Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Anna Karenina has been on my TBR list for a long time, so when Mr. B&R bought me this amazing Penguin tie-in edition for Christmas, I was delighted. For some reason I find myself drawn to books with female character titles because they usually tell the woman’s story. But Anna Karenina was not exactly what I expected.

anna karenina poster

From GoodReads:

Leo Tolstoy’s classic story of doomed love is one of the most admired novels in world literature. Generations of readers have been enthralled by his magnificent heroine, the unhappily married Anna Karenina, and her tragic affair with dashing Count Vronsky.

In their world frivolous liaisons are commonplace, but Anna and Vronsky’s consuming passion makes them a target for scorn and leads to Anna’s increasing isolation. The heartbreaking trajectory of their relationship contrasts sharply with the colorful swirl of friends and family members who surround them, especially the newlyweds Kitty and Levin, who forge a touching bond as they struggle to make a life together. Anna Karenina is a masterpiece not only because of the unforgettable woman at its core and the stark drama of her fate, but also because it explores and illuminates the deepest questions about how to live a fulfilled life.

The main reason I finally decided to face the challenge of reading 892-pages-long Anna Karenina was the trailer for the 2012 movie adaptation starring Keira Knightley. It is not the first time neither will be the last a movie makes me long to read a book which I think is a good thing because you can be passionate about both forms of art and enjoy the way they connect with each other. So, I started reading the book in February since the movie was to be released in Spain in March and I thought i had plenty of time. Turned out, I did not. Anna Karenina has been one of the most challenging reads I’ve faced as an adult. I expected the whole novel to tell Anna’s story, but instead I found a coral novel. Do not get me wrong, Anna as a character is defined by the society she lives in, so it is only normal that Tolstoy describes the environment she lives in in order to fully create Anna. I do think society defines us and the way we behave, the dreams we have and what we feel happy with so, Anna Karenina can very much be the story of a woman in the Russian society in the 19th century who at the same time is fighting against what such society expected from her. I was more than happy with these sections, I really understood Anna and the chaos her affair with Vronksy caused despite my personal views on adultery. Anna and many other women were trapped in marriages and their roles as wives and mothers without any other personal fulfillment.

So, what was my problem with Anna Karenina? Mainly Levin. I do not know how a novel with a feminine name can be so focused on another character. Every time Levin appeared I wanted to cry, especially in the second half. I felt he was a foreign voice – the narrator’s – who was merely using Anna’s story to show his own views. And I did not agree with those views either, I found his showing off of his supposed moral superiority as cynical as those who he criticized. Also, his relationship with Kitty was unbearable to read: it was near domestic violence. His constant self-deprecation and how he tortured Kitty – remember the last jealousy attack? – just to come back to her and tell her how in love they were and how hel oved her  was is the perfect description of psychological abuse nowadays. I do admit his parts provided me with a great deal of information about 19th century Russian politics and racism, but sill, he managed to enrage me. I think Levin lost all integrity when he tried to work as a muzhik when he was clearly the boss because he thought hard work and the daily struggle would make him better so, he just worked as one… until he obviously got tired and came back to his pleasant life. I found this kind of behaviour insulting and sadly it reminded me of modern tendencies as well.

Regarding the female characters, Anna and Kitty work as complete opposites: the witty and dark adulteress and the devoted, blonde, innocent and naïve wife, daughter and eventually mother. I think the theme that eventually described them completely was motherhood. While Anna gives up her own son and does not love her daughter with Vronksy, Kitty is all love and tenderness even some minutes after giving birth. This leaves the reader with a dichotomy we are accustomed to, since it is central to Christian societies, but still infuriating, especially when also adulterous Oblonksy is socially respected and Anna can only commit suicide to escape her situation.

I did enjoy reading Anna Karenina‘s first half but struggled with the second one, but I am very glad I finished it. It is a landmark in 19th century literature and although I expected to love it, it was what I considered necessary for my education focused on gender and female characters.

10 thoughts on “Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

  1. We had very different reactions to this book – I loved Levin and Kitty’s story and thought it made a good foil to Anna’s. It’s a shame this book didn’t live up to your expectations!

    1. I felt the same; I remember really liking Levin and his story (although I could have done without some of the really long parts about his farming theory), and I found Anna very selfish. I’m sure saying that opens up a whole can of worms about whether a woman should stay in a stifling situation for her child or abandon him for self-fulfillment — hey, this book would pair wonderfully with The Awakening — but I didn’t like her much.

      It’s so interesting to see how different people interpret the same book. I love that there are so many different opinions, and your post has given me some things to think about if I reread this book, Elena.

    2. Thanks to both! I really wanted to love Anna Karenina, I really, REALLY did, but it didn’t work for me.

      One of the things I liked is that she sacrified everything she had for love yet it wasn’t enough simply because society didn’t approve. I think the novel makes a great point of how society shapes us and our lives. It doesn’t matter what we think or do, we are inevitably part of a group with the power to accept or ostracise us.

  2. I’ve had this sitting on my shelf for years but have yet to read it, although I did see a miniseries version some years back. Actually, I don’t think I’ve read a single work by any Russian authors–one of the holes in my reading history. Maybe I’ll get to it this summer…

    It’s too bad this one didn’t work out for you as well as you had hoped–here’s hoping the next one does!

    1. I watched the 2012 movie and loved it. I’ll review it soon. Why mini series did you watch?

      I also have a huge hole regarding Russian literature, but somehow I do not seem to connect with their stories, they don’t call my attention at all. Please let me know if you read any other Russian novel and you like it!

  3. I started the movie “Anna Karenina” but after 10 minutes found it difficult to follow. But the costumes were great. Though different in many ways, “Anna Karenina” and “Madame Bovary” do have one unifying theme. The longing for a woman for love and passion that they are not finding in their marriage. And both cases, living in societies that haven’t a clue about their needs. Both should be read back to back. It is interesting that both the authors are male writers who create a great deal of sympathy for their protagonists. And creating full human beings as well.

    1. How interesting. I think Flaubert wanted to set an example with Madame Bovary about how a woman should be in society rather than be sympathetic towards her.

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