I finally finished Anna Karenina, which is my first classic Russian literature work. It took me a while to read – I have spring fever, despite the crazy weather – but I really enjoyed it. This is going to be a spoiler-y review; I’ll try to keep it as non-spoilery as possible but some big plot points I feel compelled to discuss.
First of all, I have seen the movie (before I read the book; a cardinal sin!) and while I really liked the movie, it simply can’t encompass everything the book does. The movie is good and I think it captures the bare bones of the book both thematically and with reference to the plot line but … the book is better. And deeper. And explores so many more themes and relationships and emotions. You should read the book if you liked the movie.
Anna Karenina is a novel, first and foremost. It reads like a novel, and the content is nearly exclusively focused on the characters and plot line. Unlike Les Miserables, which derived its critique of society from author commentary as much as character experience, Tolstoy’s characters serve as the only lens with which the readers view the Russian elite. This made the novel much easier to read, comparatively; the reader is never pulled from the storyline or given a preface with a particular viewpoint before a scene. It does leave much more open to the reader’s interpretation and, I think , demand more from the reader in understanding the context in which the novel was written.
Though I enjoyed the translation I ultimately choose – Louis and Alymer Maude, translators – this is one of the very few books I wish I was able to read in its original language. Some of the nuances, I think, that may have been important to the overall tone of the book were simply lost; at least, I often felt one was there without being able to understand it.
The novel itself follows the exploits of three couples: one, Oblansky and Dolly, an old married couple with a marriage fairly typical of the aristocratic class; the second, Oblansky’s sister Anna and Karenin, a peacefully married couple whose lives are thrown into upheaval when Anna falls in love with Vronsky, an aristocrat and calvary officer; and finally, Levin and Dolly’s sister Kitty, two young people just starting to think of a relationship when the novel begins.
While Les Miserables focused on the plight of the poor and the socio-economic roles they’re forced into, Anna Karenina focuses on the forced roles of the upper echelons of society.
This includes their differing views on peasants and the poor in general; it’s interesting reading this novel, seeing the undercurrents of change that are beginning to take place in Russia, with the knowledge that the revolution is only a few short decades away. It’s not a major focus of the novel, and certainly no view is upheld as right or wrong, but the discussions held on the education of women and peasants, the ruling of the lower classes, and the characters’ noblesse oblige are instrumental to the book’s overarching themes.
A larger part of the novel is used to examine the structures of society: the costs of living within it and the price one pays to live without them; the divide between men and women, and through that, the important of education and opportunity (whether that was Tolstoy’s original intent, I do not know); and choosing one’s personal god.
I don’t mean god in the religious sense, but god in the sense that everyone worships something to one degree or another; everyone has something they rely on for fulfillment in life. This conflict is crucial to Levin, who spends the majority of the novel trying to figure out the meaning of life. Anna, too, is deeply affected by this conflict; though she does not spend time debating her purpose or spiritual beliefs, her downfall lies within her choice of a god. (Anna, by the way, is an exceptionally well-drawn character, whose spiral into depression, disillusionment, and separation from reality is beautifully portrayed.) And there are some excellent parallels to be drawn between the two that just begs for inquisitive minds to explore.
Anyway, despite all the grand themes and overarching inquiry into human nature, it’s a very easy, though long, book to read. Tolstoy depends entirely on the character and plot to move the book through and leaves the interpretation to the reader, making this book more approachable than many classics. To anyone who loves tragic romance, dramas, or who wants to read a book to improve the mind, I recommend it. To those who want a light read, with happy endings and less introspection into the human condition, or who want a book where the author’s opinions and influences are heavily apparent through exposition, and thus help set up the context of the novel, I say, perhaps not.