by Leo Tolstoy
translated by Louise & Aylmer Maude
Stiva Oblonsky, an affable and slightly clueless aristocrat, has been caught cheating by his wife Dolly, and brings in his urbane married sister Anna to reconcile them. She does, but falls in love with Vronsky, a dashing roué of a military man who is courting Dolly’s younger sister Kitty. They begin a tumultuous affair, hindered by Anna’s somewhat cold, reputation-conscious husband, but the illegitimacy of their relationship causes unhappiness. Meanwhile, Levin, a socially awkward intellectual and landowner, who is a sort of angry young man with sympathy for the working class, is also courting Kitty; when rebuffed by her, he withdraws but never forgets her. That’s a very brief synopsis of the three main plotlines in this epic novel (nearly twice the length of Moby Dick).
As the story of a troubled marriage caused by cheating, an unhappy affair, and a happy, devoted marriage, this novel is taken up by many as a moralistic cautionary tale. The polarization of the insecure but careful Levin, burning with intense but noble and innocent passion, with Anna, who is swayed by her passions without thinking of the obvious consequences, makes up the main characterization of the novel. But Tolstoy is more subtle than this simple dichotomy. There are no perfect beings in this book, there is no absolute right or wrong; it’s the practical (or impractical) decisions that people make which make them happy or unhappy, not their “inner characters.” At times, the reader sympathizes deeply with the unhappy Anna, despite the fact that her troubles are of her own making; and he continues to present Oblonsky as a sympathetic fellow, even as he puzzles over why his wife should be so upset over his philandering. Tolstoy shows that he understands human motive; whether you judge it right or wrong isn’t as important as that you know why they act as they do. This is also a novel of manners, in a way, though there are some truly profound passages in Anna Karenina that explore the fundamental questions of life. As the characters struggle with their own existentialist crises – the acceptance of society vs. following your heart, materialism vs. faith, raising up the working class vs. realizing that many of them don’t want to work hard or raise their station – how they handle those crises is what elevates them to happiness or bleak despair. Although it’s an engrossing and intelligent novel, I don’t rank it as one of my favorites. I was annoyed at times, as I can be with these stuffy characters from another era, at their infantile waffling or stubbornness. For example, Levin’s jealousy is adolescent and totally baseless, yet it consumes him at times. Anna’s insistence on going out in society, when Vronsky and all logic insist that this would be a very foolish thing to do, is baffling from a modern standpoint. And I was plain bored during some passages, such as a long tedious hunting excursion Levin goes on which doesn’t seem to have much to do with some of the grander questions he deals with. On the whole, this is a very fine novel, but to me not a Great Novel.