Anna Karenina

Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1878), trans. Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky

What it’s about: Russia, the 1870s. An “epic” of domestic life, Anna Karenina tells the story of three connected relationships; Anna Karenina, a respectable married woman from St Petersburg, who falls in love and has an affair with Count Vronsky, a dashing young cavalry officer; Anna’s brother Stiva, who has an affair with the family governess, estranging him from his wife Dolly, until Anna encourages them to reconcile; and Stiva’s school friend Levin, a gentleman farmer who marries Dolly’s sister Kitty (despite some initial competition from Vronsky) and makes a life with her on his country estate. Karenin, a high-ranking government official who is twenty years Anna’s senior, insists that she stay in the marriage and break off the affair or else be denied access to their young son. Anna becomes pregnant to Vronsky and almost dies in childbirth, and the Karenins are briefly reconciled. After the birth of her daughter, Anna recovers and elopes with Vronsky to Italy. Vronsky grows bored with their new life and they return to Russia, where Anna makes a clandestine visit to her son. Meanwhile, Stiva resumes his old habits of overspending and womanising, while Dolly learns to endure their situation, and Levin and Kitty overcome their disappointments about married life and prepare for the birth of their first child. Anna and Vronsky’s relationship comes under increasing strain, as he is able to move freely in society whereas she is shunned. Isolated and unhappy, Anna develops a dependency on morphine to help her sleep. She attends the theatre in St Petersburg where she is publicly shunned, and argues with Vronsky about his interest in a younger woman. Convinced that Vronksy is about to leave her, Anna commits suicide by throwing herself in front of a train. Three months later, a broken-hearted Vronsky departs for the Serbian-Turkish war, wishing for his own death. The novel ends with Levin, settled on the farm with Kitty and his infant son, debates the existence of God and briefly contemplates suicide, but concludes that he still holds to the Christian principles taught to him in childhood.

Why it’s a classic: When asked what were the three greatest novels ever written, William Faulkner replied “Anna Karenina, Anna Karenina, Anna Karenina“. Possibly the most “classic” of the classics I’ve selected for this project, Anna Karenina is almost universally acclaimed as one of the world’s greatest novels and a triumph of social realist fiction. Published in serial form between 1873 and 1877, it was a massive success, though attracting some criticism for its frank depiction of a “fallen woman” and marital infidelity. It was first published in English in 1886, and Tolstoy soon became one of the world’s most widely-read novelists. Dickens, Tolstoy’s friend and contemporary, and Henry James were two of many celebrity admirers, and did much to popularise Tolstoy for Anglo-American audiences.

Tolstoy’s influence on world literature has been immense. His acute psychological insights into his characters’ doubts and insecurities, and the complicated push-and-pull of romantic relationships and family life are immensely satisfying and feel startlingly modern. Despite its relatively small cast of characters and focus on the inner workings of a love triangle, he creates a panoramic portrait of Russian Imperial society. Though the focus is on Anna and the devastation caused by her affair, Tolstoy provides a snapshot of the turbulent political and cultural changes of the 1870s – the emancipation of the serfs, the railways and new technology pulling Russia out of medievalism and into the modern age, arguments about workers’ rights, universal suffrage, the education of women and the liberation of the Serbs, the decline of religion and the new fashionability of spiritualism among the educated classes, and the damning double standards applied to women and men who stray aside the rules of marriage.

Extraordinarily for a book written over 140 years ago, Anna Karenina has retained its classic status, apparently impervious to changing fashions. There have been nearly 20 film versions of the story, the first dating from 1911. In English-language versions alone, Anna been portrayed by Greta Garbo, Vivien Leigh, Claire Bloom, Nicola Pagett, Jacqueline Bisset, Sophie Marceau, Helen McCrory and Kiera Knightley. In literature, the tragic power of Anna’s story reverberates through Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Greene’s The End of the Affair, and Tolstoy is regularly cited as a master storyteller and the father of the modern psychological novel. In 2004, Oprah Winfrey selected Anna Karenina for her Book Club (describing it as “a sexy and engrossing read”) prompting over a million Americans to read it. Even its first line, “All happy families are alike, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” is one of the most famous openings ever written. As classics go, you don’t get much bigger than Tolstoy, which one suspects would have pleased him enormously.

Bouquet or Brickbat: I’m not sure there’s a bouquet big enough to express my love for this book. Critics and fans have been deconstructing Anna Karenina for over a century, so in trying to describe its many pleasures and virtues, I feel slightly idiotic, like a latecomer to a party that’s been in full swing for hours. Nevertheless, here I go.

The first and most surprising pleasure of Anna Karenina is how easy it is to read, despite being 818 pages long. Like many serialised novels, it’s written in small juicy chapters of around three to four pages each, in which the plot rumbles along like a well-oiled machine. Tolstoy doesn’t spend much time establishing his characters and setting, throwing us straight into Stiva and Kitty’s argument and creating an immediate intimacy with their turmoil. Tolstoy’s narration moves in and out of focus like a cinematographer, zooming in to allow us access to his characters’ thought, and pulling away to make an intelligent authorial observation. Stiva, who in many ways is peripheral to the plot, represents many of Tolstoy’s thematic interests. He is a serial adulterer in a world where marital fidelity is passé, but we can’t help but love him regardless. “He was on familiar terms with everyone with whom he drank champagne, and he drank champagne with everyone”, Tolstoy tells us, suggesting that Stiva is fatuous and extravagant, but also hugely likeable. It’s clear from very early on that this is a novel where deeply flawed people will be viewed forensically but compassionately, and that we are invited to laugh at, and occasionally laugh with them.

