The second part of this post contains major spoilers for Anna Karenina, but the beginning of the spoilers is clearly marked.
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
This opening line of Anna Karenina indicates how the rest of the book will unfold. It’s honest – and certainly not how I expected the book to begin. But this opening was just one of many surprises waiting for me as I read Anna Karenina. I may as well just say this: if Anna Karenina’s size intimidates you, just try it out. Tolstoy’s writing style (or, at least Constance Garnett’s translation of it) is highly readable: straightforward, philosophical, and, yes, even funny.
But the element that most surprised me about Anna Karenina was that about half of the book doesn’t involve Anna Karenina at all. Anna herself doesn’t appear until about eighty or so pages in. The book, in fact, has two main plots: in one, you have the conflict between Anna and her husband on account of Anna’s affair with Vronsky; on the other, you have Levin and his love for Kitty. These plots run parallel and rarely do they interact. Some characters flit in and out of both storylines, but Anna and Levin, the book’s two main characters, only see each other once – and at the end, no less!
Though Anna herself is fascinating – and, in any other book, would be more than enough on whom to focus – Levin proves a more than capable second lead. A highly insecure character, Levin goes on quite a journey over the 850 pages, and it is through him that Tolstoy explores issues of philosophy, religion, and economics.
Spoilers follow now.
While I was reading Anna Karenina, I admit that I was slightly confused as to why Tolstoy gave so much prominence to Levin. After Levin finally married Kitty and then she became pregnant, I was convinced that something would happen to her or to the baby. But Tolstoy went ahead and gave them a happy ending – something I certainly wasn’t expecting. It’s a sharp contrast to Anna’s story, giving the book balance.
But it also serves to trump the traditional, moral view of marriage. Levin and Kitty, though they have a few problems of their own, have a loving marriage and get their happy ending. But Anna, confined in a marriage without love, seeks love elsewhere – and look where that lands her.
Although I was spoiled about Anna’s end, it still packs a punch. It is the society women who reject Anna, refusing even to see her after she began living with Vronsky. She sees some men; even though he felt awkward about it, Levin still saw Anna in her fallen state. This rejection by society pushes Anna towards suicide, as she realizes the harm she has done to those around her. After her death, the Countess Vronskaya decries her, calling her a horrible woman and clearly avoiding any acknowledgment of the part her son Vronsky had in Anna’s sins. Women, in fact, are each other’s own worst enemies.
This was the Book #4 off my Classics Club list. To see the rest of it, click here.