The tale of a society woman and her unconventional love affair contrasts with that of a landowner struggling with faith and duty.
Anna Karenina. The very words have struck me with fear and awe ever since a disastrous Russian History class in 12th grade, where I discovered my superpower’s limits for the first time. I elected to read Anna for my final paper because I wanted to read Anna, but I had four AP exams happening at the same time and should’ve chosen something much shorter. The whole thing blew up in my face and I ended up getting in trouble for not reading the entire book, which at my school was an honor offense. Since other girls in my class had out-and-out cheated, I ended up just having to take a C on the paper (which was very well-written on the 200 pages I actually read). I think that might have been what kept me out of my top-choice college but I ended up loving the school I went to so, as you see, things worked out for the best even though AP exams are my Kryptonite.
Here I am *cough* years later, and I find that Anna Karenina is an astonishingly fast read. I couldn’t be more riveted by all of the characters Tolstoy presents to me: passionate, foolish Anna; tormented, brooding Levin; flighty, honest Kitty; and “he’s just not that into you” Vronsky. Tolstoy masterfully shifts between (rare) third person omniscient, first person stream-of-consciousness, and many scenes where point-of-view shifts between several characters as they interact with each other.
As Anna and Vronsky’s relationship implodes, Tolstoy ratchets up the tension by leaving us inside Anna’s head as she has the mother of all panic attacks. Anyone who’s ever been unable to let well enough alone in a relationship will connect with Anna’s torment as she tries to force Vronsky to be loving towards her without seeing that her need and dependence is driving him away. She’s a black hole that can’t be filled, and Vronsky responds with the cold hammer of indifference. It’s horrifying, because it’s so true to life, and Tolstoy doesn’t miss a single shade of the horror.
Levin’s story was a welcome reprieve from Anna’s darkness. Though he’s suffering metaphysical pangs related to his inability to have faith, he never seems in danger the way Anna does, even though he contemplates suicide from time to time. I think it’s because his struggles are honest. He’s not lying to himself the way Anna is. Anna wants her infidelity to be something other than it is. She wants to call evil good. Levin, on the other hand, wants to know the nature of goodness, because, despite his atheism, he sees good in the world and wants to be as close to it as he can. His frustration comes when he sees how his own innate selfishness and pettiness keep him from his goal.
Some the best passages in Anna Karenina concern the nature of marriage, which Tolstoy examines from all angles. There are the bad marriages, of course, like Anna’s, and like that of Anna’s brother Oblonsky who is a compulsive philanderer. But there is also a marriage that’s just a normal marriage between two people trying to get used to one another. They have ups and downs, times of tenderness and times of warfare, and Tolstoy shows it all.
There are scenes in Anna Karenina that I’ll never forget: Levin in the fields mowing with the peasants, Kitty at the ball, Karenin forgiving his wife as she gives birth to another man’s son, Levin’s brother on his deathbed, Kitty’s giving birth to her first child, and many others–but most of all, I will never forget Anna, proud Anna with her dark hair and sad eyes. I want to shake her by the shoulders and tell her to see the truth about Vronsky, that their love is counterfeit, that she doesn’t have to put up with it from him or put up with Karenin’s mocking piety or society’s stupid rules. I’m so angry because I love her so very, very much.
(A note on the translation: I found the Joel Carmichael translation to be accessible, and the introduction said it has a lot to do with the naming conventions, which are English, not Russian (where you get all the patronyms and nicknames and different people calling the same person different things at different times. It must have worked, because I had no problem keeping the vast amount of characters and their relationships straight. I definitely recommend this translation.)