Thursday, February 16, 2023

Anna Karenina: Leo Tolstoy

I found it difficult to write more than a superficial review of this book without revealing some of the plot. If you have not read this book, and don't want to know much about the plot, I would pass on this review until you have read it. I knew little of the overall plot before I started reading the book, but I did know the ending. That did not spoil the book for me, but I would have preferred to go into the book with no knowledge of the story at all.

These are the major characters:

Anna Karenina, née Princess Oblonsky, is the wife of Alexei Karenin, who is 20 years older than she is. She is the sister of Prince Stepan (Stiva) Arkadyevich Oblonsky.

Princess Ekaterina (Kitty) Alexandrovna Shcherbatskaya is the sister of Princess Darya (Dolly) Alexandrovna Oblonskaya, married to Prince Stepan.

Count Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky, a cavalry officer.

Konstantin Dmitrievich Levin, a wealthy landowner. 

The story centers around Kitty and Levin and Anna. 

Anna is not happy in her life as the wife of a Petersburg government official but she does enjoy the social life and the things she can afford as the wife of a wealthy man. They have a young son that she adores.

Anna visits Moscow at her brother Stiva's request. His wife Dolly has discovered that he has a mistress, and is threatening to leave him. They have five children, and he wants her to stay married to him. Anna's goal is to talk Dolly into staying.

While in Moscow, Anna goes to a ball that Kitty and Count Vronsky also attend. Kitty is very young, and she expects Vronsky to propose marriage at the ball. However, Vronsky dances with Anna and they are very attracted to each other. When Vronsky does not propose, Kitty is humiliated. Vronsky and Anna get involved and soon are having an affair. 

Levin is a family friend of Stiva and Dolly, a wealthy landowner, and in love with Kitty. He had proposed to Kitty earlier, but was rejected. His life is more simple than the other characters who are involved in society in Moscow or Petersburg. He must spend time running his farm, and he takes his responsibilities there seriously.

Obviously there is much more to the story and the tale unfolds in over 800 pages.

My thoughts:

When I finally decided to read Anna Karenina, I had had my copy at least 12 years. It was time to make a decision to read or not read. I was put off by the length and my opinion that it would be a depressing book, but it was on my Classics List. The book was not as difficult a read as I expected, but at least half of the story was depressing. And it took me four months to read it.

I had difficulty reading this book mainly because of Anna's plight. She brings her problems upon herself, but she is in the unfair position of not being able to divorce her husband and still have some rights to her son. She, like other women at the time, had very little control over her life. 

On the other hand, I enjoyed reading about Levin, his trials and tribulations, and his propensity for evaluating his life and that of others. He was a good man and a hard worker. I liked that he and Kitty do find their way to each other and enjoy their life together. Levin is surprised to find that marriage is not always idyllic, but together they learn how to deal with their differences. There are portions of Levin's story that are drawn out and overly long, but those parts also reveal a lot about life in Russia in the 1800s.

Anna Karenina is good book, deserving of the designation as a classic, and I am glad I read it. I learned a lot about life in Russia when it was written.  My edition had footnotes and explanations; for instance, there was a note explaining the laws that governed divorce and the rights of women at the time. I liked the Levin / Kitty plot but I had to mostly force my way through Anna's story. 

At times I had problems with the Russian names. Some of them were very similar (both Vronsky and Anna's husband are often referred to as Alexei, which was very confusing) and the same person was referred to at various time by their real name or nicknames.  


Publisher: Penguin Classics, 2004 (orig. pub. 1878)
Length:  838 pages
Format: Trade paperback
Setting:  Russia
Genre:   Fiction, Classic
Source:  On my shelves for many years.
Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky


pattinase (abbott) said...

I have read very few Russian novels and those I did were much shorter.A book of this length would put me off today more than fifty years ago. I have read other books about failed romances, Madame Bovary, The Lost Lady and my favorite, House of Mirth. Good for you that you stuck with it. Next time, choose Ethan Fromm, a classic that is very short.

Margot Kinberg said...

To me, Tracy, there is definitely the theme of women's (lack of) rights. As you say, there's definitely a strong argument that Anna brings trouble on herself. But she's also in the position, as a woman, of having little autonomy. That in itself makes for hard reading, at least for me. But what a look at the time and society!

Cath said...

You did well, not only to read the thing but also to review it! I'm pretty sure I won't be reading it. LOL! I need to get around to one of the classics as I said I would try to read several this year, it's choosing something that's my problem.

Lark said...

I've never read this one. The length of it has always discouraged me, and the fact that it has a sad ending. Congrats on reading this one! And your review of it was great. :D

TracyK said...

Patti, I have not read many Russian novels; the only one I read recently was The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov. It was nearly 400 pages, so half the length of Anna Karenina. There were times I was on the fence about quitting the book, luckily the 2nd half was easier to read than the first. Thanks for the recommendation for Ethan Frome, I have heard good things about that book in the last few years, plus the fact that it is short.

Kathy's Corner said...

Congratulations Tracy on reading Anna Karenina and I am not sure if I ever finished this novel. I decided to read it many years ago because I had just finished reading Crime and Punishment by Fydor Dostoyevsky and I was blown away by that novel and so maybe it was a mistake to read Anna Kareenina so soon after Dostoyevsky. I was looking for another Dostoyevsky experience and that was unfair to Tolstoy who is also a giant of literatureca and must be read on his own terms.

TracyK said...

Cath, some readers love this book and even reread it, but it is not one I would recommend. It has some positiive aspects but it is a lot of effort for the return.

I did like learning so much about Russia and its history, so I don't regret finishing it.

TracyK said...

Margot, I went back and forth between how much at fault Anna was. She made bad decisions, but I think any decision she made would have made her miserable, and that is no way to live. There is also the contrast with Darya (Dolly) Oblonskaya, married to Prince Stepan, Anna's brother. She is not happy in her marriage and her husband is very irresponsible, but she decides to stay with him and the children. A completely different situation, but also tragic in ways.

TracyK said...

Thanks, Lark. I wish that I did not have this attitude about very long books, but I do. Lately, even books over 400 pages seem intimidating. 250-300 pages is about perfect.

TracyK said...

Kathy, I have not read much by Russian authors at all, and Dostoyevsky is one I have not read. I have thought about reading Crime and Punishment or The Brothers Karamozov whenever I read good reviews of those books, but I am put off by the length. Maybe someday I will try one of those books.

I am glad I read Anna Karenina though, even with all my complaints.