Review: Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina”

by Miles Raymer

Anna Karenina

“All successful books are alike; each failed book fails in its own way.”

So reads my ungainly rehashing of one of literature’s most famous opening lines. It takes a fair bit of temerity and not a little arrogance to posit that one of the great works of literary history is a failure, but that is my honest appraisal of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna KareninaAfter living inside this marvelous text for nearly two months and relishing every page, I simply cannot find a way to excuse the grievous flaws that debase its denouement.

Anna Karenina would be a far less disappointing novel if it didn’t contain so much perspicacity and wisdom. The intellectual scope of this book is grand. The story is ostensibly about an adulterous love affair and its implications for the Russian aristocrats who experience and witness it, but Tolstoy’s imagination explores many profound subjects, often without notice but always with exuberance and tenderness. The text regularly exceeds “the customary festive surroundings of idleness,” exploring ideas about gender roles and monogamy, the difficulty of fulfilling societal expectations, the role of science and industrialization in late 19th-century Russia, the relationship between aristocrats and the “common people,” the nature of deception, and the question of what makes a good life (295). It has all the trappings of a truly epic novel––one that perfectly toes the line between historical particularity and thematic timelessness.

Richard Pevear and Larissa Volohonsky’s translation from the original Russian gives the reader much to celebrate. Their version of Tolstoy’s language flows beautifully, with precise and vivid imagery leading the reader deep into the psychological and physical landscapes of a vast cast of characters. By incremental steps over many hundreds of pages, these characters come alive with a rare and poignant energy; Tolstoy writes like he is in love with each of them:

Anna and her lover Vronsky, upon realizing that they have committed adultery and cannot take it back:

She felt herself so criminal and guilty that the only thing left for her was to humble herself and beg forgiveness; but as she had no one else in her life now except him, it was also to him that she addressed her plea for forgiveness. Looking at him, she physically felt her humiliation and could say nothing more. And he felt what a murderer must feel when he looks at the body he has deprived of life. This body deprived of life was their love, the first period of their love. There was something horrible and loathsome in his recollections of what had been paid for with this terrible price of shame. Shame at her spiritual nakedness weighed on her and communicated itself to him. But, despite all the murderer’s horror before the murdered body, he had to cut this body into pieces and hide it, he had to make use of what the murderer had gained by his murder. (149)

Though I despise the antiquated moral calculus that generates the drama here, any reader would admit that the prose is imaginative and compelling. This passage, along with many others, drives home the harsh ways in which the stuffy ethics of Tolstoy’s characters cause them to suffer needlessly. Despite the genuine happiness Anna is able to experience by living in a way that favors her heart’s desire over social norms, she cannot escape the penumbra of her guilt, which is reinforced at every turn by the subtle and overt judgments of her friends, family and fellow aristocrats.

Levin, upon discovering the joyful flow state that can be achieved through hard physical labor:

In this hottest time the mowing did not seem so hard to him. The sweat that drenched him cooled him off, and the sun, burning on his back, head and arm with its sleeve rolled to the elbow, gave him firmness and perseverance in his work; more and more often those moments of unconsciousness came, when it was possible for him not to think of what he was doing. The scythe cut by itself. These were happy moments…

The longer Levin mowed, the more often he felt those moments of oblivion during which it was no longer his arms that swung the scythe, but the scythe itself that lent motion to his whole body, full of life and conscious of itself, as if by magic, without a thought of it, the work got rightly and neatly done on its own. These were the most blissful moments. (252)

As a gentleman farmer, Levin struggles with new economic models for agriculture in the era of industry, including trying to sort out the proper relationship between landowners and laborers. He also has an endearing penchant for existential angst, sometimes succumbing to melancholia derived from a lack of philosophical certainty. To witness his restiveness momentarily pacified by Arbeitskur––or “Work-cure”––is pure delight (257).

