‘Anna Karenina’ is an enigmatic read. It took me a really long time to “achieve” reading this book, attributing the difficulty to its great length and the intimidation that Tolstoy’s name brings in.
‘Anna Karenina’ is a classic written by Leo Tolstoy that was published in 1877.
‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’
This memorable opening line forms the basis of underlying themes of family, love, marriage, and fidelity in this book. The book is set in the time of industrialization in Russia; with railway connectivity reaching far-flung areas besides a brewing dissatisfaction at the slow pace of the country’s development. But except for Levin’s character, Tolstoy sidelines his preferred themes of class conflict, war, and politics in this book.
About the Story
‘Anna Karenina’ is the central character and Tolstoy lends her husband’s name to the title instead of her maiden name. Tolstoy puts the reader under the spotlight, as he makes Anna one of the most candid, honest, and sprightly caricatures of a married woman in an elite society.
Anna is married to Alexei Karenin, a senior statesman and about twenty years older than her. As part of St Petersburg high society, Anna puts up the façade of a perfect wife and hostess for the innumerable social events past her cold marriage. Anna as a mother to Seryozha, her eight-year-old son is placed in a dilemma between her responsibilities as a mother and her desires.
Alexei Vronsky is a young, handsome cavalry officer as Anna’s love interest outside her marriage. There are two men with the same first name ‘Alexei’ in Anna’s life, with contrasting traits in their character, and in their ability to understand a woman’s heart.
In Moscow lives Anna’s brother, Prince Stephen Oblonsky (addressed as Stiva) with his wife Darya Alexandrovna/ Dolly and their six children. Dolly is maternal and a realistic picture of a woman coping with her husband’s adultery, financial mismanagement, and lack of interest in household matters. Ironically, it is when Anna travels to Moscow to reconcile Dolly and Stiva after him being caught in infidelity, she meets Vronsky for the first time.
During the train journey from St Petersburg to Moscow, Anna and Vronsky’s mother travel in the same carriage. On arriving in Moscow, Vronsky’s mother introduces Anna to her son who had come to the railway station to receive her. A dark omen lurches this meeting as a guard is run over by a train and killed.
Reaching Stiva’s house, Anna is able to persuade Dolly to forgive her brother.
Dolly’s younger sister Kitty makes an entry as Levin’s love interest but is rather smitten by Vronsky. However, at the big coveted ball, Vronsky is attracted to Anna. In this complicated mesh of love interests and heartbreaks, Tolstoy proceeds with Anna Karenina’s saga.
Levin in contrast to the rest of the characters
Kostya Levin is Stiva’s friend, a landowner who is socially awkward with strong views on agrarian development in Russia. His character is drawn elaborately and in contrast to the majority of the elite. He prefers to live in the countryside, practice agriculture, and be with the peasants while working on his land. Levin talks about the ‘science of agriculture’ and regrets the rich will never gain knowledge of farming techniques.
This was a period of a tussle between employing new farming techniques and replacing farm labour. In a discussion between Levin and Sviashsky, a landowner with his estate near Levin’s, they prod about the positive effects of Education in bringing equality and better understanding in Poland and other parts of Europe.
“He considered the Russian peasant as occupying a stage of development intermediate between the ape and the man, and at the same time in the local assemblies no one was readier to shake hands with the peasants and listen to their opinion.”
Towards the end, Tolstoy felt the urge to reconcile Levin with the orthodoxy leading to a spiritual awakening.
The idea of Marriage
While Levin spoke about the agrarian reforms and farmers’ issues, Russia was also undergoing upheavals in its social practices. Tolstoy tells us about the confusion left in the Russian minds related to marriage who were constantly looking towards Europe as a progressive part of the world.
“The French fashion–of the parents arranging their children’s future –was not acceptable; it was condemned. The English fashion of the complete independence of girls was also not accepted, and not possible in Russian society. The Russian fashion of match making by the offices of intermediate persons was for some reason considered unseemly; it was ridiculed by everyone, and by princess herself. But how girls were to be married, and how parents were to marry them, no one knew.”
