Mini classic review: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Anna Karenina provides a vast panorama of contemporary life in Russia and of humanity in general. In it Tolstoy uses his intense imaginative insight to create some of the most memorable characters in literature. Anna is a sophisticated woman who abandons her empty existence as the wife of Karenin and turns to Count Vronsky to fulfil her passionate nature – with tragic consequences. Levin is a reflection of Tolstoy himself, often expressing the author’s own views and convictions.

Throughout, Tolstoy points no moral, merely inviting us not to judge but to watch. As Rosemary Edmonds comments, ‘He leaves the shifting patterns of the kaleidoscope to bring home the meaning of the brooding words following the title, ‘Vengeance is mine, and I will repay.

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Anna Karenina is the first Russian classic novel I’ve read and I’m happy that this is the book I chose. It can be quite a complex and nuanced book at times, particularly due to the sheer amount of characters, but Tolstoy’s writing (or at least the translation) is engaging and easy to understand.

The novel follows several characters across multiple years, but the titular character Anna Karenina arrives in Moscow to help her brother’s family after her brother was discovered to have cheated on his wife. There she meets Vronsky, a handsome soldier who falls in love with her and they begin a passionate love affair. The only problem is, Anna is married to an incredibly devout and beloved Russian politician.The novel also follows a landowner named Levin (the stand-in for Tolstoy) who is in love with a young woman named Kitty; however, Kitty is in love with Vronsky and believes she will soon be engaged to him.

Anna Karenina thoroughly explores the lives of these aristocratic families and how miseries and joys they experience — as the most famous quote explains “all happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. The book is particularly focused and interested in the societal expectations and differences between men and women. At the height of their affair and Anna having abandoned her husband and child, Vronsky is still free to attend parties and be accepted into society; meanwhile, Anna becomes a pariah and very few people are willing to be seen in public or private with her. There are also several comments about how decrepit women become after becoming married and having children; the one that particularly sits in my mind is when Oblonsky (Anna’s brother) states his wife is old and unattractive and she’s only 33.

Tolstoy also, surprisingly, seems very interested in religion with the character of Levin going through a religious crisis through out the novel and then coming to a religious epiphany by the end. The book focuses on two types of religious beliefs: the idea of forgiveness and helping those less fortunate (seen through Karenin (Anna’s husband) forgiving her as well as Dolly’s helping of Levin’s brother; and then Levin’s understanding of religion that he has at the end of the book: that to be truly happy in life, you have to live for God. I’m not a fan of religion in books, so I have to be honest and explain that Levin’s philosophical issues at the end of the book really shocked me and frustrated me.

All in all, I found Anna Karenina a compelling read. I’m glad I read it but it was quite long and sometimes a slog to get through. I may read another Tolstoy novel again at another stage, but I’m in no rush.

One thought on “Mini classic review: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

  1. Connor McDowell says:

    I could not have been happier with how Tolstoy ended the book, but I of course am partial to religious themes.
    One thing you may not know, I read from another blogger recently and that adds to your section about expectations/differences between men and women was that Oblonsky, though he did the same thing as Anna, was a social success through and through (and was forgiven). So yea, in addition to the insights you had, this really must have been a theme of the book.

    Liked by 1 person

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