Cross-posted on the Robbins Library blog.
To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t thrilled when my book club chose Tolstoy’s famous (and famously long) Anna Karenina. However, part of what I like about being in a book club is that it often provides that little nudge necessary to tackle a book that I might not otherwise have the motivation to begin on my own.
So, I downloaded the e-book version from the library’s digital media catalog and put it on my e-reader…then waited until about three days before our book club meeting to begin it. Needless to say, I didn’t finish in time for the discussion, but I did finish eventually – two and a half weeks later. And I’m so glad that I took the time to read Anna at a leisurely pace, in little sections, absorbing and savoring, because it is marvelous.
There are at least five main characters: Anna herself, of course; her husband, Alexander Alexandrovitch (Karenin); her lover, Alexey Vronsky; her niece Kitty; and Kitty’s husband Konstantin Levin. Anna’s brother, Stepan Oblonsky, and his wife, Darya Alexandrovna (Dolly), also play significant roles. Tolstoy’s mastery is such that the reader enjoys insight into each character, and is able to understand and sympathize with each.
Over and over again, the characters’ emotions struck me as familiar, and I was surprised at how little human nature has changed. We “modern humans” tend to think of ourselves as more advanced, more enlightened, more complicated, and more progressive: but here is the character Natalia saying, “Parents now are not expected to live at all, but to exist altogether for their children,” and there is Kitty reveling because Levin’s jealousy proves his love for her. Here is Karenin exclaiming, “I cannot be unhappy, but neither she nor he ought to be happy,” and there is Anna lamenting, “And no one understands it except me, and no one ever will; and I can’t explain it.” Here is Anna making the Vronsky of her imagination fit with the Vronsky in reality, and there is Vronsky made cold and vindictive by Anna’s need for him.
Even one character’s light suggestion that “they ought to find out how to vaccinate for love, like smallpox” could have been the seed of the idea for Lauren Oliver’s recent popular young adult series, beginning with Delirium.
All of these emotions and reactions are so recognizably human that the book truly is timeless, retaining its power throughout the years. One line that had a particular impact was one of Anna’s last to Vronsky: “Respect was invented to cover the empty place where love should be. And if you don’t love me any more, it would be better and more honest to say so.”
I don’t think I’ll ruin it for anyone if I admit it has a tragic ending, but Anna Karenina is not relentlessly sad or hopeless. There are social engagements, horse races, hunting and farming scenes, meditations on business and bureaucracy, government and religion. There are also little touches of humor, intentionally or unintentionally. For example, very early on, when Anna goes to visit Dolly, she tells her hostess, “I assure you that I sleep everywhere, and always like a marmot.” (Are marmots particularly sleepy creatures, like sloths? I don’t know.) Later, Anna’s friend Betsy says to her, “Possibly you are inclined to look at things too tragically,” which is a rather dark piece of irony, considering Anna’s fate.
As someone who put off reading this long, classic work that I feared would be dense, impenetrable, and boring, I can now assure you that it is none of these things; it is in fact the opposite. Anna Karenina is an engrossing read, a comprehensive portrait of unchanging human nature.
With a new movie version recently released, one may be tempted to skip the book in favor of the movie. However, if you have the time and patience to read it, you’ll be rewarded with a lasting and memorable experience.