their work, how crucial it is for their life and identity, and how they would perform better at it. With all the seemingly endless characters of the novel, three brilliant people come to my mind: Konstantin Levin, Alexei Alexandrovich, and Alexei Vronsky.
Out of these three gentlemen, Konstantin Levin is the character that piqued my utmost interest. He is a unique individual who, while being part of the elite class, also loves and prefers provincial life. One of the main proofs of this love is his estate, which is located in the countryside rather than in Moscow or Petersburg and prefers it that way. This is a man who is so different from most of the characters in the novel that his thoughts and actions do not even fit the typical wealthy character. His uniqueness and, oftentimes, quirkiness, is displayed by his humble and kind approach with the peasants, including his workers. One of his many impressive feats, yet unlikely of his rank, is when he mowed an entire landscape alongside the muzhiks because he wanted to and because he enjoyed physical labor. For me, that action reveals one of his most distinctive qualities, the value he places on his work.
I am not diminishing the other characters’ value, of course. Many of them value and respect their work as much as anyone in this novel. Alexei Alexandrovich, for example, someone whom I admire very much, is almost as equal to Levin when it comes to their approach in their work. However, what sets Levin apart is that, despite being a wealthy aristocrat, he remains true to himself, and does what he wants without fear of what society would say to him. This latter quality is the most important because in the novel, how the opinions of high society affect the characters is another major theme. That is why Levin prefers having his estate in the province, well, until he got married. However, he still chose to oversee the affairs of his estate even though he is far away because that is where his work is; and, to him, his work is his life.
Reading Anna Karenina, I finally understand why the consensus is that it is one of, if not, the greatest novels of all time. In just this one character, I have learned and understood so many things. The novel opens your mind and helps you inquire into the many values of what makes life worth living. With Levin, the principle that I applaud the most is the way he treats his work as part of his personal life. There are many instances where this quality is shown, and maybe even more since I have not finished the book yet. But this value of his and other select characters are worth talking about and writing about because it can be seen and felt in real life.
Work as an Identity
The happiness of men consists in life. And life is in labor.Leo Tolstoy
I truly agree with Leo Tolstoy on this quote, and he could not have shown it more perfectly in this novel. Here, the concept of work is not limited to the 9-5 work that we know because most of the characters live an opulent life. But even so, some of them still do work, like Alexei Alexandrovich, Konstantin Levin, and Stepan Arkadyich. In their moments when they are working, I learned that they consider work to be a place where you have the opportunity to be something more, a place where you will truly know your talents and shortcomings, and, most of all, it is a place where you can connect with other people. There were plenty of times when some of the characters, experiencing deep, personal agony over a heartbreaking event, drowned themselves in their work and came out of their shell, significantly better than before. But, I also realized that it is not, and should not be, the only reason why work is important to your being. You don’t have to experience extreme emotional turmoil so you could be better and more fulfilled with your work; and the opposite may happen as well, just like what happened to Vronsky and Anna Karenina.
With the love that they both gave and received from one another, Anna and Vronsky became better in their personal and communal work. Vronsky’s horse riding, his political role in the elections of his province, Anna’s supervision of the hospital they are building, and her book; all of it could not have been done very well if they did not have each other.
However, it was not just the warmth, love, and support they had for each other that helped them do their work or, as they would call it, personal occupation, since they are vastly wealthy. There is one more thing that these interests and activities provided them with, their identities.
Vronsky, with his political, social, and magnanimous activities, either in his province or in the city, provided him with a sort of identity. This identity tells his wife and the whole of Russian high society, that even though he is in a relationship, he still has his independence as a man and he can do whatever he wants in society.
Anna has a somewhat similar goal of what kind of person she wants to be seen, given her tragic situation in society. With her writing, learning, and generosity to other families, she wants her identity to be viewed as an intelligent and beautiful woman; a woman who knows many things about the world and is also knowledgeable about the things that men excels at, a very difficult feat during this period of Imperial Russia.
The same can also be said to Levin who, even though he is now married, still wants his identity as a landowner and someone who wants to help Russian Agriculture, be known by society. He does this through his work of overseeing his estate even though he is far away from it now, living in the city with his wife and her family. For his other desire, he is also still working on his book about the state of Russian agriculture, seeing and conversing with other experts in the field.
There are many more examples but in those three characters, or rather, in this novel, I learned an important thing that I know I will be using throughout my life. We become more aware of ourselves by continually doing the work that we love. In this realization, I finally understood why life is work; and it is because our work is one of the many things that gives our life purpose.
It took me a while to finish this post because I am still reading the novel and I don’t want to miss anything. Rest assured that I would have plenty of essays regarding this masterpiece 🙂