Thursday, January 31, 2019

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

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.

The other plot thread involves Konstantin Levin, a Russian landowner. Levin is an independent thinker. He courts and eventually marries Princess Katerina Shcherbatskaya, known as “Kitty.” Levin is focused upon the future of Russia, especially as it concerns the peasantry and agricultural policy. The ups and downs of Kitty and Levin’s relationship make up much of the narrative.

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 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. 


mudpuddle said...

perceptive post... i found much the same sort of thing: every time i concluded that T didn't know very much about human behavior, he seemed to come up with a brilliant analysis of some small segment of comportment that rang a bell for me, as being absolutely to the point. Thus i was impressed overall by T's insight but not so much by his novel-writing skill... i think he might have been too much in a hurry, trying to get it all down, and it kept expanding in his mind in more directions than he could capably handle...

Sue Bursztynski said...

I’ve only read War And Peace, I’m afraid. And I read that in my teens. It was brilliant. This one has had almost as many dramatisations, eh? :-)

It’s good that you checked out translations. There are so many differences between them and some are definitely better than others!

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Brian, In my twenties I made the mistake of trying to read Anna Karenina after I had read Crime and Punishment and the Possessed. I was floored by Crime and Punishment and so when I approached Anna karenina I was hoping for more of the same. I remember finding Anna Karenina a little dull but I think what I really needed was a bit of time to elapse between Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. War and Peace is definitely on my bucket list. Thanks again for another great review.

Sharon Wilfong said...

I have always liked Tolstoy because of his brilliant character studies. He possesses so much insight into human thinking and what motivates our behavior.

I think Levin was supposed to be based on himself and, in fact, I think that all of his characters are based on real people who were a part of Tolstoy's life. I recognize specific people in Anna Karenina that were in War and Peace. I think Levin was Pierre (who was also based on the author).

Suko said...

Brian Joseph,

I haven't read this classic novel uet, but it's on my TBR list, for future reading. Thank you for your insightful commentary.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Muddpuddle. He really does cram a lot in here. He may have been on a hurry or it may just be the way his mind worked. It is a bit of a brilliant jumble.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon. Though I do not know that much about Tolstoy, the consensus seems to be that Leven did represent him. It seems that some writers represented real people in their fiction. I must read War and Peace soon.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sue - I need to read War and Peace soon. There was a lot going on in this book but I would guess more in War and Peace.

There is so much difference of opinion over translations. Sometimes it is hard to decide which to read.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - If you read this I would be curious as to what you thought about it.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Kathy. This was actually my first Tolstoy. I thought that it wax a lot more accessible then the Dostoyevsky that I have read. The two writers are very different.

I want to read War and Peace soon.

Carol said...

A.K was my first Tolstoy, too & I thought it was splendid & not at all how I thought it would be. War & Peace is one I'd also like to read but I don't know if I want to read it in the version I have (Constance Garnett) or if I should get a different translation.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Carol - I must also read War and Peace soon. Some people love the Garnet translations. Some folks do not like them. I do not think that I ever tried them.

Stephen said...

Thank you for your extensive comments! I only knew a bit about the ending...something about someone throwing themselves in front of a train out of loneliness.

Judy Krueger said...

I have read this book twice, many year between readings. I don't know if it was because I was older and supposedly wiser but the second reading was almost like reading a different novel. Tolstoy, the changling, the trickster, the Russian, the unique being. War and Peace before I die, I hope.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stephen- The ending of this one was indeed tragic.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Judy - My reading tastes have changed so much over time. I am not sure if I would have liked this when younger.

After reading this. I am thinking War and Peace will not be all that challenging. This was more accessible and easy to read then I expected.

Violet said...

AK is probably my favourite book of all time, so I'm glad you found much to admire about it. I think you'll get along with War & Peace quite well, because there's a lot of actual history in it. I've read a few of the translations, and the Anthony Briggs one is pretty good, although I prefer the Rosemary Edmonds version. Its language is beautiful and lyrical, and just what I like in a huge and sweeping drama.

I like everything about AK, including when Tolstoy goes off on a riff about something totally unrelated. It's as if he's just thinking out loud on the page, and I like being able to connect with his thoughts. Poor doomed Anna. I first read AK when I was 15, and I learnt two things: you can't have everything you want in life, and that I would never be able to write anything even approaching the glory of AK, so why bother even trying to be a writer! It was because of Tolstoy that I became a curious reader. :)

JacquiWine said...

