I recently embarked upon the task of reading Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. It was published as a book in the late 19th century, a time when divorce and infidelity were still shocking in society. Faulkner describes it as one of the best novels ever written. And, I have to agree. When I first picked the book up, I was quite worried about the size of it and I had been told by a lecturer, that it could be difficult to read. However, I found it surprisingly easy to read. The names can be a bit of mouthful, but it is Russian! But the main story can still be related to our society today. This will only be a brief overview, but it should give you a feel of what the book is like.
- Princess Anna Arkadyevna Karenin: Stepan Oblonsky’s sister, Karenin’s wife and Vronsky’s lover.
- Count Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky: Lover of Anna, a cavalry officer.
- Prince Stepan “Stiva” Arkadyevich Oblonsky: a civil servant and Anna’s brother, a man about town, 34.
- Princess Darya “Dolly” Alexandrovna Oblonskaya: Stepan’s wife, 33
- Count Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin: a senior statesman and Anna’s husband, twenty years her senior.
- Konstantin “Kostya” Dmitrievich Levin: Kitty’s suitor and then husband, old friend of Stiva, a landowner, 32.
- Princess Ekaterina “Kitty” Alexandrovna Shcherbatskaya: Dolly’s younger sister and later Levin’s wife, 18.
- Countess Vronskaya: Vronsky’s mother
- Sergei “Seryozha” Alexeyich Karenin: Anna and Karenin’s son.
- Anna “Annie”: Anna and Vronsky’s daughter.
For simplicity, I am only going to mention the main characters throughout the novel, rather then every single character mentioned.
Anna married a senior statesmen at a very young age because of his position in society, despite the fact that Count Alexei Karenin is twenty years her senior. Together they have one son, called Sergei and is eight years old. Whilst on a visit to her brother Stephan, to fix relations between him and his wife, Dolly, as she is affectionately known. Anna meets an officer in the Army, who had been courting Dolly’s younger sister, Kitty.
Unknown to Kitty, Vronsky was, as we would say today, a bit of a player and had no interest in marrying her. When Vronksy met Anna, he was overwhelmed by her beauty and had an unexplainable need to be close to her. It was so strong that he followed her back to Moscow, where they start to spend a lot of time together – for example going to the same parties, functions, meetings and so on. At first, Count Alexei did not think anything of this, until he saw people whispering about it and when he confronted Anna, he saw a look in her eyes that he had never seen before. He knew then that all was not right.
As the story develops, we soon find out that Anna and Vronsky have developed an intimate relationship with each other. So intimate, that he got her pregnant! Now for a woman in 19th century Russia, carrying another man’s child was not a good situation to be in. When the Count found out, he was surprisingly rational and willing to compromise. He even allowed Anna to continue seeing Vronksy, on the condition that her lover never enters his house.
So what happens? Anna summons Vronsky to her and he arrives just in time to meet Count Alexei. From then on, the Count was adamant he wanted a divorce and left the house on ‘business’. Whilst away, Anna goes into labour and nearly dies. Whilst at death’s door, she begs the Count to come see her and forgive her. Which he does, he can’t stand to see her dying without his forgiveness and promises to raise her daughter.
However, Anna survives and the situation becomes very awkward, especially when she hears that Vronksy tried to kill himself, because he could not be with her. Knowing that if she had a divorce, she could never see her son again, but also knowing that she can’t go on living like she was, Anna takes her daughter and runs away with Vronsky.
Together, the couple travel Europe, visiting small towns in Italy, before returning to property in the Russian countryside. Without a divorce, Anna cannot marry and her daughter, is viewed by law, as being the daughter of the Count. A fact that Vronsky would like to rectify.
Vronsky and Anna do not cope well being away from society. This created a lot of tension for them, with Anna accusing Vronsky of losing interest in her, in not loving her anymore, accusing him of being in love with other women, Kitty for example. Anna’s mental state deteriorates rapidly, she didn’t love her daughter, she missed her son, she was taking opium and she became suicidal.
She decided that for Vronsky to realise his love for her, she had to hurt him, take her away from him and then he’ll never want to leave her! She does this by going to his home town, where he was visiting his mother and whilst at the train station, minutes before a train was due, Anna threw herself onto the tracks, ready to end her life.
After her death, Vronsky was never the same. He re-listed in the army and went to fight a War with Serbia. His daughter was taken away from him by Count Alexei. He never recovered from losing the love of his life.
Levin is in love with Kitty, unfortunately though he loves the country and Kitty is a city girl, infatuated with Vronsky. After learning that he has no hope, Levin leaves Moscow, without even saying goodbye.
It is not long before, Vronsky has also left Moscow and in doing so, breaks Kitty’s heart. She realises that She should have said yes to Levin and is viewed to be seriously ill. Only her father understand her real illness; heartbreak.
By the advice of doctors, the family take Kitty abroad where she slowly recuperates but knows that she can never bear to see Levin again.
Levin is having his own problems, believing Kitty will be married soon; he throws himself into his land, working with his peasants and trying to help his brother, an alcoholic with not long left.
Levin finds himself in Moscow and runs into Stepan, who insists that he visits the family. It is there that he learns the truth and Levin and Kitty reconcile. They marry quickly and move to Levin’s country estate, where Kitty falls pregnant and Levin’s brother dies of consumption.
Stiva and Dolly have five children together but are not happy. The opening chapter informs us that Stiva has been playing away from home – what a naughty man! We also learn that he likes to spend more than he’s got and he is after another job, in order to gain an extra eight thousand roubles a year.
Anna convinces Dolly, that she can forgive him and that life goes on – even if Stiva does cheat again. Throughout the next few months, Dolly is increasingly worried about Kitty and invites her to stay with them in the country.
Once Kitty and Levin are reconciled, the entire family spend the summer on Levin’s estate. During the summer, Levin gains a clearer understanding of religion and realises (after a thunder storm that nearly killed his wife and child) that he truly does love his son, as much as he loves Kitty.
Dolly is still struggling financially and feels inferior to all the nice belongings of Anna and Vronsky, who see visits, but cuts her trip short due to being so overwhelmed by their wealth and need to show off said wealth.
Fortunately, Stiva gets his promotion, which goes a long way in helping them out.
In a nut shell, that is Anna Karenina. A story that I think can still be related in our society today; Women getting pregnant and not knowing who the father is; families struggling to make ends meet. And, young people making rash decisions and not realising what they actually wanted, until it was too late.
It is a really well written book. It doesn’t make you want to put the book down and never read it again. It is easy to read, it’s easy to understand the story and the back story, even with the Russian names (and their sure is a lot of them!).
There is a new film version of the novel starring Keira Knightley as Anna, Jude Law as Count Alexei Karenin and Aaron Johnson as Count Vronsky. I really really really want to see this film, but I really don’t think Keira Knightley should have played the main role. She comes across as wooden and when I was reading the book, she was not who I imagined Anna Karenina to be like at all. I just hope that I can get past her and the fact that I find her so annoying, in order to enjoy what could be an amazing film.
NB** This is a post I wrote about 15 months ago.