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Anna Karenina

a novel by Leo Tolstoy

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  • Oct 3, 2009
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Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, is perhaps the world's greatest novel.
If the story took place today, Anna would divorce Karenin, keep custody of her child, marry her lover, launch a career as an author, and divorce her second husband to embark on a third and finally happy marriage. No tragedy there.  And Kitty would move in with Vronsky before he met Anna,spoiling her future relationship with Levin. No bliss.

As it is instead, there is more drama than can be packed into a dozen novels of the same length.

About the translations:The new one by Pevear and Volokhonsky is the one most praised by critics.  The style is similar to Constance Garnett's, but their are differences in word choices.  Where she uses "irritable shyness," Pevear uses "irascible shyness." Where Garnett uses "vulgar," Pevear says 'trivial," and so on.

But it is Pevear's introduction and notes that provide great insight into the book. He tells us that Tolstoy wrote the book when he was more "balanced" between reason and emotion than he ever would be again. He mentions that friends of Tolstoy's thought the book lacked structure, but Tolstoy noted a hidden structure, if you know where to look. These two seemingly different stories, of Anna and her lover, of Levin and Kitty, come together at various points. Levin, despite his happy marriage, grows nearly suicidal, as Anna does, because he is lacking a world view. Eventually, he comes to worship goodness itself.  "Levin is you, minus the talent" Tolstoy's wife once said to him. The portrayal of Levin's courtship and wedding is accurate down to such detail's as the groom's lost shirt on his wedding day.
But we don't read Tolstoy for his lessons. We read him to live.
At a tremendous ballroom dance, everything is grand for Kitty. She looks like she was born in her tulle dress. Yet the dance is ruined when Vronsky dances repeatedly with Anna. We wonder why Anna, a married woman, dresses so enticingly, so magnificently. 
Anna's husband, Karenin, is hypocritical.  He talks ironically of his devotion to Anna. She is sarcastic back. Later when Karenin knows of her affair, he is regularly sarcastic to their young son, who grows increasingly bewildered.
When the affair between Vronsky and Anna is consumated, Vronsky says he feels like a murderer. His extra kisses are like chopping up and hiding the body.
Anna is also full of shame. 
Vronsky is hugely rich, an aristocrat. He loves horses and the army, and is popular. His best friend is a man not only without morals but positively immoral. The death of Vronsky's horse is a foreshadowing of his love dying, and remains "for years the bitterest moment of his life."
Kitty, who is literally dying of love for Vronsky, whom she realizes is in love with Anna, finally goes abroad with her mother. She meets Varenka, who administers help daily to the sick and dying. Kitty tries to copy her, but can't. When I was 17 and read this, I thought the message was about Kitty's inability to be a martyr. Now it strikes me as a simpler tale. Kitty was too beautiful. No wonder a  sick and dying  man falls in love with her, which nixes everything as far as his wife is concerned.
When Kitty returns to Russia, she is riding in a carriage to her sister Dolly's house when Levin sees her and realizes that he is as in love with her as ever. He has difficulty getting back in touch with her, because she has rejected his marriage offer, and he does not want to be accepted as second best. If he could meet her by accident, it would all take care of itself. 
When Levin finally sees Kitty again, it is a revelation. He can think nothing ill of this innocent, shamed-face creature whose every look asks for forgiveness. They communicate without words, they are rapturous. He wonders how he can get through the night till seeing her the next day, and indeed stays up all night. As part of the marriage process, Levin must go through confessions; he is grateful to get through it wihtout lying. He tells the priest he doubts everything, even the existence of God, and the priest wants to know how he will answer his babes' questions. (He'll get to those when they come.). It is interesting that Tolstoy was writing as long ago as 1873 and talks of a society where many begin with evolution, and advance to nihilism. 
Karenin, Anna's husband, has a moment of forgiving his wife and is blissful. (The scene is like Tolstoy's novel "Resurrection," which is about forgiveness.) But Karenin is moved by forces he can't control. Stiva, Anna's brother, is timid in approaching him with Anna's need for divorce. Karenin can't listen; he's thought all this over a thousand times and feels Anna will be ruined if he divorces her, and his child's education will be inferior. 
Kitty is marvelous with Levin's dying brother, and Levin surmises that for all his philosophy he doesn't understand death as well as she does. Kitty makes everything clean and sweet smelling, including the brother's nightshirt. She pets him and comforts him, talks of herself to distract him, tries to get the best doctors, etc.
For me, the most touching scene in the whole book is when Anna's son wakes up to find his mom has come back after she's been away with her lover for perhaps a year or more. "It's my birthday. I knew you'd come." He falls back to sleep with a brief explanation but awakens when he hears her cry. He can't figure out why she cries. But he's so overjoyed that she is there, he tumbles into her, then makes her hands go over his face and ears etc. One of the new servants thinks the old servant has done wrong to let Anna in, but the older servant scoffs. Is this how you repay her perfect kindnesses?  The reunion is interrupted when Karenin comes in; the boy can't figure out why Anna is both afraid and ashamed. The toys she chose with such loving care are gathered up again in her haste to get away. She dare not linger a second longer to leave them. When the boy cries, she pries his hands from his wet face to kiss him one last time. All the love that she didn't feel for Karenin has been poured into her son.
What Anna should have done to stop the self-torment.
1. The impossible: Go back to her son and ask forgiveness of her husband and forget Vronsky.  
2. The more likely: Live nearby and see her son daily,  still giving up Vronsky. 
3. Continue her children's book writing and caring for young proteges. 
There are at least four points in the novel where we get hints that the love between Anna and Vronsky will be tragic:
  • Kitty's father remarks that men like Vronsky are a dime a dozen. 
  • When Anna hasn 't seen Vronsky, she has to reconcile his image with her imagination.
  • Vronsky tries to paint a portrait of Anna and fails. When a serious artist does one, he learns something new about Anna from the portrait.
  • Even Levin, meeting Anna for the first time, sees that Vronsky doesn't understand her.  
When Vronsky sees Anna for the first time at the train station, he feels her suppressed power. She is everything a man might desire. When she sees Vronsky, she tries to suppress the joy and power in her eyes and it pops out again in her smile. She sees him as if she knows him already. The tragedy is that her love for Vronsky isn't worthy of her sacrifices.
A great ending: Levin's revelation at the end is that belief needn't be intellectual, it can be emotional, like the peasant's or like Kitty's. It means equating God with Goodness.

