By: Leo Tolstoy
Tolstoy”s tumultuous tale of passion and self-discovery marks a turning point in the author”s career. His compelling, emotional saga recounts the effects of nonconformist behavior–a society woman”s adulterous affair and a landowner”s unconventional quest for a meaningful existence–against a backdrop of
late 19th-century Russia.
Backstory: I read War and Peace some three summers ago and quite enjoyed it so I noted to myself that I’d read Anna Karenina as well. For some reason though I had put it off since; I don’t know if it was the size or the nature of the story that kept me back (both of which shouldn’t). I finally got a copy of the book last year with all intent of reading it but didn’t get around to it again (though to be fair, I was busy with my research, my Russian classes and was out of the country at the end of last summer) so one of my New Year’s book resolutions was to read it this year. Given that I have three Russian classic novels on my TBR pile (the other two are by Dostoevsky—I’m not including my Russian version of Pushkin’s Evgeny Onegin because my Russian isn’t so fluent right now), I finally decided to start reading it =)
I should also note that when I started reading it, my only gripe was the translation itself; I thought it was odd that some words were completely Anglocised but later found out that a) the copy I have used the 1918 translation previously used by Oxford Classics (my edition is actually the Dover Thrifts edition) and b) the character’s nickname really is “Betsy”, which to me is sooooo un-Russian and even un-French (as the Russian court in the nineteenth century was heavily influenced by the French). But that was an aside. Major spoilers ahead!
What particularly struck me about Anna Karenina, aside from its easy accessibility in terms of reading it (Russian classics have a tendency to be quite dense, if only because they were intended to serve as an instrument for debating the larger issues of the day—Russian identity, the social problems rampant in society, the direction of modernisation, etc.), was the psychology of the characters. Tolstoy did an amazing job in really getting into the viewpoints of each of his characters and understanding what they thought and felt. And these characterisations are genuine; they don’t feel out of touch and they’re quite insightful to the way people would react in particular situations. When the situation develops between Anna, Vronsky and Alexis, you can’t really play the blame game because in a way you sympathise for each of the characters and can truly see why they perceive themselves as stuck in the scenario. Their actions can be infuriating at times but then when you remember the situation they’re in, you feel for them. The contrast between all of the principal characters–who have quite fleshed out characterisations–is quite interesting, once again Tolstoy manages to populate his novel with such an variety of different characters with different viewpoints and sympathies.
When I started reading this book, I didn’t realise that the story focused on two principal couples: Anna and Vronsky and the other being Kitty and Levin. It’s an interesting set up because you could see the contrasts in their relationships; both suffered obstacles along the way before their union but you also see what their lives were like afterwards. While Kitty and Levin have their quarrels, they are ultimately happy and they work through their problems whereas Anna and Vronsky sink further and further into their frustrations. I think the problem is that while the passion between the two of them was intense, their personalities are just so formidable and set a certain way that they cannot seem to truly respect and trust each other as much as they want to; I found Vronsky to be particular in this—he’s unable to truly empathize or admit his own faults. Perhaps more to the point, they don’t really communicate and work through their problems, unlike Kitty and Levin who do quarrel, but then manage to make up and compromise along the way.
But the other issue that caused problems for Anna and Vronsky was Society itself. They both need it to thrive and (here’s where the gender hypocrisy comes it) while Vronsky can still move through Society despite of their behaviour, Anna cannot. They would’ve been fine had they stayed in the country but Vronsky was getting immensely bored, which would have strained their relationship either way. They do not have the contentedness that Kitty and Levin have. It’s those kinds of conventions that pushed Anna into a corner she could not escape from. Her tragedy is ultimately quite complicated—from the social issues around it to the more emotional, personal ones. At the same time, it was quite in her own making in that, while it is understandable and even admirable that she wants to do what she was regardless of whatever Society dictated was right or unacceptable, some of her decisions were rather strange and even frustrating at times (the one that I had an issue with was choosing Vronsky over her own son and later favouring her son over her daughter—Tolstoy does a wonderful job in presenting her thoughts but at the same time I’m frustrated that she chose the way she did that was just neglectful and unfair all around of/for both her children). And at the end of it all, it does raise some rather depressing questions about the nature of relationships, of romantic/parental/filial love, whether people can ever truly be free to act independently from what Society dictates and just life itself. I’m glad the novel didn’t end at Part Seven because that would have been too depressing.
I should also mention Konstantin Levin, who makes up the other principal protagonist in the novel. He sort of starts off as a rather odd individual in society with his own thoughts and ideas and who doesn’t share the same charm as many other people in his own social standing. His journey has been more spiritual than Anna in coming to an understanding about life and relationships but in a more positive light from Anna’s. The last part of the novel particularly struck me because he own inner turmoils about religion, goodness and life has drawn him dangerously close to Anna’s own sense of desperation and close to suicide but unlike Anna, he chooses to keep living. But again, their situations were vastly different and to a certain extent—mirroring Tolstoy’s own personal spiritual journey—Levin’s story is more philosophical. But nonetheless his story alleviates the dark tragedy from Anna’s story.
As a Russian classic, it also raises the debate on a number of different issues—land reform, religion, aristocratic society, government, etc. Once again Tolstoy has shown me how he’s able to touch on all of these issues and weave them into the story in a way that gives you a sense of the issues of the day before really beating you over the head with it. The land reform bit can be a little dense to get through at times (nothing new for me—I also had a bit of difficulty slogging through the land reform issues in my Russian history courses because it doesn’t interest me as much as the social/political aspects of Russian society) but it’s worth understanding to get a sense of the troubles that Russia was grasping with prior to the Bolshevik Revolution. The scenes involving Society was interesting, of how complicated and strict it can be to live in that sort of sphere. I can also see why many remarked that this novel marked a turning point in Tolstoy’s life and towards the more mystical religious aspect. There are pages focused on religion, mysticism and just an examination of the human soul. Again, fascinating stuff.
Overall, I found myself completed absorbed with the novel and truly enjoyed it. It’s a fantastic character study of human behaviour and relationships as well as a panoramic glimpse of Russian society in the late nineteenth century. The panorama’s a little smaller in scale compared to War and Peace but it still touches on a wide range of social issues that affected the lives of Russians. Tolstoy proves that he’s able to evoke emotion out of his reader while working with such a world scope. The themes are universal and are applicable to today. I don’t know how Pevear and Volokhonsky fare compared to Maude translation but either version is worth checking out. I highly recommend this novel to anyone interested in Russian literature, Russian history, nineteenth century literature or a good story populated with complex characters.