Book note: Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina final version

I accidentally posted a version of this book note before it was finished.  This is the final version.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1877) translated from the Russian by Louise and Aylmer Maude (1918) Vintage Classics edition (2012)

Anna Karenina is the sad story of a beautiful, charming. intelligent and selfish woman who fails to find the love she needs from either her husband or her lover.

It also is the story of three marriages – the failed marriage of Anna to Alexei Karenin, and Anna’s seduction by Count Vronsky; the bad marriage of Anna’s brother, Stepan Oblonsky, to the former Dolly Scherbatsky; and the good marriage of Dolly’s sister Kitty to Konstantin Levin.

Neither Karenin nor Count Vronsky is a bad man.  Karenin is an honest civil servant, doing his best to make the world a better place.  He fulfills all the duties society expects of a husband, and thinks this should be enough.  But he feels neither empathy nor passion for his wife.  When his marriage falls apart, his conventional moral code provides him no guidance on what to do.

Vronsky has an aristocratic code of honor, which, however, allows for the seduction of a married woman.  He offers her the passion lacking in her marriage.  She succumbs after initial resistance.  As their relationship goes sour, his code of honor requires him to stand by her.  But he, too, finds this is not enough.

Anna is not a bad person, either—just narcissistic.  She is not malicious, and wishes people well rather than ill, but she has no code of conduct to guide her and no purpose in life beyond being loved and admired.  

When we meet her, her life revolves around being the center of attraction in balls, parties and other social events.   She happily lives the life of an American high school prom queen, carried on into adult life.  There is nothing to show she cares about her husband’s feelings, happiness or career.

When Dolly catches Stepan having sex with a family governess and decides to leave him, he calls on his sister Anna to salvage the situation.  Anna talks Dolly into changing her mind.  She assures her that Stepan is deeply sorry for what he has done, and won’t do it again.

All this is a lie.  Stepan is not sorry for what he did, only about the consequences.  Anna does not ask him to change his ways, and he doesn’t.  The result is that he lives a life of pleasure while Dolly’s life consists of a long succession of pregnancies and the struggle to care for her large brood of children.

Almost all the characters live by lies.  They lie to themselves about the reality of their lives, and lie to others about the reality of their feelings—what the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre called bad faith.  This is a major theme of the novel.

When Anna takes up with Vronsky, she feigns interest in his activities.  She participates in high-level intellectual conversations on art or architecture, which would have been beyond Dolly and Kitty.  But she has no interest in these topics for their own sake.  All she cares about is whether Vronsky still loves her as before.

When she separates from Karenin, she misses her little boy, Seroyzha.  She needs his love, and plots a reunion with him.   But she always outsourced responsibility for his care and education to nurses, governesses and tutors.

There is a temporary spiritual awakening among the three members of love triangle when Anna gives birth to Vronsky’s child.  Her suffering, and Karenin’s and Vronsky’s pity for her suffering, are so intense that they break through their shells of lies.  

Anna feels love for both her men.  Vronsky is so shattered by the realization of the hollowness of his values that he attempts suicide.  Karenin resolves to love his enemies, as Christ commanded.  But they soon revert to their previous characters.

I didn’t grasp Anna’s narcissism on my first reading of the novel because Tolstoy shows her suffering so powerfully.  Her suffering is real.  In no way do I think it a just punishment for her sins.   But her agony is pitiful, not tragic.

One reason we present-day readers sympathize with Anna is that she would not have suffered so if she had lived today.  She could have divorced Karenin and taken up with Vronsky without being a social outcast.  She could have used her attractiveness and her considerable abilities to attain popularity and success without being dependent on a man.

Dolly’s life also would have been better.  She would not have been ashamed to cut loose from Stepan and find a better mate.  She probably would not have been shocked and disgusted at the idea of contraception.. 

I think Tolstoy would have responded to this by saying that although Dolly led an unhappy life, it was a meaningful life, and although Stepan led an enjoyable life, it was an empty life.  

I can imagine Tolstoy writing a sequel in which Stepan’s inability to live within his means, which is mentioned in the novel, catches up with himself and Dolly.  They would be saved from bankruptcy and poverty by the help of their grown children, who love their mother, not their father.

In any case, it is Levin and Kitty who represent Tolstoy’s idea of what marriage should be.  On the surface, they seem mismatched.  Levin is an atheist and an intellectual.  Kitty is a devout Christian, who thinks Levin’s atheism and intellectuality are nonsense, but doesn’t care because he is a good man.

They get married for the purpose of having children.  Kitty suffers as much as Anna during her pregnancy, just as all women did in that era, but she bears it in good spirit because it is the means to get what she wants.

