By Elizabeth Suggs
For this blog series, I’d like to discuss classical literature. For this week, we’re going to talk about the Russian author Leo Tolstoy’s famous “Anna Karenina” story. Published in 1877, we’re set in a time right before Communism and right after serfdom. So, not only do we get to experience love and gossip in Russian high society, but we also experience a time in history not often spoken about, like pre-Communism.
This book first came into my lap after I signed up for a Classics book reading club. I’m ashamed to say before this, I never knew of the Russian author Leo Tolstoy, or the story “Anna Karenina.”
What I really loved about this book was the whirlwind of featured characters, all dealing with the difficulty of life, yet all surrounded by one central character: Anna Karenina. She’s described as a mysteriously beautiful woman with “something especially gentle and tender in the expression of her sweet-looking face.” (p.61)
This book is depicted in eight different parts, with more than a dozen characters. For those of you who find challenge in a book-length, then look no further! Anna Karenina is over a whopping 800 pages (depending on the translation) and typically contained into two volumes. It deals with themes of faith, family, Imperial Russian Society (Communism was only a conversation-topic at this point in time), betrayal, desire, city, and rural life. If that doesn’t have you at the edge of your seat, then think of this: the final theme, in my opinion, is happiness, and the aspiration towards it. Tolstoy starts his story with: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
The story starts with the discovery that Anna’s brother, Prince Stepan Arkadyevich Oblonsky (“Stiva”), had been unfaithful to his wife Princess Darya Alexandrovna (“Dolly”). Entirely consumed by grief, Dolly is inconsolable until Anna comes along and sets things right, but Anna is not as perfect as the reader is lead to believe. Her own life is filled with unhappiness with the only bright star as her son, and later also, her affair with Count Alexei Kirillovich.
Each character works through some unhappy problem, and how they deal with it shows their ultimate fate. For Anna, once her child is taken away from her, and she’s pushed to extreme isolation, she commits suicide.
Paralleling Anna’s story, Levin and Kitty’s tale is a whirlwind of passion, manipulation, and unhappiness. Several times Levin thinks to commit himself to the same end as Anna: “happy in his family life, a healthy man, Levin was several times so close to suicide that he hid a rope lest he hang himself with it, and was afraid to go about with a rifle lest he shoot himself” (p. 789). The spiritual crisis that pushes Levin to this point seems far removed from all that Anna faces. Yet, in the grand scheme of things, their lives are in the same tangled web. The fact Levin comes to terms with God and Spirituality is the only reason he doesn’t share the same fate as Anna, and I think that’s what Tolstoy was trying to tell us the whole time. Not only is “each unhappy family unhappy in its own way,” but each unhappy family deals with unhappiness in their own way.
This story is a wonderful read, but it is dense, and like any Russian text, the character names can get confusing. I was frustrated by Anna’s husband and lover having very similar names: Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin, her husband, and Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky, her lover. At one point, I mixed the characters up and had to go back and reread a few parts. If you can get past that, the love affairs, the conversations about Communism, and the defense of Slavs at the end are genuinely interesting themes, but, it does require some patience.