Culling The Classics: Anna Karenina

I hate Russian authors. Every time I've ever tried to read a book by a Russian author, I've failed miserably. Crime and Punishment? I hadn't committed any crime, but it sure felt like Dostoevsky was punishing me. Dr. Zhivago? Boris Pasternak should've changed his name to Boring Pasternak. Lolita? Vladimir Nabokov was writing in English about a French guy driving around the United States, and it was still too Russian for me. So it was with a heavy heart that I decided to read Anna Karenina, seemingly the longest book ever written, in honor of Russian author Leo Tolstoy's 185th birthday, which was this month (or last month, I guess). But I did it, and I did it for you, because this is "Culling The Classics," and we've got history to sift through.

The Book

Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy (The Russian Messenger, 1873-1877)

The Numbers

Considered by many, including Time and the late American author William Faulkner, to be the greatest novel ever written; Goodreads rating of 3.98; dozens of film and television adaptations (as well as a science fiction retelling) and countless references to the book throughout world literature and popular culture.

The Spoiler-Free Skinny

[Tolstoy's] most remarkable achievement, however, is perhaps the weaving of so many varied aspects of social and political life across numerous spheres within the framework of parallel love stories.

Back in the late 1800s, before the Bolsheviks, before the First and Second World Wars, long before the Cold War, even before the Russo-Japanese War, Russia was doing all right. They had recently emancipated the serfs, a huge liberal reform, and seemed to be stepping into modernity with the rest of Europe. It was a time of great change, and Count Lev Nikolayevich "Leo" Tolstoy, a Russian noble, writer, and thinker, wanted to capture this upheaval through the lens of a group of aristocrats, which sounds just horribly boring. To spice things up a bit, he centered the story on an illicit affair, a passionate liaison between the book's main female protagonist, Anna Karenina, and the charming young Count Vronsky. Anna and Vronsky meet and fall in love very early on in the novel, and for the next several hundred pages their drama plays out across the social scenes of Moscow, St. Petersburg, and the Russian countryside.

Parallel to this forbidden love story is another, less scandalous tale. Konstantin Levin, a rich landowner and friend of Anna's brother, acts as a social canvas on which Tolstoy paints his views on many of the popular issues of his day. Levin struggles with and engages in many debates on love, the concept of marriage, dealings with the lower classes he relies on to work his fields, acceptance of the new reforms made in Russia, westernization, innovation, the role of women in society, and the general feelings of futility that often plague his daily life. Through Levin, arguably the true protagonist of the book, we gain a remarkable insight into not only Russian life in the late 1800s, but also many familial, social, and economic issues that are still highly relevant today.

You'll Love It

It's entirely possible that this is the most brilliant, the most complete, and the most perfect novel ever written. Authors, critics, and readers have praised Tolstoy for close to a century and a half for the way he was able to combine so many different human elements in such a powerful and compelling way. His faithful depiction of the tremendous gulf between the upper class—to which he himself belonged—and the lower classes that were subservient to that aristocracy is highly commendable. His near perfect understanding of the everyday struggles of family life is even more compelling. His most remarkable achievement, however, is perhaps the weaving of so many varied aspects of social and political life across numerous spheres within the framework of parallel love stories. Each character, from the lowliest fieldworker to the richest government official, is given life and depth and motivation. When Vronsky first meets and falls in love with Anna, it is impossible not to fall in love with her as well. When Levin despairs, heartbroken after an early rejection, it's easy to empathize with his sense of the pointlessness of life. Anna's brother, Oblonsky, seems only to ever want to have fun—he frequently enjoys drinking, hunting, and flirting—but when we are with him, all of his decisions seem to make perfect sense. Then, when we spend time with Alexei Alexandrovich, Anna's cuckolded husband, a stiff but honorable bore, we can't help but understand and sympathize with his position. Through subtle shifts in tone, location, and point of view, Tolstoy manages to present nearly every possible lifestyle and character type in such a way that the novel becomes a living universe, a Russia that is just as real as the one he inhabited.

