A masterful book about love and life

Written by

Leo Tolstoy in 1877

I would never describe Anna Karenina as an exciting read, much as one could never describe being on a late night train and getting off in a bad part of town as a relaxing experience. However, it is a good book, beautifully written by Tolstoy. Tolstoy uses his characters to the explore the concepts of love, marriage, the role of women in society and family. It also gives a marvelous insight into of Russian lifestyles, both aristocratic and lower class in late Imperial Russia. The story follows three major, concurrent plot lines concerning three couples, two married and one not, although one of them becomes slightly less important as the story goes on, as a direct comparison of how society at the time viewed each of the major themes.

The most important story, as you could immediately guess follows the life of Anna Karenina, who is described as alluring and desirable and a most distinguished member of the aristocracy. She is unfortunately unhappily married to a man who is not only much older than she is, but is not affectionate and generally only cares for his own career and reputation. She meets and falls in love with Alexey Vronsky (he very much reciprocates the feelings), who is quite wealthy, closer to her age, handsome leading to an affair and a daughter and revelations about their relationship come out in the open.

The second couple is that of Stepan Oblonsky and his wife Darya Schterbatsky. While Darya is at home being the wife and minding the household and the children, Stepan is off gallivanting around with his mates and other women. This obviously sucks, but somehow she learns to love him for who he is and accepts that’s just a part of his personality.

Finally, we have Konstantin Levin and his personal struggles, first to get the woman of his dreams – Ekaterina Schterbatsky – to marry him and then well as his own personal struggles in his life encompassing management of his estate, the meaning of life and his older brother Nickolai’s illness.

It’s definitely interesting to read Anna Karenina in the current, more modern times when having affairs and getting a divorce is not only much easier to obtain, but more socially “acceptable” (I say “acceptable” because there’s definitely still social stigma attached, but far less than what is depicted in the book) and the parties involved don’t become things to be completely shunned by the rest of civilization. In other words, life goes on. In each of the two married couples, it’s brother and sister who are having an affair, though for different reasons. Stepan is bored with his wife, though he loves her and has flings on the side. Anna hates her soulless life with her husband and wants to have the kind of love that you read about in fairy tales and she finds it in Vrinsky.

Unfortunately, social norms get in the way of Anna and Vronsky’s happiness, because all of her supposed friends – including another character who had affairs – publicly shuns her (and very hypocritically too). While her ultimate mistake is that she openly admits that she is having an affair to her husband but refused initially to get a divorce when she could, her concern for her first son is the motivating factor behind the whole ordeal. The whole time I spent reading Anna Karenina, one thought came to mind: how glad I am that society is more free and liberal than it was before and that in most countries now, entering into a marriage is now mostly up to the people who are making that choice to live together and not forcibly joined like many couples in the past.

Ironically, her brother gets away with having affairs all over the place scot free and the only person who pulls him up on his behaviour is Levin, who is your stereotypical self doubting good guy. I think that the severe contrast in outcome between brother in sister for the same behaviour is outrageous and goes to show that at the kind of imbalance that existed at the time between men and women and continues to this day in some cultures.

There’s not really a truly happy ending to any of the main character’s stories, least of all Anna. The closest really is Levin who ultimately gets what he wants and learns a great deal about life and himself. He gets to be happy in his everyday life. That’s really what most of us want! And despite the fact that most of the book is really a whole set of everyday events for most of the characters, there was some weird universal force compelling me to read on until the end. But also, on a more stylistic note, Tolstoy thankfully never really makes these seemingly mundane events to be more than they are.

Finally, Anna Karenina is definitely a great book to read, but read carefully and methodically. It has a great set of characters and though the plot is not completely original, its outcomes and the journey each character takes on the way there is fantastically written and imagined. Tolstoy’s greatest achievement in the book is perhaps in presenting each character’s actions and motivations, is never judgemental. Never has a book about generally everyday life been so satisfying.

Rating

A classic entry in the romantic tragedy genre

Should I read this?

I think this would be a great replacement for all that Shakespeare BS we’re fed in school.

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