I may not be fond of Leo Tolstoy’s definition of art, but I won’t deny that he was talented as a writer- especially not after having finished Anna Karenina, the novel widely regarded as his best work. This book was a long read, but one that I savored (for the most part) rather than slogged through, and though there were some flaws, it makes a beautiful telling of very painful subjects. “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
And thus begins a story detailing the lives of three families, the Oblonskys, the Karenins, and the Levins, all of which experience extreme unhappiness over the course of the novel. Their coping is varied, and despite the fact that the ending of the novel is relatively uplifting, not one of the families is ever truly happy over the course of the story.
The tale begins with the Oblonsky family falling apart under the strain of the husband Stepan’s unfaithfulness to his wife Dolly. His affair with a former governess has just been exposed and Dolly is threatening to leave him and take their children with her. In an effort to bring about a reconciliation, Stepan’s sister Anna comes to their house to try and patch things up between the couple, since she is close to both of them. She succeeds enough to keep Dolly from leaving, though her efforts to gain a fuller forgiveness between the husband and wife are in vain.
While she stays with them, she meets Vronsky, an officer with charm and a fickle nature, who has been seeing Kitty, the sister of Dolly Oblonsky. Anna and Vronsky meet at a ball, and as their attraction to each other grows, Anna’s family life in turn begins to come apart at the seams. Meanwhile Kitty’s old friend and unsuccessful suitor Levin tries to cope with his love’s rejection and his own scattered and discontented life. And Kitty, who had refused Levin in the hopes that Vronsky would marry her, is struggling to deal with her position and her choices, now that she has given up what seems to be her only chance to get married. Meanwhile Anna’s husband is struggling to maintain his position and respectability in society and government in the face of his helplessness to cope with his wife’s infidelity and his own pettiness.
Yeah, there’s a lot going on in this novel.
This book was an interesting reading experience. Tolstoy paints an amazing portrait of the high Russian society, and it’s fascinating to see the various reactions to Anna’s affair and how in some subtle way a search for love and meaning in life is mirrored in each of the three families. And when he’s focusing on the dynamics between the characters and the families, his writing is amazingly compelling, beautifully written, and often heartbreaking.
But then, there’s Levin. Oh, Levin. When he was first introduced, I found him an intriguing and rather sad character, one who might well ruin his only chances of happiness because of his pride and lack of self-confidence. As the novel went on, he went from sad to rather irritating, due to his constant griping about everything from his own inadequacies of personality to the uselessness of society, to the difficulties of dealing with women. He seemed to be heading towards extreme bitterness, which while not a likeable transition was still at least mildly interesting. Then Tolstoy began using him as a mouthpiece to spout of on the glories of the Russian peasantry, and from that point on every time a chapter began in his viewpoint I wanted to put the book down, or skip ahead to the next chapter about the Karenins. Part of what made me so angry about Tolstoy using the character as a soapbox was that I really wanted to like the guy. He’d been through a lot and had a rather difficult life and family. I wanted to root for him as he tried to find meaning in his life, but he got so whiny over the course of the story that I just stopped caring. The novel ends on his viewpoint, and while it’s actually quite beautifully written, I couldn’t appreciate it as much because I was so worn out by Levin’s constant angsting.
But my gripes aside, there were some amazing characters in this novel. The titular character is obvious- she keeps making bad choices and hurting those around her, and yet by some miracle I kept wanting her to get a second chance. I think it was because she was very much aware of her own failings, which made her constant mistakes all the more maddening and sad. She knew what she was destroying by her affair with Vronsky and carried on, and is not protected from the consequences. It’s heartbreaking seeing what this amazing woman becomes, and the worst is that it doesn’t feel contrived.
I also found her husband a fascinating character, one that I frankly wanted to see more of. I found his crisis a lot more interesting than Levin’s constant internal battles, because not only is it an actual crisis for Karenin (his political standing and career is threatened because of Anna’s actions), but he is genuinely hurt by what Anna’s doing, even if he doesn’t love her. He has no idea what to do about the affair or how to cope with what it’s doing to his family, and I felt sorry for him, partly because every other character holds him in contempt for his lack of understanding. I really wanted to get to know him better, and it was a shame that we lost sight of him in favor of Levin’s whining about farming.
Overall this is definitely a book I’d recommend. The characters are strong, as is the writing, for the most part. It’s a heartbreaking work, because it shows how petty human vices can bring about immense sorrow and suffering, both for those who indulge in them and those around them. Not to mention there’s a movie coming out that actually looks somewhat passable (costumes are gorgeous, at the very least). So if you have time for 800 pages of dysfunctional Russian families, I’d definitely recommend this classic.