Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy – A Book Review

Anna Karenina –A Study in Happiness

Anna is a highly intelligent and deeply passionate woman.  Her natural grace and striking beauty affect everyone with the welcoming glow of her presence.  When we meet Anna she is a faithful, though unfulfilled wife.  She is a devoted mother to her eight year old son Sergei who is soon to grow past tender childhood.  She is a fully developed woman, yet her warm heart is empty.

Anna is bound by two men.  Alexei Karenin, her husband, is a strictly moral man who cannot show affection.  Alexei Vronsky is a young military bachelor driven by sensuality and personal pleasure.  He is her lover. It is no accident that the husband and the lover share the same first name.  At one point Anna speaks a clue in a delirium, “…such a strange, terrible fate, that they’re both Alexei, isn’t it?”[Part four chapter XVII]  The men are opposite bookends, equally responsible for Anna’s demise, as guilty as Anna herself.

Tolstoy does not throw stones at the guilty adulteress.  Her fall was not all her own doing.  Any one of the three could have saved Anna.  Had the husband yielded tender affection toward his wife, had the infatuated bachelor accepted Anna’s resistance to his first advances, had Anna herself fled from those continued advances, a woman’s life and a family would have been saved.

But what of happiness?  Could the Karenins have ever been happy?  Here is the central theme to Tolsoy’s novel, “All happy families are the same; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” [the novel’s opening sentence]

The novel follows the lives of three families:  Alexei and Anna Karenin, Anna’s brother Stepan and his wife Dolly, and Konstantin Levin and Dolly’s sister Kitty.  Two are unhappy families.  The unhappy families deal with the unhappiness differently, and one is indeed more unhappy than the other.  The third family struggles with its own troubles, yet remains true to its core values.  What makes the difference?  The peasant Fyodor’s simple observation answers the question, “He lives for the soul.  He remembers God.”  [Part eight chapter XI]

Although first published in 1873, Anna Karenina speaks profoundly to the modern world.  What is life all about?  What really matters?  What is happiness?   Tolsoy touches politics, philosophy and religion, as well as love, in this classic novel.  He gives us a window into Czarist Russia only 44 years before the Bolshevik Revolution.  His characters discuss economics, war, social order, even the relevance of religion and cultural norms.  His conclusion circles back to that which resonates at the root of everyman’s being, the pursuit of Happiness.

Tolstoy’s recipe for happiness?  -Do what is right for your fellow-man and remember God.

Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, a Novel in Eight Parts first published in 1873-7, translated into English by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, Penguin Books, 2000-1