Some Thoughts on Anna Karenina

Image from Wikimedia
Image from Wikimedia

One thing I’m looking forward to doing as a retiree is reading anything I like, whenever I like. I do a good deal of reading, and to be honest, I began this free-wheeling practice in my reading several years ago: in this way, I have made some very rewarding discoveries. I’ve read several of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels, and I am particularly grateful for this discovery, since I consider him a very fine novelist. I’ve read some of Jane Gardam’s works, and Laurie Lee’s memoir Cider with Rosie, and, in an effort not to focus exclusively on British writers, I picked up Mind of Winter by Laura Kasischke, and was disappointed in its narrative trickery. All of these books are firmly outside the realm of 18th and 19th century British novels (my area of specialization), which is the point–now I have the time to read indiscriminately, pointlessly. It’s the readerly equivalent of an all-you-can-eat buffet, and, before I settle into a routine in my retirement, I intend to gorge myself with shameless abandon.

Even before the end of the semester several weeks ago, I began Anna Karenina, a serious undertaking. I am not sure I would have had the heart to begin the task if I had read a hard copy of the book, but I read it on my Kindle, which mercifully disguises the real length of a work, and instead provides you with a virtual pep talk by showing you how much of the novel  you have read. At any rate, I was 73% of the way through the novel before I decided that it was, indeed, a great novel, perhaps one of the ten greatest novels (a list that will undoubtedly become a future post). Here are a few disjointed thoughts about the work, in a format that proves that Buzzfeed and Clickhole have corrupted even those of us who are trying to create serious criticism.

  • The novel is misnamed. Like many of Shakespeare’s plays (another future post), the novel is not primarily about Anna Karenina; it is just as much about, and in my view, much more about, Konstantin Levin. Perhaps this is a result of Tolstoy’s manner of writing the novel: like Dickens’s great works, it was published as a serial novel in a magazine. I have often compared this form of writing to jazz improvisation. There is a fundamental line of melody, a basic story or plot, but the musician/writer is allowed, even expected, to riff on this line. In some cases–Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop is a good example–the basic plot becomes much less interesting than one of the improvised riffs (yet another future post). I would argue that Anna becomes somewhat less interesting than Levin, perhaps because her trajectory is more predictable.
  • Why is Anna’s path so much more predictable than Levin’s? It’s because Tolstoy is heavy-handed on the symbolism. From the moment Vronsky and Anna meet, there are clues to what will happen: the death of the worker who is crushed by the train occurs at their first, sexually charged meeting, after all, and the race in which Vronsky loses his favorite horse is rife with foreshadowing. This lacks subtlety, of course, but I can forgive Tolstoy because of the time in which he wrote, since subtlety is clearly an acquired taste and will wait for post-modernism to develop fully. At any rate, we can see where Anna is going–there is only one outcome for her, after all–but Levin’s story is full of questions. Will he marry Kitty after all? Will their marriage survive the early days of learning to live with each other? Will Kitty die in childbirth? How will he react to being a parent? All of these questions drive us forward in the novel, wanting to know the answers. With Anna, on the other hand, we know that disaster awaits her, and we cannot resist watching it unfold, waiting for the train wreck (forgive the pun) to happen.
  • The link between the two plot lines is the story of Stepan Oblonsky’s infidelities. Tolstoy is able to create a round character out of Stepan, however, and he becomes more than a simple plot link. This is a testament to his ability to tell the story in an artistic, yet natural, way. Perhaps this is what I admire most about Anna Karenina: the ease with which Tolstoy connects his stories, the balance he creates between them, allowing him to hold up Anna’s final view of the world as the opposite of Levin’s. She sees the world as hateful and dark, while Levin, in the final chapters of the novel, sees it as bright with possibility, with a  spiritual  and philosophical generosity that outshines the darkness of Anna’s end.
  • The portraits of marriage and relationships that Tolstoy creates in the novel are excellent. From Kitty and Kostya’s difficulties in the first months of marriage to Vronsky and Anna’s descent into something like hatred for each other, Tolstoy works from life. I last read this novel when I was a teenager, some forty years ago, before marriage. I wish now that I had read it several times since then, because I think it might have helped me. Somewhere I once heard about a person–I forget who–who reads Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa every year. I don’t think I could handle reading Anna Karenina on a yearly basis, but maybe reading it every decade would have been a good idea.
  • Finally, one last note: I admire the deft way in which Tolstoy can express contemporary views and existential questions through the internal discourse of his characters. This is something that Hemingway tries to do in For Whom the Bell Tolls with much less success; in fact, that novel basically fails, in my view, at the point when Robert Jordan muses on the political questions and disharmonies he’s witnessed. Hemingway just cannot pull it off, but Tolstoy can. For this reason alone, Anna Karenina is worth reading. While it may not be subtle as far as the use of foreshadowing goes, it is quite subtle in its representation of the universal and local questions of the day.