You'll Loathe It

But holy hell is this book long. The version I read is 817 pages, though that doesn't include the Introduction, the List of Principal Characters, and the seemingly endless Notes section. And to make things as difficult as humanly possible, this book takes place in Russia, so not only does everyone have about 15 different names, each of which is used only in very particular situations, but all of these names sound exactly the same. There are at least three different Annas, four Alexei/Alexanders, a Nikolaevna and a Mikhailovna (as well as two Nikolais), and a host of V names—Vronsky, Varya Chirkov (also called Varvara), Varvara Andreevna (also called Varenka), Vasenka Veslovsky (also called Vaska and Vassily), Elizaveta Fyodorovna Tverskoy, Lydia Ivanona, Nikolai Ivanovich Sviyahsky, Sergei Ivanovich Koznyshev, Fyodor Vassilyevich Katavasov, and Yashvin. And these are just the main characters. Once you add in all of the soldiers/officers, counts/countesses, princes/princesses, footmen, stewards, maids, nurses, villagers, coachmen, and sundry other minor characters, it becomes next to impossible to keep track of everyone. I needed three bookmarks to read this novel: one for the page I was on, one for the List of Principal Characters so I could refer back to it constantly, and one for the Notes, of which there are over 225 (not including the various translation notes at the bottom of many pages, since the book was originally written with Russian, French and English dialogue).

If you can handle the length of the read, the complexity of the character relationships, and the breadth and depth of the political and social issues being discussed, there's of course the added bonus of this being a Russian novel, which means that it's flowery and dense and often boring as all get out. Sometimes Tolstoy just decides to spend several pages discussing optimal methods for plowing a wheat field. At other times he goes into nauseating detail on the habits of Russians living abroad. We spends several chapters simply waiting for a man to die. And he never makes a point without repeating it at least three times; probably a good 60-70% of the book is inner monologue, usually Anna or Levin's. And while it's obvious that Tolstoy was an extremely insightful writer, he wasn't always a subtle one. Calling Anna Karenina dense is probably—wait, how do you say "understatement of the century" in Russian?

Read It Or Leave It?

And yet somehow, somehow, I finished this book. Many editions of Crime and Punishment are under 500 pages. Lolita is under 400. Anna Karenina, on the other hand, weighs in at close to 850 pages, but I just had to finish it. And it wasn't even because I had to know what happened at the end; the book has one of the most-spoiled endings in classical literature (Choo-Choo!). I mostly wanted to experience for myself the completion of these two emotional journeys, Anna's and Levin's, and be with these characters as they made the major and minor decisions that decided their respective fates. It isn't a particularly plot-heavy book, so it doesn't specifically keep you from putting it down in that way, but it creates such a complete world that it's hard to leave it except at the designated station: the end of the book. So much of Anna Karenina is open ended, but so is life, and everything that is tied up by the novel's conclusion is done so only through specific choices made by the characters to improve/react to their situations. Everyone sleeps in the bed that he or she has made for him- or herself, and no one is left gracelessly at the mercy of fate.

Final Verdict

If you have the patience, the capacity, the ability to remember the names of people you've only met once, you should absolutely read this book. I'm not willing to say that Anna Karenina is the greatest novel ever written, but it certainly isn't very far off. The broad strokes of the story are incredibly compelling, but it's the characters, the complexity, and the richness of this 19th-century socialscape that make it, as Dostoyevsky is alleged to have said, "flawless as a work of art." But he was Russian, so what does he know?

Part Number:
Brian McGackin

Column by Brian McGackin

Brian McGackin is the author of BROETRY (Quirk Books, 2011). He has a BA from Emerson College in Something Completely Unrelated To His Life Right Now, and a Masters in Poetry from USC. He enjoys Guinness, comic books, and Bruce Willis movies.

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Lina Kovzhik's picture
Lina Kovzhik from Russia is reading Tax planning September 30, 2013 - 10:52pm

Dear Brian!

I appreciate your work and would like to comment on some issues, though I'm terribly afraid that you won't take it into account because I am "Russian, so what does she know?"... anyway.

