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Penguin Classic, 2010, 816 pages

Considered to be one of the best novels ever written, Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy tells the story of a doomed love affair between Anna Karenina, a rich aristocrat and socialite, and Count Vronsky, a rising star in the Russian army. Infidelity and marital problems and its consequences is a central concept in Anna Karenina.

The novel opens with Prince Stepan Oblonsky (known as “Stiva”) a Moscow aristocrat and Anna’s brother. His wife, Darya Alexandrovna (nicknamed “Dolly”) has discovered his affair with the family’s governess and the family is in turmoil. Anna is called to their house to calm Dolly down and to convince her to stay with Stiva. This scene is in complete contrast to what happens to Anna later on in the novel – when she begins her affair with Vronsky and leaves her husband, Count Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin.

I’ve always loved you, and when you love someone, you love the whole person, just as he or she is, and not as you would like them to be.

We also see the contradiction of society’s treatment of Stiva and Anna with their respective affairs – Stiva is instantly forgiven, as men are almost expected to carry out affairs, while Anna is shunned and shamed by society and endures having to live away from her son and daughter.

When Anna comes to Saint Petersburg to help her brother and his wife repair their marriage, she meets Count Vronksy and instantly forms a connection with him. He is dashingly handsome and everything opposite to Anna’s husband, Karenin, whom she almost can’t stand to be around.

The novel itself is basically two novels in one: Anna Karenina is one half of the story, while Konstantin “Kostya” Dmitrievich Levin is the other half (he is the second main character of the story). Russian society is split into two societies: Anna represents the rich, aristocratic, cultured society, while Levin represents those people whose lives revolve around farming.

Levin, at this point, is also in Saint Petersburg. He is friends with Anna’s brother, Stevin, and immediately falls in love with Kitty, Dolly’s sister. He asks her to be his wife. Unfortunately, Kitty is enamored with Vronsky and she says no to Levin, thinking she is “promised” to Vronsky. Kitty and Anna are friends until Kitty is heartbroken with Anna takes Vronsky for herself. Kitty becomes ill and travels to Germany with her family.

I won’t go into the details of what happened in the story, because a lot happens and it’s pretty long, to say the least. At the end of the novel, Anna who has become deeply disturbed and paranoid, suspects Vronsky of infidelity. She has become isolated from society as she is considered to be a damaged woman. Vronsky, on the other hand, does not suffer from this kind of treatment – he can socialize openly, has a job, and so on. Anna has become a morphine addict and becomes heavily jealous of Vronsky. She believes him to be unfaithful and drives herself to commit suicide by throwing herself in front of a train (this harks back to the beginning of the story: when she arrives in Saint Petersburg at the train station, a worker threw himself in front of a train and is decapitated.)

The contrast of Anna and Vronsky’s relationship with that of Levin and Kitty’s is stark. Anna and Vronsky deeply love each other from the moment they meet, but their relationship is very dysfunctional. We can see that Anna is very alone and vulnerable, so when her and Vronsky begin their affair, her mental issues only become worse. Vronsky himself is madly in love with Anna, to the point where he shot himself in the head (it’s only a graze) because he can no longer tolerate Karenin’s treatment of his wife (in Russian law at this time, it was very difficult to obtain a divorce. And if you did get a divorce, the proceedings were humiliating.)

Levin, as the second main character of the story, has made a good life by the end of the novel. He finally marries Kitty and they have a son together. Though the beginning of their marriage is wrought with arguments and unmet expectations, their experiences (Levin’s brother illness and death; Kitty’s difficult pregnancy that almost kills her) brings them closer together and they have a happy life.

Even though Levin and Kitty don’t instantly form a bond like Anna and Vronsky, they build a strong friendship as a foundation for their marriage. Kitty also learns to be independent and strong, without the relationships of other people, unlike Anna. Kitty is heartbroken and sick when her family leaves for Germany, but she learns to repair herself and becomes a strong woman. Anna does not have this luxury. As a woman in an unhappy marriage with an emotionless man, she is a damaged person even before she enters her affair with Vronsky. How Kitty and Anna are as people is amplified against their relationships with their partners.

Tolstoy wrote Anna Karenina in 1877, but I realized when I started reading it that it was so far ahead of its time. Even though Russia has a history of treating women better than most countries, in the nineteenth century, women were still submissive to men. Anna defies the expectations of society and rise above it by making her own decisions. One of the biggest choices a person can ever have is whom they chose to love (which in this point in history, no one really had a choice). Despite that, Anna rejects her arranged and passionless marriage with a man she does not love and cannot tolerate and instead chooses to love Vronsky. She makes a profound statement by choosing Vronsky. Society holds no limits for her. Imagine how powerful this choice is in a time when women had no rights.

On the whole, Anna Karenina is a masterful achievement in literature. Tolstoy’s descriptive writing creates a richly textured canvas of nineteenth century Russian life that I felt I lived in that time. The characters were dynamic, imperfect, and human. It was as if they actually existed. Tolstoy actually based most of Levin’s character on himself.

However, a novel this length will have some problems: Tolstoy writes ad nauseum about farming. There is about eighty pages of just Levin talking about his farming. I thought I was going to pull my hair out, it was so frustrating. Though eventually Tolstoy did reward my patience. I wished that there was more of Anna, instead of Levin. I thought she was a much more interested and complex character than Levin. Levin is shown as an awkward character that only ever wants to farm, which is really boring when you have a character as powerful as Anna.

I also realized about fifty pages into Anna Karenina that I knew I would have to read it again. It is so complex and so much happens that one reading isn’t enough. I definitely look forward to reading it again in the future. Tolstoy contrasts city and country life and all the variations of love and family and marital happiness through the novel’s seven major characters. Anna Karenina truly deserves all of your attention. Read it and read it again –  you will not be disappointed.

Rating:

{  } Pretty bad
{  } Tolerable
{  } All right
{  } Exciting
{x} Enthralling

Book 43 out of 60

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