The apparent casualness of the opening scenes, with their heightened melodrama and bathos, is the perfect camouflage for Tolstoy to set out his neat architectural structure. The apparently regularity of Stiva’s infidelity and the swiftness of his reconciliation with Dolly establishes a moral landscape in which a man’s adultery will be forgiven but Anna’s will be severely condemned. The introduction of Levin and his tortured pursuit of Kitty provides a further mirror reflection of the Anna-Vronsky story. Both sets of lovers experience passion, doubt, despair and eventual victory, but only Levin and Kitty’s relationship, conducted within the acceptable social codes of their time, becomes happy and fulfilling. By contrast, Anna and Vronsky’s passion withers on the vine, causing them misery and eventual tragedy.

At first glance, Tolstoy seems to be telling a Puritan morality tale, in which punishment is meted out to those who break the rules. While he does come down on the side of convention, he’s not unsympathetic to the rumblings of discontent in a society on the point of profound change. The status of marriage is debated continuously throughout the novel. Kitty’s parents have an earnest if very funny debate about how a girl should be married, disapproving of both French customs (where the parents decide for the children) and the English (where the girl is given total freedom). Vronsky articulates a fashionable middle-class contempt for “banal, stupid and, above all, ridiculous people who believed that one husband should live with one wife, whom he has married in church” preferring “to give oneself to every passion without blushing and laugh at everything else.” Even Levin, the novel’s most conservative character and Tolstoy’s alter-ego, kicks against the hollowness of his religious wedding and tortures himself over whether to tell Kitty of his youthful dalliances. No one, it seems, has the right answer or a successful formula for a happy relationship. We exit the novel, as we begin, with Stiva, glowing with satisfaction over his new well-paying job, but still spending money like water and chasing pretty young women. Each unhappy family might be unhappy in its own way, Tolstoy seems to say, but women are far more likely to be unhappy if they stray outside of society’s rules. By the time Anna goes under the train, we’re aware that her state of mind is disturbed and that she’s possibly a drug addict, but a more complex and painful truth has also been exposed: cast off from society, and her options depleted, there is literally nowhere else for her to go. (In some ways, storytelling hasn’t changed that much – in 1991, the heroes of feminist road movie Thelma & Louise drove off a cliff to their deaths because there was nowhere else for them to exist on the screen).  

Again and again, I was struck by Tolstoy’s sympathy for his characters’ insecurities and his understanding of human weakness, folly and petty obsessions. Tolstoy shows us that a philanderer like Stiva can also be capable of great kindness; that Kitty’s unhappiness over Vronsky’s rejection will lead her to lash out at Dolly rather than be grateful for her support; that Karenin, in the midst of his marital problems, can get excited over the pleasures of fresh notepaper and a new writing set; that Levin’s efforts to democratise his farm and live a good life will be frustrated repeatedly by his impatience with other people; and that Vronsky can comfort himself with notions of chivalry while blithely destroying the Karenin’s marriage. Occasionally, Tolstoy butts in with God-like authority, telling us clearly what we should think of his characters, but mostly he lets them play out their psychodramas in front of us, rearranging their places on the vast chessboard he’s created. This combination of in-the-moment psychological realism within a highly controlled plot structure makes for an intensely pleasurable reading experience.

Within this rogues’ gallery, Anna is especially fascinating, a contradictory mixture of clarity and self-deception. The authenticity of her feelings for Vronsky are never in doubt, and she’s acutely aware of the pain and humiliation that her affair causes her and her family. On the other hand, she’s described as being in the grip of a “spirit of evil” that she can’t control, embarking on a self-destructive cause of action that she seems powerless to stop. Anna’s final realisation – that she cannot escape the grim realities of her life, and that the truth must eventually be faced – makes her suicide seem both strangely heroic and a horrible act of cowardice. Tolstoy renders her death clinically and unemotionally, but with a sense of profound tragedy of a once-great life being destroyed: “And the candle by the light of which she had been reading that book filled with anxieties, deceptions, grief and evil, flared up brighter than ever, lit up for her all that had once been in darkness, sputtered, grew dim, and went out for ever.” After her death, Tolstoy shows us three very different reactions to the news: Vronsky, a broken man still haunted by images of Anna’s mangled body  as he goes off to a war that may well kill him; Vronsky’s mother, who calls Anna “a vile, irreligious woman” and condemns her for ruining her son’s life; and Stiva, whose grief for his sister is soon forgotten as he re-embraces the pleasures of life. Rather than pontificating about the meaning of Anna’s suicide, we’re left to decide which point of view we prefer. In the book’s final (and arguably weakest) section, Anna’s life-and-death struggle is replayed by Levin, who gives himself a choice between life in a godless universe and suicide. Eventually, he chooses life and the consolations of religion and family, which is clearly a happier ending than throwing yourself under a train. But is Anna’s choice any less admirable than Levin’s – especially given her comparative lack of agency and the desperate circumstances of her life? These days, we’re probably more sympathetic to Anna, though Tolstoy’s woman-under-the-train ending isn’t quite as palatable to a post-feminist audience who want their heroines to fight back and kick ass.