Unlike Anna and Vronsky, Kitty and Levin do not hide their feelings from each other.  They have bitter quarrels, often sparked by Kitty’s extreme jealousy.  But the quarrels end in reconciliation and better understanding, while Anna’s fears and Vronsky’s resentments fester.

Kitty and Levin are both subject to Vronsky’s and Anna’s great sexual charisma.  Kitty turns Levin down the first time he proposes marriage, because she mistakenly hopes for a proposal from Vronsky.  When she meets Vronsky again, after her marriage, she frankly tells Levin she felt the old attraction, but was able to shrug it off.

After Levin meets Anna for the first time, he leaves with an overwhelming feeling of pity and sympathy for the suffering of a splendid, sensitive woman.  Anna leaves with the thought is that it is easy enough to mesmerize a sad sack like Levin, but her charms are not working as they should on Vronsky.

In many ways, Kitty is better able to face the realities of life than her husband.  Levin has a brother, a would-be revolutionary living with a reformed prostitute.  When Levin is called to the deathbed of his brother, he hesitates to bring Kitty along, because he doesn’t want to bring his morally pure wife into contact with his brother’s mistress.

But when the two women meet, they work together in perfect harmony to make the dying man comfortable and relieve his suffering.  Levin is helpless until the women tell him what to do.

The novel ends with Levin’s reflecting that Kitty’s faith serves her better than his skepticism serves him.  There is a knowledge of the heart, he reflects, that cannot be expressed in words or through reason, and that knowledge will make his life meaningful.  


Levin owns a big farm worked by peasant laborers.  One interesting subplot of the novel is about his relations with the peasants and his ideas about them.

His work on his farm takes up a lot of his life and helps keep him grounded in reality.  He likes his peasant employees and they evidently like him.  He feels a kinship as he works side-by-side with them, mowing hay by hand.

He feels a responsibility to preserve his land and pass it on intact to the next generation.  He resists the temptation to harm the land (for example, by selling trees in his forest for lumber) or harm the peasants who work the land (for example, by opening a tavern).  Environmentalists would approve of him.

But he is frustrated because he can’t get the peasants he employs to do what he wants them to do.  They insist on working at the pace they’re used to, and by the methods they’re used to, and passively resist all his attempts to change.

At one point he meets an independent peasant, who farms the land with the help of his extended family and a couple of hired men.  The peasant and his family all work hard, and use the improved methods Levin has been trying in vain to introduce on his own land.

It dawns on him that people are not going to work harder when others get the benefit of his work.  So he tries to introduce a profit-sharing plan among his own peasant workers.  He also tries sub-contracting certain parts of his operation to groups of peasants.  

He has some limited success, but for the most part, the peasants resist.  They think he is trying to put something over on them.  It is incomprehensible to them that a landowner would do something for their benefit.

During the collapse of the Russian monarchy in 1917, the revolutionaries promised Russia’s peasants they could govern themselves and own their own land.  It would be interesting to speculate what would have happened if they hadn’t gone back on that promise.  But this is a topic for another time.


Anna Karenina is Tolstoy’s greatest novel, except for War and Peace.  I’m glad I re-read it.

Tolstoy was a great descriptive writer.  He was able to get inside all kinds of characters’ heads (including, in this novel, a hunting dog) and imagine what it was like to be them.  He had a low opinion of high society and governing institutions, but he well understood how they worked.  And he could be very funny.

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4 Responses to “Book note: Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina final version”

  1. silverapplequeen Says:

    The book you show has a cover from the movie version starring Kiera Knightley. Have you seen this movie? It’s stunning.


  2. philebersole Says:

    I did see that movie. I thought Kiera Knightley was magnificent, but I couldn’t imagine Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who played Vronsky, sweeping any woman off her feet. He lacked the forcefulness required for the part. Domnhall Gleeson, who played Levin, was simply silly. I didn’t understand why the set was the way it was. In short, I didn’t like it.

    There was a TV mini-series I liked better. It’s free.


  3. Katherine Flynn Says:

    Anna behaved as women of her class were supposed to behave. No need to take an interest in one’s husband’s affairs— just be an ornament. Sure, have a few kids but employ a wet nurse, governess, etc. for the growing years. No wonder she killed herself! I believe Tolstoy was a social commentator, Levin personifying the ideal and Anna and company, the decay of the aristocracy


  4. philebersole Says:

    My well-read friend JJ e-mailed me the following comment about Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

