Anna Karenina stands beside War and Peace as one of Leo Tolstoy’s two great masterpieces. I’d been meaning to read it for a while, and I finally picked it up from an airport store a couple weeks ago to read over vacation. It wasn’t even a book store, just a newspaper-and-magazine place with a tiny book section, and they never would have had it except that the movie happened to be out. So I got the “official tie-in edition” – lucky me!
I was unprepared for how massive the book was, weighing in at just under a thousand pages. The story itself is likewise huge, spanning perhaps a dozen main characters and many more minor ones. I thought I’d have trouble keeping up with the names, but it turned out not to be too difficult. It helps to have a little knowledge of how Russian names work: characters are often referred to by their first and middle (patronymic) names together, omitting the last name, which is rarely done in English.
The novel takes place in 1870s Russia, mainly Moscow and St. Petersburg. There are three main threads to the story, corresponding to the three main couples:
- Oblonsky and Dolly, who have a fairly happy marriage despite the husband being kind of a loser, having affairs and getting massively in debt. In spite of his immorality, Oblonsky is one of the most likeable characters, just because he’s friendly and cheerful and kind to everyone. As Tolstoy describes him in my favorite sentence of the book: “He was on familiar terms with everybody he drank champagne with, and he drank champagne with everybody.”
- Anna and Vronsky, whose stormy passion is a stark contrast to the calm but tepid love of the Oblonskys. Anna herself transforms through the course of the story, from a tender and kindly young mother into something much darker. In the process, the gravitational pull of her personality attracts and alters everything around her.
- Levin and Kitty, who find a kind of middle ground in their relationship, combining genuine love with the tolerance and patience necessary for a stable marriage.
One of the great joys of reading Tolstoy is how incredibly real the characters are. You never feel like the author is taking sides or preaching. You’re simply looking through a window at an incredibly detailed, shifting, multifaceted world. Characters frequently misunderstand each other’s motives, not just in big plot-altering ways, but in everyday conversation. The same person can be selfish, kind, caring, and cruel, sometimes all in the same moment.
Given the depth of the characterization, it was pretty cool to discover a character very much like me. I’m Levin. The love of reading, the obsession with abstract ideas and figuring out a system for life, the social awkwardness, the confusion about politics, the difficulty with practical matters, the intellectual pride, the reasons for agnosticism and the struggle with faith: it’s all there. Even his conversion to Christianity at the end, though unsatisfying to me philosophically, was still a lot more satisfying than many other reasons I’ve heard for believing in God (like the Ontological Argument).
I’m running out of time as always, so I’ll wrap it up. Anna Karenina is a good book and a great book, and if you ever want to get lost in a sprawling classic, you can’t go wrong with Tolstoy.