I have a relatively new translation of Anna Karenina in my TBR - by Rosamund Bartlett, I think. It's the characterisation and insights into human nature which interest me the most, more so than the ruminations on farming etc!

Whispering Gums said...

Uneven but brilliant is a pretty fair assessment I'd say, with the brilliant more than counteracting the uneven. I remember when I read it (which wasn't long before I started blogging) I wondered why it was called Anna Karenina given SPOILER she dies quite a while before the novel's end. It seemed to me that the book was more about the issues Levin worries about (and that Tolstoy clearly cared about). Tolstoy was such an interesting character wasn't he - which makes reading his books so interesting (not that I've read many of them!!)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Violet- There really is something to say about writers who go off in all these directions. I recall Victor Hugo’s Les Miserable doing something similar.

Few writers could hope to be as good as Tolstoy!

I am confident that I will kind War and Peace.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jacqui- The farming stuff is so different. I almost went with the Bartlett Translation. I read a couple of reviews for it that were written by folks who were really into Tolstoy. They praised it along with other newer transliterations but then mentioned thaf this was thier favorite.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi WP - I agree completely and I should have emphasized it more. The brilliance mire then makes up for the unevenness.

This really is Levin’s story as mush as Anns’s He is such a well wrought character. As you mention, he gets the last word!

James said...

I think you summed up the novel nicely in your very first remark, that the novel was about much more than infidelity. Anna is not unlike War & Peace in its focus on families and relationships. They are also similar in that they contain passages with characters, and sometimes the narrator himself, pondering philosophy, history, and other topics. This was a feature of many realistic/romantic novels from the nineteenth century like Moby-Dick, one that I am currently in the middle of rereading.
I am impressed that you took on this novel as your first foray into the world of Tolstoy's fiction. You must tackle War & Peace, one of the greatest novels ever written and one of my favorites, but if you want a little respite before ascending that Everest of a novel you could try Tolstoy's short stories which are at their best just as powerful as his longer fiction.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks James. I do love philosophical novels. Though some call this book daunting I actually thought it was fairly accessible especially compared to Dostoevsky. I know that I will like War and Peace. I will give it a shot. Hopefully sooner rather then later.

thecuecard said...

I have not yet read this classic but I hope to. Does it give insight into Russian history or what's going on at the time? It sounds like it contrasts various relationships ... and Anna goes a bit mental. Was the story based on someone in real life? thanks.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - The book references the political and social situation in Russia but Tolstoy assumes the reader has at least basic knowledge about the situation. Levin has all sorts of theories about peasantry., land use, government, etc.

I have heard that Anna was based on a real character but I do not know who.

Angela said...

I read this book about 15 years ago, so I don't remember a lot about it. I do remember that I felt like I needed a dry erase board for the first few chapters just to keep everyone straight. I feel like Russian novels have a lot more characters, and more plots, than American novels.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks for stopping by Angela.

Russian novels tend to have a lot of characters. With that, I thought that this had a lot less and was easier to understand then Dostoyevsky.

Maria Behar said...

BRILLIANT post, Brian!

I participated in a read-along of this book, back in 2012. I remember you commented on some of these posts. My final, "sort of" review mentions the tedious aspects of this novel. Yes, the parts about labor and agriculture were especially boring. I did enjoy Levin's philosophical ruminations, but not all that "farm stuff". Lol.

I actually thought this book was really two books in one -- a novel, and a nonfiction, philosophical treatise, with some sections that, had they all been put together, would have been a useful manual for farmers. As you have stated in this post, these nonfiction sections, that really had nothing to do with the plot, made this novel an uneven read. You also mentioned that it's brilliant. I totally agree, but I do wish that Tolstoy had not mixed fiction and nonfiction to such a great degree in one book, which was really supposed to be strictly a novel. These nonfiction interruptions blocked the flow of the plot, thus diluting the impact of the events therein to some extent.

The thing that bothered me the most about this novel was the infidelity itself. I could not relate to the two lovers -- Anna and Vronsky. Both were selfish and inconsiderate; neither cared one whit about the effect of their affair on Anna's husband and son. Anna did later regret leaving her son, but the damage was already done.

The quotes containing Anna's thought processes show just how self-centered she is. And the fact that she's obsessively jealous is HIGHLY ironic. How can she be jealous, when she herself has been unfaithful to her husband?! I have NO sympathy whatsoever for cheaters who are then jealous themselves. The funny thing is, these people feel that THEY can be unfaithful, but their illicit lover had better NOT be unfaithful to THEM. This is a "reverse Golden Rule": Let me do to you, but don't you dare do to me!

