Back to the Classics Challenge: Anna Karenina

What can I say about Leo Tolstoy‘s Anna Karenina that hasn’t already been said by one reader or another?  It’s a long, complex, bittersweet novel about the lives of aristocratic families in Russia in the late 1800s, which is summed up nicely in its famous opening lines, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” That, in a nutshell, is what Anna Karenina is all about.

Anna Karenina follows the lives of three major families related to each other by marriage or friendship: the Shcherbatskys – prince and princess, and their daughters Kitty and Dolly; the Oblonskys, namely, Stepan Arkadyevich, husband of Dolly, and his sister, Anna Arkadyevna Karenina, who is married to Aleksey Karenin; and the family of Konstantin Levin, his brother Nikolai Levin, and half-brother Sergey Ivanovich Koznyshev.  Konstantin Levin has been a long-time family friend of the Shcherbatskys and is in love with the family’s youngest daughter, Kitty.  Then of course there are a handful of minor characters whose names are no easier to read or spell:  Agafya Mikhailovna, Vasenka Veslovsky, Countess Lidia Ivanovna, and the infamous Aleksey Kirillovich Vronsky.

Anna Karenina tackles a whole host of problems encountered by different families that, though set in 19th century Russia, are still very much applicable today: infidelity, financial problems, family values, marriage, love, loss, insecurity, and uncertainty. Combine those in with issues on politics, the government, economics, agriculture, military, society, culture, religion, and philosophy; throw in a horse race or two, a hunt, and a provincial election, and you’ve got yourself a very long, very complicated, very dull Russian masterpiece.

Contrary to its title, Leo Tolstoy’s mammoth novel is not primarily about Anna Karenina. She is just one of the characters that the book follows, from her respected position in society as the wife of celebrated politician Aleksey Karenin and mother of 8-year-old Seryozha to her eventual ruin as Aleksey Vronsky’s lover and mother to his illegitimate child. Viewing the novel as a whole, it’s surprising how little Anna and Vronsky are actually mentioned. Instead, it closely follows the lives of the Oblonskys and the Shcherbatskys, specifically, Stepan and Dolly’s marriage and Konstantin Levin, who to me is the real main character of this novel.  I had read somewhere that Levin was the representation of the author, which explains the characters’ depth and complexity.

With Anna Karenina’s passionate love affair with Vronsky, abandonment of her marriage and family, downward spiral in society, and tragic, self-inflicted end, it’s hard not to place her as the center of the story. Then there’s the character of Konstantin Levin, a hopeless romantic who represents the common people, with traditional, sometimes old-fashioned views on family and marriage, farming, and labor; Levin, who toward the end of the book starts to question religion and his spirituality.  Unlike Anna, who is the epitome of tragic love, Levin represents all of us in his uncertainties with his relationship with his wife, his household, his laborers; his uncertainties toward being a parent; and his uncertainties about the existence of god.  While Anna’s character elicits pity, anger, maybe jealousy, and even a little schadenfreude, Levin’s character elicits understanding and introspection.

Anna Karenina is a novel centered not on plot but on ideas and concepts voiced by  various characters. Reading the characters’ innermost thoughts and desires, it’s hard not to form attachments toward or opinions about them.  The characters I liked most in the novel are the Shchertabatskys, followed by Kitty and Levin.  I even somewhat liked the carefree and optimistic Stepan Oblonsky, despite his faithlessness and irresponsibility.  I pitied the unfortunate Aleksey Karenin, who was so rigid in his beliefs and relationships, but try as I might, the only emotion I can muster for Anna and Vronsky was annoyance. Surprisingly, the character I empathized most with was Darya Alexandrovna Oblonsky, the troubled passive wife of the womanizing Stepan Oblonsky, who, trapped in a loveless marriage, bravely holds her family together; Dolly, who naively and faithfully loves her philandering husband, who, though troublesome, still means the world to her.

Anna Karenina is long and tedious but surprisingly readable. The chapters are fairly short and the narrative style simple and straightforward. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean it’s an easy novel to read. Reading it, you will realize that it is a deeply layered novel, even though you might just have a vague idea of what those layers really are and what issues they allude to.

This is the first novel in my 2017 Back to the Classics Challenge under the category “Russian Classic.” I originally tried to read Anna Karenina in 2016 but failed after the first couple of pages. I chose it for the “Russian Classic” category because despite my initial failure, I still wanted to finish it. This was a hard book for me to read, and I did not enjoy it much. I started in January 21, with the plan of reading 50 pages a day (except weekends), for 18 days.  Unfortunately, owing to its difficulty and other external distractions, I ended up finishing the book only last Sunday, March 12. It takes dedication and perseverance to get through this novel, and finishing it (even though my understanding barely scratches the surface) feels like a huge accomplishment. Now I feel I can tackle any difficult book I set my mind to, Russian classic or not.  Ulysses, anyone?


Anna Karenina (1877) – Leo Tolstoy (translated by Constance Garnett)

The Modern Library; 923 pages / E-book from Project Gutenberg

Personal rating:  2.5/5


8 thoughts on “Back to the Classics Challenge: Anna Karenina

  1. Russian authors are always amazing! Anna Karenina is one of the classics that is worth reading more than once. Even with it being so massive. Nice review. It’s great to find reviews of classics too on blogs, it’s always interesting to see how others have looked at these well-known books.
    And the way it’s written! Even if you know the ending you still go through the process again.
    And I have always been wondering how much more interesting this book can be if read in Russian, rather than translation.
    Thanks for the post though!

  2. I really expected to hate Anna Karenina, but I read the Pevear & Volokhonsky translation a few years ago and loved it. I was fully prepared to be bored senseless, but my impression was the exact opposite. That said, I’m on War & Peace now and find my attention wandering constantly.

    • I think I experienced the opposite. I thought I would love it, but instead I was underwhelmed. Maybe that’s part of my dissapointment with it. I didn’t find it entirely boring though…there were stretches that were really engaging.

      Thanks for commenting!

  3. I got Anna Karenina as a school prize and read it first when I was 17. I liked Kitty and Levin too but, strangely enough, empathised with Anna too. My views on the latter have changed over the years. I enjoyed your review and must read it again soon.

    • Thanks! I did empathize with Anna a bit toward the end, with her insecurities, uncertainties, and paranoia. I guess it can’t be helped in the situation she was in. Strangely I felt more for Karenin than I did for her though. I’ve wondered too whether I would have liked Anna more, or her plight if I had read this as a teenager….

  4. Great review, although it’s a shame you didn’t warm to it as much as you expected. I think it’s possibly one of those book that grows on you over the years! Completely agree with you about Levin. I found myself looking forward to his chapters much more than Anna’s at times!

    • Thank you! I didn’t dislike it as much as I was a bit disappointed by it. Maybe my expectations were too high. I’m surprised everyone I’ve come across who have read it liked it. I think I’m in the minority!

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