Reflections on Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

So I finally finished Anna Karenina last night, but I’m not quite sure how to review it. There’s so much I could say that it seems overwhelming. First off, despite my previous post, I ended up not liking as much as I did from my first reading of it three and a half years ago. (Side note: the painting below is titled Portrait of Princess Yekaterina Alekseyevna Vasilchikova by Ivan Kramskoy, 1867, Russia. And also note, there may be a few spoilers here, although nothing that doesn’t relate to a basic discussion of the plot.)

The main problem is that although Anna Karenina is billed as a romance and titled for a woman who should be the main character, it is also very much a ‘state of the nation’ novel and I would say much more about Tolstoy’s alter-ego character Levin than Anna herself. The nation under discussion throughout the book is of course Russia in the 1870s (the copious endnotes in the Pevear & Volokhonsky translation helped me to make sense of all the issues being discussed; since I’d originally read it in the Constance Garnett translation without notes, I think I missed a lot of the political meanings in the book the first time), and Levin’s many (increasingly tedious) discussions with other men throughout the book on politics, religion, farming (yes, Russian farming in a book supposedly all about romance! See what I mean — it’s been misleadingly categorized!), art, etc, develop many of Tolstoy’s own ideas about every topic he thinks is worth writing about. Meanwhile, while he does sometimes write perceptively from the point of view three main female characters (the adulterous Anna herself, plus Levin’s pretty, good, and slightly bland wife Kitty, and Kitty’s child-burdened sister Dolly), they do not get nearly as much page time as the men, especially Levin.

I know Levin has his fans (for some reason) and at the beginning of the book, I too could empathize with him. He takes delight in working on his country estates with the peasants (called muzhiks, who were formerly serfs until they were freed in 1861, just ten years or so before the action of the story) and it was refreshing to read about his love of nature and working in the country. I grew up on a farm, so I could appreciate that. But during one of several hunting scenes, I began to get impatient. The hunting scene had no real important purpose in the story, it was probably simply there because Tolstoy himself enjoyed hunting (despite also being a vegetarian and against violence at some point in his life…). And that is the problem with the character of Levin: obviously Tolstoy thinks he’s endlessly fascinating, because he gets to share all his (Tolstoy’s) own endlessly fascinating thoughts about everything! But I’m not interested, especially since Levin is often awkward in society and never seems to catch on to what everyone else is talking about, but spends most of his time criticizing them. Levin often seems child-like, he’s willing to admit he doesn’t get things instead of just pretending to be as clever as everyone else, and I don’t have that kind of social courage to act like that myself, so perhaps all of his constant social embarrassments just made me wish he would at least pretend a little more to be normal and get along.

Levin seems to be an excessively didactic character, there only to act as a mouthpiece for all of Tolstoy’s views about every issue in Russia at the time. I wish Tolstoy could have separated out all of those long, boring male-dominated conversations about politics and ‘big issues’ out of the novel, put them in some kind of ranting pamphlet and left the actual story alone for readers to enjoy without all the sermonizing! Instead, every time any group of men get together, they begin discussing some current event and then Levin has to argue with them and angst over it afterwards, and it doesn’t serve the story at all, in my opinion. (I’m sure others, most likely those who share more of Tolstoy’s views, would disagree with me.)

The other main character, Anna Karenina, is not entirely sympathetic to me either. The first time I read the book, I was fascinated by her and this was why I considered it something of a favourite. Anna is beautiful, charming, and intelligent, but on this read I’ve noticed that her main flaw seems to be selfishness. She also deliberately turns a blind eye to reality, literally narrowing her eyes to life so that she can pretend not to see how her own actions affect her, perhaps so she can go on blaming all of her problems on others. Of course Tolstoy means her story to be an object lesson in what happens to women who behave badly and rebel against the conventions of society; although supposedly he found some sympathy for her as he went along, it doesn’t save her from her tragic fate.

