Book Review: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Preview… Although overall, Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” did not match my sky-high expectations for it, this novel is still worth recommending. The Ann Arbor Classics Book Group’s discussion of it boasted the highest turn-out in the group’s history, many members claiming the title as one of the best books they had ever read.
The beauty of this story is that it is a work of parallels. The author gives three competing views of love and marriage through the stories of the Oblonskys, the Levins and the Karenins. Stiva and Dolly Oblonsky have a stable loveless marriage — and seven children to go with it — despite Stiva’s constant infidelity and prodigality. Some might say they offer comic relief in an otherwise very serious novel.
After their strange and fragmented courtship, Konstantin and Kitty Levin have a very real and normal marriage. They grow closer as they explore the intricacies of their new matrimonial arrangement and how it affects the previous freedoms and pastimes they once exercised. The moment when these two characters discover they have mutual love for one another is one of the absolute sweetest moments in literature — you’ll have to read the story to experience this scene for yourself!
Finally, the situation of the Karenins is the most complicated. Anna is married to a high-ranking political figure, Alexey. She is happy enough, until she finds ineffaceable passion with military man Vronsky. Ultimatley, Vronsky and Anna run off together after she almost dies giving birth to their illegitimate love child; all the while the two hope that Alexey will brook the social disgrace of his wife’s betrayal and grant her a divorce. The treatment of Vronsky and Anna presents the double-standard that was present in Russian society at the time. Even after the public becomes cognizant of their arrangement, Vronsky can still move in and out of society as he pleases, while Anna’s denigrated reputation greatly limited what she could and could not do.
Throughout the novel, many of the characters search for profound happiness and a deeper meaning in life. Anna hopes to find fulfillment through love and passion. Sergei thinks his higher calling is intellectual enlightenment. Stiva believes happiness lies in revelry and debauchery. Alexey lets superstition overrun his life post-Anna. Levin, initially believing that ‘simplicity is bliss’, eventually finds meaning through a spiritual awakening; all other characters fall short — and some fall under the train — in their pursuits of happiness.
You may like this book if… you enjoy societal critiques or feminist literature, you are devoutly spiritual, you enjoy a study in contrasts, you like peasants and farming, you appreciate Tolstoy’s very accurate portrayal of the inner workings of his characters, you like love stories that show how just how challenging being in love can be, you don’t want cookie-cutter characters or scenarios, you are patient and have a good attention span.
You may not like this book if… you expect Tolstoy’s writing style and themes to be similar to those of other Russian greats, you get easily bored by long harangues regarding elements that are not so important to the story, you — like me — expect your Russian literature to be much more dark and depressing than this story is, you need your characters to be likable if you are going to spend so much time with them, you find it frustrating when characters in novels make very obvious and annoying mistakes, gender inequality pisses you off, you would have hoped that Anna Karenina could be portrayed more kindly if she is to be a paragon of female independence.