Review: Anna Karenina

The TL;DR review for this book (since this is such a damn long book): I wouldn’t have minded an abridged version.

That is the first time in my life I have read a book and wished for the abridged version. Ok, maybe I would have liked one for Prince of Tides too, but I had to read that for school. This is the first time for a book I read by choice. (Again – Tale of Two Cities I might need abridged. That thing is just my Achilles heel).

To begin with, I am very confused why Anna is the titular character. The book begins with Constantine Levin and ends with Levin. Why isn’t he the name on the cover??? It is like 10 chapters before Anna is even introduced! And then it isn’t like most of the rest of the book follows her. I am sure if I went and counted the chapters about Levin and the chapters about Anna – Levin wins. Hell, I felt more attached to Alkexi Karenina (Anna’s husband) than I felt towards Anna!

Gregory Maguire did the same thing in Wicked and I hated it – Tolstoy never gets me into Anna’s head. We always see Anna from someone else’s perspective. Her husband, her lover, her best friend/sister-in-law (no idea why Dolly loves her so much though, that is a very one-way friendship), Levin. I think the final chapter OF Anna follows her, but it’s like Tolstoy had no idea why she was doing the things she was doing and so there’s very little real reason, it’s just actions.

She is a very unsympathetic character because of this. And I know that is one of the themes, that she’s this immoral creature and you shouldn’t be able to understand or sympathize with her (I’ve written on bringing your own context to books before, so I won’t rehash it much) but I wanted to at least understand her choices. Why the hell did she love Vronsky so much? Why the hell did he love her? The romance felt incredibly forced between them. It felt very deus ex machina rather than a real romance.

And no, I don’t think this is unreasonable. I felt more romance in Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice – and I looked it up, both of them were published well before (Pride and Prejudice was written in 1813, Anna in 1878 so it’s not like good character development was some kind of new thing. Hell, Dickens was already dead and HE was a big name in character-driven stories (just think about A Christmas Carol -it’s all about Scrooge’s character).

I am glad I read this book. I can say I have read classic Russian literature. I do wish I had been reading this in a class. Maybe if I had a guide explaining WHY some of these chapters even matter I would have enjoyed the journey more. There are three chapters in the middle of this book where Levin goes hunting. Nothing happens! He just has a bad day hunting, a good day hunting, and compares himself to all the other men and wishes he was a cooler dude. If these three chapters have some kind of symbolism, I didn’t understand it. If hunting was some kind of metaphor, I don’t have the context to understand it.

As hard as I’ve been on this book, it also had some fascinating look into late imperial Russia. 1870’s is just a generation from the Russian revolution and there is a theme in this book of the worthlessness of the nobility, the class struggle which was already forming, the class disparity, and some of the unique Russian-ness of the style. So much is just different than the English novels of the nineteenth century.

In some ways it reminds me more of Dumas than someone like Dickens. Maybe it’s just because the French revolution which obsessed Dumas has some strong similarities to the Russian revolution which was on the horizon. The Communist Manifesto had been out for close to 30 years and Tolstoy, in Anna recognized it’s influence on Russian society. I can’t tell you from this book if Tolstoy thought it was a good or bad idea, but he recognized it’s influence on his society. It is a very interesting look into late imperial Russia.

Would I recommend Anna? I don’t know. I won’t lie, I don’t know. I can’t say I devoured it with joy, I don’t know if I will ever read it again. But I can somewhat understand why it’s a classic. As a historian, it definitely is a glimpse into a piece of history I don’t feel like I got as much exposure as I’d have liked when I was in school. It is a long book, so I understand why most teachers wouldn’t put it on the syllabus. Long isn’t bad though. The Three Musketeers is long too. It’s a shame that they have to consider a limitation like time, but I do understand it.


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