In contrast, her brother Stiva (Dolly’s husband), who also sleeps around, is forgiven by his wife and why? Because women don’t have control or power in their relationships. Dolly is devastated that she’s worn out from bearing all his children, while he’s still able to dress up and live it up like a bachelor. She’s no longer attractive to him from having so many children, and yet she’s supposed to forgive him and carry on, in part because she simply has no money to raise five (or more) children on her own. (Although it seems that her husband did marry her in part for her inherited land, but he’s the one selling it off to raise money for his own indebted goings-on.) So Stiva is able to happily carry on fooling around throughout the whole novel without much censure, while Anna’s adultery in comparison is a massive issue, obviously because she’s a woman. (I found out from the book Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia by Orlando Figes that Tolstoy himself slept around a fair amount, often with the peasant women on his own estate! Perhaps even after his marriage…??)

Anyway. There’s more I’ve been thinking about this novel, but I don’t know how to put all of it into words. Karenin, Anna’s husband, is actually quite a sympathetic and sad character in the end, although initially he comes across as cold and rather heartless. He’s sarcastic with Anna just when she’s trying not to give in to Vronsky’s courting of her, instead of showing her the love and attention she craves. And yet the drama that develops around the threesome of Anna, her lover, and her husband, eventually causes Karenin to crack open and face his emotions, to become a better person, at least for a time. Tolstoy can be heartbreakingly perceptive about all his seven main characters (Anna, Karenin, Vronsky, Kitty, Levin, Stiva, Dolly — all of them tied together in various ways, for example, Vronsky is casually courting Kitty until he meets Anna) and various other more minor characters, but to me, he returns far too often to Levin’s (ie, his own) perspective. Yes, Levin cares about others, yes he tries to do good when others are selfish, yes he questions his life and wants to find greater meaning for it, yes his slow romance with Kitty is sweet and touching but but but. There’s just too much of his story and it’s too day-to-day — almost as if Anna’s scandalous side of the story is simply thrown in there just to make Tolstoy’s own regular life and thoughts novel-worthy. It seems slightly too self-indulgent, even if it is considered one of the truly great novels.

Despite all this criticism, obviously I did read the whole thing and twice at that, so there are some truly great scenes in it. There’s the ball where Anna and Vronsky first dance together, shown tellingly from Kitty’s perspective, with her heart sinking as she realizes Vronsky no longer cares for her. There’s Levin and Kitty skating together in Moscow and their friendship and yet awkwardness together. There’s the night-time train ride with Anna trying to read a novel (someone has suggested it’s by Trollope) and not able to stop thinking about Vronsky and then meeting him at a train station at night in the country, with the snow swirling all around them. There’s Vronsky’s big horse race. There’s even Levin mowing at harvest time with the peasants, which has a quiet peacefulness and grandeur of its own. There are truly many great and genuinely entertaining parts in this novel. I don’t even mind the very spiritual ending of the book, with Levin finally coming to some sort of religious epiphany. I just wish the story was more tightly focused on the seven main characters, instead of Tolstoy trying to throw in solutions to all the ills of late 19th century Russia at once. Admittedly, given that it’s Russia, there seem to have been some major ills going on! But given that the book is supposedly focused around the topic of the importance of the family (as the introduction in my edition states) and how the various families of the main characters function or fail to function, that should have been enough of a topic to go on.

Perhaps the political element was more relevant when it was first published, as novels about 9/11 or what-have-you are now. Maybe including these elements that seem so pertinent at the time dates a novel too much? Jane Austen famously didn’t even reference the Napoleonic Wars in her books, and yet she is read with great pleasure today for her still relevant character studies. She tried not to include references to ideas or objects that would date her books and they have a timeless quality to them still, two hundred years later. I do love some of Tolstoy’s period specific details though, like how he describes Anna and Kitty’s clothes at the ball (which is why I included the painting above, it makes me think of Anna). So I will end with my favourite description of clothes in all literature, written by the excessively moralistic Tolstoy of all people!

 Though Kitty’s toilette, coiffure and all the preparations for the ball had cost her a good deal of trouble and planning, she was now entering the ballroom, in her intricate tulle gown over a pink underskirt, as freely and simply as if all these rosettes and laces, and all the details of her toilette, had not cost her and her household a moment’s attention, as if she had been born in this tulle and lace, with this tall coiffure, topped by a rose with two leaves.

