Anna Karenina

Cover of "Anna Karenina (Oprah's Book Clu...
Cover of Anna Karenina (Oprah’s Book Club)

By Leo Tolstoy; Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky; @ 2000 by Penguin Classics; First appeared serially from 1875 to 1877; 817 pages.

Anna Karenina is an 817-page study of the consequences of adultery. But it isn’t just about adultery; it’s also social commentary on everything from marriage, maternal love, having children, the education of the workers, farming practices, faith, and the moral implications of not actually working for a living. It’s about human relationships, love, birth, and death. Tolstoy forces us to look at Anna, the adulteress, as a person. He keeps us from judging her out of hand. He shows us the terrible consequences of choosing security over love and then again of choosing love over security. And he shows us all the jealousy, insecurity, and fickleness involved in human relationships.

Anna Karenina is set against the backdrop of the Russian aristocracy in the 1800s. Tolstoy provides great insights into human nature that ring true even today, more than 100 years later. He explains that some adulterous liaisons were excused by society while others were not.

The story is wonderfully crafted (for the most part—I felt like the ending was tacked on) and easy to read. None of the explicit details are given that modern readers are accustomed to. It’s all very classy. Tolstoy very subtly gets the point across on page 149, saying simply “…this desire had been satisfied.” With the romance out of the way early on, let the tortuous tale begin.

Count Leo Tolstoy was born in 1828 on the family estate of Yasnaya Polyana in the Tula province of Russia. He studied oriental languages and law but did not complete a degree. He faught in the Crimean War and afterwards wrote Sevastopol Sketches in 1855. He married at the age of 34 to Sofya Andreyevna Behrs, and together they had thirteen children. For much of his life, Tolstoy was active in efforts to educate and emancipate the serfs. His most well known novels are War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karinina (1877).

Leo Tolstoy 1848
Leo Tolstoy 1848 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Anna Karenina is a novel written in eight parts and told through the omniscient narrator. With this format, Tolstoy is able to explore the thoughts and motivations of all his characters. The story begins in Moscow, Russia. Prince Stepan Arkadyich Oblonsky’s affair with a former French governess has been found out by his wife, Dolly. Stepan’s married sister, Anna Karenina, who lives in St. Petersburg has been summoned to his house to console his wife and put their marriage back together. Meanwhile, Stepan has two friends, Konstantin Dmitrych Levin and Count Alexei Krillovich Vronsky, who are rival suitors for the same young lady, Kitty Tcherbatsky. Kitty is Dolly’s sister.

(Confused? You won’t be once you get going.) To get it all started, Tolstoy puts Vronsky’s mother and Anna Karenina in the same train car to Moscow from Petersburg.

The biggest problem for the western reader not used to Russian naming conventions is keeping track of the names and nicknames. If you can get that straight, this novel is smooth sailing. The translators, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, have done a fantastic job.

The first thing that struck me about the story was how unfair Stepan Arkadyich’s (Prince Oblonsky’s) view of his wife, Dolly, was.

He could not be repentant that he, a thirty-four-year-old, handsome, amorous man, did not feel amorous with his wife, the mother of five living and two dead children, who was only a year younger than he.

So this guy is older than his wife, and yet she is too old for him, now that she has “done her womanly duty” and given him seven children!

It even seemed to him that she, a worn-out, aged, no longer beautiful woman, not remarkable for anything, simple, merely a kind mother of a family, ought in all fairness to be indulgent.

Oblonsky’s friend Konstantin Levin, seems the opposite of the other men in this story. Tolstoy described Levin’s love for eighteen-year-old Kitty in a very charming way:

He [Levin] knew she was there by the joy and fear that overwhelmed his heart. She stood at the other end of the rink, talking to a lady. There seemed to be nothing very special in her dress, nor in her pose; but for Levin she was as easy to recognize in a crowd as a rose among nettles.

I love this too for being such an accurate description of love, or I suppose, of infatuation:

He stepped down, trying not to look long at her, as if she were the sun, yet he saw her, like the sun, even without looking.

Л. Н.Толстой рассказывает сказку внукам. 1909
Л. Н.Толстой рассказывает сказку внукам. 1909 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tolstoy writes about the younger generation rebelling against the norms of the older generation. The previous generation had consented to having their marriages arranged by their parents. This generation was moving away from that practice. More and more young people were arranging their own marriages. To that end, I love this description of Kitty’s mother’s feelings on the topic:

And however much the princess [Kitty’s mother] was assured that in our time young people themselves must settle their fate, she was unable to believe it, as she would have been unable to believe that in anyone’s time the best toys for five-year-old children would be loaded pistols.

And yet, Kitty’s mother’s interference caused much grief.

This novel turns around the love affair that develops between Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky. It must have been shocking reading indeed, for not only is Anna married to man with whom she has a son, it also seems that she might be older than Count Vronsky. Tolstoy illustrated for us from the beginning how Russian society viewed wives who were even slightly younger than their husbands—as unattractive throwaways who should be understanding of their diminishing status. I love how he pushes this social value when he sets up Anna with Vronsky.

