72 – ‘Anna Karenina’ by Leo Tolstoy

So, why is this book called ‘Anna Karenina’? No, really, I don’t get it. Rich girl marries older man, gets bored, snatches younger man from the marital wishes of a younger girl and then regrets it, just one strand among many in Tolstoy’s great novel. ‘Anna Karenina’ (or ‘AK’ as I like to call it – it has a certain ring to it) is a wonderful book; Anna Karenina, on the other hand, described on the back of my edition as “one of the most loved and memorable heroines in literature”, is a needy whinger who gets what she deserves. Ah, I hear the knives sharpening in the distance already…

The book was written in the mid-1870s and portrayed contemporary Russian life in its three main locations: Moscow, Petersburg (St. Petersburg to you) and elsewhere (which, in a country like Russia, contains a lot of possibilities). The eight books switch back and forth between the settings, following a host of characters interconnected by friendship, family ties or societal relations. There are two main plots (although the idea of a plot is rather loosely used here): Anna Karenina’s affair with the dashing young soldier Vronsky and landowner Constantine Levin’s search for both happiness and an answer to his questions about the meaning of life. Although the two stories begin with the same pivotal event (Anna’s meeting with Vronsky at a ball), the two pivotal strands actually play out quite separately, only loosely tied, as mentioned above, by the fact that the two main protagonists move in the same social circles and, hence, come across the same people at different times and in different settings.

Levin, loosely based on Tolsoy himself, is on a voyage of discovery,wanting nothing more than to marry the woman he loves and, once that has been (eventually) achieved, to find out what exactly he has been put on this earth to do. The reader follows him through his eventful courtship through the great cities of Russia and back to his home territory in the country, where he tries to take out his existential angst on his farming (as good a way as any of dealing with it, I suppose). Through his eyes we see the bureaucratic, staid streets of Moscow and the hedonistic, socialite sets in Petersburg and wonder, with him, whether everyone else knows better or whether his way of life is a good one. Being a Tolstoy creation, fulfilment naturally comes with religious enlightenment, but more in the sense of a belief in a divine entity than in the steadfast committal to the teachings of any church.

The treatment of the church, what little of it there is in this book, led me to compare the background of this novel with that of another great nineteenth-century power, Britain. I’ve now read a fair bit of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy which allows me to make comparisons between the situation in Russia at the time with what, for example, Trollope was describing in England. In terms of religion, the Russian version seemed more vibrant and personal, but also more separate from everyday life. It would be hard to imagine any of the Shcherbatsky sisters marrying a priest (even were it permitted!), but in the world of the Barchester Chronicles and the Palliser novels, a vicar can be quite an acceptable catch. Even where marrying into the church would be considered a little beneath your standards, the clergy were also considered good company and part of the social setting, especially in the country and the provinces.

Other scenes in ‘AK’ which led to comparisons with Trollope were the election chapters and the scene in the great club. Obviously, Russia, only having abolished serfdom relatively recently, could not be expected to have attained the levels of Westminster proceedings by this time, but the rowdy events of the elections in ‘AK’ have more in common with the petty electioneering of paid agents in Dickens, Eliot and Trollope than with the almost sacred precincts of the Houses of Parliament as described in, say, ‘Phineas Finn’. Similarly, the contrast between the styles of gentleman’s clubs was striking. In ‘AK’, the London-style small, exclusive home away from home, just for a few dozen like-minded men, is replaced by a cavernous roman-style amphitheatre of luxury for the man about town. While still exclusive, all entertainments appear to be on a much larger scale – and, of course, in place of the claret and port, the drink of choice is vodka…