    It has been many years since I have read Anna Karenina. But seeing your description I can see why it is so difficult for modern women to read this story with any patience. Tolstoi describes his female characters (never mind the males for the moment) from his firmly held 19th century patriarchal views. It did not seem to occur to him that if Anna and Dolly had received a more thorough education in both classical educational topics and how to manage in practical terms, they might well have been able to cope with their situations more forcefully, by many possible routes. Dolly perhaps less than Anna, she is not very bright and at the best of times would not have been too capable of independent thought—but if the society had been different she would have had more options, and might not have recoiled from contraception. Of course, since Tolstoi believed in women being brood mares, he puts that thought into Dolly’s head. No doubt many she sheep went along with it from belief, many more from no possibility of choice. But obviously, Queen Victoria to the contrary, many women in the 19th century successfully circumvented the yearly pregnancy. OF course most did not.. [snip]

    Furthermore, a practical way of managing income was open to Dolly—women’s power over money and land was not as restricted in Russia as much as in most other European countries. Stepan would have let her do it—he was avoiding responsibility as fast as he could. In several 19th century novels we see a capable, if often unloveable, woman managing estates and her husband. The heroine’s bossy mother in On the Eve is one example. That Ranevskaya does not have that ability, or does not choose to exert it, is outlined in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. I might have the name wrong here—that might be the actress in The Seagull, but you get me.

    Now Anna is another pair of shoes. She is intelligent but she is limited too—she cannot envision a life beyond what she has been bred up to know—Scarlett only did because of the necessities of war. And Anna is unfit to find another way to live. Some did, but Tolstoi needed to have her fail in order for the triumph of his own vision. That such women did often fail is true. But a Countess left her husband to live with Lizst. Too bad she got away with it, I say. The result was that revolting ogress Cosima. Von Bulow was probably glad to be rid of the bitch when she left him for Wagner….back to Anna again—why in hell should she pay attention to Karenin? The man is a walking bureaucratic document. She was undoubtedly more or less sold to him by her parents. It is notable that she is portrayed in films by the meager movie bodies of today—but the book states she is not only tall but full bodied. It took some rather shady characters to get the physio-emotional corsets off of Edith Wharton—could Karenin wake up Anna?

    And why is obedience to social duty equated with imposed religious obligation to some spiritual ideal? It obviously works quite well with many in many societies—but almost always to the exclusive benefit of males. Anna must curb her sexuality to a pledge she made in total ignorance of what Southern pre-bellum law called “the necessity of his condition” about a slave’s OBLIGATIONS. That is one reason why Robertson Davies wondered if clear-eyed mothers in Victorian times wanted their girls to read Trollope’s novels, because he was very explicit about what women often had to put with when married…if not the bedroom part. Although that is a subtext. Lucinda Roanoke has to become or pretend madness to avoid it in The Eustace Diamonds.

    So hoch me nish Anna Karenina and why she is a sinner and has to die painfully. Thackeray was sometimes as clear headed as Trollope. Becky Sharp survives. Not at the top of the heap, but survives. Several of the famous “grand horizontals” of the 19th century did also. But most of them had clawed their way upward and knew how many beans made five in a way that Dolly and Anna could not.

    Back to Scarlett for a moment. GWTW is politically incorrect, granted. But the novel is rather different from the book in several respects. My mother told me that Mitchell received letters from women all over the world telling her that when war came they picked up their skirts and took hold. Mitchell has not only Scarlett but several of the formerly wealthy and spoiled planation dowagers taking hold—the mother of the twins, for instance, both killed in battle, one dowager who made pies to sell to the Yankees, and so on. An example close to our time—Lord Louis Mountbatten’s wife was known as a frivolous jet-setter (avant la lettre) society beauty before WWII. She got some government position then, took hold and became a highly successful executive, kept her beauty and was so striking an example that Nehru fell for her like a tall mountain deodar—he sent an Indian warship to be near the convoy when she was buried at sea. Many other of the upper crust English dowagers not only turned their great ancestral manors into military hospitals—but ran them efficiently. All they needed was a damn JOB.

    She sent a follow-up e-mail saying:

    I should have written the novel of GWTW is different from the movie

    One instance: In the book Scarlett has a child by each husband—although she ignores them pretty much, having had little use for either Charlie Hamilton or the other guy. All her maternal affection is for Bonnie Blue. She is of different kidney from her mother, who married a man she did not love after her love’s death—because she did not want to go into a convent. She is the heroine of Tolstoi’s imagination—duty and a practical life in the world. She has standards but of a sort. Does not care about slavery as an institution, but can be nice to individuals. You should read Elsie Dinsmore sometime for Southern American Xtianity at it’s Reddiwip best.

    Even as clear headed a woman as Doris Lessing could go astray here. She argues that the human race survived and flourished because those who liked children had them. As it happens she adored babies all her life. She did not stop to think that women who did NOT could and did get pregnant for generation upon generation as they were sold down the river by society or just plain raped. And when marriage (as another clear headed woman pointed out, who had the great good fortune to dodge it) wrote, marriage is just about the only secure protection against want and that single women have a “dreadful propensity for being poor.”


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