Review of Anna Karenina (1873)


Leo Tolstoy (writer).

Read in 2020.

Read in Sigurd Agrell’s 1925 Swedish translation. Excerpts in English in this review are taken from Constance Garnett’s inferior 1901 translation.

Mostly, Konstantin Levin attains maturity. As a free-thinking 32-year-old nobleman, he obsesses over the relationship of the ordinary Russian people to their land, recent fads in rationalized agriculture, and the industrialization creeping into the liberalized Russian economy from abroad. Though he is totally disinterested in civics and politically naïve, he gradually gets other things to think about. Twice, he wanders about in a daze, imagining a universal, earthy benevolence that takes the place of his own fashionable radical intellectualism, wherein life is “a speck of mildew, which has grown up on a tiny planet”.

Levin had been married three months. He was happy, but not at all in the way he had expected to be. At every step he found his former dreams disappointed, and new, unexpected surprises of happiness. He was happy; but on entering upon family life he saw at every step that it was utterly different from what he had imagined. At every step he experienced what a man would experience who, after admiring the smooth, happy course of a little boat on a lake, should get himself into that little boat. He saw that it was not all sitting still, floating smoothly; that one had to think too, not for an instant to forget where one was floating; and that there was water under one, and that one must row; and that his unaccustomed hands would be sore; and that it was only to look at it that was easy; but that doing it, though very delightful, was very difficult.

In a secondary plot, a woman Levin meets exactly once kills herself because she goes mad worrying about her social and economic insecurity as a female adulterer hitting middle age without independent upper-class wealth at a time when Levin’s free thinkers are still a tiny minority.

Anna Karenina is sometimes hailed as the greatest of all novels, and it’s certainly up there, if by “novel” you mean the genre of long-form fiction Anna herself reads when she is ostracized and lonely, not long-form fiction in general. It is a feat of empathy. Tolstoy develops a great many very different characters to great depth and inhabits them so well that it becomes the main attraction. Even a dog, Laska, gets to be a point-of-view character for a moment in part 7, chapter 8. Vronsky is an especially compelling composite nature, a paradox without contradiction. Anna’s husband, Karenin, is not so good. His transformation from a sarcastic supreme statesman to a dogmatic Christian spiritualist doesn’t make sense.

The pace is varied but only rarely slow, as in the cruel and boring hunt in part 7, chapters 9 and 10, the only truly excessive sequence. The mood also varies greatly, from the black comedy of Levin’s brother Nikolay’s protracted death, to the gentle absurdity of Sergei Ivanovich and Varenka being prevented from marriage by talking about mushrooms, to the broader comedy of Levin making a fool of himself at the elections, to the soaring festive scenes, to the Dostoevskyian intensity of Anna’s feverish final hours mixing inner and outer realities with a deft touch of depressive realism. It’s famously rich.

In addition to the classic novel’s depth of character and drama, Anna Karenina is also an amazing portrait of its time and place. It encompasses a wide range of scenes from everyday life and entertainments, with references and allusions that paint as complete a picture as you could want from a work of fiction. There’s Christina Nilsson and Adelina Patti, Talleyrand and Tyndall, but Karl Marx is never mentioned: In Russia, there are as yet no communists, or so one character claims in part 3, chapter 21. The Russo-Turkish War of 1877–1878 broke out as Tolstoy was wrapping up the story, and he made it a centrepiece of part 8.

The sense of contemporary modernity in this time and place is lovely. In the second volume, Vronsky founds a hospital that stands in contrast to the useless spas of the first volume. Three sisters are nicknamed Betsy, Dolly and Kitty. Most characters switch freely between Russian, German, French and English, often to make their words clear or obscure to servants. The novel’s greatest flaw is not its sprawl but its focus on the glamorous nobility, paying too little attention to the servants and peasants that dominated the real social fabric of the time. Fortunately, this focus is not total, nor blind. Vronsky in particular is shown to be openly contemptuous of his servants, whom he calls “parasites”. Here’s a telling scene from part 5, chapter 33, where Vronsky knocks over a decanter, breaking it:

“If you care to be in my service,” he said to the valet who came in, “you had better remember your duties. This shouldn’t be here. You ought to have cleared away.”

The valet, conscious of his own innocence, would have defended himself, but glancing at his master, he saw from his face that the only thing to do was to be silent, and hurriedly threading his way in and out, dropped down on the carpet and began gathering up the whole and broken glasses and bottles.

Tolstoy knows Vronsky is being a petulant, bullying hypocrite. The valet, on the other hand, is not disparaged, but nor is he characterized. The real parasite is Vronsky himself, yet Tolstoy keeps Vronsky on the stage like the tragedians of antiquity with their flawed better-than-average heroes, while the valet quickly disappears. There is “unmistakable sympathy” in the “good-natured little gray eyes” of Anna’s maid, Annushka, and the book’s only conversation between two servants (part 5, chapter 30) also concerns sympathy for Anna, yet Anna never considers confiding in anyone below her social class, despite her basic problem being of an economic nature. In fact, even Anna treats Annushka badly: See the ending of part 3, chapter 16, where Annushka instantly adapts to her spoiled and ignorant boss’s changing whim without a word of complaint.