These are just a few thoughts about the novel as I adjust to retirement. All of which just goes to show you: old teachers don’t stop lecturing. They just start writing.


My new feline friend, named Leo Tolstoy
My new feline friend, named Leo Tolstoy


4 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Anna Karenina

  1. My (worthless) two cents:

    Much like Dickens, Tolstoy is a political writer, first and foremost. Perhaps, given our discussions last summer on Romeo and Juliet, the same can be said of Shakespeare? Scrooge, forgive my choice of Dicken’s characters, is, like Anna, simply a caricature of class that the writer finds reprehensible. However, Scrooge will find redemption. Anna, as a “sinful” female, will not. Anna’s course is doomed the minute she goes outside the sanctity of marriage to have an affair, a path Tolstoy makes clear from the onset.

    I would argue that Anna’s husband, Alexis, is more a main character than Anna. His transformation through the book is of much greater interest than Anna’s descent that, ultimately, ends in suicide. Alexis will not only forgive Anna, but will find redemption for his own behavior. This difference, given Tolstoy’s growing religious fanaticism in his own life, is an interesting take religion’s impact on gender in society.

    Levin is Tolstoy’s example of Christian success; an example Anna, a female, cannot be. Levin becomes the stable, honest family man that Vronsky will never be and Karenin is forced to become. Levin is certainly the most flushed out of the characters and, we, the reader, understand his, Levin’s, reasoning far more than Tolstoy allows of his other characters. It is also through Levin’s eyes and his interest in the proletariat worker that the political issues of Russia, during Tolstoy’s time, are explored, and, again, help to round out Levin’s character, making him far more palatable, in many respects, than Anna.

    In the end, Tolstoy places Levin as the moral compass, Anna as the stereotypical Eve, and Karenin as the man who ultimately finds redemption. While Tolstoy would like the reader to find disdain in Anna’s behavior, attempting to ensure this by causing her to commit the great sin of suicide at the end, I find Anna to be an excellent study of the female’s role in a society dictated by so-called Christian morality.

    (Thus ends my two cents worth!)


  2. This is a great comment, Cari. Not worthless at all! I disagree with a lot of it, but that’s the point of discussions. I don’t think Tolstoy wants his reader to disapprove of Anna, just as I don’t think Karenin is more of a focus than Anna–there’s just not enough “air time” for him to be that. The last glimpse we get of him is from a distance–we’re closer to Lidia than Karenin, and we don’t see what he’s become. In fact, I think Tolstoy asks us to judge him harshly, because his version of Christianity is more spiritualism and hypocrisy than anything else. I don’t think this is a Christian book any more than I think The Sun Also Rises is, and you know how I feel about that. Time for another discussion/argument at the Noggin Room! Hooray!


    1. It should not at all surprise you that I disagree with about the influence of religion in the book. Karenin’s forgiveness of Anna and his care, and love, of her child with Vronsky, is a decided change from the man he was at the beginning of the book. I would argue, of the main characters, his experiences the greatest change, especially in terms of Christianity, where he moves from spiritual facade to believer (if you will).

      Yes! it is most definitely time for a Noggin Room discussion!! 🙂


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