Published by Penguin Books on May 31st 2004
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(After caught cheating on his wife) “What had happened to him at that moment was what happens to people when they are unexpectedly caught in something very shameful. He had not managed to prepare his face for the position he found himself in with regard to his wife now that his guilt had been revealed. Instead of being offended, of denying, justifying, asking forgiveness, even remaining indifferent — any of which would have been better than what he did! — his face quite involuntarily (`reflexes of the brain’, thought Stepan Arkadyich, who liked physiology) smiled all at once its habitual, kind and therefore stupid smile.
That stupid smile he could not forgive himself. Seeing that smile, Dolly had winced as if from physical pain, burst with her typical vehemence into a torrent of cruel words, and rushed from the room. Since then she had refused to see her husband.
`That stupid smile is to blame for it all,’ thought Stepan Arkadyich.”
Anna Karenina has been on my bookshelf for such a long time, but its size and reputation were a little intimidating. The last section of the first chapter quoted above is the part that won me over. I was not expecting the humorous parts and I knew at that point it would definitely not be a dull, lifeless read!
Tolstoy’s characters really are the greatest. They are fully formed individuals who make mistakes, have regrets and conflicting thoughts and develop naturally (for better or worse). I really felt like I was in the character’s heads. When Kitty feels heartbroken, I feel heartbroken. When Levin is in the midst of the best time of his life, I feel elated too. Stepan (Mr. “If I knew it would bother her, I would have been more discreet!” and Anna’s brother) can be a completely ridiculous at times, but you can’t help but laugh at his antics and perceptions. I am still cracking up at Stepan’s love of sending drunk telegrams! Tolstoy even slips into the “minds” of inanimate objects and dogs and it seems completely natural! The novel really delves into the complexities of love and marriage.
I was a bit surprised that there was less of the actual Anna Karenina in “Anna Karenina” than I expected. I expected at least 80% AK, but it couldn’t have been more than 50%. It goes back and forth between the Kitty/Levin storylines and the Anna/Vronsky storyline, with a little bit of Stepan and Darya mixed in. I actually preferred the Levin story, because Anna Karenina (the character) can be so insufferable at times. She had incredibly difficult and unfair societal rules to deal with, but she also made some of the most frustrating choices! I am wondering what my opinion of Anna and Vronsky would have been if I had read this book when I was younger.
I deducted half a star because there are sections that I found really boring and those sections kept me from completely loving the book. Farming & Russian politics; I’m looking at you Levin! I did find the “boring” sections less of an issue than I did in War & Peace. The digressions do get irritating, but Tolstoy uses such short chapters. If I can just power through those difficult chapters, I know that I will eventually get to an interesting part again. For the difficult sections, I will usually read chapter summaries online before I read the actual text. If I have some context, it is much easier to read.
Overall, it was a wonderful book and the characters will stay with me.
One of my favorite parts was watching Levin and Kitty evolve, because I found them especially relatable.
Levin returning home disappointed and heartbroken decides that he is going to give up on love and focus on farming issues (short-lived of course):
‘The study was slowly lit up by the candle that was brought. Familiar details emerged: deer’s antlers, shelves of books, the back of the stove with a vent that had long been in need of repair, his father’s sofa, the big desk, an open book on the desk, a broken ashtray, a notebook with his handwriting. When he saw it all, he was overcome by a momentary doubt of the possibility of setting up that new life he had dreamed of on the way. All these traces of his life seemed to seize hold of him and say to him: ‘No, you won’t escape us and be different you’ll be the same as you were with doubts, with an eternal dissatisfaction with yourself, vain attempts to improve, and failures, and an eternal expectation of the happiness that has eluded you and is not possible for you.’
But that was how his things talked, while another voice in his soul said that he must not submit to the past and it was possible to do anything with oneself.’ (Part 1, Chapter 26, 93)
Who hasn’t set out with big plans to become a better person, but moments later been doubtful of their ability to do so?
Levin’s maturation at the end:
View Spoiler »“This new feeling hasn’t changed me, hasn’t made me happy or suddenly enlightened, as I dreamed – just like the feeling for my son. Nor was there any surprise. And faith or not faith – I don’t know what it is – but this feeling has entered into me just as imperceptibly through suffering and has firmly lodged itself in my soul.
I’ll get angry in the same way with the coachman Ivan, argue in the same way, speak my mind inappropriately, there will be the same wall between my soul’s holy of holies and other people, even my wife, I’ll accuse her in the same way of my own fear and then regret it, I’ll fail in the same way to understand with my reason why I pray, and yet I will pray–but my life now, my whole life, regardless of all that may happen to me, every minute of it, is not only not meaningless, as it was before, but has the unquestionable meaning of the good which it is in my power to put into it!” (Part 1, Chapter 19, 817) « Hide Spoiler