Anna Karenina is the deepest novel about social transgressions, love, betrayal, duty and children. It is the tragedy of of a married aristocrat and her affair with the affluent count Vronsky that catapults her into social exile, misery and finally suicide. The story opens when she arrives in the midst of a family broken up by her brother’s unbridled womanising, something that prefigured her own later situation though she would experience less tolerance by others.
Anna Karenina is a novel that beguiles and intrigues. The world it depicts and dissects remains fascinating in itself. It’s characters are among the most memorable ever created And the targets and outward forms of social disapproval may be different now to what they were back then, but nevertheless continue to exist. The world is an awfully harsh place to those who step out of line or who cannot enter into prescribed ways of thinking.
It may surprise readers just how little the eponymous heroine is in the novel. Anna and Vronsky almost take second place to Ekaterina “Kitty” Shcherbatskaya and Levi and Dolly and Stiva. All three of these stories are concerned with marriage and love: their formation, their dissolution, their glories and their perils. The main two storylines are those of Anna Karenina and Konstantin Levin and all the other characters are connected to these two main ones in some way. While their lives intersect the two of them only ever meet once, towards the end of the book. Anna’s fate is tragic, Kitty’s romantic and Dolly’s pathetic. All of them are deeply touching.
Anna, as most people may already know, leaves her husband and son to be with her lover – Count Vronsky. This is of course a great scandal and leads to some difficult times and decisions for both Anna and Vronsky. Most have also probably heard how tragically this affair ends, but in case you haven’t, I won’t spoil it for you.
Levin is a country gentleman, but at heart he is a farmer. He is most at ease when he is at home taking an active role in the farm work on his estate, and when he is out in nature. He keeps looking for ways to revolutionise farming, and for ways to get the peasants more involved and set them up to be in charge of their own destinies. He is also passionately in love with Kitty.
Both Anna and Levin are struggling with big questions in their lives. For Anna the main struggle (as I see it) is that she craves love and understanding, but she is also proud and jealous and doesn’t know how to talk about what troubles her. She is passionate and wild and has a crazy temper, and because she is unable to talk about how she really feels, she starts to spiral downwards and becomes gradually more miserable and paranoid.
Levin’s struggle is a spiritual one. He wants to believe in God but has trouble with religion. He is confronted with death and life’s brevity and struggles to find meaning, to find peace. I find his struggle and his whole character very relatable, and definitely enjoyed the Levin parts the most. It’s a testament to Tolstoy’s writing that the life and struggles of a Russian man towards the end of the 19th century are still so relatable today, to a modern Western European woman.
On the one hand the characters all seem a bit exaggerated. They all have these intense emotions and seem to go from one end of the spectrum to the other in rapid succession. They resolve to act a certain way, or say or do certain things and then for some minor reason that they blow out of proportion (this is especially true of Anna), or indeed because of something undefinable, they end up doing the opposite or just not doing or saying the thing they intended to. On the other hand, they are also intensely human. So much so, that they can feel more alive than we ever will be. They are as prey to their emotions and circumstances as we are, yet we are given the intestimable privilege to their innermost thoughts by their inner monologues, their actions and what Tolstoy tells us about them.
Tolstoy doesn’t believe in “show, don’t tell”. He likes to show and tell. The teller, the narrator of the book, is a formless, omniscient voice with no elaborate Rothian construct to justify his role. No first-person or free-indirect speech here. Even while we’re in a character’s head, it’s the narrator who recounts the character’s experiences through liberal use of such unfashionable phrases as “she thought”, “he felt” and “it seemed to him that”.
Tolstoy creates a space for the narrator’s independence – the narrator is close enough to the characters to rely on them for his existence, but free enough to pass unchallenged judgment on their actions, and to tell us things about them that they don’t know about themselves. The most powerful passages are those where Tolstoy slows time down to note each thought, gesture and feeling of Anna and her lover Vronsky, with a third entity present – the narrator – not only lodged deep in the two psyches, but standing back to tell us the ways in which one is misunderstanding the other.
I could go on and on about Anna Karenina but I would much rather have you take a read for yourself.