Love, tragedy, passion, jealousy, adultery, politics, farming, hunting, religion – it would be difficult to write a book with a wider scope or more emotion than Anna Karenina has. These are just a few of the topics explored in Tolstoy’s self-proclaimed ‘first true novel’. The book spans 900 pages and encompasses so much that it’s difficult to know where to begin – a short summary seems necessary as it’s fairly complex. In a nutshell, Anna is unhappily married with a beloved son when she falls in love with Vronsky, who breaks with his rakish reputation in trying to win her affections. They engage in an adulterous affair until Anna gives birth to Vronsky’s baby and leaves her husband Karenin to follow her heart, but as Karenin will not grant her a divorce she must live with the social consequences of being a fallen woman. Meanwhile Kitty, the younger sister of Anna’s sister-in-law Dolly, realises her feelings for Vronsky were just infatuation and marries Levin, who, in turn, has loved her even since she turned down his first marriage proposal. Whilst Anna plays a significant part in the book, many have argued that the novel could have easily been titled Konstantin Levin as he is just as much of a major character as the eponymous heroine; Tolstoy utilises this ‘double plot’ with admirable success. I adored the two completely separate stories of love spun throughout the this novel; Anna and Vronsky’s scandalous affair is heartbreaking as we witness the social and mental outcomes of her situation, and who couldn’t root for Levin and Kitty?
Tolstoy has managed to create living, breathing characters who walk off the page; they appear so real because they aren’t restricted to their time. They deal with common human dilemmas and it is easy to emphasise as they are complex, contradictory and incoherent, in the same way that people really are. One of the ways Tolstoy has achieved this impressive feat is by noting every tiny thought, opinion or internal monologue as he slips in and out of the consciousness of various characters – at one point he describes what Levin’s dog is thinking. He also pays incredible detail to non-verbal communication in relaying the subtle movements, postures and expressions of the characters in such a way that we can understand their thoughts, and this is what makes them so real. Tolstoy has an amazing ability in capturing human inconsistency and fickleness; how we become enamoured with other people or places and then how the love that once felt so real, goes sour in a matter of hours or days.
As I’ve already mentioned, Tolstoy leaves very few areas of life untouched and despite being written in the 1850s, many of the themes remain relevant in today’s society. One moment I am totally engrossed in reading pure emotion, the next the novel takes a deep dive into farming and politics. There’s no doubt that this is a tragic romance, but Tolstoy also had some social issues he wanted to get across, and he sure does discuss them. The insights into Tsarist high society and digressions into agricultural policy are fascinating, but at times I felt the length of such passages were distracting from the main plot which was a little off-putting. On the other hand, some of the mowing and hunting sections were very enjoyable to read, as pure joy (and also meaning, in Levin’s case) can be found in these sections of the book.
Overall, Anna Karenina is a bit of a slog at times, but so worth reading – I foresee this becoming a must-read every few years for me!