What’s most impressive about Anna Karenina is how Tolstoy utilises a relatively small “domestic” story to carve out a landscape with the depth and breadth of a great historical epic. It’s a story filled to the brim with the pleasures and sadnesses of life, in which Tolstoy’s omniscient vision sees and understands everything. We glide with ease from glittering society balls to peasants threshing hay in the fields, from lavish gentlemen’s clubs and moth-ridden lawyer’s offices to a pauper’s deathbed. Tolstoy’s perceptions and descriptive detail are extraordinary: he’s as interested as the ribbons on Kitty’s lace dress or the moths flying out of a lawyer’s armchair as he is in the crescent moon rising over the marshes or the knock of the peasants’ axes as they plough the fields.

Intriguingly, for a writer who seems so fascinated by human society, Tolstoy seems largely uninterested in cities. His descriptions of Moscow and St Petersburg are workmanlike and perfunctory, and references to trains become metaphors for death and destruction. Anna and Vronksy first meet at a train station, where the railway worker’s death foreshadows her own fate. Our last sight of Vronsky is also at a railway station, where he prepares to board a train and go to war, and presumably also to his own death. By contrast, Tolstoy’s passages about country life sing with poetic intensity. He’s particularly good at harnessing the weather to his characters’ emotional states. After the steeplechase, Anna stops and looks “at the tops of the aspens swaying in the wind, their washed leaves glistening brightly in the cold sun, and she understood that they would not forgive, that everything and everyone would be merciless to her now, like this sky, like this greenery.” Alone on his farm, Levin studies the night skies: “‘How beautiful!’ he thought, looking at the strange mother-of-pearl shell of white, fleecy clouds that stopped right over his head in the middle of the sky. ‘How lovely everything is on this lovely night! And when did that shell have time to form? A moment ago I looked at the sky, and there was nothing there–only two white strips. Yes, and in that same imperceptible way my views of life have also changed!’ For all his concerns about the poverty of his peasants, Levin can’t help but romanticise the old agrarian life, where his workers would rather use wood and stone tools than newly-invented machinery. When Levin is forced to spend money in Moscow, he counts the hours of manual labour expended to earn each rouble.

To some extent, this is a self-serving attitude: Levin (like Tolstoy himself) realises that he benefits from a social order where he is a wealthy land-owner while his workers live in poverty and dependence on him, and only his education and liberal pretensions provide any impetus for things to change. For contemporary readers, these passages are coloured by our knowledge that forty years later, Russia’s social order did change, more violently and dramatically than even Tolstoy could have imagined: the monarchy was overthrown, the aristocracy murdered or exiled, property-owning was collectivised and agriculture was dragged into the mechanical age.

Tolstoy’s world of Imperial-era glamour, social etiquette and picturesque rural poverty is a fairy story now, a portrait of a fragile social order that was doomed to failure. This probably accounts for some of the guilty pleasure one experiences when reading Anna Karenina, in the same way that stories of monarchs and saints continue to fascinate readers in a democratic and secular age. Tolstoy’s characters, for all their angst, live within a comfortably ordered moral universe, in which we can browse for an hour or so, distracted from the chaos of our own times.

What stays with us, and what has ensured Tolstoy’s longevity and popularity, is his profound understanding of human nature, which apparently hasn’t changed in 140 years. Married people will continue to fall in and out of love, have affairs and make messes of their lives. Young lovers will still thrill to the excitement of new romance, followed by the crushing disappointment that their beloved is flawed and often quite irritating person. Sexual desire will continue to push against the strictures we place around it, and the jury is still out on whether some form of moral restraint might be good for us. For better or for worse, we still live in the world that Tolstoy described so vividly, and we have him to thank for his insights into what it is to be human.

Quotable Quotes: “When [Levin] saw it all, he was overcome by a momentary doubt of the possibility of setting up that new life he had dreamed of on the way. All these traces of his life seemed to seize hold of him and say to him: ‘No, you won’t escape us and be different, you’ll be the same as you were: with doubts, an eternal dissatisfaction with yourself, vain attempts to improve, and failures, and an eternal expectation of the happiness that has eluded you and is not possible for you.”

[Anna]: “The terrible thing is that it’s impossible to tear the past out by the roots. Impossible to tear it out, but possible to hide the memory of it…. You won’t get away from yourselves…. ‘Yes, where did I leave off? At the fact that I’m unable to think up a situation in which life would not be suffering, that we’re all created in order to suffer, and that we all know it and keep thinking up ways of deceiving ourselves. But if you see the truth, what can you do?'”

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