Synopsis: Russia in the 19th century.Bored of her calculating husband and defying Society’s conventions,aristocrat Anna Karenina forsakes her honour,her pride,her role as the angelic figure in everybody’s eyes, and her child, by living in daylight her passion with Count Vronsky.In the backdrop of this ruinous affair are other love stories,other marriages; some unhappy,some prosperous and some never brought to fruition.
What you will like in Anna Karenina:
Russia has never been more beautiful than in Tolstoy’s era and her splendour is immortalized in Anna Karenina.In no less than 900 pages Tolstoy gives us a perfect account of Russian folklore by including all the peculiarities associated with Russian beliefs.Yet the book doesn’t feel antiquated; the late 19th century was also a time when we could see many things in common between us and the contemporary Russians.For instance people take morphia to forget their woes,and the men go to clubs and play billiards to relax themselves.Tolstoy also lets us discover a beauty seldom seen in our current world,which is that of the human touch.We see people making jam by themselves without any automation,servants harnessing horses and Levin eating pure honey which he has just taken from a bee-hive.Yes,in Tolstoy’s Russia,the world is simply picturesque.
The story is set in the middle of Russian aristocracy and for this reason,an air of grandeur emanates from this book.The refined activities into which the characters engage themselves meet our aesthetic sensitivity; they eat the finest food,they engage into the most interesting conversations,they go to the theater and to the races,the women wear the prettiest dresses,and the men go to a club where fine food and champagne are served,and billiard played.This high lifestyle of the aristocrats is yet another factor that sets Anna Karenina further apart from other books.The characters have the peculiarity of being highly cultured individuals who also speak Latin and French,and who knows how to appreciate life’s gifts.They evolve in a setting which you can only dream of and it is thus a pleasure to follow them in their lives.
Fyodor Dostoevsky is widely regarded as one of the finest psychologists in literature,but what about Leo Tolstoy,his successor? After reading War & Peace,Gustave Flaubert exclaimed ‘What an artist! What a psychologist!’.This statement also holds true to Anna Karenina.Through his stream of consciousness,Tolstoy gives so much complexity to his characters that they become works of art in their own rights.Given that everybody in the book has a background story and a reason that justifies his/her actions,it is hard for the readers to come to a judgement on almost all characters.We cannot tell if Anna is a hero or anti-hero,nor can we classify Karenin as a villain.
4.The Unforgettable Scenes!
Every reader will cherish particular scenes as the immense canvas of the novel unrolls.Anna Karenina was written in eight installments,so each part in the book has its own climax and memorable scenes.Their charm is indelible because Tolstoy is so good at describing inner feelings,decors and dialogues.For my part,two of my favorite scenes are Kitty’s ball and Levin’s proposal.
5.Touch of Modernism
Over the 137 years that have elapsed since its publication,Anna Karenina has not turned one bit antiquated,thanks to the myriad of modern techniques employed by Tolstoy. Had it been narrated in the usual archaic way,many people would never have finished this huge book.In fact the narration has certainly stunned more than a few readers and managed to keep their attention on the story.These modern techniques also testify to Tolstoy’s genius.If you’re acquainted with Dostoevsky’s books,then rest assured that Anna Karenina is lighter,more fluid and definitely more modern!
6.The Little Details
I love books where every scene and every little detail hold a significance.After reading Anna Karenina,I was flabbergasted and called the book perfection.I loved it even more when I read Helen Dunmore’s introduction of that book some days later.She provided an analysis of Tolstoy’s novel and turned our attention to those little details that might have eluded us.Tolstoy was such a perfectionist and so meticulous that those little details – such as Anna’s propensity of screwing her eyes up by the end – which he emphasized for apparently no reasons turn out to be extremely significant to the whole book! For this reason,this book has the peculiar charm of a play.
There is a very wide range of unique characters in this book,and the story is so long that we come across each of them at least twice or thrice.We are thrown in the story right in the middle of their lives,thus when we first meet them,we know nothing of them.As the story unfolds,we encounter them more and more to the point that we eventually wonder who they really are.For instance we wonder about the circumstances that led Anna and Karenin to marry each other,or about why Lydia Ivanovna takes care of Karenin in the end.Luckily Tolstoy satisfies all our inner queries by giving us a glimpse into the past of each character which helps us understand him/her better.Background stories aside,the fact that we meet them regularly in so huge a novel,enter their mind quite often and know every mannerism of theirs by heart leads us to temporarily harbor the illusion that they are real!
8.The Stream of Consciousness
The stream of consciousness is of the utmost importance to this novel.We gain much information about the past of the characters and it leads us to understand and sympathize with them.Besides it is also used to provide dramatic relief.We are not always in the mind of the main characters namely Vronsky,Anna,Karenin,and Levin,but very often we will move into the mind of minor but equally interesting characters such as Mikhailov,Dolly,Koznychev or Oblonsky.Switching between the minds of different characters is a great way for Tolstoy to keep hold of our attention without boring us.
What you might not like in Anna Karenina:
1.The Political and Agricultural Matters
When we go back to the country where Levin lives,we are very often faced with agricultural matters which he ponders over and over again.They did interest me,as I found them intriguing since they reflected Tolstoy’s interests.However I doubt if other people will like reading these matters which have nothing to do with the novel.Likewise Tolstoy’s political voice is heard whenever the male characters meet.When this happens,you’re sure to face at least two full pages of political discussion.Such little digressions were important as Tolstoy did not wish to write a book without putting in his opinions about certain prevalent issues in Russia.I read these political conversations slowly as I didn’t want to miss anything in the book,but I can tell you that they are hard to follow…
Now the different names one would call a character were not an issue for me.However I saw many readers complaining that so many names create a confusion in their minds.You simply should be aware that as per the Russian tradition at that time,people had different names.For instance,Constantine Levin is also referred to as ‘Kotsya’,and Dolly is the diminutive for Darya.And when a wife’s surname is mentioned,it is altered in such a way that the ‘a’ sound will be heard.For instance Dolly is called Darya Oblonskaya because her husband’s surname is Oblonsky.Likewise Anna,whose husband is Karenin,is called Anna Karenina.But everything will be clear once you get used to the setting.Having read Crime&Punishment,I can tell you that the names pose no problem at all as compared to other old Russian books!
You already know about that,isn’t it? Anna Karenina is a huge novel,even bigger than Moby Dick. So unless you have time to read it regularly,skip this book for the time being.Don’t even think of getting back to reading it after a pause of 1 week or more; you will definitely feel lost and won’t enjoy it.
Verdict: This book is the epitome of beauty.For the reasons I listed above,it truly is a masterpiece.In my opinion,Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina should be mentioned in the same breath with Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Michelangelo’s David,except in the Russian novel’s case,you do not have to spend much to appreciate it.But just as for any other piece of art,you might have to see things from a different angle to catch sight of its immense beauty.In other words,your appreciation of Anna Karenina depends solely on how much aesthetically sensitive you are and how much willing you are to see things differently.This is a book to be read over and over again.I can’t imagine how wasted my life would have been,had I not read this gem.Simply perfection.