Title: Anna Karenina
Author: Leo Tolstoy
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Well, it only took me five months, but I managed to read Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Did it take me that long because I did not enjoy it? Quite the contrary! Actually, it was one of the most beautifully written books I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading, and I devoured every word on every page. It was just so… big. At one point, I felt as though I had flipped a thousand pages, then I looked… and I was only on page three-hundred. Oh, goody. Only five hundred more pages to go.
Boasting enough characters to challenge a Dickens novel, Anna Karenina follows the story of Alexey Alexandrovitch, a prestigious politician, and his wife, Anna. Anna is discontent with her life and the husband she views as boring. Upon meeting the lively Vronsky and quickly assuming he is all she has ever dreamed of in a man, Anna enters into a hasty affair with Vronsky, and her actions deeply affect everyone in her life. Intertwined with Alexey and Anna’s lives are a unique spread of other characters: hard-working Levin and Kitty, the girl he loves; the flamboyant and careless Stepan Arkadyevitch and his unhappy wife Dolly…
Anna Karenina is all about choices and relationships, and how both affect each other. It was incredible how richly developed all the characters were (and boy, was there ever a horde of characters!). Tolstoy did a magnificent job at exploring the minutest thought of each of the diverse characters without overloading or boring the reader. I found this book to be such a profound study of human nature, behaviour and how our emotions fluctuate so quickly that it was impossible not to be enraptured by it. But at the risk of making Anna Karenina sound more like a college lecture than a novel, let me assert that Tolstoy was able to do this while still telling a phenomenal story. (How he concluded Anna’s part of the story completely took me by surprise.)
I have read a good amount of books in my lifetime, and almost all of those books have contained a villain of some kind. But I cannot recall a time when I despised a literary character more than Anna Karenina herself. Never have I come across so selfish and unfeeling woman as she. Even when she got what she wanted, she was determined to be dissatisfied with everyone and everything. I never pitied her, or even felt sorry for her; she created her own miserable situation out of the ugliness of her soul. Completely abandoning her husband and her son, she flew into a wild affair with Vronsky to provide a temporary, fleeting happiness, which only served to bring about her utter ruin and destruction.
As I read, I had to wonder why Anna was so repulsed by her husband, for I considered Alexey Alexandrovitch to be one of the most intriguing literary characters ever created. On the surface, he may have seemed indifferent, emotionless, even slightly cold. But underneath, he was bursting with feeling. He insisted on thinking the best of his unfaithful wife, giving her the benefit of the doubt, even when society was brimming with gossip. When Anna finally revealed her affair to him, he was crushed, but attempted to compose himself and accept his new situation, stoically claiming that forgiving his wife is not an option. But at the scene where Anna almost dies in childbirth, all of Alexey’s walls came crumbling down. Regardless of how she had broken him, he realized how dearly he loved his wife and how lost he would have been if she died, and rushed to her deathbed, practically begging her to come back to him. That was a powerful scene. Alexey’s adulterous wife lay dying, and he, wracked with grief, crawls into her bed next to her, pulling her close to him and holding her hand. I was close to tears. My hopes of Alexey and Anna redeeming their marriage were rising…. and then after leading him on, Anna, horrible and cruel woman that she is, once again decides he is not exciting enough for her and runs back to Vronsky (who, I might add, apparently loved Anna so much he… shot himself for her? “honey, i just love you so much i have to… BANG.” um, how exactly does that work? and no, i didn’t just reveal a spoiler. unfortunately, it was not a fatal wound.). And one huge thing I noticed about Alexey Alexandrovitch… through his coldness and his walls and his despair, he never gave up on his wife. I personally think that was one of his hidden reasons he would never consent to a divorce.
A highlight of this novel was the relationship between Levin and Kitty, particularly because it was such a positive (yet stark) contrast to that of Anna’s relationships with both Alexey and Vronsky. I loved watching how Levin and Kitty both changed for the better throughout the story, how they complemented one another, and how they could be equally ridiculous. That proposal scene was priceless. I was growing concerned about Levin toward the end of the novel as he was so desperately seeking true purpose; I was really afraid he was going to do something completely stupid. Thankfully, my fears were put to rest; watching him discover God was just beautiful. But really, he and Kitty were just adorable. Peruse this passage, for instance…
Levin had been married three months. He was happy, but not at all in the way he had expected to be. At every step he found his former dreams disappointed, and new, unexpected surprises of happiness. He was happy; but on entering upon family life he saw at every step that it was utterly different from what he had imagined. At every step he experienced what a man would experience who, after admiring the smooth, happy course of a little boat on a lake, should get himself into that little boat. He saw that it was not all sitting still, floating smoothly; that one had to think too, not for an instant to forget where one was floating; and that there was water under one, and that one must row; and that his unaccustomed hands would be sore; and that is was only to look at it that was easy; but that doing it, though very delightful, was very difficult.
I give you permission to pause and AWWWWWWWW!! to your heart’s content. I read that passage to my mom, and she made the comment that someone should put it in their wedding vows. An excellent idea, Mother dear…
So basically, I loved Anna Karenina (that is to say, the book, not the character). It was gorgeously written, but wasn’t just full of lightweight fluff. It was real and gritty while still maintaining a redemptive theme. It was interesting to compare and contrast the four main relationships in the novel (Anna and Alexey, Anna and Vronsky, Levin and Kitty, Oblonsky and Dolly), and to evaluate why one failed where another didn’t, or why one succeeded where another didn’t.
As I concluded Anna Karenina, I thought of the popular phrase, “love conquers all.” Is that true? Yes, it is. But as I learned from Anna Karenina, a conquering love takes work, trust, and sacrifice.
Those joys were so small that they passed unnoticed, like gold in sand, and at bad moments she could see nothing but the pain, nothing but sand; but there were good moments too when she saw nothing but the joy, nothing but gold.
My rating: 9.5 out of 10
Would I read it again: Definitely… but maybe not for a while considering how long it took me to get through it!
What do you think of Anna Karenina?