Monday, October 29, 2012

BACK TO THE CLASSICS CHALLENGE: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

I was beginning to worry that I wouldn’t complete the Back-to-the-Classics Challenge this year. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy is my choice for a classic set in a country that I will not realistically visit during my lifetime. The book has been on my bookshelf for many years (along with War and Peace) and I’ve always intended to read it, but I’ve been procrastinating. Not only is it long, but I’ve been afraid that it would be a slow read. To be honest, I was daunted by its Russian-ness.

Still, a challenge is a challenge. I finally picked it up and got started. And guess what? My fears were totally unfounded. The book sucked me in right from the start.

The book opens with one unhappy married couple, Stepan Arkadyevitch Oblonsky and his wife, Dolly. Dolly has just discovered her husband’s adultery and is devastated. She doesn’t believe she can go on with her life as it is but doesn’t know how to change things either. Stepan is miserable to have been caught but doesn’t feel any actual remorse for his affair. Hoping to patch things up, he has sent for his sister, Anna Karenina, to speak with Dolly.

At the same time, another relationship is in the works. Dolly’s younger sister, Kitty, is being courted by two men, Count Vronsky and Konstantin Dmitrievitch Levin. Vronsky is a handsome young rake, a military man of sorts, considered a good catch by all the enamored women. Levin is an older, steady man. Kitty has known him for many years and is fond of him, but he’s rather dull in comparison. Vronsky flirts but has no intention of marrying. Levin is utterly devoted.

The stage is set. Anna is a beautiful, lively, married young woman who does manage to reconcile her brother and his wife. She also meets Kitty, who adores her. They all go to a ball (supposed to have been Kitty’s triumph, but that was before Anna showed up.) Anna and Vronsky (who have briefly met at the train station) meet again at the ball and all is lost. Vronsky determines to pursue her and Anna, who previously was known to all as morally upstanding, decides to fall.

Anticipating a proposal from Vronsky, Kitty refuses an offer from Levin, who then leaves town to return to his country home/farm in despair. When Vronsky leaves town soon after in pursuit of Anna, Kitty falls ill with shame and wretchedness, realizing her mistake.

The book follows these people (and others related to them) as they live their lives. It is remarkably detailed in describing the every-day events but even more so in showing the inner thoughts of the characters. Everything is analyzed. The reader is right inside their heads. And even though its nineteenth century Russia, what Anna, Kitty, Vronsky, Levin, etc. think and feel could easily be put in the heads of contemporary characters. Their angst has a universal, timeless quality. Societal shunning of an adulterous woman might not be as complete or leave a woman with the limited options that Anna faced, but a lot of the psychological pain of the breaking up of the family is likely the same. The people, the situations– everything seemed very real. It is not entirely, or even mostly Anna’s story. Levin and Kitty get equal attention as foils to Anna and Vronsky, and the beauty of their relationship provides a lovely contrast without being too frightfully preachy.

All in all, Anna Karenina is an engrossing novel, a surprisingly quick read. I think I’m going to have to try tackling War and Peace!


  1. I've not read either of them, but I've heard several times that Anna is "better" or "easier" than War and Peace. I've been thinking about reading Anna recently -- maybe you've given me the extra "push" I needed. Thanks for the encouragement. Good luck!

  2. I just started reading this for a readalong and to get ready for the movie. I'm finding it very accessible although I've only read about 50 pages. I can't wait to get into the meat of the story.

  3. I was surprised at how quick and easy this was too! Like you, I felt that the emotions and dilemmas were modern enough to make the characters easy to relate to.
    Onwards and upwards to War and Peace? :P

  4. I really want to read this one before I see the movie!