… Kitty was having one of her happy days. Her dress was not tight anywhere, the lace bertha stayed in place, the rosettes did not get crumpled or come off; the pink shoes with high, curved heels did not pinch, but delighted her little feet. The thick braids of blond hair held to her little head like her own. All three buttons on her long gloves, which fitted but did not change the shape of her arms, fastened without coming off. The black velvet ribbon of her locket encircled her neck with particular tenderness. This velvet ribbon was enchanting, and at home, as she looked at her neck in the mirror, she felt it could almost speak. All the rest might be doubted, but the ribbon was enchanting. Kitty also smiled here at the ball as she glanced at it in the mirror. In her bare shoulders and arms she felt a cold, marble-like quality that she especially liked. Her eyes shone, and her red lips could not help smiling from the sense of her own attractiveness.

And then girlish Kitty, who assumes she’s the belle of the ball, encounters Anna, whom she expects to have dressed in the clothes of a matron (the colour lilac), but is instead more of a 19th century femme fatale…

Anna was not in lilac, as Kitty had absolutely wanted, but in a low-cut black velvet dress, which revealed her full shoulders and bosom, as if shaped from old ivory, and her rounded arms with their very small, slender hands. The dress was all trimmed with Venetian guipure lace. On her head, in her black hair, her own without admixture, was a small garland of pansies, and there was another on her black ribbon sash among the white lace. Her coiffure was inconspicuous. Conspicuous were only those wilful little ringlets of curly hair that adorned her, always coming out on her nape and temples. Around her firm, shapely neck was a string of pearls.

Kitty had seen Anna every day, was in love with her, and had imagined her inevitably in lilac. But now, seeing her in black, she felt that she had never understood all her loveliness. She saw her now in a completely new and, for her, unexpected way. Now she understood that Anna could not have been in lilac, that her loveliness consisted precisely in always standing out from what she wore, that what she wore was never seen on her. And the black dress with luxurious lace was not seen on her; it was just a frame, and only she was seen — simple, natural, graceful, and at the same time gay and animated.

… She was enchanting in her simple black dress, enchanting were her full arms with the bracelets on them, enchanting her firm neck with its string of pearls, enchanting her curly hair in disarray, enchanting the graceful, light movements of her small feet and hands, enchanting that beautiful face in its animation; but there was something terrible and cruel in her enchantment.

 The contrast between the two women in this scene, merely through their clothes, is wonderfully done and I often think of it with pleasure. So there you have it, the highs and lows of my experiences in reading Tolstoy.

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2 thoughts on “Reflections on Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

  1. Claire (The Captive Reader) says:

    Oh, this is just the kind of detailed, thoughtful post I missed so much when you weren't blogging, Carolyn! Yet again, I have to say how happy I am to have you back!

    I tried and abandoned Anna Karenina so many times as a teenager simply because I could not stomach Anna herself (I felt the same about Emma Bovary). At the time, I could not read books with characters I did not sympathise with and I could not sympathise with characters I did not like. The liking was the real issue and one I've now sufficiently overcome, enough to think it is time I gave this book another try. I loved War and Peace (where Tolstoy also goes off into some truly bizarre, non-plot-related tangents, philosophizing to his heart's content) so I'm really interested to read more of Tolstoy's work and see how it compares. I'm afraid I'm going to horrify you by discovering I'm one of Levin's fans but I think our friendship is strong enough to endure that 😉

  2. Carolyn says:

    Thanks, Claire. I worry that my writing is too random, but I'm glad you like it. Thinking about this book further by writing about it here certainly helped me get more out of it.

    Maybe I can just relate more to both Anna and Emma Bovary, sadly! I sometimes wish I could live a life of romantic fantasy, so I read these books to remind me of reality. But if you do become one of Levin's fans (haha, yes I'll definitely still be friends with you if that happens! Thinking about it further, I'm more annoyed with the way Tolstoy treated his wife, say, than anything Levin does. He's kind of sweet, actually.), then you'll have lots to enjoy in this book, since as I say, I think it's more focused on him than Anna Karenina anyways. It definitely goes into what he's thinking more often than what she thinks. I'd heard Tolstoy goes off on side-tangents in War & Peace, although I'm still planning to read it someday! Just not this year.

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