Originally serialised between 1875-77 in ‘The Russian Messenger’
My edition: I switched between the hefty Penguin Clothbound Classics hardback and the Maggie Gyllenhaal audiobook
WHEN I Discovered This Classic
I don’t remember not knowing about ‘Anna Karenina’, but I didn’t really know what it was actually about until I watched several booktubers talk about the novel earlier in the year.
WHY I Chose to Read It
I'd been considering it since I’d seen booktubers I respect talking about how much they loved it and I was eager to watch the 2012 adaptation, but after hearing not-great things about it decided I wanted to read it first. Then Audible released an audiobook read by Maggie Gyllenhaal and the sample sounded wonderful so I took the plunge.
WHAT Makes It a Classic
The scope, the character growth and development, the intensity of the relationships, the exploration and criticism of Russian society – everything.
WHAT I Thought of This Classic
I went into ‘Anna Karenina’ with hesitancy and no real expectations of whether or not I'd finish it, let alone enjoy it, but I completely loved it.
Anna is a beautiful young woman married to a cold, unfeeling government official. When she travels to Moscow to visit her sister-in-law to convince her to forgive her husband’s affairs she meets Count Vronsky and the pair begin an affair that will change the rest of their lives.
As expected, I was a little confused by the long, complicated Russian names, but listening to the audiobook really helped with that and it didn’t take me long to get a handle on who’s who. I found it fascinating that the name someone was called was based on their position and the intimacy level of your relationship with them. Lots of the central male characters were referred to by three different incarnations of their name and the women took on a female version of their husband’s surname. For example, Anna’s brother was called Stepan Arkadievich (by everyone else), Stiva (by his family) and Oblonsky (his surname, by his friends) and his wife Dolly’s surname was Oblonskya. So interesting!
Once familiar with who everyone was and how they're connected, I found it effortless to become entrenched in the drama of these characters. It’s a vast cast but everyone has so much depth; agency, fears, desires, a distinctive voice and opinions – it’s all there. The journey these characters go on during the novel is phenomenal and it was really interesting to see how my opinion of them changed as we went through, and how they changed too. Anna went from charmingly impulsive to bitter, selfish and manipulative; Levin from boring and uppity to philosophical and fiercely romantic (though still uppity); and Anna’s husband Karenin went from cold, hard and unfeeling to someone I felt deeply sorry for. Tolstoy was a master at character and I could wax lyrical about them all for hours, but I really don’t want to spoil you.
‘Anna Karenina’ explored themes of divorce, mental health, addiction and much more in ways I'd never encountered in classics before. There was no judgement from Tolstoy, no sense of right or wrong on a personal level, but merely as a criticism of Russian high society. Once Anna’s affair with Vronsky is openly known, the way she is received changes so dramatically I was genuinely shocked. She’s a princess by birth, but suddenly she was shunned by family, friends and acquaintances. People couldn’t even call on her without fear of being rejected from high society in response and it slowly started to destroy Anna, and by extension Vronsky.
I’m going to talk about the ending here, so if you don’t know what happens at the end of ‘Anna Karenina’, here’s a giant SPOILER WARNING for you. I'd known that this novel is a tragic one and Anna’s downfall is reasonably obvious from early on in the story, but I honestly didn’t expect her to commit suicide. The pressures from society and the consequences of being a fallen women destroyed all the happiness she’d gained by loving Vronsky. She was denied her firstborn and lost the things that she had loved in her old life – and none of it was attainable again without giving up what happiness she had gained and renouncing her decisions completely. I’d expected her to die as a complication from childbirth, but chucking herself under a train? Way unexpected. Though in retrospect, it was totally foreshadowed in the very beginning of the novel…
My only complaint about the whole story is how Anna’s death was portrayed. It felt a little brushed over and I didn’t think that anything after that was really necessary. Anna’s suicide would have been an incredibly powerful way for ‘Anna Karenina’ to end and instead it went out with a little bit of a whimper as we moved to check in with the other characters instead. If anything, I wanted to know about Vronsky and how he reacted but all we got was a snippet of second hand information from his mother. SPOILER OVER.
Even with the weaker ending, ‘Anna Karenina’ has kickstarted a fascination with Russian literature and I already have a wishlist as long as my arm of novels that I'd love to try. I've also bought myself a copy of Tolstoy’s other behemoth masterpiece ‘War and Peace’ which I'm planning to read in the New Year. I am so excited.
I loved ‘Anna Karenina’ and even though it's over 800 pages long and I only finished it a few weeks ago, I want to read it all over again. I gave the film a watch to try and soothe the want, but it was nothing like the book and only made me want to re-read it even more.
WILL It Stay a Classic
Completely. ‘Anna Karenina’ is considered one of the finest works of literature ever written, and Tolstoy one of the greatest writers of all time. I can’t see that changing any time soon!
WHO I’d Recommend it To
- Fans of stories of epic, doomed love and complicated characters.
- Those taking their first foray into Russian classics. Despite its length, this is a great place to start.