Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. ~ Opening line
This is the first time I’ve read Anna Karenina or Tolstoy. The novel is realist fiction, third-person narrative, and in spite of the title, tells the tales of two distinct, but intricately connected individuals: Anna Karenina and Konstantin Levin. It takes place in 19th century Czarist Russia. Dostoevsky called Anna Karenina “flawless as a work of art”.
My rating: 4 1/2 of 5 stars
This was my second read of a Russian author, so I was a bit less intimidated, but not much – Tolstoy after all. However, just like Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, I found Anna Karenina easy to read, powerful, and enjoyable. This novel has so many themes, so many characters, and evokes so many thoughts and emotions, I scarcely know where to begin. When I finished, I thought it had a rather disappointing ending. But after thinking it over a few days, I have come to appreciate the brilliance of it.
SPOILER ALERT: This review contains a spoiler.
I have one criticism though; I think it is poorly titled. There are two main characters: Anna and Konstantin Levin. The story is equally about both. They only meet once, and then rather briefly, but their lives are intertwined with numerous mutual friends, acquaintances, and relations. More importantly, their lives are stunning contrasts.
Anna’s story is tragic…monumentally tragic, while Levin’s is triumphant. In fact, that would be a splendid title: Triumph and Tragedy, as it is line with the Russian penchant for two nouns and a conjunction: Crime and Punishment, War and Peace, Ham and Eggs (just ensuring you are paying attention) etc.
The triumph and tragedy is woven into numerous themes and sub-plots involving love, patriotism, politics, economics, tradition, revolution, religion, and even horse racing.
The main theme as I see it: the contrast between Anna and Levin. There are also numerous characters, but I will only name a few to keep this review simple. Anyone that has read the Russian authors probably understands that keeping the characters straight can be a challenge, as there are often numerous characters (note after reading two, I am now an expert), with numerous name variations. Over the course of the novel, you eventually catch on. In a review of a few paragraphs, I think I would just confuse things to name too many.
Anna is the socialite wife of a wealthy Petersburg government official, and mother of a young son. She is beautiful, compassionate, caring, and pious. Early in the novel, she travels to Moscow to visit her brother Prince Stepan (Stiva) Arkadyevich Oblonsky. Anna comes in attempt to save his marriage after Stiva’s affair with his children’s governess. Anna persuades her sister-in-law, Princess Darya (Dolly) Alexandrovna Oblonskaya to forgive and be reconciled. Prior to Anna’s arrival this seemed hopeless, but Anna’s graciousness has its way and the marriage is spared. In these few pages, the reader grows to love Anna. During her time in Moscow Anna meets young Count Vronsky. He is immediately smitten with Anna and makes no attempt to hide his adoration. Prior to meeting Anna, Vronsky appeared to be courting Dolly’s sister Princess Ekaterina (Kitty) Alexandrovna Shcherbatskaya, but he was only toying with her even before meeting Anna. At an important ball, Vronsky snubs Kitty and dances with Anna. The love he has for Anna is obvious to everyone and Kitty is heartbroken and humiliated. Anna feels a twinge of guilt, but convinces herself it was only an innocent flirtation, and she will return to Petersburg, never to see Vronsky again, and it simply won’t matter. However, Vronsky relentlessly pursues Anna, and follows her to Petersburg. Slowly, patiently, charmingly, he wins her heart. In these pages the reader, this reader at least, grows to despise Vronsky. Immediately after they consummate their relationship, Anna breaks down in tears knowing she is ruined, but without repentance.
Konstantin "Kostya" Dmitrievich Levin is a family friend of Stiva and Dolly, a wealthy country landowner, and in love with Kitty. Prior to Kitty’s heartbreak, Levin proposed to Kitty, but she refused him. She was not unkind as she does care for Levin, but she was certain Vronsky would propose soon, and her heart was set on the Count. There is a good deal that transpires in between, but Levin eventually renews his offer to Kitty, and this time she accepts. The two are deliriously happy together. Levin however, is a man of deep thought and inner turmoil. He has debates with himself and others about the role of classes in Russia’s economy, particularly agriculture, as he is a wealthy landowner, making his living off the backs of the peasantry. He is also agnostic. He was raised in a Christian home and church, and knows the precepts, but does not accept them. He is a man of strong ethics and struggles with the hypocrisy of enduring the rites of the church required for his marriage, but manages to get through them out of love for Kitty. In spite of his lack of faith, Levin is a man that always tries to do right. One day, a conversation with a peasant leads him to an epiphany. Levin’s thoughts:
Fyodor says that Kirillov lives for his belly. That’s comprehensible and rational. All of us rational beings can’t do anything else but live for our belly. And all of a sudden the same Fyodor says that one mustn’t live for one’s belly, but must live for truth, for God, and at a hint I understand him! I and millions of men, men who lived ages ago and men living now – peasants, the poor in spirit and the learned, who have thought and written about it, in their obscure words saying the same thing – we are all agreed about this one thing: what we must live for and what is good. I and all men have only one firm, incontestable, clear knowledge, and that knowledge cannot be explained by the reason – it is outside it, and has no causes and can have no effects. If goodness has causes, it is not goodness; if it has effects, a reward, it is not goodness either. So goodness is outside the chain of cause and effect. And yet I know it, and we all know it. What could be a greater miracle than that?
