“All happy families are alike,” Leo Tolstoy wrote to open his first true novel, Anna Karenina, “each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
As soon as I read those words back in 2017, I knew that this book did not deserve its modern reputation–like that of some other 19th century Russian mega-novels–of being unreadable, far too dense, and so boring that it’s the perfect cure if you’re having trouble falling asleep.
Now, I’ll admit that might not be what everyone thinks of Anna Karenina, which was published in 1877, but it certainly was my impression of the novel until I actually picked it up and started reading it. If that perception–that it’s mundane and only suitable for the most serious of literary adventurers–is what you think of Tolstoy’s work, let me try to convince you otherwise so that you can dust it off knowing you’re about to dive into a classic that is overwhelming in the best sense of the word.
Obviously, it’s next to impossible that I’ll be able to condense 800 pages of sweeping Russian narrative into a blog post under 1000 words. Anna Karenina has many, many side stories, to the point where Part Eight is dominated by one of those tangents. But I’ll be sacrificing those in favor of sticking to what I believe continues to make this novel sell to readers for all-time: the adulterous actions of title protagonist Anna Karenina.
A countess, Anna Karenina commands much respect in the social world of Russia circa 1870. Tolstoy introduces the predominant theme of marital infidelity quickly by having Anna discover her brother’s family life is in shambles because of his affairs. Anna herself, while married to a Count Karenin, falls for the charming Count Vronksy and winds up having an affair with him.
Tolstoy doesn’t spend too much time showing a motivation for Anna to cheat; instead he focuses on depicting her slow but terrifying (and depressing) mental deterioration. Paranoia–ironically, she obsessively worries over Vronsky cheating on her–and intense jealousy, combined with the collapse of Anna’s social spheres because of her affair, make Countess Karenina’s life painful and precarious.
In a move that probably helped solidify his reputation as one of the world’s all-time greatest writers, Tolstoy doesn’t pass judgment on Anna. Tolstoy lets his readers interpret Karenina’s actions for themselves. I find Anna to be one of the most realistic (and complex) characters I’ve run across in literature. In many ways, including her mental problems and her (self-inflicted?) struggles as a mother, Anna is a sympathetic character. But looming over her the whole time is her adultery, an action that both she and the reader have to face as Anna tragically takes things into her own hands.
Outside of the main story, Anna Karenina is a must-read for those, like myself, obsessed with Russia. Anna’s affair and its aftermath don’t take place in a vacuum: the whole historical, political, social, and religious landscape of 19th century Russia is on full display, just as it was in War and Peace.
I said I wouldn’t delve into the numerous side-stories, but if there’s one that should be on your radar, its a bittersweet scene where a peasant man and woman go out in search of mushrooms. They’re obviously in love with one another, but something–an excruciating, undefinable something–holds the man from proposing to the woman. The affection and melancholy packed into this scene make it a perfect miniature of the larger-scale heartbreak and tragedy playing out in this novel.
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