What is it about Leo Tolstoy‘s novels, written and set in 19th century Russia, that still proves relevant after all these years?
On the surface, Anna Karenina is a beautifully written account of love, betrayal and Russian high society. But delve deeper into the themes and structure and it gives way to thought about the ease of which society’s collective morals shift to accommodate popular opinion, differences of social expectations between genders, the relationship between love and marriage and, the importance of status & class.
I know. It’s heavy! But it’s well worth the read. And at 815 small-print pages, it’s a lengthy one at that!
Anna Karenina was first published in serial form in a weekly magazine The Russian Messenger between 1873 to 1877. It was published in full in 1878.
The story is woven in two strands. One concerns Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky; the other Kitty Oblonsky and Konstantin Levin. The stories bisect each other while remaining the very opposite; Anna Arkadyevna Karenina who is married to Aleksei Alexandrovich Karenin a parliamentary minister, embarks on a torrid love affair with Aleksei Kirillovich Vronsky a young Count who is headed for distinguish in the military. Princess Ekaterina “Kitty” Shcherbatsky is newly Of Age and sees the world innocently and with deep emotion (the effect of the juvenile infatuation with Vronsky), while Konstantin Dmitrievitch Levin is a serious countryman who’s only dalliance is his obsessive love of Kitty.
Love, heartbreak then love-again surround Kitty, who marries Levin on his second proposal and together they settle down to a commonplace existence, while the full emotional spectrum are experienced by Anna, who has a cordial and somewhat tender relationship with her husband until she can no longer fend off the brazen advances of Vronsky. Her world becomes saturated with their love affair that progressively deteriorates and in-turn causes her demise.
At times there are chapters of sheer dullness (mostly of Levin’s activities), and there are other times when I want to hurl the book across the room from frustration of all the arbitrary communication that consume these high society Russian’s, but generally the novel is an artistically written window into beautiful but tragic disorder.
It’s interesting to learn that Tolstoy himself was born into Russian aristocracy but had his fair share of relationship mishaps. It’s been said that he based Anna’s character on the daughter of Alexander Pushkin whom he met at a dinner party, and the character of Levin on himself.
Beautifully surmised, English poet Matthew Arnold once said “We are not to take Anna Karenina as a work of art; we are to take it as a piece of life.” And in 2011 that’s what we can take away from this piece of Russian literature.