Thursday, November 24, 2011

"Anna Karenina" by Leo Tolstoy Review

Happy Thanksgiving to all my bloggers. Is Thanksgiving a strictly American holiday? I never took the time to think about things like that until I became a blogger. What I find particularly perplexing is that the most faithful of my followers aren't American. I've found a way to see the density of viewers in different countries, and thus I've discovered that I seem to have a heavy following in Russia of all places. 

Therefore, I guess it's rather fitting for me to be reviewing Anna Karenina, the novel dwelling on the artificial and hypocritical upper class society of late nineteenth century Russia. Usually I have some highly personal or consequential story behind picking up a novel, but Anna Karenina came by mere chance. I closed my eyes, ran my fingers up and down the school reading list a few times, and it just so happened to land there. Finding that it didn't strike my interest enough to buy a fresh one from Barnes and Noble, I picked up a tattered copy from my school library and groaned, mentally cursing myself for choosing a 900 page book when I was expected to do a chapter-by-chapter summary. However, bracing myself, I delved into Leo Tolstoy's world of Russian royalty and nobility, filled with sexual, intellectual, and religious chaos.

Anna Karenina, despite its name, does not merely focus on the repressed and entrapped housewife of a Russian aristocrat, but is instead one of those entrancing novels that ties together the stories of many characters in various situations. Anna is drawn from her wealthy husband in St. Petersburg to Moscow to assist in the marital troubles of her brother, Stiva, who has been unfaithful to his hardworking wife and is now seeking to rescue his family. Around the same time, Kostya, an unreligious country intellectual, arrives in the same city to propose to the younger sister of Stiva's wife. Meanwhile, Stiva goes to the train station to pick up Anna who has been traveling with the mother of Vronsky, whom Kitty (the girl Kostya is proposing to) is in love with. (Are you starting to see what I mean about the intentional connections between characters?)

In the midst of this blur of relations, impressively long names, assorted shortened titles, and strange coincidences, Anna and Vronsky begin an affair that estranges her from her wealthy husband, Karenin, and wages a war of divorce and child custody issues. The aforementioned obstacles are synonymous with scandal and destruction in Anna's world, and thus she slowly begins to sink. Anna conceives Vronsky's child and he fervently pleads for her to legally divorce her husband and marry him. Unable to bear any stain upon his family name (and bitterly hurt by the blow to his conceit), Karenin refuses to grant a divorce and further stipulates that if Anna leaves him that she must give up seeing the son they had together. In the midst of this, Kostya and Kitty make a life together that begins to intertwine with that of Vronsky and Anna. The novel closes rather suddenly, almost peacefully; the end to a chaotic, brain-wracking, and heart-wrenching tail.

While Anna Karenina is indisputably one of the greatest examples of dictional, syntactical, and linguistic literary excellence, it is a lot to swallow. The book is about 900 pages of calamity so vivid in its description that it at times may dizzy the reader. Anna Karenina is a controversial character whose moral and mental strength is subject to strong debate. The social commentary on nineteenth century high society is evident in her plight. However, it was not Anna's story that I found to be the most captivating piece of the novel, but rather that of Kostya. It is his maturation that I found to be the most interesting aspect of the book, and in many ways I might consider him Anna's foil. While Anna's story is the testament to the social, mental, and emotional degradation that often came as the result of real love, Kostya symbolizes the possibility of doing things right and receiving the "happily ever after."

The book is perplexing, alluring, and even appalling. The great strength in that is that the reader is constantly engaged and always reluctant to tear their eyes away. Yet, there is also something mysteriously forbidden about Anna Karenina, as if you are gluing your eyes to something you should not see or perhaps cannot handle. It is much too heavy for the delicate constitution of a Jane Austen lover, of an entirely different breed than that of Jane Eyre, and its conflicts are much more realistic than those of Wuthering Heights. I might perhaps group it more within the range of Tess of the D'urbervilles. However, as confounding is it is, I would not wish for any devoted literature fanatic to miss out on it. Opinions on the plot and characters may vary, but the beauty of Leo Tolstoy's use of language is undeniable. 


  1. Happy Thanksgiving! And no, we don't celebrate the holiday in Europe.

    Great review! The book has been on my to read list for a while, but I'm struggling to find the mood (and time) to read it. The fact that you liken it to Tess of the D'Ubervilles doesn't help...

  2. It's a bit hard to handle, but you wont be sorry you read it. :)

  3. Great post! As I told you before (although you might not remember) I did start reading it, but I became frustrated with Anna (and the ending, which I unfortunately came to hear of) so I put a stop to it for a bit.

    However, I did love the writing. It's so vivid, you can't ever blame Tolstoy of being vague (look at the size of the thing!) - my favorite parts were when Kostya's working with his labourers on his estate - the descriptions of nature and the way it affects Kostya are still impressed on my mind. I might finish day..*stares dazedly into the distance*

  4. Thank you :). It was a little tough to get through, I don't blame you for putting it down.

  5. Are they not making a movie of this now? (You may have said something in the post, sorry if I missed it...)

  6. They are. I posted on it a few months ago I believe, but it's set to star Kiera Knightley as Anna and Jude Law as Karenin. I think the casting is done and they've started filming last time I heard.

  7. I'm a bad, bad person and have never read anything by Tolstoy. I've wanted to read this for a while now, ever since I saw the movie version starring Sean Bean as Vronsky. I've been kind of intimidated by it, though, but one of these days I really will pick it up. I think I'll keep a list of all the characters' first names, family names, and nicknames, as that helped me a lot when reading Dr. Zhivago. Silly Russians and their incessant diminutives...