Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy

Anna Karenina (Signet Classics) -

I love the feeling of accomplishment after finishing a huge book, not to mention one from the literary canon I'd hoped to read for a while. Even better is finding out said book is pleasurable and earns every bit of praise and prestige heaped on it.


This book had me from page one and never lost me. Though its title names a single character, the novel encompasses two families, essentially, which intertwine. Matthew Arnold (I think?) said Anna Karenina was a piece of life rather than a work of art, and though I don't find the two to be mutually exclusive, I see exactly what he means. The narrative spans years and both the formation and dissolution of a few relationships (namely Anna, her husband, and her lover, Vronsky; Levin and his future wife, Kitty; Anna's brother, Stepan, and his wife, Dolly (Kitty's sister)). Characters cheat, they get married, they separate, have children, witness loved ones dying, and, in Anna's case, die themselves. It's such a full book.


The novel sets up a contrast between the passionate relations of Anna and Vronsky and that of Levin and Kitty, who get married and have a child and are surrounded by and help family. There's also Stepan, who continually cheats on Dolly (the book opens with that fact and with Anna reconciling the two--temporarily). Levin has a spiritual awakening (this is how the book ends, after Anna has killed herself), so there's a privileging of spirituality in life and love.


Still, the great tragedy owes a lot to the different ways men and women are treated in society when having an affair (which continues to this day). Vronsky can still go out among Russian society; Anna cannot and loses friends--it's even frowned upon to visit her or receive her, especially if a woman. As the end of the book nears, she and Vronsky are constantly at odds, and I found myself upset with Anna's jealousy and mood swings. At the same time, what can she do? Her feelings are natural, and you do feel Vronsky's attitude has changed. They've trapped each other.


I had no favorite characters, and that's a compliment. I cared about everyone and understood everyone. Tolstoy is amazing at portraying the inner life of people; no one else I've read has captured it the same way. That's saying something. I've read a couple of his shorter works ("The Death of Ivan Ilych" and The Kreutzer Sonata), and now I can completely imagine undertaking War and Peace.