Sometimes great love stories aren’t all that romantic. Anna Karenina is about love, but not the comfortable, wholesome, happily-ever-after kind. The obsessive, overwhelming, destroys your life kind. And while it’s tempting to jam this story into the familiar ‘star-crossed lovers’ category – I think Anna Karenina is more than that.
Several weeks and 963 pages later, the book is done. Shamefully, my brand new copy is slightly worse for wear – dog-eared and suspiciously stained after living in my bag for half the semester. Yes, I was so determined to finish I even stopped channelling my inner Madame Pince. As I was reading, I realised everyone except me seemed to know how it ended. In this case, my cultural ignorance was a blessing in disguise so I’ll try not to spoil things completely here.
Anna Karenina centres on two parallel stories. Of course there’s Anna – the beautiful wife of a wealthy, well-to-do government official. She’s reasonably happy with her life until she falls passionately in love with Count Vronksy, a dashing, young military man. Eventually, she leaves her husband and her son and goes to live with Vronksy as his mistress. Then there’s Levin – a shy, thoughtful guy who spends most of his time living a simple and productive life in the country, away from the scandals and excesses of society. He’s in love with Kitty Scherbatsky, but doesn’t think he’s worthy enough to be her husband. To complicate things, Vronksy courted Kitty before he met Anna, who is related to Kitty by marriage. Essentially, the novel juxtaposes two different sides of love – a dangerous, all-consuming, scandalous affair and, a gentle, conventional romance.
To be 100% honest with you –neither of the main characters stole my heart. Firstly, it’s hard to understand Anna’s behaviour. In some ways, I think that’s the point – she is completely carried away by overwhelming powerful, yet deeply irrational feelings. The tragedy of her story lies in the fact that she throws her life away for an affair that ultimately involves a lot more pain than pleasure. Count Vronksy is desirable, but only in a superficial way and I think his failings emphasise just how much her emotions have spiralled out of control. Anna’s branded as a fallen woman, separated from her child, trapped behind closed doors and totally dependent on the affection of a guy who’s not worth her suffering.
Levin’s relationship with Kitty is quite the opposite. Their marriage demonstrates a form of love that’s healthy and positive but certainly not perfect. Levin’s happily-ever-after is hampered by a lengthy existential crisis, triggered by his brother’s death. He knows he’s happy but he feels he hasn’t done anything to deserve that happiness. Like many of us, he wonders ‘what’s the point of it all?’ The whole issue does yield some interesting passages and you can see Tolstoy’s own views coming into play. But Levin’s endless fretting is infuriating at times. Sometimes you just want to slap him across the face and yell ‘be happy!’ He’s thoughtful and sensitive but a little too much for my taste.
In the end, I did enjoy Anna Karenina for a number of reasons. Firstly, Anna’s doomed love story really sucks you in. Even if you don’t know exactly how it’s going to end, you know it won’t end well. It’s an irresistible ‘Titanic’ spectacle – you’re compelled to read on in a bizarre combination of fascination and dread. Anna and Vronsky’s relationship is interesting because it has so few redeeming qualities. They’re not torn apart Romeo and Juliet style. The affair just deteriorates into something bitter and sour and they make each other miserable. Love is not the hero of the day.
Secondly, Anna Karenina is not just a story, it’s an experience. Yes, it’s a very long book. It’s not something I’ll be attempting again outside holiday time. But it’s such a fascinating, glittering, complicated world to get lost in. It’s written at an intriguing point in Russian history, and you get a real taste of a society on the brink of huge change. It was great to immerse myself in such a colourful world.
Lastly, I guess I’m always pleasantly surprised when particular aspects of a classic novel really resonate with me as a modern reader. Anna Karenina was written in Russia during the 1870s but many of Tolstoy’s observations about human nature and the way people behave were familiar and made perfect sense to me. I think we tend to think of people in the past in two dimensions. We forget they were living, breathing, human beings with concerns that are to us relevant today. That’s the beauty of these novels; they remind us of the things that remain constant amid a changing world.