In the beginning, reading Anna Karenina can feel a little like visiting Paris for the first time. You’ve heard a lot about the place before you go. Much of what you see from the bus you recognize from pictures and movies and books. You can’t help but think of the great writers and artists who have been here before you. You expect to like it. You want to like it. But you don’t want to feel like you have to like it. You worry a little that you won’t. But after a few days, you settle in, and you feel the immensity of the place opening up all around you. You keep having this experience of turning a corner and finding something beautiful that you hadn’t been told to expect or catching sight of something familiar from a surprising angle. You start to trust the abundance of the place, and your anxieties that someone else will have eaten everything up before your arrival relax. (Maybe that simile reveals more about me than I’d like.)
The novel begins as Anna Karenina arrives in Moscow from Petersburg to help her brother and sister-in-law settle a domestic dispute. Members of Russia’s privileged class, “Dolly” Alexandrovna discovers that her husband “Stiva” Oblonsky has engaged in an affair with one of their maids. Affairs being a long unspoken of part of upper class life, Dolly desires to leave her husband along with their five children. Anna pleads with Dolly to reconcile, and the couple live a long, if not tenuous, marriage, overlooking each other’s glaring faults. While settling her brother’s marriage, Anna is reminded of her own unhappy marriage, setting the stage for a drama that lasts the duration of the novel.
Tolstoy sets the novel in eight parts and short chapters with three main story lines, allowing for his readers to move quickly through the plot. In addition to Stiva and Dolly, Tolstoy introduces in part one Dolly’s sister Kitty Shcherbatsky, a young woman of marriageable age who is forced to choose between Count Vronsky and Konstantin Dmitrich Levin. At a ball in Kitty’s honor, Vronsky is smitten with Anna, temporarily breaking Kitty’s heart. Even though Levin loves Kitty with his whole heart, Kitty refuses his offer in favor of Vronsky, and falls into a deep depression. Levin, seeing the one love of his life reject him, vows to never marry.
Anna becomes a fallen woman and rejects her husband in favor of Vronsky, fathering his child, leaving behind the son she loves. Even those closest to her, including family members, are appalled. Yet, Anna does not value her loved ones’ advice and chooses to live with Vronsky. Despite a comfortable, upper class life, Anna is in constant internal turmoil. Spurned by a society that clings to its institutions as marriage and the church, Anna chooses love yet isolation from all but Vronsky and their daughter. Her ex-husband is viewed as a strict adherent to the law, cold, and unsympathetic, and will not grant a divorce. Anna’s frustration and anxiety grew every day doubting Vronsky would have an affair with other ladies.
When it comes to talking about Anna Karerina, some people would ask “isn’t it Tolstoy novel about an aristocrat lady having an affair?” as if the book is more or less than a soap opera or chick lit in late 19th century. Well, it is universal that affair stories add some spices on storylines. Actually, the story between Anna and Vronsky(the affair partner of Anna Karerina) is more fractional than you would think.
There are three principle couples: Stiva and Dolly, Vronsky and Anna, and Levin and Kitty. Of course, the most widely known among them is Vronsky and Anna but we also need to pay attention to the two other couples. In fact, Tolstoy depicted Levin and Kitty is the most ideal couple and Levin himself is what Tolstoy thought of an ideal man should be. My favorite discovery was the three or four chapters devoted to, of all things, scythe mowing by Levin—chapters that become a celebratory meditation on physical labor. When I read those chapters, I felt temporarily cured of the need to have something “happen” and became as absorbed in the reading as the mowers are absorbed in their work.
The longer Levin mowed, the oftener he felt the moments of unconsciousness in which it seemed not his hands that swung the scythe, but the scythe mowing of itself, a body full of life and consciousness of its own, and as though by magic, without thinking of it, the work turned out regular and well-finished of itself. These were the most blissful moments.
It’s not just lawn mowing that Tolstoy would like to describe but also Tolstoy shows that one needs to involve into the action regardless of the class. It’s the moment that Levin grows to be more mature human being and Kitty started to admire him. Levin and Kitty is developing their relationship in more mature way while the relationship between Anna and Vronsky ended tragically and the relationship between Stiva and Dolly ended up being stagnant.
His characters are unbelievably complex. The edition of this book that I read was over 900 pages, so he has some time to do it. His characters aren’t static, but neither are they in some kind of transition from A to B throughout the book. They are each inconsistent in strikingly real ways. They think things and then change their minds. They believe something and then lose faith in it. Their opinions of each other are always swirling. They attempt to act in ways that align with something they want, but they must revert back to who they are. But who a character is is a function of many things, some innate and some external and some whimsical and moody.
So all the characters seem too complex to be characters in a book. It’s as if no one could write a character that could be so contradictory and incoherent and still make them believable, so no one would try to write a character like Anna Karenina. But people are that complex, and they are incoherent and that’s what makes Tolstoy’s characters so real. Their understandings of each other and themselves are as incoherent as mine of those around me and myself.
One of the ways that Tolstoy achieves this is through incredible detail to non-verbal communication. He is always describing the characters movements, expressions, or postures in such a way that you subtly learn their thoughts.
He does an amazing job in the internal monologues the characters experience. You frequently hear a character reason with himself and reveal his thoughts or who he is to you in some way, and all the while you feel like you already knew that they felt that or were that. Even as the characters are inconsistent. There are times when he can describe actions that have major implications on the plot with blunt and simple words and it still felt rich because the characters are so full.
The book takes on love, marriage, adultery, faith, selfishness, death, desire/attraction, happiness. It also speaks interestingly on social classes or classism. He also addresses the clash between the pursuit of individual desires and social obligations/restraints. There is just so much to wrestle with here.
And you go through a myriad set of emotions and impressions of the characters as you read. At times you can love or hate or adore a character. You can be ashamed of or ashamed for or reviled by or anxious with or surprised by a character. And you feel this way about each of them at points. But it isn’t at all a roller coaster ride of emotion. It’s fluid and natural and makes sense.