Early on, we suspect that Anna may be getting in over her head as Vronsky’s views of love are a bit liberal even by today’s standards:

In his Petersburg world, all people were divided into two completely opposite sorts. One was the inferior sort: the banal, stupid, and above all, ridiculous people who believed that one husband should live with one wife, whom he has married in church, that a girl should be innocent, a woman modest, a man manly, temperate and firm, that one should raise children, earn one’s bread, pay one’s debts, and other such stupidities. This was an old-fashioned and ridiculous sort of people. But there was another sort of people, the real ones, to which they all belonged, and for whom one had, above all, to be elegant, handsome, magnanimous, bold, gay, to give oneself to every passion without blushing and laugh at everything else.

And this is Vronsky’s friend’s opinion of why people get married:

For this there exists one means of loving conveniently, without hindrance—that is marriage…it’s as if you’re carrying a fardeau (burden) and doing something with your hands is only possible if the fardeau is tied to your back—and that is marriage. And I felt it once I got married. I suddenly had my hands free. But dragging this fardeau around without marriage—that will make your hands so full that you won’t be able to do anything.

Anna’s husband is onto her straying feelings immediately. Tolstoy is wonderfully wise about this:

She [Anna] looked at him [her husband], so gaily, that no one who did not know her as her husband did could have noticed anything unnatural either in the sound or in the meaning of her words. But for him who knew her, who knew that when he went to bed five minutes late, she noticed it and asked the reason, who knew that she told him at once her every joy, happiness, or grief—for him it meant a great deal to see now that she did not want to notice his state or say a word about herself. He saw that the depth of her soul, formerly always open to him, was now closed to him.

Anna’s husband, Alexei Alexandrovich, is twenty years older than she. He doesn’t seem capable of passionate love, but we see that he does love her. He would rather ignore the whole thing, save his reputation, and keep Anna as his wife. One can see that they are fundamentally a bad match. Alexei, with all his flaws, eventually becomes a sympathetic character, at least to me.

He felt that he could not divert people’s hatred from himself, because the reason for that hatred was not that he was bad (then he could have tried to be better), but that he was shamefully and repulsively unhappy. For that, for the very fact that his heart was wounded, they would be merciless towards him; people would destroy him, as dogs kill a wounded dog howling with pain.

As much as this story is about Anna Karenina and her love affair with Count Vronsky, it is also the story of Konstatin Dmitryich Levin and his love for Kitty Tcherbatsky. Levin seems to symbolize all that is good in men. He lives in the country, mows the grass with a scythe along with the muzhiks, and wants nothing more than to have a loving family. He is also a good tool for Tolstoy’s exploration of the pros and cons of the education of the muzhiks and the rise of a working class.

One really big hole in the story, for me, was the absence of Levin’s reaction to Anna’s death. He has only met her once, but his awareness of Count Vronsky has been high throughout the story. He was charmed by Anna when he met her. It seems really odd that we don’t get Levin’s take on either Anna or Vronsky at the end of the story. Levin becomes consumed with the idea of death and the meaning of life. One can infer that this is one of the consequences from Anna’s death, but with the omniscient narrator, it seems that Tolstoy missed a big opportunity to draw the whole thing together.

At the end, we also get insights into faith. Levin is not a believer at the beginning of the story. His view of the universe and how it operates could be summed up as follows:

In infinite time, in the infinity of matter, in infinite space, a bubble-organism separates itself, and that bubble holds out for a while and then bursts, and that bubble is—me.

But later, he has an epiphany. People must live for goodness, live for the soul, and that goodness is revealed by God.

If the good has a cause, it is no longer the good; if it has a consequence—a reward—it is also not the good. Therefore the good is outside the chain of cause and effect.

He also makes the argument that faith and love are outside the bounds of reason.

Yes, what I know, I do not know by reason, it is given to me, it is revealed to me, and I know it by my heart, by faith in that main thing that the Church confesses.

…faith in God, in the good, as the sole purpose of man.

At over 800 pages, I was prepared to trudge through this novel. It was quite a relief to find it so engaging. I came away from this book wanting to throw out all my Russian novels and re-buy them as translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. They did a brilliant job.

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7 thoughts on “Anna Karenina

    1. Thank you! (I hope I wasn’t a spoiler.)

      Did you watch the movie with Kira Knightly and Judd Law? Even though I love both of these actors, I think their movie was a farce that horribly diminishes the book.

      I’m excited to know your final thoughts on the book once you get done.

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      1. I haven’t watched the movie. I’ve made it a rule for myself that if I haven’t happened to watch the movie yet and there’s a book out there, the book comes first. I like to see what my own imagination does before a movie comes in and shows me something else. Once I finish the book, I’ll let you know. Sad to hear about the movie though. I do like Knightly and Law too. Was at least the cinematography something to rave about or, for you, is that was ruined it?

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      2. They shot the movie as though it were a play—to me, movies are movies for a reason, and plays are plays for a reason. And there was some kind of weird musical/dancing element incorporated. Levin was not handsome—although he should have been, but in a non-threatening sort of way. Jude Law should have been cast as Vronksy, but instead was cast as Anna’s husband. The movie needed to show an intense seething attraction between Anna and Vronsky to justify why she would take the risks that she did. A woman cheating on her husband was risking everything, i.e. all friends and money. After all, how was a woman, not in the care of a man, going to make money during those times, except on her back? The risk that Anna took with Vronsky could not have been taken lightly. The final blow for me was that I didn’t find Vronsky particularly tempting. And I think for Anna to have strayed, he would have had to be very tempting, mysterious, etc.

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