Anna Karenina (review)

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Anna KareninaAnna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve just finished reading Anna Karenina—that 140-year-old tome by Leo Tolstoy. I read it on the recommendation of another old book—If You Want to Write (first published in 1938) by Barbara Ueland. (By the way, Ueland’s book is one of the most inspirational books on writing you’ll find anywhere.)

I did read Anna Karenina many years ago while trekking through Europe. But I must have absorbed very little because it felt like a brand new book to me.

What a read!

It’s a story set in Russia before the Communist Revolution (first published as a serial from 1873-1877, as a complete book in 1878). The characters belong to the nobility class. Anna Karenina of St. Petersburg is married to statesman Count Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin. While visiting her brother Stepan Oblonsky in Moscow she meets the dashing Vronsky (an army man) at a party. Vronsky is immediately smitten by her beauty.

A parallel story is that of Levin, a friend of Stepan’s. Levin owns a rural estate and comes to Moscow only occasionally. But he is lonely and the story opens with him summoning his courage to ask Kitty, whom he has courted sporadically and shyly, to marry him. (Kitty is the younger sister of Stepan’s wife Dolly).

However, before he meets Anna, Vronsky has been paying a lot of attention to Kitty. Though she is fond of Levin, Vronsky—who Kitty and her family expect will pop the question any day now—is a better catch. So Levin’s proposal to Kitty comes at a bad time while Vronsky meeting and falling in love with Anna permanently dashes Kitty’s hopes of marrying him.  That’s the beginning…

Some of the things I loved about this book:

  • The psychological understanding and depth with which Tolstoy portrays his characters. He captures nuances of feeling and motivation that are quite remarkable. A passage late in the book where Anna descends into madness is one I thought particularly brilliant.
  • There are large chunks of prose I found poetic and beautiful, for example the peasant life seen through Levin’s eyes and Levin’s wedding.
  • The insights the book gives into the social life of the nobility in Russia at the time (I think of Tolstoy as Russia’s Jane Austen in that way). He addresses themes of religion, the position of peasants, and status women in society documenting particularly society’s double standard regarding acceptable morals of men and women.
  • The plot is, for the most part, captivating.

Some things that put me off:

  • All the Russian names, diminutives and variants. Confusing!
  • Long passages where Levin and his friends discuss the place of the peasants in society and religion. I got the feeling that Tolstoy was working out his own thoughts and positions on these things through Levin. (Others who comment on the book describe Levin as the most autobiographical of Tolstoy’s characters in Anna Karenina.)

If you haven’t read what some describe as”the greatest book ever written,” you owe it to yourself to do so. Plus it is such a fat volume (paperback = 752 pages) you won’t be needing another book for a long time with this one. (I got mine as an e-book, though, so no hand strain with that edition!)

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7 thoughts on “Anna Karenina (review)

  1. I read AK over a 17 year stretch 🙂 Began when I was 21, obviously ground to a halt. When I found it in some stored boxes 17 years later, the bookmark was still in it, so I began from that point thinking I would have forgotten the characters BUT they were startlingly clear so I finally finished it. I tried to read it again a few years ago, but I found it unbearably depressing and set it aside again…perhaps in another 17 years I’ll finish it. The Russia novels are like detailed paintings – realists, nothing impressionistic about them. I think I find it hard to hold my own with them.

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    • Interesting! I love your description of Russian novels being like detailed paintings. So true. I found this one a refreshing change from the somewhat predictable modern novels I’m accustomed to, especially those written for the Christian market. But yes, it was depressing. I pondered the contrast between how the two main characters ended up–the two plot lines–Levin’s and Anna’s and what Tolstoy was trying to say, perhaps about how one’s outlook and beliefs may determine human happiness and destiny… or some such?

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      • Maybe another interesting comparison is between Levin and Anna’s husband, whose rigidity weakened Anna and her morals. Levin’s desire to embrace joy as he sees it expressed in the workers makes a larger space for Kitty grow in. Or between Levin and Oblonsky — Oblonsky is completely opposite to Alexis (Anna’s husband) without restraint or discipline but also makes life for his wife restricted and difficult. I think what I find depressing though is Anna complete inability to make any good choice. It’s such a heaviness.

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  2. Tolstoy has given us much to think about in this book, hasn’t he? Re Anna, my sense was that he wanted to portray the trajectory of a life where the consequences of bad choices were lived out to their logical conclusion. By the end of the story she was so entrenched in the prison of herself, she lost it entirely. For me there was a point in the story where I no longer felt impatience with her or hope, but pity and horror.

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  3. I read some of Dostoyevski’s and Tolstoy’s novels during my three-bus transit across Edmonton for my summer job during my university years. Anna Karenina was, unfortunately, not one of the novels I read. I would like to read it, but have not found a block of time to dedicate to this. I enjoyed your review, and who knows where I go from here. I would probably see much in the Russian novels that went over my head during my youth. I do, however, remember reading the classics, Russian or otherwise, with fascination and admiration for the writing and the historical stories these great writers told.

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    • Thanks, Sharon! About re-reading books one has read in youth—one does find out whether they hold up. At least one of my childhood favourites (My Friend Flicka) I enjoyed as much if not more as an adult but for altogether different reasons. when I re-read it, I had experienced being a parent me so that’s one of the things I especially noticed the second time around.

      I read some of these old books partly because they’re classics and I want to probe the secret of their longevity. I also love the glimpses into other times, places and worldview they give. I tackle such fat books with patience, knowing that they’ll last a long time and being okay with that.

      Hope you have a Happy New Year, filled with lots of good books!

      >

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      • Thanks for your thoughts on this, Violet. I guess I’ll have to find time to reread some of these books. I did some of that with children’s classics that I read on my own or throughout English Lit. 398, but I also reread some of these to my own kids and to my students while teaching. I enjoyed sharing particular books with them.

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