After reading “War and Peace” this past January, I didn’t think I’d be reading anything else by Tolstoy…he’s a bit longwinded, to say the least. (“War and Peace” is more than 1200 pages long, and only about a quarter of that is actually storyline worth reading). However, I resolved not to let past experiences keep me from experiencing one of Western civilization’s most influential writers. Thus, when a friend encouraged me to try Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” I promptly picked it up at the library the very next day.
“Anna Karenina” is, as one critic put it, a “cross-section of Russian life.” The book is essentially comprised of two stories: the story of young nobleman Konstanin Levin and his courtship of the young Princess Kitty Shcherbatsky; and the tragedy of Anna Karenina and her passionate adulterous affair with the charming Count Vronsky.
Levin’s story is, for Tolstoy, autobiographical. Levin is a philosophical, melancholy young man determined to discern the meaning of life and find spiritual fulfillment. As the book opens, he proposes to Princess Kitty and is refused. At the time, Kitty is in love with Count Vronsky – a devilishly handsome, roguish nobleman with a tendency toward “love ’em and leave ’em” behavior. Levin is plunged into despair and retires to his country estate, where he muses on the significance of work and the Russian farmer’s relationship to his property. Eventually he works up the courage to propose to her again…and this time is accepted. The rest of the story chronicles the first few months of Levin’s marriage. Tolstoy extends the plot beyond the stereotypical “happily-ever-after” ending, honestly depicting the joys and sorrows of married life. “War and Peace” also did this, but in that context it felt like an afterthought.
Anna Karenina is married to Aleksey Aleksandrovich, a boring government bureaucrat. When Count Vronsky – having fallen passionately in lust with her – follows her to her hometown, she tries at first to avoid him. Inevitably, though, she finds herself attracted to him…finally going so far as to abandon her husband and child for the sake of her passion. Her degeneration is drawn out with agonizing detail, as she tries vainly to overcome the guilt she feels. Eventually, her world starts to collapse around her.
These two stories occasionally overlap, setting up a balance of character foils and parallel themes that give “Anna Karenina” a lot of depth. It’s vastly better than “War and Peace.”
It’s much more plot-centered, and touches only tangentially on the sociopolitical issues facing Russia. At more than 900 pages, it’s not a quick read, but it doesn’t get bogged down in quite as much unnecessary detail. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its dull moments – it certainly does – but generally there’s more space devoted to character development and less devoted to historical exposition.
Worldview-wise, “Anna Karenina” is a perfect book for complex analysis. I could spend hours discussing all the implications found here, but for the sake of brevity I’ll touch only briefly on the key issues.
Levin’s spiritual journey is described with realism and sensitivity. His inner conflicts over the purpose of existence feel completely legitimate, as he struggles with real issues faced by real people. Poignant inquiries into the meaning of suffering are seamlessly interwoven with meditations on the grandeur of creation, lending the book a richness and depth not present in shorter works.
In contrast, Anna’s abandonment of her faith and family are depicted with heart-wrenching anguish. From the moment she meets Vronsky, her moral convictions are already beginning to erode. One of the most prevalent themes in “Anna Karenina” is that of the value of marriage – a value she throws aside in the pursuit of temporal passion. Eventually, she must come to grips with the meaninglessness of her life as Vronsky’s mistress…and from there, choose whether she will repent or sink into despair.
Should you read it? If, like me, you find Russian history and culture fascinating, you’ll find much to like here. Or if you’re interested in the worldview implications of Anna’s and Levin’s spiritual journeys, “Anna Karenina” is certainly worth reading. If, on the other hand, you’re hoping for fast action and rapid pacing…look elsewhere. But in my opinion, most thinking readers will find it a meaningful and thought-provoking novel.
(Note: While this book does deal with mature subjects, they are handled in such a way that they will not offend most readers.)
Long and drawn-out, but undeniably rich in literary depth and vision.