When one mentions Leo Tolstoy’s moralistic Anna Karenina, not only the Russians are delighted, but the whole world seems to be moved. Sometimes called the ‘greatest’ of books or the ‘pinnacle in realist fiction’, Anna Karenina was Tolstoy’s first novel, published from 1873 to 1877, a few years after his complex war epic War and Peace. From references and compliments of other writers, to entire books inspired by it; Anna Karenina must be special compared to all the other books. And it really is.
In this ‘classic’, happiness is proved to be ambiguous; the smallest and most casual things could make one as happy as a lark, however, when someone is desperately in the pursuit of happiness, one almost seems to be doomed to bump into problems.
The book, which consists of eight parts, revolves around the lives of Anna Karenina and Konstantin Levin, two very different protagonists, related to each other just by their common desire to achieve happiness in their lives. But their definition of happiness is rather different; Anna, a Russian aristocrat, destined to be (unhappily) married with Karenin, a cold but goodhearted man, thinks to find happiness in her affair with the young and attractive Count Vronsky. Levin, on the contrary, wants a simple life, like the peasants working on his land, and to share this life with Kitty Shcherbatskaya, who unfortunately is blinded by love for Vronsky.
Anna Karenina is flawless. Tolstoy’s writing style is sophisticated, extremely lifelike and detailed. The book moves the narrator’s attention around many scenes with a tremendous amount of characters; all living unique lives. Tolstoy tried to write a book with which all readers could relate; representing almost every possible point of view, but adding subtly his own opinion. Even more unique is Tolstoy’s perfect knowledge of the ‘metaphorical language’ and the way he describes the nature of his personages; being amazingly accurate with his examples, and emphasising people’s behaviour, internal dialogues and even small gestures –a glance, a tone of voice –, he uncovers in this unusual way, their character and humanity.
“He stepped down, trying not to look long at her, as if she were the sun, yet he saw her, like the sun, even without looking.” – Levin about Kitty, Part I Chapter 9
Another thing that really captured me about Anna Karenina, is its timelessness and its historical touch of 19th-century Russia; the many feelings and subjects, not only mentioned, but even often completely elaborated in the book, are phenomena that we still deal with in today’s society. This combination between realism and modernism makes it easier to empathise with the characters.
“These joys were so trifling as to be as imperceptible as grains of gold among the sand, and in moments of depression she saw nothing but the sand; yet there were brighter moments when she felt nothing but joy, saw nothing but gold.’ – Page 262. Dolly (Anna’s sister-in-law) about the joy her children give her.
Tolstoy created in Anna Karenina this almost living piece of world, with all its diversity and (im)perfections, out of paper and ink, which required –well, just a lot of it. Some critics, who had ‘survived’ the 806 pages read, claimed that the length of Tolstoy’s book made one easily lose ones concentration, with which I agree. But the fact that Tolstoy was able to bring these subjects, already written about thousands of times, in a new way and context, makes Anna Karenina definitely worth reading till the end.
Anna Karenina isn’t just a mainstream romantic book; it’s the story of human life; which can be quite unpredictable. I guess the main thing that this book wanted to make clear is that when someone is trying merely to achieve perfectness in one’s life, one will never be content and forget life itself. Because, like Tolstoy said, the thing that makes life (and this book) so charming, so diverse, so beautiful, is that it’s made up of light and shadow; of ups and downs. Anna Karenina is such a realistic, meaningful book and reading it is without any doubt, a good decision in life.
Anna Karenina has been turned into movies and plays many times; giving every time a new interpretation of the book. The newest version is Anna Karenina (2012), starring Keira Knightley as Anna and Domhnall Gleeson as Levin.
Fun Fact: Russian women used to take the last name of their (future) husband when getting married, and just added an ‘a’, hence Karenina.