Anna Karenina is one of those undeniable classics that people tend to claim they’ve read, or have on their shelves to look a little more intellectual; in fact, it’s been on my own bookshelf for years before I finally picked it up this summer. Originally published in instalments in the periodical The Russian Messenger between 1875 and 1878, Anna Karenina was declared the “greatest book ever written” by Time magazine in 2007 after a poll of 125 contemporary authors. I can understand why, but it does take some serious dedication to plough through the 800-odd pages of the novel.
Those expecting a novel-form of the 2012 film starring Kiera Knightley and Aaron Taylor-Johnson will be disappointed; the original story focuses on more than just Anna and Vronsky’s relationship. Tolstoy’s story follows the romance between Kitty (Anna’s sister-in-law) and Levin (a landowner) alongside that of Anna and Vronsky, as well as, to a lesser extent, the moral conflict within Karenin (on whether he should divorce Anna) and Levin (regarding his religion and beliefs).
”I found myself sympathising with and understanding Karenin’s point of view, despite him technically being the ‘bad guy’ in the story”
Tolstoy’s writing style is unique in that it really gives you a sense of what society was like in late 19th- century Russia; he chooses to write from an ambiguous perspective, and so reflects the opinions of several characters without having them express it directly. On more than one occasion I found myself getting irritated at Anna because she didn’t understand exactly why all her friends and relations would not visit her. Similarly, I found myself sympathising with and understanding Karenin’s point of view, despite him technically being the ‘bad guy’ in the story.
”But at the same time you know that it was wrong of them – and harmful to those around them – to enter into their illegal relations in the first place”
The social norms and expectations within Russian society are made clear, and it is because of that there is a conflict throughout the story; you want to support Anna and Vronsky’s romance because it is inherently better than the ‘love’ between Anna and Karenin. But, at the same time you know that it was wrong of them – and harmful to those around them – to enter into their illegal relations in the first place.
Another aspect of the story that I loved was that it doesn’t shy away from the sexism that was part of 19th-century Russian society. Though it’s not necessarily critiqued, the different attitudes towards affairs depending on the gender of the ‘cheater’ are made crystal clear: the reader almost has the comparison forced on them in the form of Anna’s brother Steve, who we are first introduced to as a womaniser who had an affair with the governess. Steve is constantly presented as a happy, cheerful character loved by all, and ultimately forgiven by his wife even though he continues to pursue other women. Whereas Anna is critiqued and judged by almost
Steve is constantly presented as a happy, cheerful character loved by all, and ultimately forgiven by his wife even though he continues to pursue other women. Whereas Anna is critiqued and judged by almost everyone and has to choose between her son by Karenin and her love of Vronsky, while Steve gets to keep his wife, children and mistress. It’s almost refreshing to encounter this brutal representation of the sexism of the time.
”The scandal and intrigue of such a plot is not shied away from by Tolstoy, and he confronts the dilemmas openly and allows the reader to make their own decision”
Overall this book is great! While the film is very focused on Anna and Vronsky’s love, having multiple intertwined plots in the book makes for interesting and varied reading. It was interesting to read about Russian society, and even learn a little about it along the way (though a vague knowledge of key historical events and the structure of society at the time would have helped me considerably), alongside reading a true – though unique – historical romance. The scandal and intrigue of such a plot
The scandal and intrigue of such a plot are not shied away from by Tolstoy, and he confronts the dilemmas openly and allows the reader to make their own decision, rather than forcing those of the characters upon them. A great read, and one that I would encourage everyone to read – especially since it’s probably sitting on a bookshelf somewhere, anyway!
Image Credit: Ellen Smithies