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August 06, 2010
Have you seen the 2007 movie? I doubt it is as good as the book, but I thought you would be interested nevertheless. You can take a look at @Byron_Kolln's review of the Anna Karenina movie. 
October 06, 2009
Thanks for this review and thanks for the translation recommendation. Its not something I thought about before. I read parts of this in a Ethics class last fall and have been meaning to read it completely.
October 11, 2009
Great! Thanks for letting me know.
October 04, 2009
Joy, thank you so much for the review! I am ashamed to say that I am Russian but have never read Anna Karenina. Sure I know the plot and I've seen the movie, but I understand the book is a lot better. I should really get this on my reading list! Thanks to you and @SteveDiBartola's review maybe I'll actually get around to reading it.
October 04, 2009
Thanks so much! You made my day. By the way, I prefer Constance Garnett's 100-year old translation, but a Russian in our book group says she prefers the more modern translation. Will be curious to see which you like.
October 12, 2009
I'll have to see what translations my library has. I might end up reading it in Russian though, I think my mother has the book! I've got a lot on my plate right now, so I don't know when I'll get around to it. If I do I'll let you know! Thanks :)
More Anna Karenina (book) reviews
review by . June 10, 2010
We start out in one man's head. A sin has been committed against his wife -- that of adultery -- but is it really so wrong to merely follow one's own true feelings? Should one persist in a state like induced catatonia if the life one leads is conducive to one's happiness? This question is considered again and again in Tolstoy's epic classic.      Oblonksy, a highly intelligent, clever, though lazy and not particularly learned man, skirts across Russia as both …
Quick Tip by . July 15, 2010
One of the greatest novels ever. Tolstoy has a profound ability to explore his characters, however much he seems to hate them.
Quick Tip by . July 03, 2010
everything one would expect from a great Russian writer
Quick Tip by . July 02, 2010
Loved it!
Quick Tip by . June 26, 2010
I like the story. You learn as well a bot about the Russian culture and history.
Quick Tip by . June 22, 2010
A lesser-known gem by one of the most prestigious authors in history.
Quick Tip by . June 16, 2010
Perhaps one of the most fascinating stories of all time. Once you read this you'll understand why it's considered a classic. The story is as relevant today as it was when it was published. It's one of my favorite books.
Quick Tip by . June 16, 2010
i have been actively reading anna karenina for eight years. it's gorgeous and awe-inspiring... but it's just too damn long! sorry, leo. sorry, most russian authors. still love y'all!
Quick Tip by . June 11, 2010
good romance and character study.
review by . June 27, 2009
  Anna Karenina is my favorite novel. Originally published in serial installments from 1873 to 1877, it is regarded by many as the pinnacle of realistic fiction. With its themes of fidelity and infidelity, city life versus country life, and depth of thought versus superficiality it addresses fundamental aspects of human behavior. It is narrated from a third person omniscient perspective that shifts from character to character allowing the reader to see the point of view of several of the …
About the reviewer
Joy Schwabach ()
Ranked #484
I write the syndicated newspaper column "On Computers' with my husband, Bob Schwabach.  See oncomp.com for more.
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About this book



ISBN-10: 0451528611 (MM pbk.)
ISBN-13: 9780451528612 (MM pbk.)
Publisher: Signet Classics
Date Published: November 5, 2002

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