Anna Karenina is widely considered to be one of the greatest works of literature ever written. Tolstoy himself called it his ‘first true novel’. William Faulkner, when asked to name the three best novels of all time, reportedly answered: “Anna Karenina, Anna Karenina, Anna Karenina”. But still, as I approached it, I was nervous. It was first published in book form in 1878, and most editions have run to 850+ pages. This book is huge, in more ways than one.
I spent a lot of time considering my approach to Anna Karenina. I specifically sought out this translation, by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, as I’d heard from multiple sources that it was the most readable version. This edition doesn’t come with an introduction or anything, though, so I was forced to simply dive in with only what I’d heard about the story around the traps to guide me.
It centers on an extramarital affair, between society woman Anna and cavalry officer Alexei Vronsky. They make a half-hearted attempt to keep it a secret, but Anna impulsively confesses to her husband (also, confusingly, called Alexei). After that, they go public, in a move that scandalises their friends and family. Anna and Vronsky move to Italy, hoping to escape the fall-out, but they’re eventually pulled back to Russia (when Vronsky’s alternative career as an artist doesn’t pan out) and their lives totally unravel.
That’s the most straightforward summary of Anna Karenina I can manage, and it feels woefully inadequate. This is a complex novel, told in eight parts, with over a dozen major characters. Anna and Vronsky are the main focus, but there’s also Levin – a wealthy landowner from the sticks – who has a big ol’ boner for Anna’s brother’s sister-in-law (see? complex!). Their love story runs parallel to Anna and Vronsky’s – and, spoiler alert, has a much happier ending.
The underlying thesis of Anna Karenina (as I read it) is this: men ain’t shit. Honestly, every single one of them made me want to flip a table. That said, the ladies are hardly peaches either. The only truly sympathetic character in the whole book is Levin’s dog.
Oh, and Tolstoy did write the perspective of Anna’s nine-year-old son beautifully – such a shame that it only lasted a few chapters. I was truly baffled by Anna’s sudden willingness to abandon him to go to Italy with her lover. For the first half of Anna Karenina, she clings to her dud marriage because of the kid, because she couldn’t bear to part with him (and she knew that Alexei would get him in the divorce, with her being a disgraced scarlet woman and all). Then, without explanation, she drops the kid like a hot potato and runs off with Vronsky – but still takes her new kid with her. Savage, eh?
(I’m going to offer the obligatory spoiler warning here. For Anna Karenina. A hundred-and-fifty year old novel that has saturated popular consciousness and influenced generations of literature that has come since. If you don’t know the ending and you don’t look away now, that’s a You Problem.)
Tolstoy’s foreshadowing isn’t subtle. Trains are a motif throughout Anna Karenina, with train carriages and stations being the setting for several major plot points. There’s also a few heavy-handed hints about their danger (including a bloke being killed on the tracks early on). So, it feels kind of inevitable when, at the novel’s climax, Anna throws herself under a train. Bye bye, heroine!
But if you’re expecting a dramatic denouement, where Vronsky and Alexei come together and mourn the loss of the woman they loved or share tear-filled regrets about how they treated her or whatever, move along. Anna is barely mentioned again. Instead, Levin spends 100 pages trying to work out whether God exists before Tolstoy wraps things up.
And that’s pretty emblematic of Anna Karenina as a whole. There’s pathos galore, but before the spark can really catch, it’s snuffed out by Levin’s poli-sci philosophising. When Levin does get involved in an actual plot, it’s a direct rip-off of Jane Austen’s Persuasion. (Kitty turns him down, lives to regret it, then eventually they get together and live – mostly – happily ever after.)
I’m glad Tolstoy isn’t around to read my thoughts on Levin, though, because apparently he’s a semi-autobiographical character and basically served as a megaphone for all of Tolstoy’s own beliefs and ethics. He borrowed heavily from his own life to inform Levin’s thoughts and actions (up to and including forcing his fiance to read his diaries, so she’d know about all of his sexual exploits before they married). If that’s the case, I’m telling you that Tolstoy was definitely the kind of guy you’d cross the room to get away from at a party.
I can’t believe I’m actually saying this, but as far as I’m concerned, Anna Karenina is just… fine? It wasn’t the dreadful slog I was worried it might be, but it wasn’t brilliant, incredible, amazing, show stopping, spectacular, never the same either. If you’re thinking about reading it, go ahead – there’s nothing to be afraid of (unless listening to rich guys bang on about how to Fix The Economy makes you want to bonk yourself over the head, in which case you might want to remove all bonking implements from your vicinity before commencing).
Tl;dr? In Anna Karenina, a bunch of rich Russians fuck around and find out. It’s okay.
My favourite Amazon reviews of Anna Karenina:
- “The storyline about Kitty and Levin has absolutely no connection whatsoever to the storyline about Anna and Vronsky, and no business being in the same book.” – JJ McBear
- “So much drivel. So much detailed nuance on every though that has ever been thunk. It was like having to many voice in my head saying to much about nothing. Tolstoy may wanna get himself to a psychotherapist.” – Katie Krackers
- “I don’t know what the point of the subplot with Kitty and Levin is, except to make the book a few hundred pages longer and a lot more boring.” – grammagoulis