Back to the Classics: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1873-1877)

One of the problems with classic literature is that we may think we know what the book is about before we even read it. I can think of many classic books that I’ve never read but could tell you their basic plot.


This was the problem I had with Anna Karenina because my ‘knowledge’ of it was basically:  Woman commits adultery and ends up throwing herself under a train. It was written by a Russian, so of course, it would have a mass of various names, patronyms, and diminutives to confuse the reader. I’d also never read anything by Tolstoy before so had no idea he was such a brilliant writer and that I could trust to his expert skill.

But, oh my! What a book this turned out to be. And what a shame to believe you know the crux of the story and to put off reading it because of this. I’m just very thankful I finally decided to read it.
I’m not going to attempt a ‘review’ but will share some thoughts, impressions, and quotations, and hopefully, if you’ve put off reading A.K. for whatever reason, you might just be persuaded to give it a go.

‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’

Tolstoy jumps into his narrative with the observation above.
Family, community, and society are central to the story as are country life and city life. Tolstoy was a master when it came to characterisation and getting into people’s heads. There are seven main characters in Anna Karenina and he succeeds in allowing the reader a certain intimacy and empathy with each of them.
Prince and Princess Shcherbatsky have three daughters. One is happily married, another unhappily, and the youngest has just refused Levin’s offer of marriage and has had her head turned by the dashing Vronsky. The Prince thought highly of Levin but his wife disliked him in ‘his sharp judgements, his awkwardness in society (caused, as she supposed, by his pride), and his, in her opinion, wild sort of life in the country.’ 
She thought that Vronsky was far superior but the Prince was furious with his wife for her attempts at matchmaking:

‘It’s loathsome, loathsome to look at, and you’ve succeeded, you’ve turned the silly girl’s head. Levin’s a thousand times the better man. And this little fop from Petersburg – they’re made by machine, they’re all the same sort, and all trash…I see a man who has serious intentions, that’s Levin; and I see a popinjay like this whippersnapper, who is only amusing himself.’

Vronsky had never know family life, barely remembered his father, and had no respect for his mother:

‘In his soul he did not respect her and, without being aware of it, he did not love her, though…he could not imagine to himself any other relation to his mother than one obedient and deferential in the highest degree, and the more outwardly obedient and deferential he was, the less he respected and loved her in his soul.’

‘Vronsky…despite the full realisation of what he had desired for so long, was not fully happy. He soon felt that the realisation of his desire had given him only a grain of the mountain of happpiness he had expected. It showed him the eternal error people make in imagining that happiness is the realisation of desires.’

Levin was an interesting person, full of self-doubt, idealistic ideas, and awkwardness. Tolstoy opens the window into his mind and his inner struggles and it was quite comical at times.

‘I need physical movement, otherwise my character definitely deteriorates.’

In Part Seven, Chapter XIV, Levin’s wife is having her first baby and Levin was convinced she was dying. He doesn’t understand how the doctor can sit in another room smoking and chatting…

‘Suddenly there was a scream unlike anything he had ever heard. The scream was so terrible that Levin did not even jump up, but, holding his breath, gave the doctor a frightened, questioning look. The doctor cocked his head to one side, listened, and smiled approvingly.’

When he went into the room his wife seized his hands and said, ‘Don’t leave, don’t leave!’ and then pushed him away.

‘No it’s terrible! I’ll die, I’ll die! Go, go!’ she cried, and again came that scream that was unlike anything in the world.’
‘Doctor! What is it? What is it? My God! he said, seizing the doctor by the arm as he came in.
‘It’s nearly over,’ said the doctor. And the doctor’s face was so serious as he said it that Levin understood this ‘nearly over’ to mean she was dying.

Around the time I was reading this part of the book, our eldest son and his wife had their first baby. My daughter-in-law had a long labour and then delivered a whopping 11 pound boy. When our son rang us he said he had no idea that childbirth was going to be like what they experienced.
‘It was brutal!’ were his words. I immediately thought of Levin.

Levin had rejected his childhood beliefs and tried to reason his way through life. He undergoes some dramatic changes, struggling with his idealistic ideas that fall flat in real life.

…while his wife was giving birth an extraordinary thing had happened to him. He, the unbeliever, had begun to pray, and in the moment of praying he had believed.

Dolly, married to Anna Karenina’s philandering brother, Stepan, felt that she had lost herself in the process of being a mother. Alone in a carriage on her way to visit Anna she has time to reflect on her fifteen years of marriage,

‘pregnancy, nausea, dullness of mind, indifference to everything,,and, above all, ugliness…Labour, suffering, that last moment…then nursing, the sleepless nights, the terrible pains…’

Released from her everyday cares, she falls into a reverie where she questions the point of it all and considers that she should have left her husband and found happiness somewhere else. 
As she spends time with Anna and her crowd, she has a feeling of unhappiness and that she is poorly playing a part in the theatre with actors better than her.
She decides to go home earlier than intended:

Those painful cares of motherhood that she had hated so on her way there, now, after a day spent without them, presented themselves to her in a different light and drew her to them.

Tolstoy describes Anna Karenina as she follows a course that rapidly changes everything in her life and her exclusion from the society she desperately needed to belong to.

Anna said whatever came to her tongue, and was surprised, listening to herself, at her ability to lie. How simple, how natural her words were…She felt herself clothed in an impenetrable armour of lies. She felt that some invisible force was helping her and supporting her.

