Anna Karenina was my Classics Club spin book, and given its length I decided to read it straight away. Having never read Tolstoy before, I wasn’t sure what to expect but I was pleasantly surprised at how readable this classic is and I got in to it fairly easily although some perseverance is needed due to its length. My main trouble was in dealing with extended sections where Tolstoy discussed Russian farming methods and politics which, although interesting (and beautifully described) to an extent, I have to confess did not hold a lot of interest for me. I also had a bit of trouble keeping track of some of the characters as often they had several names – Stepan Arkadyevitch for example was also referred to as Oblonsky and Stiva. I was particularly confused over the Nikolays, but perhaps I wasn’t paying enough attention to the names when they were introduced.
Whatever my slight complaints, there is no denying that Tolstoy has written a compelling saga. The opening line was one that I recognised:
“Happy families are all alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Most of the story was new to me though. I had an idea of the story being about Anna and Vronsky, but felt that the narrative focused more on Levin – a landowner with some very progressive views (seemingly mirroring Tolstoy’s own) on peasants and farming methods. I found Levin to be the most well-rounded of Tolstoy’s characters, and the most interesting. His love for Kitty Shtcherbatskaya is “a question of life and death”, and the range and depth of his emotions made his character really come alive for me. He, along with all of the other characters in the book, also has his faults – he cannot control his emotions. It was these well-rounded characters that made Tolstoy’s story so powerful. One of my favourite lines in the novel is Stepan Arkadeyavitch’s remark that “all the variety, all the charm, all the beauty of life is made up of light and shadow.” Many of Tolstoy’s characters are full of shadows, but this makes them all the more enchanting when they come in to the light.
Compared to Levin, Anna’s character seemed less well developed. She is not introduced until chapter eighteen, but it is clear when we meet her that there is something special about her:
“It was as though her nature were so brimming over with something that against her will it showed itself now in the flash of her eyes, and now in her smile.”
Anna attracts Vronsky from the moment he sets eyes on her and he pursues her relentlessly. Tolstoy seems to depict their relationship as inevitable, and suggests many times that Anna is not to blame:
“She’s done what they all do, except me – only they hide it. But she wouldn’t be deceitful, and she did a fine thing.”
If only the society in which Anna lived thought as progressively as Tolstoy did, there would have been no tragedy. Yet, despite the author’s obvious pity for Anna, I always felt distanced from her character. I think this was due in part to her leaving her son, even though she had no way of keeping him unless she remained with her husband whom she despised. I have found since having my son a year ago that I have very little patience or understanding of anyone who abandons their child, but I am sure that even a few years ago I might have sympathised with her more. I was much more caught up in Levin’s love for Kitty and cared much less about Anna and Vronsky.
It’s difficult to sum up such a huge work of literature in a short review, but Tolstoy has created more than a thing of “temporary beauty” in Anna Karenina and his language and ideas aren’t something I can do justice to here. I would urge you to read it if you haven’t already, and I feel spurred on to tackle some of Tolstoy’s other work in the near future – a good job as War and Peace is also on my Classics Club list.