My rating: 4 of 5 stars
They say that you should write what you know. Plenty of books include references to their authors’ real life experiences. This is certainly the case for Anna Karenina.
The book actually follows two characters whose lives are loosely connected. The titular character, Anna Karenina, is married to a statesman, Alexei Karenin, and they have a young son, Seryozha. She has everything she could possibly want — or so she thinks until she meets the young, dashing Count Vronsky.
The second storyline follows Konstantin Levin, whom Tolstoy based largely on himself. Levin wants nothing more than a simple country living and a family to share it with, but the girl he loves, Kitty, has refused him because Vronsky has been flirting with her.
Anna’s brother, Stepan, is married to Kitty’s older sister, Darya. The book begins with a crisis in Stepan’s marriage: he’s been unfaithful to Darya. Ironically, Anna is the one who convinced Darya to forgive Stepan. Shortly thereafter, she meets Vronsky and carries out a flirtation with him that ends in adultery.
At first, Anna’s affair is about her infatuation with Vronsky and his near-worship of her. But after Karenin discovers their affair, she chooses to run away with Vronsky, and a destructive chain of events is set in motion.
In the meantime, Levin withdraws to his country estate to lick his wounds after Kitty rejects him. During his time there, he comes to truly appreciate the peace of pastoral living.
Tolstoy said that Anna Karenina was about family, and the contrast between the Karenins and the Levins shows two vastly different family lives: the idyllic, pastoral happiness of the Levins and the languid, corrosive misery of Anna and Vronsky.
There’s no question that Tolstoy is an amazing writer. After spending years being intimidated by Russian lit, I was surprised to find that Tolstoy was quite readable. Considering its length, the book is well-paced and doesn’t drag, except when it kind of needs to in order to accentuate the monotony and meaninglessness of Anna’s life.
However, I did find the novel somewhat self-indulgent at times. Levin’s progression through the novel mirrors Tolstoy’s life a little too precisely at times, to the detriment of the story. Tolstoy added Part Eight of the novel as an afterthought, and against his publisher’s advice — in fact, he self-published it because his publisher wouldn’t do it.
Being a Christian myself, I can understand why Tolstoy felt the need to add a Christian conversion for Levin at the end of the novel. However, from a literary point of view, the novel would have been stronger without the neat, happy ending.
It reminded me of when I first became a Christian in high school and tried to write the gospel into every essay assignment that year in a misguided attempt to give honor to God. I later came to see that it was okay for me to stick to the topic in my essays without trying to force God into it. I learned that there was a time and a place for God-related conversations, and that high school English wasn’t always the appropriate avenue for sharing my enthusiasm for my budding faith in God.
From a story standpoint, it was odd to me that Levin seemed to have already found peace and happiness in his family life, and that he suddenly starts to feel all conflicted and miserable out of nowhere, and at the very end of the story. While I can agree with Tolstoy’s message there, I didn’t think it added much to the impact of the novel as a whole. There was a reason I never got higher than a B on any of my “Christian tangent” essays.
But, at the end of the day, there’s no denying that Anna Karenina is a pretty amazing work, and it was definitely worth the read.