I know what it's like to be cheated on, and I've also read a couple of stories online. Based on what I've seen, I would have to say that most cheaters feel NO remorse about cheating on their spouses or significant others. All they care about is themselves!

It's true that calamitous events follow Anna and Vronsky, so Tolstoy probably had the intention of making an example of these two. I still couldn't deal with this plot, however.

(To be continued.....)

Maria Behar said...


As you can see, I have VERY strong feelings about this book!! Heck, I don't know WHY I started reading it.... Of course, I never finished it.

I can appreciate the fact that Tolstoy brilliantly contrasted two main relationships in this novel -- that of Anna and Vronsky, and Levin and Kitty. (The third relationship, that of Stepan and Dolly, is not that important, as far as I can remember.) His characterizations are superb, and his prose, sublime. But the other aspects I've mentioned above -- especially the infidelity -- were just too much for me to take.

Another aspect of this novel that bothered me was the way the high society of the time treated Anna and Vronsky. She was shunned, while he was still able to move in the same social circles, just as he had before his affair with Anna began. This was, of course, due to the double standard, which was even more prevalent at that time in history than it is now, although it's not completely gone. A few years ago, I read an article in a magazine that advised women not to tell a new boyfriend how many previous sexual partners they had had. The whole idea was to prevent the new guy from thinking less of them, and thus, possibly ending the new relationship.

Maybe Tolstoy's intention was to actually criticize the double standard; I don't remember the context. I would have to go back and re-read that part to see if there was something to read between the lines. Not that I would want to do so, however. Lol.

You have also mentioned Tolstoy's pioneering use of the stream-of-consciousness technique. While I was reading the book, I wasn't much aware of that. i guess I was just too busy disliking the main, adulterous characters. :)

Here's the link to my review of the novel. I did not give any rating for the book, as I remained undecided, at the time, as to how many stars to give it. I did think that the writing and characterizations were brilliant.

Thanks for your very insightful thoughts!! <3 :)

The Bookworm said...

Anna Karenina is on my to-read list and I won't watch any film adaptations because I need to read the novel first. Anna sounds like a complicated character and I like the opening line you shared here.
I also like the last passage you share especially. I need to bump this one up on my must reads list.
Great commentary as always.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Naida - Anna is a fascinating character and the writing here seems brilliant. I would love to know what you thought if you read this.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks so much Maria. Thanks for the link to your original post. I see that I commented and noted that I would keep your review in mind when I read this book. I did generally remember what you wrote and I was thinking about your review when I read this!

I did think that Tolstoy tried to integrate his musings in with the story in an odd way. They related to Levin’s character and the “future of Russia” theme. Evan the farm stuff seemed to. With that, it was really uneven and disrupted the flow of things.

Anna and Vronsky do lots of questionable things. Though not without some good points, Anna's actions are really bad. Vronsky starts unlikeable but I think that he becomes more human as things go on. Levin and Kitty, though not perfect, are such a contrast however.

As I recall, I got the impression that Tolstoy was taking issue with the double standard between men and women. Unfortunately, he was portraying reality. The same sort of thing is highlighted in a lot of Anthony Trollope novels.

There are books that I also find too disturbing. I have talked about it before. Some things push buttons on us. Often it is the result of personal experiences.

Have great Sunday!

Maria Behar said...

You make a great point about certain books pushing our buttons because of our personal experiences. That was definitely the case for me here! So I guess I was biased against this novel from the get-go, because of that.

I imagine I would have the very same problem with "Madame Bovary", so I won't even go there. Lol.

The theme of infidelity is DEFINITELY a trigger for me!

Hope you'e having a great Sunday, too!! :)

JaneGS said...

I found it uneven and brilliant as well. It was my first Tolstoy novel, and I found it both tedious and insightful. My favorite character was Levin, and I got to the point where I barely cared what happened to Anna and Vronsky.

While I don’t anticipate rereading this book, I have just started War and Peace and have high hopes that I will love it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - Levin is Indeed compelling. I will eventually read War and The Peace. I am curious to know what you think about it.

Felicity Grace Terry said...