But, dear friends, let’s not beat about the bush any longer; let’s talk about old AK herself. What is it about her which people are supposed to love, and why do I just not get it? I promise you, I did try. I went into this vowing that I would forget my prejudices and try to see the positives in poor Anna, and I can see how the poor woman is trapped by circumstances, trying to navigate her way through an affair which would hardly have raised an eyebrow had the roles been reversed. In my previous post, I mentioned Tolstoy’s view on the hypocrisy prevalent in attitudes towards male-female relationships, a view which is fully expanded upon, using Anna as his guinea pig. It’s also true that she is written charmingly, leaving the reader in no doubt as to her allure and beauty; you can easily forgive the male characters, including Levin, for hastily revising their judgements of her on making her formal acquaintance. And yet…

Anna goes to a ball and carries on with a young man she knows is heavily involved with another woman (Kitty Shcherbatsky, ironically, the love of Levin’s life); she rushes headlong into an affair with little justification other than that her husband doesn’t understand her; she voluntarily runs away with her lover, leaving her son behind, choosing her own selfish satisfaction over her duties as a mother (something she admits herself); and as for her fickle, whinging, egotistical behaviour at the end of the novel… well, I had very little sympathy for it at all. I can understand that her position was difficult, but she seems to have made things as awkward as possible for herself at every step; the blame for her plight cannot be shifted onto the shoulders of her indifferent husband or her increasingly bored lover. As with many a character, fictional and real, a tragic end seems to distort our perception of Anna’s true worth; certainly, I found her more of a distraction than the most important part of this great work of literature.

Putting Anna to one side though, the sheer size and scale of this piece of writing makes it difficult to compare ‘AK’ with many other pieces of fiction, contemporary or classical. One which comes to mind, despite the very different spheres in which the two novels are set, is George Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch’, a work which also spends the best part of 800 pages exploring life’s big themes (but in a much smaller setting). Like Eliot, Tolstoy uses the novel form to search for the truth behind our beliefs and the reasons we do what we do. That his arguments are still relevant today – and his thoughts on belief, family and society certainly are – is a reflection on how good his writing is.

Sorry. I still don’t care much for Anna, though.

8 thoughts on “72 – ‘Anna Karenina’ by Leo Tolstoy

  1. Frankly, I didn't really "get" Anna; I thought she was a confusing character. I enjoyed the Levin/Kitty thread much more.

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  2. To me Anna is no more a wonderful or lovable person than Madame Bovary-somehow I always think of Greta Garbo playing Anna whenever the book is mentioned.

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  3. Good, no death threats yet! Seriously, whenever this kind of book is discussed on a Facebook group, hordes of angry people come out wielding (metaphorical) knives, angry that anyone has the temerity to contemplate criticising the wonderful Jane/Lizzie/Madame Bovary etc. For those who are interested, my 'Jane Eyre' review, written earlier this year, has similar ideas…

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  4. Tony – I am a few months behind you – just finished the book this morning and found your post after googling 'why did Tolstoy call the book Anna Karenina'. It is a puzzle…more so when trying to find a good review most seem to go straight to the Anna story and omit or trivialise what seem to be the other significant themes and events. Needless to say I enjoyed your review. Thanks, Mary

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  5. PS two additional comments…
    1. Re your comment regarding “hypocrisy in attitudes towards male-female relationships”…interesting that the book starts with the drama around Oblonsky's infidelity and then the difference in treatment between his ongoing infidelities which appear to be be purely lust based and Anna's love based indiscretion.

    2. Enjoyed how so many issues covered as so relevant today despite the passage of time – One in particular was Lvov's indulgence of his children and how his children had such an active social role compared to his own upbringing – a time where children remained 'in the attic'….I seem to hear a lot of that these days too!

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  6. It's a while now since I read this, so the story's not quite as fresh in the memory as when I wrote the post!

    I still believe that Anna's story was really a side-show to the main idea of a man trying to find his place in life. When you have a wife, a family, money, no pressing need to work harder than necessary, what is life all about?

    It's something that must (or, at least, should) occupy anyone with a relatively comfortable situation in life. Tolstoy's answer is religion: mine? I'll let you know in forty years or so 😉

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  7. My idea of why it was named Anna Karenina is simply because she is what drives the story..the drama. Take her out and it's not as interesting. It's an over-simplified reason, but it makes sense to me.

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