Book Reviews

Anna Karenina

If you’ve always wanted to read Anna Karenina but are struggling to get started, let my recent experience motivate you. Leo Tolstoy’s literary masterpiece is often hailed as the greatest book ever written and, having recently finished it, I tend to agree and disagree. Any reader who has ever been asked the dreaded question “What is your favorite book?” can attest that there is not one greatest book ever written, but many great books all deserving of the spotlight. In my opinion, Anna Karenina is one of these, which is why it made my “Top 10 Books You Should Read” list (not to be confused with my Top 10 Favorite Books list :))

That being said, this book is daunting. It is long, and it has a plethora of characters you need to keep track of. Set in late 19th century Russia, Anna Karenina is by no stretch of the imagination an easy summer read but if you keep an open mind, it is fictional escapism at its finest.

How to read Anna Karenina

If you want to finish this one, there are a few tips and tricks I can share with you.

  1. Don’t rush. This is a novel that should be savored. It is not one to rush through to tick an item off your Goodreads bucket list. Don’t be put off by the page count. Better yet, read it on Kindle (it’s only a dollar, after all) and switch off your ‘time left’ and page tracker settings. It’s only a dollar, after all. Yes, at 864 pages, Anna runs long, and yes, it was written in the age of telling versus showing, but it is not as complicated as you might think. The key is to take your time and enjoy the process.
  2. Set liberalism aside. Anna Karenina was written a very long time ago, and the gender inequality of the time is reflected in the book. Personally, I think Tolstoy was ahead of the times. He certainly didn’t hate women. Given the era of his writing, his portrayal of Kitty is sincerely respectful – depicting her as kind and lovely. Considering much of her character is based on his real wife, it is not surprising that he treats this character with such care. 
  3. Listen instead. If reading is not an option or too daunting a task, I can highly recommend this one in audiobook. The Audible narration by Maggie Gyllenhaal is sublime. There’s a reason this version won Audible’s best classic of 2016. Maggie’s husky, honeyed tone is perfect, and she delivers an Oscar-worthy performance that makes this version thirty-five hours well spent.
  4. Last, and most important, do not attempt to read Anna Karenina without a character list. Tolstoy’s naming system follows the Russian custom at the time to give everyone a formal name, and then a shortened version. There are also the masculine and the feminine forms to be considered, plus the complicated Russian spelling, all of which make it very hard to keep track of who is who. The easiest way around this, at least until the characters become familiar, is to use a comprehensive character list. I used the Cliffs Notes version, which is brilliant, but for your convenience, below are a few of the major players you need to identify:

Anna Karenina Characters

Keeping track of this host of an ensemble can be tricksy, but here are a few of the main characters that you need to know.

  • Anna Arkadyvna Karenina. The titular character, Anna, is a beautiful and smart aristocratic woman whose fall from grace is difficult to stomach. She tends to be overly emotional and allows her heart to rule her head, so she tends to make impulsive decisions. Anna reminds me of the original “woman in the window” and her poor life choices are frustrating to witness, as she slowly sinks into depression.
  • Konstantin Dmitrich Levin. Fondly known as Kostya, Levin is the co-protagonist and the perfect foil for Anna. He is mature and intentional in both manner and thought and endeavors to always do the right thing, even when this goes against his own wishes. 
  • Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin. Anna’s government-official husband is the opposite of his wife. Formal, and conventional, he is driven by his career aspirations and lacks the passion Anna seems to crave in a partner. Alexei is insipid, rather than unkind.   
  • Alexei Kirrillovich Vronsky. A wealthy officer with whom Anna enters into an adulterous affair.
  • Ekaterina Alexandrovna Shcherbatskaya (Kitty). The kind and compassionate young woman who ultimately becomes Levin’s wife.

Cliff’s Notes has a comprehensive character list you can print out if you need more clarification.

Anna Karenina Book Summary

Anna Karenina is divided into eight parts, and we will look at each part individually:

Part 1:

Anna, one of the two main protagonists, travels to Moscow to visit her brother, Stepan, and his wife, Dolly. Stepan’s infidelity has caused a rift in the marriage, but Anna’s visit ultimately leads to a reconciliation. Anna herself is in an unhappy marriage. Her husband, Alexei Karenin is an honorable but dull man, and the marriage lacks passion. Together, Anna and Alexei have a son, Seryozha. During her visit to Moscow, Anna befriends Dolly’s sister, Kitty, who is being pursued by two men – Alexei Vronsky and Konstantin Levin. Kitty chooses the dashing Count Vronsky and rejects Levin’s proposal of marriage. Alas, Vronsky meets Anna at a ball and transfers his affections faster than you could say Karenina. While Vronsky follows Anna back to St. Petersburg like a love-sick puppy, Kitty realizes her grave mistake in rejecting Levin and falls into depression. 

