Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Book Review: Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy

Today is Leo Tolstoy’s 186th birthday, so it seems timely to post my review of Anna Karenina. My grandparents bought me the book for my 23rd birthday, but I didn’t actually read it until this year. I say read – I devoured it on holiday and on every work lunch break until I finished it.
Published in instalments between 1873 and 1877, the novel documents Anna’s ill-fated affair with Count Vronsky. Contrasted with this is the story of Levin, a pensive man who’s searching for meaning in his life.

First, let me give you a bit of history – I watched the Kiera Knightley version of the film a few years ago and, while I was quite disappointed, I became curious about the book. In the film, Levin’s story felt like a random addition rather than an important part of the story, so I wanted to know what significance he held in Tolstoy’s novel.

Anna Karenina opens with Anna’s brother, Stephan Oblonsky, in trouble with his wife, Dolly, for having an affair with the children’s nanny. Anna comes to their residence in Moscow to resolve the dispute and keep the marriage together. Levin, Oblonsky’s friend, also travels to Moscow from his farming estate in the country to propose to Dolly’s youngest sister, Kitty. 

He learns that Kitty is being courted by Alexei Vronsky – Kitty turns down Levin but, at an important ball, she realises Vronsky has fallen in love with Anna and won’t marry her. Anna and Vronsky met briefly when Anna arrived in Moscow, after travelling with Vronsky’s mother. 

Anna is shaken by her reaction to Vronsky – who declares his love for her – and realises, when she returns to St. Petersburg, that she does not love her husband. She remains devoted, however, to her son, Seryozha.

She does, eventually, leave Alexei for Vronsky, and so the drama unfolds...

AK is rich in issues of class, gender, politics, religion... but, overall, I felt the main theme was social inequality – particularly the differences between men and women, and rich and poor.

I thought I would find Anna a strong, admirable character, but as her affair progresses with Vronsky, she changes from confident and respected to jealous, volatile and manipulative. I can’t say I felt sad for her at the end. However, it is deeply unfair how Vronsky is still welcomed in society and the political arena, while Anna is wholly rejected by society and her supposed friends. Twinned with this is Alexei’s loss of respect and power because of Anna’s affair – deemed unmanly for not being able to keep his wife, he, too, suffers. The affair demonstrates the rigid social expectations of men and women in 19th century Russia, which I found fascinating and a little disturbing.

While Anna is acting out her own ruin in the cities, Levin escapes back to the country after his failed proposal to Kitty. I found him bad-tempered and a little self-absorbed, but his narrative gave the novel a more philosophical edge – he questions how to make changes to farming, and how to make his workers more effective, but their adversity to change and his inability to implement it seems to be a wider reflection on 19th century Russia as a whole.

I was fond of Stephan Oblonsky - he is a bit of a rogue, not paying his debts and being unfaithful to his wife, but his actions do provide light relief. I laughed out loud when Levin, Vronsky, Oblonsky and a few others are voting in Parliament, and the vote counters pull out a nut and a button from the ballot box. It was so unexpected that it really made me giggle!  

Anna Karenina is an intelligent read and a true classic; I can’t wait to read more of Tolstoy’s work.

Happy birthday Tolstoy!

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