I had only ever read short stories by Tolstoy up until this point. With him being often mentioned alongside Dostoevsky, I felt this was unjust and so gave Anna Karenina a try:
In 1874, in the Imperial Russia, the aristocratic Anna Karenina travels from Saint Petersburg to Moscow to save the marriage of her brother Prince Oblonsky, who had had a love affair with his housemaid. Anna Karenina has a cold marriage with her husband, Count Alexei Karenin, and they have a son. Anna meets the cavalry officer Count Vronsky at the train station and they feel attracted by each other. Soon she learns that Vronsky will propose to Kitty, who is the younger sister of her sister-in-law Dolly. Anna satisfactorily resolves the infidelity case of her brother and Kitty invites her to stay for the ball. However, Anna Karenina and Vronsky dance in the ball, calling the attention of the conservative society. Soon they have a love affair that will lead Anna Karenina to a tragic fate.
The plot itself was, at first, fairly unappealing to me – I had never really read what is essentially a romance novel before. The story follows various characters through their relationships and careers as they develop and deepen throughout the novel.
Tolstoy held the family unit in high regard and place of peace (certainly so in his major work: War & Peace) and so it is interesting to consider a novel surrounding the failure of the unit from within. When a proud, almost womanising, Vronsky comes on the scene and severs Karenin and Anna apart, we see the results of this failure.
At times the novel seems like a display of different variations of the family unit (perhaps reflected in the famous first line: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.“). We see each couple in the novel facing different problems and approaching them with quite different motives.
I admit though that I struggled at times to find much sympathy for Anna: she had cheated on her husband (granted he was a little cold to her), become pregnant as a result, and allowed her pride to push her into a relationship with Vronsky, even whilst still legally married to Karenin. In doing this she also abandoned her son, who continued to live with Karenin. Sure you see her love for her son in a very moving scene on her return to Petersburg, but the fact remains she leaves him.
Levin was perhaps my favourite character, and certainly the most accepting of reality, being close to the peasantry and the land. His moral crisis plays out interestingly too, and his struggle with the change in his life situations seems to real that Tolstoy certainly seems to be drawing from experience.
Ultimately the ending is very tragic, with despair succeeding and paranoid hopelessness prevailing. Perhaps this was the message Tolstoy wanted to show when society turns in on itself and selfishness is sought first in relationships. Afterall, unlike Levin and Kitty, Vronsky and Anna still seem adamant in their independence.
Overall the book is certainly worth reading, with some very touching scenes and interesting writing style. It is, though, a romance, and there isn’t a lot of action involved, so it may not be for everyone!