Kitty, at the altar on her wedding day:

She had almost no understanding of the words of the service and did not even listen during the betrothal. She was unable to hear and understand them: so strong was the one feeling that filled her soul and was growing stronger and stronger. That feeling was the joy of the complete fulfillment of that which had already been accomplished in her soul a month and half ago and throughout all those six weeks had caused her joy and torment. On that day when, in her brown dress, in the reception room of their house on the Arbat, she had silently gone up to him and given herself to him––in her soul on that day and hour there was accomplished a total break with her entire former life, and there began a completely different, new life, totally unknown to her…There was nothing but expectation––the fear and joy of the new and unknown. And now the expectation, and the unknownness, and remorse at the renouncing of her former life––all this was about to end, and the new was to begin. This new could not help being frightening; but, frightening or not, it had already been accomplished six weeks ago earlier in her soul; now was merely the sanctifying of what had long ago been performed. (452-3)

Dolly, contemplating the burdens of motherhood:

Darya Alexandrovna shuddered at the mere recollection of the pain from cracked nipples that she had endured with almost every child. ‘Then the children’s illnesses, this eternal fear; then their upbringing, vile inclinations’ (she remembered little Masha’s crime in the raspberries), ‘education, Latin––all of it so incomprehensible and difficult. And on top of it all, the death of these same children.’ And again there came to her imagination the cruel memory, eternally gnawing at her mother’s heart, of the death of her last infant boy, who had died of croup, his funeral, the universal indifference before that small, pink coffin, and her own heart-rending, lonely pain before the pale little forehead with curls at the temples, before the opened, surprised little mouth she had glimpsed in the coffin just as it was covered by the pink lid with the lace cross.

‘And all that for what? What will come of it all? That I, having not a moment’s peace, now pregnant, now nursing, eternally angry, grumpy, tormented myself and tormenting others, repulsive to my husband, will live my life out and bring up unfortunate, poorly educated and destitute children…If we take the most fortunate outcome: the children won’t die any more, and I’ll bring them up somehow. At best they simply won’t turn out to be scoundrels. That’s all I can wish for. And for that so much torment, so much work….A whole life ruined!’ (607)

I don’t have any comments about these last two passages, except that I found them fascinating and moving.

Now to the dirty business of articulating how Anna Karenina fails in its own special way. This failure is due entirely to the novel’s concluding chapters, which part ways radically with the narrative complexity that precedes them. In these chapters, Tolstoy betrays the emotional and intellectual loci of the novel: Anna and Levin. Warning: spoilers ahead.

In Parts Six and Seven, Anna becomes jealous of Vronsky because he sometimes spends time away from her to do business and socialize with his friends and family. Anna and Vronsky cannot get married because Anna’s husband will not grant her a divorce. This predicament adds a great deal of social tension to their situation, which is compounded by their anxieties about the future of the child they bore out of wedlock. Anna begins to suspect that Vronsky is planning to leave her for another woman, although she has no concrete evidence to justify these suspicions. Vronsky deals with Anna’s jealousy and erratic behavior imperfectly, but also makes several hearty efforts to comfort her and assure her that his sole desire is to continue their life together, even if they can’t get married.

These developments feel basically in keeping with Anna’s character as we’ve come to know it from the previous sections of the book. However, Part Seven concludes with Anna throwing herself under a train because Vronsky has written her to say that he will return home later than she would like. You read that right: Tolstoy’s eponymous character commits suicide because her lover won’t come home as early as she wants him to. This is perhaps the most deflating demise of a beloved character I can remember reading, one that left me emotionally empty and feeling that Tolstoy was grasping for drama in a way that was both unnecessary and insulting. This is especially galling given that the majority of the novel pulls drama from the quotidian and the mundane to great effect; by resorting to romantic histrionics, Tolstoy strips Anna of her capacity to evoke sympathy, reducing her from a carnal heroine to a cold caricature.