Part 2:

Anna and Vronsky begin their affair, despite the risk it poses. Anna could well lose access to her son if she chooses to live as a ruined woman, as her husband points out when he begs her to end the affair. In the meantime, Levin learns that Kitty and Vronsky did not get married, though he is unaware of the depth of Kitty’s depression. Anna learns that she is pregnant with Vronsky’s child.

Part 3:

From a distance, Levin spies Kitty traveling in a carriage and comes to the realization that he is still in love with her. Meanwhile, in St Petersburg, Anna is tortured with indecision. Her husband is trying to force her to do the right thing and break it off with Vronsky. She despises Karenin but if she leaves him, she will lose access to her son, which she cannot bear. Nor can she bear to break it off with Vronsky. Similarly, Vronsky is encouraged to break it off with Anna in favor of his career, but he cannot bring himself to leave her either.

Part 4:

Kitty and Levin meet at a dinner party and after some not-so-subtle hinting from Kitty, Levin proposes. This time, she says YES! Anna goes into labor and after a difficult childbirth, she falls gravely ill. When Karenin learns that Anna is dying, he returns home and forgives her. He even goes so far as to allow Vronsky to visit Anna in what he believes are her final hours. Like Romeo, Vronsky is so devastated by Anna’s imminent death that he attempts to commit suicide. Unlike Romeo, however, Vronsky’s attempt is a colossal failure, and he survives. So, as it happens, does Anna.

Part 5:

Anna and Vronsky begin a new life together in Italy, though this means that Anna is separated from her son, Seryozha. Vronsky begins to dabble in art but lacks the talent to pursue a career in it, so they return to Russia. Kitty and Levin get married, but not before Levin comes clean about his past with other women and his agnosticism. Though hurt, Kitty accepts both these truths and loves him regardless.

Part 6:

Levin learns that his brother, Nikolai, is dying and prepares to go to visit him on his deathbed. Despite Levin’s protestations, Kitty insists on accompanying him to Moscow, and thank Tolstoy she does. Levin doesn’t cope well with Nikolai’s illness. Kitty takes charge and cares for Nikolai in his final days, which makes Levin appreciate her all the more. Shortly after Nikolai’s death, Kitty learns that she is pregnant, and somewhere in this circle of life and death, Levin begins to contemplate the existence of God. 

Anna, meanwhile, is on a downward spiral. Suffering under the weight of public opinion, she is also missing her son terribly. She is fiercely jealous of Vronsky and starts to suspect he may be having affairs with other women. It is mentioned that she is using a lot of morphine to help her sleep.  

Part 7:

Kitty goes into labor and Levin prays for the first time in years. Their son is born and is healthy. Anna’s morphine addiction, on the other hand, is spiraling out of control, and most of what happens next takes place in her own head. Her insecurity and paranoia reach a fever pitch, and she experiences what could almost be compared to hallucinations. Anna loves Vronsky but resents him for the loss of her son, and she is convinced he loves another. After a monumental row, Anna throws herself under a train and commits suicide.

Part 8:

Two years later, we learn that Karenin is raising Anna and Vronsky’s son and that Vronsky has volunteered to enter the war and fight against the Slavs. He has aged considerably since Anna’s death and is a shadow of the man he once was, his guilt and loss too heavy a burden to bear. Levin, through his love for his wife and son, as well as a random conversation with one of his peasant workers, discovers that he believes in the existence of God after all, and through this revelation, his life takes on even more meaning and purpose.

The Anna Karenina Movie

Given the novel’s success, it is hardly surprising that there have been a few movie adaptations. Anna Karenina 1935, starring Greta Garbo; and Anna Karenina 1948, starring Vivien Leigh amongst others. The one worth watching, however, is the 2012 version directed by Joe Wright who was no stranger to literary adaptation when he undertook this project, having directed Pride and Prejudice in 2005.

Anna Karenina 2012

In Wright’s version, Tolstoy’s tragic tale got a remake in the form of a major motion picture with an all-star cast, including the likes of Keira Knightley and Jude Law.

If you are still in any doubt about attempting to read Anna Karenina, I have failed you, because it’s totally worth it. This book is a sweeping saga that was an absolute pleasure to read.

If you are an e-reader fanatic, you can attempt it on Kindle, but I’m a huge fan of the clothbound classics, and I plan to eventually own the whole collection *swoon*.

Now on to War and Peace