Firstly, I've read attentively only the entry because I actually know how Russian literature is GREAT including "Anna Karenina". It seemed to me that you either don't like reading or haven't understood Russian books you have read (if you ever have) at all. I know "tastes differ" but from the article I understood that length is the greatest problem for you, well it's a book not a "twitter". If you want just to know the plot - ask me, books are written to translate atmosphere on the reader, to learn you something about history, life, relations etc.

Moreover, I wouldn't call this book "the longest book ever written" - if we are speaking about Russian literature have you ever seen "War & Peace", "And Quiet Flows the Don" or "The Karamazov Brothers" (the same goes to other world known outstanding classic works like "Vanity fair", "Ulysses", "Dombey & son" or any other Charles Dickens' novel)? I suppose it is not a good idea to write columns about something you don't know or understand profoundly enough.

Also, it seems to me that before starting a book one should know the background, at least in main features - it is a true way to interesting and enthralling reading. Thus, starting "Dr. Zhivago" you should know the history of the country. I still cannot understend how it may be possible not to get involved into "Crime and Punishment"? Though maybe you are not interested in other people souls and thoughts, ok. The funny thing is, while reading "Lolita" I thought it was too American or too Western for me, but I liked it still.

Finally, I don't say Russian literature is the best in the world, but still it's one of the richest and has longer history than some states. I think it depends on the book itself or your taste and not the nationality of the author. For instance, reading "Atlas Shrugged" (which I heard is rather popular in the USA, though I may mistake) I totally liked the idea but I haven't enjoyed it at all - still I haven't put it aside, although it's long enough (oh, Ayn Rand is Russian too, ok). I just wonder if Dostoevsky is a "punishment" what is supposed to be a "treat" then?

P.S. To love a book one should love reading. Please don't make it look like Russian books are impossible to read. I love American (the USA + Latin America) and British literature A LOT just like I do Russian. Sorry for my verbosity.

P.P.S. By the way, "understatement of the century" in Russian is "преуменьшение столетия" if you're interested -_^ 

ekmahoney's picture
ekmahoney from New England is reading lots of short stories September 30, 2013 - 3:36pm

I had to read this in a month for my AP Lit class my senior year of high school. We were all looking for some trains by the time that was over. I hate the characters and there wasn't really much going on, at least not enough to take up over 1000 pages (that was the version we read). I think we can leave this one behind.

Skygrotto's picture
Skygrotto from Southwestern Ontario is reading Europe: A History by Norman Davies September 30, 2013 - 6:53pm


How great it is that a Russian has spoken up. I am not Russian but I adore the culture, and history. Though my writing has sometimes been compared to Tolstoy, I actually a fervent admirer of Dostoevsky. Although I cannot read Russian, I've read translations of every one of Dostoevsky's novels and most of his shorter works, and his biograhpy. I can say that reading the biography of a writer, especially one that includes the scope of history and culture at the time of the writer putting pen to paper, is a great way to appreciate and understand the depth and scope of the story. Demons by Dostoevsky was a brilliant thriller on its own but with the knowledge of its philosophy and historical significance, its culture and message, raised it above thriller to something enriching.

If length of a novel is key to the novel being worth reading or great or worth ignoring or shit, then count me amongst the confused. Because I never put a book down due to its length.

Lina Kovzhik's picture
Lina Kovzhik from Russia is reading Tax planning October 1, 2013 - 12:03am


Thank you for the reply, it's always a relief to know that sombody shares your point of view. I also think that to put down a book once started is a bad tone. It was Ray Bradbury, if I'm not mistaken, who said that books we haven't read may avenge. After all one who is not interested in history, culture and footnotes better not to start reading Russian classics or Victor Hugo at all.
 In my turn, I have never read Russian books in english, probably it's a totally different experience!  The other day I saw Demons in english in a bookshop and even wanted to buy it. So curious I was to see the difference. While reading it I forgot about all the refferences and details, it felt like an absolut detective to me with striking culmination - for me it was in the chapter "At Tikhon's" (in my edition it was at the very end of the book, so I had to rethink the whole story).