Written by the famed Leo Tolstoy in the late nineteenth century, Anna Karenina has an enduring place not only in Russian literature but the canon of mankind. A saloon novel filled with philosophical moments, this hefty novel can seem daunting at first. But take a deep breath, and take it chapter by chapter. The open-minded reader will be surprised by how quickly Tolstoy pulls you in.
A note for those not familiar with Russian works, characters often are referred to by derivatives of their names. For example, Oblonsky is also called as Stepan or Stiva, depending on the situation.
Difficulty Level: 3/5
The Elevator Synopsis:
When Count Vronsky and Anna Karenina meet at a party, it seems like the beginning of the perfect romance. The only problem was that Anna was already married, to an influential and powerful man high up in the government. Despite the obstacles, the two carry out a torrid love affair that might either grant them the happiness they’ve dreamed of or destroy them both. In the same city, though in a slightly different circle, Levin is a wealthy farmer and landowner courting Kitty, Anna’s brother’s sister-in-law. Although the courtship itself does not present many problems, their relationship brings to light deeper philosophical issues, and Levin finds himself struggling with purpose, morality, and faith.
… spoilers ahead …
One of the most haunting aspects of this novel is Anna’s slow descent into insanity. As the story progresses, through dreams and mind games that anyone who has ever been in love will recognize, Anna slowly loses control of her world. This spiral coincides with external forces picking away at her identity. Separated from her husband, she is no longer a wife. Deprived of her son, she can no longer call herself a mother. Shunned by her companions, she can no longer be a friend even if she wished to be. She is left only with her lover, whom she distrusts because the patriarchal society has given men all the advantage and women all the shame. (And is her paranoia really unjustified, given the way Vronsky treats his mare in the steeplechase scene?) Vronsky’s mother had exclaimed at Anna’s suicide, but who can blame her when she has her whole world torn apart and has completely lost sight of reality.
The sympathy that Tolstoy masterfully evokes from the reader leads to my next point. Feminist is not the first word that comes to mind when describing Tolstoy, and maybe the writer would not go so far. However, again and again, Anna Karenina subtly points out the double standard between the sexes. In elite Russian society, Anna is shunned and disgraced; the scandal has forced the vibrant socialite to lead a life secluded in shadows. However, Vronsky’s career thrives instead of suffers. He is still very connected to his family and is able to go out in public without fear. This double standard is jarring and speaks volumes about the archaic ways of judging the sexes. However, never once in the novel does Tolstoy point out this discrepancy. Instead, by letting us live both lives through the lovers, the reader is allowed to feel the injustice for him or herself and perhaps feel more deeply than if Tolstoy had stood on a soapbox with a megaphone.