Book #16

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Considered by some to be the greatest novel ever written, Anna Karenina is Tolstoy’s classic tale of love and adultery set against the backdrop of high society in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. A rich and complex masterpiece, the novel charts the disastrous course of a love affair between Anna, a beautiful married woman, and Count Vronsky, a wealthy army officer. Tolstoy seamlessly weaves together the lives of dozens of characters, and in doing so captures a breathtaking tapestry of late-nineteenth-century Russian society.

May Tolstoy forgive me for thinking this was a book about tragic romance, forbidden love, and a woman trying in vain to break the social chains tying her to misery. It does, of course, focus on those things, but gives us much more in the form of Konstantin Levin - wealthy landowner, notorious ponderer, and Anna’s foil.

Levin’s chapters mainly deal with his constant contemplation of his land, the peasants who work for him, and what he considers their rights should be. Tolstoy bleeds measures of religion and politics into these wonderings, as Levin slowly begins to consider why we strive so much only to eventually die. He, alongside Anna, is looking for a point to it all - to be happy, but also to have purpose in the world.

The Russian social customs of the time were far more interesting to me, however, than the political questions. Scorned for having an affair, shunned from her social groups and wider society, even losing custody of her child, Anna is placed into a cage which many believe is of her own making. The confines of her environment, the treatment she receives, and the hopelessness and futility of the entire situation lead her to the ultimate tragedy.

Anna’s slow decline is masterfully portrayed. The stark comparison we see in her from the novel’s initial pages is raw. We see a vivacious, beautiful, and enthralling woman reduced to an anxious and paranoid shadow of herself, desperately clawing at the world whilst the world continues to turn its back. Her final moments, the extinguishing of the candle, were taxing to me; those closing thoughts, that sudden realisation. Awful, horrifying, and yet important.

Although Anna and Levin are our two characters who receive minute focus, Tolstoy gives us a range of others to help paint his late 1800s Russia. They all serve a purpose, mainly to highlight the societal double standards, the political picture, and the crushing divide between both gender and class. No characters here are fully likable, and none of them can be entirely dismissed as villains. Tolstoy gives us the shades within all of us - we are flawed in places, but shine in others.

And above all, Tolstoy asks us what we would consider the epitome of happiness. If we achieve everything we aim for, will we be happy? Or will there always be something else to strive for?

I think Anna will remain in my heart for a long time.

“Sometimes she did not know what she feared, what she desired: whether she feared or desired what had been or what would be, and precisely what she desired, she did not know.”