Towards the latter part of the book the stream of consciousness narrative that Tolstoy uses with regards to Anna is superb and reminded me of Dostoevsky’s character, Raskolnikov, in Crime and Punishment – psychotic and paranoid.

Death is a theme throughout and interestingly, only one chapter has an actual title and that is Ch XX – ‘Death.’
I could fill this blog with excerpts from this outstanding novel but so much needs to be read in context. It is multilayered, thought-worthy and deeply spiritual. I don’t know how Tolstoy managed to intersperse so much humour amid the pathos and tragedy, but he did. And to my surprise, I was able to keep up with the Russian names quite well, referring to the ‘List of Principal Characters’ at the front to the book – Crime & Punishment confused me no end with that side of things.
An impressive book in all respects!

Book Depository has 53% off the lovely Penguin HB pictured above at the time of writing. This edition was translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky and it flowed beautifully.
The free Kindle version here is translated by Constance Garnett, which I haven’t read so can’t comment on, but she is highly regarded as a translator.

Updated to add some articles on translations of Anna Karenina:

Linking to Back to the Classics 2018 – Classic That Scares You

24 thoughts on “Back to the Classics: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1873-1877)

  1. By coincidence I am about eighty percent through this now. I kind of know how it ends so I was not too worried spoilers. I agree it is an impressive book. This is also my first Tolstoy. I was suprised that it is less dense and less full of confusing character names then the Dostoevsky that I have read. I did a little research on translators and I almost went with the Pevear and Volokhonsky version but I instead went with the Louise and Alymer Maude version. It would be so interesting to compare translations.


  2. This book was one of my favourites and definitely worthy of a re-read. So funny how different translations affect different people. Pevear/Volokhonsky, whenever I've tried to read them, make the prose sound flat and wooden and lifeless to me. I read Alymer Maude's translation for this one and liked it much better. I will say that P/V have put together a wonderful marketing strategy. Constance Garrett's translations I quite enjoy too although I believe she's been criticized for taking liberty with the text.


  3. Hi Brian, my choice of translators was accidental. I like the HB Penguin Classics because they look really nice and feel good when you hold them! I didn't even think about who translated it but had it in my mind that if Penguin published it, it should be good. 🙂


  4. Hi Cleo, I added a few articles I found on the different translations. As I commented above to Brian, I didn't even think about that side of it, probably because Anna K is widely known and read. I studied up on translations when I was looking for a copy of Kristin Lavransdatter & I'm so glad I got the newer translation.


  5. The last time I read this book was over 2 decades ago. It held me captive from the first page to the last–I was even late to church in order to finish the final chapter! Oddly, it has come up in conversation more than once recently, and now you've written about it. I wonder if it is time for me to pull this one out again.


  6. I read this book ages ago in my 20s and remember enjoying the parts with Anna and Vronsky and really being bored by the sections with Levin. I think I would feel differently now 30 years later. I probably should re-read it but before I do I want to read War and Peace.


  7. Marian, it's a shame that this novel is known by this tragedy more than anything else. The storyline has a number of 'main' characters so it doesn't all hinge on this character's untimely end. It is jolting when it happens but the story doesn't end on a hopeless note, thankfully!


  8. Cleo, I read the Tiina Nunally translation. It's the first unabridged English translation of the trilogy since it was translated into English in the 1920's. I've read that the early English translation was severely flawed & difficult to read – archaic language & many omissions etc. I thought this translation was lovely but on some occasions I felt that something got missed in the translation. Nothing major, & overall it didn't mar the story.


  9. Ruthiella, it did get a bit philosophically rambling in places. I’ve re-read a number of classics I first read in my early twenties & I definitely appreciated them more having had some more life experience!


  10. Thank you for this! I've always been afraid AK would be sordid, but nothing else I've read of Tolstoy was, so I guess I shouldn't have been concerned. This does sound like something I'd like to read someday.


  11. I love this haunting story and really intend to re-read it someday. I last read it when I was expecting our second son, a season I refer to as my \”depressing Russian novel phase.\” I still have images in my brain from that long ago reading.


  12. I have the Everyman's Libary edition of Anna Karenina, translated by Louise and Alymer Maude. I like the book very much when I read it, but that was years ago, nearly 20 most likely. I should pick it up again, as I am sure I would be able to pick up on elements of the story that went over my head as a young woman. I agree with you that Tolstoy is simply a brilliant writer with a superb understanding of human nature. I was blown away by War and Peace – by how real all the characters were. I should read that one again, too.


  13. I have the Constance Garrett translation of War & Peace just because I found a nice HB copy second-hand & cheap but I'm wondering whether a different translation might be a better choice. I'd also like to read The Death of Ivan Ilych at some stage which is A LOT shorter.


  14. Oh, how I loved Anna K!! I would even consider a second read at some point in my life. In 2018, I also read Les Miserables, which I see is on your upcoming list. I enjoyed that immensely as well and look forward to reading your thoughts.


  15. Maybe because I've seen Les Mis both as a movie & live theatre, I'm sort of reluctant to commit myself to reading it. Funny, I was a bit that way with AK but so glad I read it in the end!


  16. I just saw the Broadway musical Les Mis last weekend. It was good, but nothing like the book. I was disappointed that the musical took liberties with such vulgar language and sexual innuendos. It also felt like the musical missed Jean Val Jean's Christian evolution, which was a main theme of Hugo's novel. I have no experience with the movie and most likely won't attempt it. Instead, I will re-read the book. :))


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