Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy (translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky). New York: Penguin, 2000.
Summary: The classic work exploring the illicit loves and lives of Russian nobility against the backdrop of nineteenth century Russian class struggles and philosophical speculation.
For those looking for a “Cliff Notes” of this classic work, this is not it. Rather, I’m going to share some of my impressions on re-reading this work forty-some years after I first tried to read it in high school. I also can’t speak to the translation, except to say that the work reads easily and the dialogue does not seem stilted, as you find in some translations. Overall, it has been broadly praised.
The novel is kind of like a huge landscape painting with figures in the foreground against a vast panorama. What we have in that foreground are seven people in three sets of relationships against the social, class, and religious backdrop of nineteenth century Russia. It seems to me that in this novel, Tolstoy tries to address himself to all of these, which helps explain its length.
Of course there are the love affairs. We have the love grown cold between Anna and her husband, making her vulnerable to the affections of Count Vronsky, who is unwilling to content himself with a casual dalliance, but makes an all-out assault on Anna’s heart, with all the drama and tragedy that you might expect from such an act. One wishes that Anna’s husband would have challenged Vronsky to a duel (and we get the feeling Anna wishes it early on as well, as a sign that he really cares). Instead, he tries first to get her to confine her relationship to a conventional affair on the quiet. But neither Anna nor Vronsky can do this, and a bastard child makes this virtually impossible. The book chronicles their attempt to make an illicit love work, even though cut by society, and the struggle Anna increasingly faces as Vronsky also appears to cool in his ardor.
At the other end, we have Kitty and Levin who take half the novel to finally get together, and most of the remainder to really believe and settle with the incredible fact that they really and truly love each other. TV dramas that draw out love affairs have nothing on Tolstoy. We agonize to see them get together, and then delight to see a love that matures into a fecund relationship of child-bearing, homestead, and providing shelter for those not-so-fortunates around them.
Finally, there are Dolly and Stiva, who represent the hypocrisies and compromises that Russian society was willing to tolerate. Stiva likes the ladies, but not like Vronsky. He dabbles in affairs, and Dolly, after pardoning one of these, accepts that this is his character, and as long as he acts discretely and provides a modicum of affection, she looks, sadly at times, the other way.
We see the double standards between men and women that prevail in so many societies. We have men who are loving husbands, philanderers, passionate lovers, and cold-hearted, but none really pays for the kind of person they are. It cannot be so with Anna, who sadly, simply wants to be loved enduringly. For a woman to seek this, when a marriage has turned cold and formal, there was little alternative and less hope. And yet she risks all on her only chance.
Behind the foreground, Tolstoy explores the great questions of the day, giving us a panoramic view of Russian society, from relations between landed gentry and their workers to the philosophical speculations that shaped late nineteenth century Russia informed by an increasingly materialistic vision of the world in which cold science overthrew the structures and worldview of the church for many. At points, this may grow tiresome for some of us as we overhear lengthy disquisitions on these matters at various points. Yet Tolstoy, through the eyes of Levin shows us the hollowness of this all, the chattering intelligentsia flitting from one cause or latest idea to another. Perhaps the most revealing section is when Levin has to spend time in Moscow, participating in a series of these empty conversations, with people living above their means, and off the labors of the people. Meanwhile, Levin finds himself in an existential search for meaning as he witnesses the death of his brother, puzzles over the joy he finds in his work, and finds himself praying in the midst of his wife’s labor agonies.
Anna and Levin. Two kinds of life. One that is destroyed by a hollow and hypocritical Russian society. One that finds redemption in spite of it. That, for me, sums up Anna Karenina.