I might have been willing to overlook this bungle if not for Tolstoy’s second self-imposed catastrophe. In Part Eight, which describes the aftermath of Anna’s suicide, we come back to Levin, who is now a husband and father. Still challenged by his existential anxieties, Levin fulfills his duties and seems relatively content if not ecstatically happy. But after a discussion with a local peasant, he has a series of religious epiphanies about the nature of God, truth, goodness and reason:

One should live for the truth, for God, and I understand…I and millions of people who lived ages ago and are living now, muzhiks, the poor in spirit, and the wise men who have thought and written about it, saying the same thing in their vague language––we’re all agreed on this one thing: what we should live for and what is good. I and all people have only one firm, unquestionable and clear knowledge, and this knowledge cannot be explained by reason––it is outside it. (795)

This is nonsense. Anyone with a basic understanding of history knows that the question of “what we should live for and what is good” is probably the most contentious question humans have ever posed. One could easily argue that the entirety of human conflict springs from varying interpretations of what is good and what is worth living for. Levin is correct though that this “knowledge,” as he calls it, “cannot be explained by reason.” That is because it is not knowledge and it is not reasonable. It is a romantic and comforting fantasy.

‘I used to say that in my body, in the body of this plant and of this bug…an exchange of matter takes place according to physical, chemical and physiological laws. And that in all of us, along with the aspens, and the clouds, and the nebulae, development goes on. Development out of what? Into what? And infinite development and struggle?…As if there can be any direction or struggle in infinity! And I was astonished that in spite of the greatest efforts of my thinking along that line, the meaning of life, the meaning of my impulses and yearnings, was still not revealed to me. Yet the meaning of my impulses is so clear to me that I constantly live by it, and was amazed and glad when a muzhik voiced it for me: to live for God, for the soul. (796)

Wrong again. “Infinite development and struggle” is in fact a fair and accurate way to describe the predicament of life. The developments and struggles of the material world are the most significant sources of meaning for those willing to give up false narratives and accept the world for what it is. Tolstoy spends the majority of the novel convincing us that Levin is precisely such a person––a progressive thinker who grapples with moral complexity and rejects fanciful simplifications of difficult problems––only to transform him into a blissed-out believer in the final pages.

Now it was clear to him that he was able to live only thanks to the beliefs in which he had been brought up. ‘What would I be and how would I live my life, if I did not have those beliefs, did not know that one should live for God and not for one’s needs? I would rob, kill, lie. Nothing of what constitutes the main joys of my life would exist for me.’…Was it through reason that I arrived at the necessity of loving my neighbour and not throttling him? I was told it as a child, and I joyfully believed it, because they told me what was in my soul. And who discovered it? Not reason. Reason discovered the struggle for existence and the law which demands that everyone who hinders the satisfaction of my desires should be throttled. That is the conclusion of reason. (797)

Worse still. Here Levin commits several obvious fallacies: he conflates religiosity with morality (false equivalence), he identifies belief as the only thing stopping him from being a monster (hasty generalization), and he blames reason for making people do bad things (false cause). Watching Levin––the novel’s intellectual hero––reject reason and descend into such idiotic ramblings was unforgivably aggravating.

When we examine Anna and Levin’s fates together, a cruel irony emerges: Anna ends her own life by giving into irrational thinking, and yet irrational thinking also confers spiritual clarity upon Levin. What can we take away from this clumsy and irresolvable contradiction, except to assume that Tolstoy was deeply confused about what kind of book he was writing? One could argue that the irony is intentional and that Tolstoy was trying to teach us something about the different ways irrationality can affect people, but the novel’s consistently earnest tone renders that interpretation far too charitable. It appears most likely that Tolstoy thought Anna’s end a realistic and genuinely tragic one, and that he sincerely believed the bullshit that pollutes Levin’s mind.

Despite its many virtues, Anna Karenina fails as a coherent story. It is like an old house in which the reader is imprisoned. This house has many windows, each offering a different, detailed view of the world as true and beautiful as one could imagine. It would be a paradise if not for the peeling paint, rotten floorboards and sinking foundation.

Rating: 4/10