In writing this post,I hope I can enlighten those who wonder why Tolstoy’s masterpiece is regarded as one of the best books of all time.
The book begins with one of its most oft-quoted lines: ”Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”The indelible wisdom of this line can prove rather daunting to certain readers,but Tolstoy dispels any feeling of intimidation,which may take hold of his readers,by introducing the Oblonsky household.Although the family is unhappy and thus relevant to the introductory line,its situation is nonetheless funny: Dolly has discovered that her husband is having an affair with the French governess,and declares that she will not live under the same roof with him.Moreover the household has turned into a mess as the domestics have gone missing,the children are running about all over the house and Dolly is keeping to her own room while her husband prefers staying away from home.The funniness of that scene greatly contributes to setting us at ease for the rest of the book which is greatly needed in light of its size.For my part no sooner did I read this short paragraph than I knew I would love this novel.
We then follow the husband,Stephen Oblonsky,through one day in his life.We encounter again some funny moments,such as his failed plea for forgiveness from Dolly,but most importantly we learn from him what we should expect from the novel.For instance,Oblonsky is a Prince,lives with domestics and holds a top job; his way of life strongly suggests that the novel will revolve around Russia’s aristocrats.Thanks to the stream of consciousness,we gain access to his thoughts which are likewise highly evocative.We know that Karenin is among the most important men of Russia and that Anna is simply angelic.Herein lies one of Tolstoy’s countless forces.He takes his time to set the scene and doesn’t rush his readers at all.He is introducing a world in which,for the hundreds of pages to come,we will spend much of our time,and he doesn’t want us to feel lost in so vast a world.
We then encounter Constantine Levin and learn about his love for Kitty.Tolstoy doesn’t content himself with only describing how much Levin loves Kitty,as he also gives a little glimpse in the past of the former’s life.Levin used to visit the Scherbantskys and fancied Dolly a lot.But when she was married to Oblonsky,Levin turned his interest onto Kitty.Throughout the story Tolstoy makes sure that we do not miss anything worth knowing about his main characters.Indeed every one of them in the novel has a very insightful background story which helps us better understand their doings.For instance Karenin,a man difficult to sympathize with,was an orphan,had to work hard to make a place for himself in Society and Anna’s aunt almost compelled him to ask for her niece’s hand.In giving each of his main characters a background story which accounts for his/her actions in life,Tolstoy draws a line between his characters and those encountered in other novels; his are truer than nature.This is yet another reason why ‘Anna Karenina’ is closer to life than to a fictional world.
What makes this book even more realistic is that it is,from a certain point of view,a macro-representation of our world.Indeed we witness Kitty and Levin’s marriage,Nicholas’s death,Anna’s suicide,Anna and Kitty’s respective confinements,intense love and jealousy between Anna and Vronsky as well as between Levin and Kitty.Tolstoy does not simply include those everyday happenings in his book to beautify his story.Far from it,it is also a way for him to give us another outlook on them.He depicts suicide as an act of triumph and not one of despair.Likewise he does not describe the confinement of a baby as the ‘coming of a bundle of joy’,but rather as a very painful experience.
I cannot write my appreciation of ”Anna Karenina” without mentioning Tolstoy’s narrative genius at depicting his era’s Russia.There is an air of grandeur that emanates from this book,as Tolstoy brilliantly describes the solemn lives of the Russian aristocrats.It is all the more so with the characters’ frequent use of French in their speeches.I am bilingual since I was born,and to me,French is a very ordinary subject,but how Tolstoy makes it sound grand in his book!The lives of the Russian aristocrats are majestic and everything about them is dignified.The characters eat the finest food,the female ones wear the prettiest dresses into which they change at least thrice a day,and the dinners engage the most interesting of conversations.Even without the Russian aristocrats,Tolstoy’s Russia remains picturesque.The Russian genius skilfully puts forth the beauty of his country by highlighting its many peculiarities such as the Russian people’s eating honey with cucumber, making jam with their own hands or believing in many superstitions,namely that on the day of marriage,the one who steps on the altar first is the one who will dominate his/her partner.
Set against this picturesque Russia is a very wide range of characters of whom Tolstoy makes full use throughout the story.For instance we meet Koznychev,Betsy,Dolly,Lydia Ivanovna,Varenka,and the others at multiple points in the book and eventually end up knowing them as much as do the other characters; like everybody else in the book,we know that Dolly is a good-hearted and very reliable woman,that Koznychev can be at times cold and at times humorous, or that Betsy is a very lustful woman who pretends otherwise.What I like even more with Tolstoy’s use of his characters is that he manages to twist his plot in such a way that all the main characters have met one another by the end of the story.In so doing Tolstoy greatly satisfies his readers,as we always wonder what Anna would think of Levin or how Dolly would react upon finally seeing Vronsky.The meeting of the main characters with one another is for me one of the highlights of this book!
Virginia Woolf called Leo Tolstoy the greatest storyteller of all time and while reading the book,I could easily understand why.There are scenes of indelible beauty which I cannot explain to myself how he managed to describe.One of my favourite is when Kitty attends her first ball as a debutante.Here is an extract:
It was one of Kitty’s best days. Her dress was not uncomfortable anywhere; her lace berthe did not droop anywhere; her rosettes were not crushed nor torn off; her pink slippers with high, hollowed-out heels did not pinch, but gladdened her feet; and the thick rolls of fair chignon kept up on her head as if they were her own hair. All the three buttons buttoned up without tearing on the long glove that covered her hand without concealing its lines. The black velvet of her locket nestled with special softness round her neck.
I simply have no idea how Tolstoy,a man,could describe the feelings of a young woman so well.At that moment in the book,I was flabbergasted and mesmerized by the sheer beauty in Toltoy’s writing.I was in equal awe whenever Tolstoy described Anna’s beauty.He did it in such a way that I couldn’t help falling in love with her over and over again,just as does practically everybody who meets her.He was such a genius that he could put words on the most abstract of our feelings and this he did not only with Anna and Kitty,but also with Levin,Vronsky and Dolly amongst many others.
Finally there are the modern techniques which I talked about previously on my blog.Tolstoy,although writing about a Russia from many years back,did not fashion his book in an archaic way.That is why one hundred and thirty seven years after its publication,Anna Karenina is still as popular as ever.I would also mention like to talk about Anna as a character,but that would make the post even longer.Instead I plan on writing a separate article about her in the coming days.
If you’ve reached that far,then thank you for reading. 🙂