And a bit later:
What did this mean? It meant he had been living rightly, but thinking wrongly.
That’s essentially the end of the novel.
However, I need to back up to cover Anna's ruin. She leaves her husband and son, though with no divorce. Anna, Vronsky, and their daughter attempt to live a normal life, like a normal family, though she his mistress. This works to an extent while they live abroad, but not really. They both yearn for Russia and move back. Anna is not accepted in decent society, while Vronsky enjoys a rising political career and place in society. Anna resents him and suspects Vronsky of having other lovers, or at least of wishing for other lovers. In my opinion, she is slowly losing her mind. In despair, she takes her life to make Vronsky love her, and to punish him for his neglect.
I’ve only scratched the surface. There are many ironic contrasts. Like the difference between Anna’s husband on learning of her affair and Levin’s reaction when he becomes aware of a young aristocrat paying too much attention to Kitty. Anna’s husband is willing to let the affair continue, as long as she is discreet and thus protects his image. Levin however, protects his marriage fiercely, throwing the scoundrel out of the house, even though it is slightly bad form. Bravo Levin. There is the contrast between Anna’s lack of love for her children and Levin’s love for his. A contrast between conservative Moscow and progressive Petersburg. A contrast between Anna’s decision to take her life, and Levin’s to live. Because during a moment of inner turmoil, he contemplates suicide.
I find the principal contrast to be this. Anna was outwardly pious, but at the critical moment, she abandoned what she knew was right to satisfy her own desires. Levin was always conscientious to do the right thing, even though he had no faith or religion to demand he do so. In the end, he was saved and Anna was ruined. It was heartbreaking and powerful.
Vronsky’s principles for his life:
one must pay a cardsharper, but need not pay a tailor; that one must never tell a lie to a man, but one may to a woman; that one must never cheat anyone, but one may a husband; that one must never pardon an insult, but one may give one and so on.
Levin in a panicked state when Kitty is in labor:
Lord have mercy on us! Pardon us! Aid us!
Levin’s first glimpse of his newborn son:
...there at the foot of the bed, in the deft hands of Lizaveta Petrovna, like a flickering light in a lamp, lay the life of a human creature, which had never existed before, and which would now with the same right, with the same importance to itself, live and create in its own image.
Anna contemplating suicide:
And death rose clearly vividly before her mind as the sole means of bringing back love for her in his heart, of punishing him and of gaining the victory in that strife which the evil spirit in possession of her heart was waging with him.
Levin contemplating suicide:
And Levin a happy father and husband, in perfect health, was several times so near suicide that he hid the cord that he might not be tempted to hang himself, and was afraid to go out with his gun for fear of shooting himself. But Levin did not shoot himself, and did not hang himself, he went on living.
Levin, seeking answers to life’s questions in great thinkers and philosophers:
He was in the position of a man seeking food in toy shops and tool shops.
Film Rendition: Many renditions to choose from. I opted for the 1948 version, starring Vivian Leigh. That casting was the best part of the film. When reading, I pictured Anna very much like Vivian Leigh who gave a superb performance. Apart from casting, the movie was disappointing. The novel is filled with numerous complex characters, and the film hardly touched on any save Anna. It barely told Levin's story at all. I also viewed the 1967 Russian produced version. It was more faithful to the book, and all of the casting, except Levin, matched my ideas of the characters. The movie was dubbed in English, which is always a little awkward and distracting. The cinematography and soundtrack were perplexing at times, but still a pretty decent portrayal. Back to the Vivien Leigh version a moment...it was ironic that Vivien Leigh played the lead, as my next novel is Gone with the Wind...and there really is only one film rendering of that, also starring Leigh. The roles are not that different, as in both, the character pursues a hopeless love to her own unhappiness.