Book Review: ‘Anna Karenina’ by Leo Tolstoy

Posted: 30 March 2011 in Book reviews
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At last I have finally finished reading Anna Karenina. It is an incredibly long novel but well worth the read. It has been featured on BBC’s top 100 books (including other lists) and is considered a classic.

Just some background, Anna Karenina was written by Leo Tolstoy in the 19th century. It consists of of eight parts totally just over 800 pages. It is a Russian novel depicting the lives and mentalities of upperclass Russian socialites during that era. The edition I have was translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky and was the winner of the Pen/Book-of-the-Month Club Translation prize. I suggest that edition if you are to read it.

The book revolves primarily around three groups of people: the Karenin’s and Vronsky, Levin and the Shcherbatsky’s, and the Oblonsky’s. Each groups lives are intertwined with the others in a complex web of social and personal details. In the beginning, Levin was not such a major character as he is now. But with him, the reader can see a contrast of stories.

The first group is the basis for the story. Anna Arkadyevna Karenina is married to Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin. Together they have a son, Sergei Alexeich, mostly referred to as Seryozha. When you meet Anna for the first time, you see a pure woman who is the model citizen of civilised society. Her marriage seems to be ideal and she is the envy of and loved by most women. But this perfection is merely a facade. On the train to Petersburg to visit her brother, Stepan Arkadyich Oblonsky, commonly referred to as Stiva, Anna gets to know the mother of Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky, also known as Alyosha.

It is at this point when things begin to get complicated. Vronsky is courting Ekaterina Alexandrovna Shcherbatsky, known as Kitty, who is the sister of Darya Alexandrovna Oblonsky, Stiva’s wife. From the moment Anna and Vronsky meet, they fall unmistakably in love. This breaks the heart of Kitty, who is loved and recently proposed to by Konstantin Dmitrich Levin, known as Kostya at times, who is good friends with Stiva.

The story has echoes of Shakespeare’s ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ I say this as there is the epic battle for love and to be loved. Rather than being set in a fantasy though, the setting is a reality and the characters don’t all get happy endings. The story is ultimately a tragedy.

Once the complex relationships have been established, the truth of those relationships is exposed. Anna marriage is revealed to be tolerated, but once she meets Vronsky she discovers how truly miserable she is. We then watch in sadness as her life descends from her purity to a life of baseness and jealousy. Levin’s fears and struggles are splayed out for the reader to question themselves, such as questions of religion, economic development, education, etc. But through these questions, we see him rise from his tragedies to receive the happiness he wants and desires. Vronsky has to rearrange his life once he realises exactly how much Anna means to him. Kitty is tormented by having two suitors who offer two drastically different futures and spurns one and is spurned by the other. Stiva and Dolly work through their struggles of infidelity and money issues. Alexei Alexandrovich deals with the suspicion and later discovery of Anna’s affair and his own rigid adherence to some Christian code of conduct. And each of them have to learn how to cope with the ridiculous effects of outside influence.

Through all the complexity, two opposing themes can be identified. As I mentioned earlier, when Levin became a major character, two contrasting stories emerged. The first is descent and ruin of Anna while the second is the rising up of Levin. You can add a third if you like of the consistency and tolerance with Dolly and Stiva. But as they are constant, neither digressing nor progressing, they do not attract ones concern. But Levin and Anna do. As expressed throughout this review, Anna started of pure and superficially happy. Once she meets and falls for Vronsky, her life spirals downward leaving her constantly tormented by jealousy and spurned by society. Levin on the other hand starts of dejected after Kitty refuses his proposal. He struggles with his desire to marry and tries to smother it by absorbing himself in his work. But through it all, he never stops loving Kitty. Through his struggles, he eventually receives what he desires and learns how to deal with his jealousy and overcome his doubts and fears.

Despite the complexity of the lives of the characters, the story if beautifully written. Lying in my bed reading, I felt transported to a different time. It was an amazing feeling. The book absorbed me and found myself divulging hours to the book rather than sleeping. Even through the technical writings of Levin’s attempting to understand economics and his conversations with people about them, the underlying story of love keeps you pressing on. It is truly a beautiful novel 😉

  1. Linda M says:

    Your review of Anna Karenina was a nice overview and summary of a plot. I was disappointed that you did not mention the overall use of the incredible prose. My favorite scene, and one I return to over and over in my mind, is Levin’s hunting excursion. Tell me if you didn’t feel as if you were right there with him, that it didn’t leave you with a lasting impression, like his footsteps in the marsh. And what of his love of his dog, and the dog’s love of hunting unmatched only by Levin himself, all gloriously portrayed in naturalistic prose.


    • cetracy says:

      You are right. The writing was fantastic. There was just the right amount of description and dialogue to give you a general picture without overwhelming the reader. The whole book left a lasting impression on me. It is a beautiful depiction of the realities of that time and the emotional struggles both sexes dealt with. I was also amazed at how honest it came across; how raw and real it was. It is definitely one of my favourite novels 🙂


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