"Anna Karenina" by Leo Tolstoy

   I honestly don’t know how I can even begin to review this beast of a novel. Not only is the size intimidating, but the esteemed reputation it has come to garner over the years is one that kind of makes me want to hide away under my desk so people don’t have to read my measly attempt at a review of this masterpiece.

   Having said that, however, I’m also someone who believes that all stories, despite the size of the following they have attracted, are still stories, and are therefore meant to be enjoyed and discussed by the audience. So here goes, I guess. Spoilers ahead. 

   When I first decided to read this novel I was sixteen or so, and I can’t remember why exactly I decided to read it other than for the simple reason that it was there. And my copy had one of those annoying blurbs which manage to form a sizable paragraph without actually telling you what the book is about. 

   
   It’s just unacceptable, all right? 
   
“Anna Karenina” actually has two protagonists – the titular Anna herself, and Konstantine Levin. Both are figures who believe themselves to be certain of their position in society, and their path in life, but come to learn that they are not satisfied with these positions. Both are desirous of experiencing so much more in life. The parallels between the two are striking – and the interest of the reader lies in the different ways both tackle the same problems. 

   Anna’s story is one of those you can’t help but know even if you haven’t actually read the entire novel. She is a woman who finds herself married to a man much older than herself, and a mother to a young child. Anna is so much like a child in a lot of ways. She seemed far too young to be a mother. Clearly, there is a huge culture gap and time difference between Anna and me, the reader, but I think that was one of Tolstoy’s main points. Anna’s current situation as wife and mother is one she has found herself in without much input or decision-making on her part; it is simply what is expected of all the women in society. Wife and mother you must be, so wife and mother you become. Despite that, Anna is still lucky enough to feel a strong love towards her son, even though she doesn’t nurse any similar feeling in regards to her husband. So far, it is her little boy who has made life worthwhile for Anna. 

   That is, until Count Vronsky arrives on the scene and Anna begins to see how exquisite life could be for a woman to live with the man she loves. So far she has never experienced anything of the kind, something which obviously made her marriage to the impersonal and dutiful Karenin at least bearable. However, once Anna has glimpsed the alternative she finds she can no longer be satisfied with her current situation. This is the point where I really pitied Anna. Clearly, anyone would find it difficult to refuse an opportunity which could only enrich your experience of life, and I don’t think there was any way in which Anna could have refused – especially with Vronsky being so annoyingly relentless. During my earlier stages of reading this novel, I found myself angry at Anna for abandoning her son, and while I still don’t agree with it now, I can at least understand why she chose the option she did. As I say, I think she was still a child herself and she obviously hadn’t finished ‘living her life’ before she became a mother. That is not to say that all girls had affairs then, but Anna is evidently a sensitive human, and I think a marriage based on love, instead of convenience, would have been the more healthy choice for the poor girl. It was her misfortune that her experience of love came too late.

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   Some of this is reflected in Levin’s story, too. Though it is not of equal magnitude, Levin’s proposal being rejected by Kitty (the girl whom he loves) is another portrayal of a life of love, of which everyone dreams, being denied to the dreamer. Levin, however, throws himself into his work on his country estate, trying to better his land, and the situation of his workers. His character is such an endearing one that I couldn’t help but like it – he’s awkward and bumbling in society, and never says exactly what he means, but there was an inherent quality in him that makes immeidatley likeable. I think it’s because he’s always wanting to do the right thing and be a good person. However, that kind of thinking doesn’t make him pretentious or self-righteous in the slightest – he is honestly trying to be a better human being, and seems to have no idea how good he already is. I just kind of wanted to hug him and whack him over the head at the same time.

   He does get his dream, however. Kitty sees the light in the end and accepts his hand, but their marriage is not perfection. They’re very compatible but they also squabble a lot and both seem to suffer from serious jealousy – Levin slightly more so. It became a little tedious for me at points, though, when Levin became green with envy yet again. Tolstoy has a great eye for detail, and maybe sometimes, the eye was too great. Scenes tend to lull at points and I found myself reading the same kind of sentences just written differently and going, “All right, yes, I know, already.” That might have a little to do with the translation, but I don’t think that was the case for the most part. As a reader, you are actually able to see the world so clearly from each different character’s point of view, their exact thought process, and maybe it’s this meticulousness that slowed things down at times, for me. 