Ooh at 700+ pages that is a hefty tome. I must admit we have a copy on our shelves that has only been read by Mr T and several of his students over the years (once to be returned dog-eared and obviously having been used as a tea/coffee cup coaster ... Aggghhh!). Daunted in part by its size and by the fact i'm not really a fan of the classics, I keep telling myself I WILL get around to reading it ... one day.

anyway, as always, an insightful post, thank you.

Rachel said...

I read this as an 18 year old and wasn't too fond of Anna's character. I didn't understand why she was so obnoxiously whiny. She didn't like her marriage, so she found someone else. Then she didn't like that situation, so she...etc.

I loved Levin's character, though.

On the other hand, Tolstoy is a fantastic author. I loved War and Peace.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - Though it was long, I found that this book went fast and was easy to read. I found Tolstoy to be more accessible then Dostoevsky and other difficult writers.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Rachel - Anna is not all that likable. I do like unlikeable characters. Levin was s superb and likable character. I must read War and Peace soon.

Paula Vince said...

It was one of my favourite classics from last year. I found it intriguing to see how the three main romantic relationships differed so much from each other, and played off against the others. I think I preferred Levin's musings to Anna's dilemma, which would've been very depressing on its own. But isn't it unusual how two such main characters as Anna and Levin manage to have a whole 800 page novel about them yet barely have a brush with each other?

I'd forgotten about Laska's stream of consciousness. That was very cool.
Thanks for the great review. I'm about 300 pages into War and Peace at the moment, and preferring Anna Karenina so far.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Paula. It seems most people preferred Levin’s story to Anna’s. I guess that I did too. In retrospect I think that I would have liked it better had the two interacted a bit.

Have fun with War and Peace. I will hopefully read it soon.

Andrew Blackman said...

Great analysis, Brian. The omniscient style dipping into character’s perspectives is fascinating. I loved this book, but I found War and Peace even better (fair warning: there are plenty of long philosophical digressions in that one too!). I can also recommend The Death of Ivan Ilyich if you’re looking for something shorter before facing War and Peace :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Andrew. I think that I want to read both Tolstoy books. I am not too scared of War and Peace’s length :)

baili said...

Thank you dear Brain thank you so much for this wonderful post and such an amazing place where people like me who stave to read but lack time to do so find such comprehensive elaborations with brevity and authenticity !


i thoroughly loved this novel through your great review ,specially the writing style sounds strongly appealing as i so love the details of human psychology ,it thrills me actually

knowing about complex characters and how their complicated attitudes influence their life seems very attractive to me !

i would definitely love to rad this book in my next years of life when i will have time to do so peacefully with complete attention

have blessed warm days my friend!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks so much Baili. Lack of reading time can be so frustrating.

I often say that some of the great writers were keen psychologists. This novel, especially with Tolstoy getting into his characters heads, shows who good Tolstoy was at psychology.

Caroline said...

I can't believe it. It happened again. I left a comment here after commenting on your Fanon post.
No clue what I'm doing wrong.
Anyway. I'm stuck in the middle of Anna Karenina - since ages, because I had to put it aside and didn't get back into it.
It's about so much more than Anna. I often thought it could have been called Vronsky but, of course, she opens and closes the book, so clearly, her story was importnat for Tolstoy.
I had a few problems with some of the Levin sections because of his lenghty theories but I like the coule Kitty/Levin.
A great review, as always.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Caroline. I got stuck in the middle of a few books over the course of the years. I ended up starting a couple over again.

There really is a lot going on in this one. One could say volumes about Vronsky.

Sorry about the disappearing comments. It happens to me sometimes. It can be maddening.

Angela said...

I read this book about 15 years ago, so I didn't remember very much about the plot until your blog post jogged my memory. I really liked the book, but it took a couple of chapters before I started to enjoy it. There were so many different characters to get to know, and so many different plots going on at once, that it took those first few chapters to really sort everyone out.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Angela - There were a lot of characters in this book. I find that when it comes to dense works of all kinds, it sometimes takes s lot of pages to really get into it.

HKatz said...

I think I read the novel in high school, but should revisit it as a more mature adult... I don't remember the parts mimicking stream of consciousness. It interests me how authors try to capture the way people think, without sacrificing coherence too much. Currently I'm reading Mrs. Dalloway, which goes for an effect of one thought slipping to another, and the focus of the novel slipping from one character to another.

Anyway, excellent review. I get how difficult it would be to try to write about this book in just one post!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Hila. Like Mrs. Dalloway, the steam on consciousness parts here seem to be fairly early attempts at the technique. It really is interesting how different authors handle this differently.

Kashem Mir said...

nice book