Updated on December 28, 2015
49. ‘Anna Karenina’ by Leo Tolstoy
A few weeks ago I watched Reads and Daydreams’ Anna Karenina edition of Page to Screen, in which Lauren watches TV and movie adaptations of famous literary works. Watching that inspired me to, at last, read the enormous copy of Tolstoy’s classic, which I got at a car boot sale.
(Choosing Anna Karenina as book #49 of the year could have been a mistake, but I did manage to finish it just before Christmas, after 3 weeks of reading!)
Anna Karenina isn’t just about Anna Karenina – there is a whole cast of characters with their own lives and troubles that Tolstoy spends just as much time on. The beginning the book follows Kitty, a young woman who finds herself torn between gentle farmer Levin and dashing soldier Vronsky. She turns down Levin’s proposal, but Vronsky’s head is turned by Anna Karenina (wife of Alexei) and he soon abandons Kitty and leaves her ill and broken-hearted. Anna and Vronsky begin a passionate love affair and Kitty goes away to recover and rekindle her love for Levin.
For a book that is so long and so dense, I didn’t really feel that it dragged. I was happy to return to the story and the world over and over again, and it’s a testament to Tolstoy’s skill that he can hold a reader’s interest through hundreds of pages. The novel covers a long span of time (months pass between each of the eight parts), which means that you really get a chance to understand all of the characters. Tolstoy also isn’t afraid to use the book to voice his opinions about all sorts of issues of the time: Russian peasants, foreign wars and trends in philosophy. His musings on the benefits of rural peasant life vs. high-flown city living are particularly pervasive throughout.
The plot, for the men, revolves around ideas of usefulness and what they should do with their lives; for the women it’s more about love, marriage and their positions in society. Society is a really fascinating, pervasive influence on every character in the book – when anyone commits an apparent faux pas they can be absolutely cut out of decent society, and they seem to wither and die without it. Anna is the prime example of this: she goes from widely admired socialite to utter pariah because of her affair. (Vronsky, on the other hand, can apparently continue to go out and progress his career without much hindrance.)
I went into this book knowing the ending – what happens to Anna was spoiled for me long ago – but that didn’t matter. I really enjoyed discovering all the other characters and getting an insight into a vastly different time. It also includes a fascinating analysis of a relationship, from its heady early stages to its breakdown and destruction. I enjoyed how the characters are able to understand from looks and gazes exactly what someone else is thinking (Levin’s second proposal is the best example of this), and how funny the book can be; you might expect it to be dry and dense throughout, but no, there were some genuine laugh-out-loud moments too.
If you haven’t read any classics before, this probably isn’t the best one to start with (because it is so long and the writing style can be quite tricky), but if you’re looking for a long story with characters you can really get to know, Anna Karenina is ideal. (Just don’t expect a happy ending.)
“He looked at her as a man looks at a faded flower he has plucked, in which he can barely recognise the beauty that made him pluck and destroy it.”
Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!
Want to read this? You can buy the book here.