   I’m aware, though, that it is exactly for that meticulousness for which Tolstoy is so lauded. His ability to move from one character’s head to the other is simply perfect – as a reader you just don’t see it happening. Not only that, but his understanding of the characters, male or female, is impressive. The novel clearly tackles the inequality of the positions for men and women. 

   The story actually opens with a wife’s discovery of the husband’s infidelity. The wife is Dolly, and the husband is Oblonsky, Anna’s brother. When we first see Anna, it is as advisor. She visits Oblonsky’s house to persuade Dolly to not leave her children and excuse her husband’s misstep. It is ironic that Anna ends up doing exactly what she advised Dolly against, though in her case she is the one engaging in the affair.  Once Anna is confronted with the possibility of love, all rational thought seems to be dispelled from her mind.

   And then there is the affair itself. I don’t know if the connection between Vronsky and Anna was deep for me to be convinced that it was love. It was certainly obsessive enough, now that I think about it. Vronsky is stunned by Anna’s beauty at first, and I think Anna was overwhelmed by the feeling of having someone value her beauty as a woman, instead of her role as wife, which is all Karenin clearly saw her as. The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that it was the novelty and, consequently the excitement, of the relationship that really brought about Anna’s downfall. Please feel free to disagree with me. That’s if you’ve read this far. I’ve babbled a little lot. 

   This hasn’t really been a proper review of the novel itself, more a waffling on the characters in it. But I think that speaks a lot for my experience of the novel. It was the cast of characters that made it worthwhile really. They were all so believable and real – which I guess can be expected when you have a story of this magnitude in which to develop them. I’ve already said it before, but Tolstoy’s transition from one character’s thoughts to another is seamless. More than that, it was his ability to fully explain the characters’ feelings in a believable and understandable manner that really enriched the reading experience. There are downsides, of course. As I mentioned before, the story’s overly detailed at points and that causes the pace to lull at points. And, let me tell you, there were a lot of these points. It probably also had a lot to do with the fact that the novel includes a lot of the political issues that were foremost in that society at that particular time. And, well, a lot of the time I’m not even interested in the politics that are going on in the present day, so I don’t think Tolstoy can really be blamed for that. ‘Tis all me.

   I don’t think I’m done talking about this novel. These are just my first thoughts after reading it. I’ll probably be re-visiting the characters and their actions to question, analyze and then question them some more. They seem to be in my head a lot, lately, and Anna’s tragic story is only just sinking into my brain. I love that Tolstoy had two stories so intertwined that when the book ended you’re left with this weighted sadness as well as a very believable sense of hope. 

   I’d love to hear what you think, that is if you’ve stuck me with me through this discombobulated review. In which case, your patience is admirable and thanks and congratulations are in order. So thank you. And congratulations. 

   Sincerely,
     Lady Disdain

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6 thoughts on “"Anna Karenina" by Leo Tolstoy

  1. Well, your waffling on about the characters is pretty entertaining in itself, so no worries there! Reading through your post just reminded me of ALL the characters and ALL the relationships they have (and ALL the pages I haven't read). I don't know about you, but I feel like this book may be one of those things that I read more out of a sense of obligation (and maybe some ego – gotta keep one's English major reputation going) than any real interest. But maybe my mindset has changed enough since I was 16, and perhaps if I start again I might appreciate it more. Oh and I do remember feeling lots of warm fuzzies for Levin. He is a lovely man.

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  2. I really enjoyed reading this review. I read Anna K for the first time last year and like you, was so impressed with Tolstoy's ability to get inside the heads of his characters and know them so well.
    I don't think it was love between Anna and Vronksy, just obsession.

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  3. Well, that's a relief.
    I know, the cast is HUGE and it just invites a study of all the characters.
    No, you're right. Nailed it, actually. When I first read it, it was out of a sense of obligation – and even when I revisited it after giving up halfway through before, that same obligation was still there. But I have to admit it, I enjoyed it a lot more the second time around. I noticed a lot of different things and was able to appreciate the characters a little differently. So yeah, maybe another reading might be worth it. It's the size that's daunting, really – it helped to read other things on the side.

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  4. I'm glad to hear it 🙂
    Yeah, that's the best feature about this novel. Apparently Tolstoy was significant in implementing the 'stream of consciousness' style in novels.
    I'm inclined to agree – by the second half I was very doubtful but it might have to do a lot with Anna's state of mind by then.

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