Tolstoy is not blind to classism, but not interested in it, even when it undermines the drama. Anna compares a mere insult at the opera to being pilloried, clearly never considering that less lucky people have been literally pilloried for crimes as great as Anna’s, and for less. The author frequently emphasizes Anna’s beauty, as if it made her fate more touching. Yet at the same time, if the novel has a dominant sentiment, it is that of contemporary feminism. Part 1, chapter 11 outlines Tolstoy’s main thesis, which is sympathy for “fallen” women in line with the pericope adulterae forgery added to John. Dolly’s inner monologue (particularly part 6, chapter 16) and relatively typical case expresses it better than Anna’s atypical case. Compare the wonderful scenes of Dolly’s children: Adoring Anna in the opening, and Grisha’s tart in part 3, chapter 8, followed by a tumultuous bath. Domestic bliss at times, but at great cost.

The sexism afflicting Dolly and Anna is realistically damaging in Tolstoy’s portrayal. As with the poor treatment of servants, he does not conceal why it is perpetuated. It’s a book for thinking adults, not a partisan screed. However, the author does equivocate about Anna’s guilt. The scene following the consummation of her affair is at once prurient and more overtly moralizing than any other, in a grandiose and tragic mode. Infidelity is compared to murder. Later, blame is partly shifted to Ivanovna, the hypocritical Christian grande dame who is separated from her own husband, falls in love with others and is duped by a charlatan but who still persecutes Anna for leaving her husband. There is just a touch of melodrama about it; the right amount in my opinion.

The occasional dramatic myopia is counterbalanced by Levin’s interests beyond the human. The chapter immediately following that of Anna’s transgression ends with Levin’s lyrical description of early spring, free from people’s dark pressures. His rowboat analogy, quoted above, is fully human but more brilliant than “We Learned the Whole of Love” (1862/1863) and similarly hesitant about the limits of connection. The absolute high point of the novel, in my opinion, is Levin participating in the mowing of a meadow in several chapters of part 3. This is clearly where Tolstoy’s passions lay. The same conversation in part 1, chapter 11 that outlines the feminist theme also outlines the cultural theme of Levin’s dominant side of the narrative, and his personality. In the words of Stiva (Steve), the bon vivant whose zest for life matches Anna’s:

You have a character that’s all of a piece, and you want the whole of life to be of a piece too—but that’s not how it is. You despise public official work because you want the reality to be invariably corresponding all the while with the aim—and that’s not how it is. You want a man’s work, too, always to have a defined aim, and love and family life always to be undivided—and that’s not how it is. All the variety, all the charm, all the beauty of life is made up of light and shadow.

That’s Stiva speaking for the author about Levin, the author’s self-insert character. Indeed, in part 4, chapter 24, Levin reflects that his own interests managing an estate are “remote and incomprehensible” to the peasants there, and “fatally opposed to their most just claims”. This is a statement of conscious class struggle, but again, Tolstoy isn’t that interested in the subject. I’m glad that he develops Levin’s book somewhat, contrasting it against e.g. John Stuart Mill. It’s meant to be a fairly incohesive and perhaps futile piece of writing, but Tolstoy’s description of it is not strictly limited to the purpose of characterizing Levin. The unfinished book brings life to the setting, as in part 5, chapter 15. It flows nicely into the wartime pan-Slavism of the final chapters. By contrast, Karenin’s politics are insubstantial, described only in form, not content, as in part 4, chapter 6.

Tolstoy understands Levin’s free-thinking ideology better than Dostoevsky did writing Crime and Punishment (1866). However, atheism is not well represented. Golenishtchev, a minor character, describes those who’ve learned from Darwin as “savages” and denialists in part 5, chapter 9. In part 8, chapter 9, Levin rejects both materialism and then-current Western philosophy as inapplicable to the basic questions of life. In part 8, chapter 12, he forms the belief that such teachings would have driven him to murder—as they supposedly drove Raskolnikov—if it had not been for his Christian upbringing. This is a cowardly, ignorant and false conclusion, but thankfully, the modern teachings of Darwin et al. do not in fact drive anybody to murder within the novel.

Brother Nikolay’s trolling on his death bed, which I find hilarious in its believable awfulness, leaves a cautiously positive spin on the new mode of thinking. Nikolay is delusional, and obnoxious, and made to suffer in proportion, but unlike the Christian Ivanovna, the dying atheist Nikolay is not cruel. Tolstoy does not demean him by forcing any sincere last-minute repentance. When Nikolay finally goes, there is nothing in it to contradict or disparage atheism. This detail, in my opinion, illustrates the novel’s position in history, not only in describing Russia as it was, but also its position in literary history, between the realist novels Anna reads and a budding literary modernism.

References here: A Doll’s House (1879), The Brothers Karamazov (1879), Dhalgren (1975).

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