Anna Karenina is known as story about infidelity. I found it to be about a whole lot more. The novel was first published in 1878. This is the first work that I have read by Leo Tolstoy. After a bit of research on the various translations available for this book, I chose the Louise and Aylmer Maude version. My copy of this novel ran 710 pages. Within these pages, Tolstoy has packed a lot in terms of drama, characterization, philosophy and more. I found that the result was brilliant but uneven.
This novel basically tells two parallel stories. First, there is the tale of Anna herself. The title character is a beautiful aristocratic woman. She is married to Count Karenin, a high government official. She meets and begins an affair with Count Vronsky, a young cavalry officer. Anna subsequently leaves her husband and son as she runs off with Vronsky. Much drama ensues as several issues continue to percolate, including the question of Karenin’s willingness or unwillingness to grant Anna a divorce, Anna’s distraught feelings over the estrangement from her son, Anna’s very mixed feelings towards Karenin, etc.
There is a third couple, Stepan Oblonsky and Darya Oblonskaya, known as “Dolly.” Stephan is Anna’s brother, and Dolly is Kitty’s sister. This pair is something of a link between the other two stories. Stepan is a serial philanderer, which is one of several reasons that the couple is unhappy.
Almost every character in this book is marvelously fleshed out and complex. I could write pages and pages about almost every one of them. Both Anna and Levin are particularly complicated. Anna does many questionable things, including abandoning her son. She is unlikable, yet she is humanized and, at times, pitiable. Levin is likable and mostly virtuous but unusual. He is also a deep thinker who suffers from several inner crises.
Much of the narrative involves high drama leading to tragedy in regards to Anna and her affair. Her interactions with her lover, her husband and her son reach a sublime level, and all four are shown to be complex and nuanced characters.
Levin and Kitty’s story is also interesting, but the parts of the book about Levin also contain many pages of philosophizing between Levin and his friends as well as within Levin’s own mind. Levin’s musings include the nature of work, life’s meaning, death, relationships, the role of government, agriculture, war, religion and more. Toward the end, he has an epiphany involving God that ties in thematically with the dark place that Anna finds herself in. Though I tend to like such musings, and I did enjoy some of this, other parts became a little dull, especially some long segments about labor and agriculture, even for me. These segments also seemed to not mix all that well with the drama in the book. All of this gives the novel a kind of irregular feel to it.
The book is, in part, a study in relationships, as the famous opening lines indicate,
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Though a little online reading indicates there are varying interpretations on this subject, Levin and Kitty’s relationship, despite some ups and downs, ends up mostly happy. This is contrasted with every other romantic relationship in this book, which are unhappy and, in the case of Anna and Vronsky, lead to calamity.
There is so much going on within these pages that it is impossible to examine even just the major points with a single post. Instead, I am going to share a few thoughts about one particular aspect of Tolstoy’s writing style as it relates to characterization. Much of the narrative is told in third -person. However, at many points, Tolstoy lapses into stream of consciousness for several of the characters. Unlike many other examples of this style that I have read, the stream of consciousness here is relatively straight-forward and follows a linear stream of thoughts. Thus, it is not all that different from conventional first-person narration. It seems that Tolstoy was one of the first authors to employ this technique, and his pioneering use of it may be the reason that it is fairly basic here.
Tolstoy has a knack for getting into characters’ heads. He does this using this stream of conscious as well as more conventional third-person narration that heavily focuses on a particular character for multiple paragraphs. At one point, Tolstoy even peeks into the mind of Levin’s dog, Laska. When Levin and his brother interrupt their concentration during a hunting trip to talk about life matters, Laska becomes annoyed that they will miss the birds that they are hunting,
Laska , with ears pricked up , was looking upwards at the sky , and reproachfully at them . “ They have chosen a time to talk , ” she was thinking . “ It’s on the wing . . . . Here it is , yes , it is. They’ll miss it”
A melding of the magnificent characterization found in this novel and this style occurs with Anna. At several points, Tolstoy uses this style to really get into her head and to convey emotion. For instance, after living with Vronsky for over a year, she finds herself unable to obtain a divorce from her husband. At the same time, her relationship with Vronsky is deteriorating due to her own instability and unfounded jealousy. She begins to suffer from wild mood swings and paranoia. Tolstoy gets into her head very effectively here,
Some noisy men were quiet as she passed them on the platform , and one whispered something about her to another — something vile , no doubt . She stepped up on the high step , and sat down in a carriage by herself on a dirty seat that had been white . Her bag lay beside her , shaken up and down by the springiness of the seat ..an impudent conductor slammed the door and the latch . A grotesque - looking lady wearing a bustle ( Anna mentally undressed the woman , and was appalled at her hideousness ) , and a little girl laughing affectedly ran down the platform .
At this point, Anna is unreliable. The reader is not sure if the young men were whispering something vile or not. She is showing hostility toward not just them, but to the conductor and to the woman who is described as grotesque. Her thoughts about mentally undressing this woman seem particularly nasty. The laughing little girl seems to add to the funhouse-like scene that is running through Anna’s mind.
At another slightly more lucid movement, Anna contemplates the deteriorating relationship between herself and Vronsky;
“My love keeps growing more passionate and egoistic , while his is waning and waning , and that’s why we’re drifting apart . ” She went on musing . “ And there’s no help for it . He is everything for me , and I want him more and more to give himself up to me entirely . And he wants more and more to get away from me . We walked to meet each other up to the time of our love , and then we have been irresistibly drifting in different directions . And there’s no altering that . He tells me I’m insanely jealous , and I have told myself that I am insanely jealous but it’s not true . I’m not jealous , but I’m unsatisfied.
Anna is also not completely seeing reality above. Vronsky’s attempts to “get away” from Anna is him just straining against Anna’s stifling behavior. She seems to realize that her jealousy is a problem, but then pulls back from that revelation. I think that the above quotation illustrates how Tolstoy is able to craft such subtle and nuanced characters and plot.
As noted above, I found this novel both uneven and brilliant. The parts that involve emotional human interaction and extremely well thought out characters are interspaced with Levin’s ruminations about nearly everything under the sun. Yet, much of the work was grandly written with sublime characters and a story that touched upon all sorts of important issues involving life and the universe. A reader should approach this work knowing that Tolstoy will be taking them in a lot of directions, some of them very unconventional. I highly recommend this to anyone prepared for such a ride.