Some passages elaborately discuss the relevance of marriage and the role of women in society comparing the grandeur and modernity of St. Petersburg with that of the traditionally rooted Moscow. Great stress is given to bringing out the division in people’s mindsets, the clash between deeply entrenched traditions, and accepting the modern Western ways of life. Society is divided on whether a man should marry once and One section of the society believes that one husband ought to live with the one wife whom he has lawfully married; that a girl should be innocent, a woman modest, and a man manly, self-controlled, and strong; that one ought to bring up one’s children, earn one’s bread, and pay one’s debts. Dolly conforms to this norm, while her husband Stiva enjoys life shirking away from his responsibilities.
A beautiful line from the book says, “Woman is deprived of rights from lack of education, and the lack of education results from the absence of rights.”
- Stiva and Dolly
Stiva is a self-centered man with no interest whatsoever in his family matters – wife and children and leads a frivolous life of infidelities and financial oversights. But, the social pressure of ensuring their marriage survives rests solely on Dolly. She understands, accepts, and compromises her position for the sake of her children. At a later portion in the book, Dolly does envy Anna’s courage to break free of ‘the monotony of respectable existence.’
Dolly feels “…her whole existence during those fifteen years of her married life, ‘pregnancy, sickness, mental incapacity, indifference to everything, and most of all-hideousness.”
- Anna and Karenin
Anna’s husband Alexei Karenin isn’t evil or bad; he is a well-accepted statesman but just cannot reach his wife at an emotional level. He strictly abides by religious and societal norms. So, even when he realizes Anna is in love with Vronsky, he tries to maintain his marital relationship in public for the sake of society. It is also a time in Russia when obtaining a divorce is extremely difficult. Anna wishes to get divorced from Alexei to have a respectable life with Vronsky and have custody of her son. These two things are denied to her!
Alexei Karenin’s character is redeemed in his love and compassion for Anna when she is extremely ill after giving birth to Vronsky’s daughter.
- Anna and Vronsky
Anna stands for her ‘love’, despite the backlash from society. As for analyzing Anna and Vronsky’s love, there was a point when Anna’s love and her physical presence were an unattainable dream for Vronsky, “…though she spoke not always appropriately, as now, she said simple things with some sense in them. In the society in which she lived such plain statements produced the effect of the wittiest epigram.”
But after staying together for a while, Vronsky sees Anna as ‘she is’ and sometimes craves to go back to his bachelor life. The dishonorable social position makes Anna and Vronsky avoid staying in Russia. For three months, they live in Europe where Anna is surrounded by feelings of loneliness, jealousy, and unworthiness.
- Levin and Kitty
Levin’s proposal was turned down by Kitty, for she believed she rather liked Vronsky. But then circumstances bring Levin and Kitty together. They are married in a traditional Russian ceremony. Levin’s idea of marriage is utopian, he had seen married couples and understood how after a certain time love gives way to squabbles and jealousy and wished to make his marriage work, unlike these set examples.
“His ideas of marriage were, consequently, quite unlike those of the majority of his acquaintances, for whom getting married was one of the numerous facts of social life. For Levin it was the chief affair of life, on which its whole happiness turned. And now he had to give up that.”
Yet, in a few days, he encounters the same fate in his marriage with meaningless arguments, mistrust, and disappointments. Though with time, and with the birth of their son, the relationship between Levin and Kitty as the married couple begins to mature. This is unlike Vronsky and Anna’s relationship which seems to deteriorate with every passing moment.
So, marriage is understood beyond the initial exuberance of love and early married days.
Anna Karenina: The portrayal of Women
Anna Karenina is an effective portrayal of a strong woman who decides to leave her husband to be with the man whom she loves. She stands strong to have her son with her against the established social norms of that time.
The story begins with Dolly’s house as an example of an unhappy family and not with Anna in her unhappy marriage yet Dolly reconciles to her situation and Anna takes her opportunity for love. Sometimes you feel as if Dolly overshadows Anna’s character. Perhaps it is normal to empathize with the woman who compromises, accepts her fate, and lives for other members of her family. And, Tolstoy tells us – well, that’s not your heroine; it is the other one, the strong and passionate lover even after having a child. Yes, being maternal doesn’t end your desire to be loved.
Recommending ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ by Milan Kundera to know his insight on the motif of death and train station as employed by Tolstoy in Anna Karenina. And, seamlessly getting Anna Karenina as part of his book’s plot.