Anna Karenina is a novel that covers the three big P’s of literary greatness—psychology, politics, and philosophy—all while being quintessentially Realist. Kind of a big deal, y’know?
Anna Karenina is considered emblematic of Realist fiction, particularly Russian realist fiction. Let’s see why that matters.
The Realist movement in literature, as the name suggests, focuses on the realistic representation of life and humanity. This means no orcs, no divine interventions by deities, and especially, no embellishment. Unlike the Romanticism movement, Realism refuses to idealize humans and human relations. Reality oftentimes doesn’t look so good in a faithful mirror.
Anna Karenina addresses with brutal honesty previously sacred topics such as love, marriage, religious beliefs, politics, among other things. This unsparing look has resulted in some pretty powerful stuff. I don’t think there are many books that portray the difficulties of marriage, love, friendships, and thought itself as Anna Karenina does.
Another aspect of Tolstoy’s mastery of the genre is his attention to detail. He writes often of the banalities of everyday life in such a way that they create a detailed and faithful picture of a character’s life. This is why we get treated to seemingly endless pages of Levin cutting grass, Anna drinking coffee, Karenin writing missives, and so on. This extends even to characters’s thoughts. Tolstoy shows us how our thoughts shift constantly on any given topic, often tormenting us with their inconstancy. It is the rituals and concerns of daily lives that shape much of our lives. Tolstoy renders the minutiae in such a way that Anna Karenina goes much as life does: long periods of grinding routine with a few shocking moments that define us. That’s realism for ya.
Realism is difficult to take, both in real life and in literature. It takes a certain hardiness to endure the stream of tormented thoughts, confusion, daily concerns, and all of the drudgeries of everyday life. This is especially true for today’s reader who is more used to modern literature’s focus on more impressionistic style where writers only give us the important moments, leaving the rest to our imagination. The story has taken primacy nowadays. Anna Karenina, with its unyielding and unrepentant portrayal of life—with all of its dramas and tediums—is realism at its best. Just because it’s the best realism out there doesn’t mean that we’re prepared for it.
When Realism meets something as romanticized and vaunted as luvah, some amazing things happen. That thing is Anna Karenina.
We meet four couples in Anna Karenina, all of which fulfill the infamous line “an unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” You have Stiva, the philandering and thoughtless husband with his wife Dolly who vacillates between forgiveness and hatred. Anna and Karenin treat their relationship more as a business transaction until Anna upends everything. Levin and Kitty whose beliefs diverge and Levin’s philosophical musings consume him to the point that he cannot be a good husband. Finally, you have Anna and Vronsky, a passionate duo whose feverish love drives them to madness. All of these couples show the difficulties of relationships that each one of us faces at some point.
One theme that runs through the novel is the struggle that every individual faces when they become one half of a duo. They all yearn to be totally and utterly understood by the other person. Anna wants Vronsky to appreciate and empathize with her conflicting desire to be with him and keep her son whereas Vronsky is totally focused on her and often forgets about her son. Levin wishes Kitty could understand his struggle with religion and existentialism while she is a devout believer. These are the small fissures in relationships that can lead to its collapse. It’s the small things that matter.
You can’t help but stand back in awe as you read a detailed rendition of a relationship imploding. It’s like a train wreck (heh): too horrifying to look at, yet too captivating to look away from. Anna Karenina is a psychological train wreck of the finest kind, full of flames and crushed metal. Anyone who has experienced rough patches in their relationships will instantly see Tolstoy’s genius in this. The others should just count their blessings.
Tolstoy’s psychological brilliance isn’t confined to couples. It’s just what he’s the most famous for.
Tolstoy’s philosophical bend becomes evident in his Levin chapters. He confronts deep, philosophical questions of existentialism, religion, and spirituality through Levin’s character. The story has it that Levin is a semi-autobiographical character reflecting Tolstoy’s own philosophical struggles.
Levin as a cerebral creature dwells on the meaning of life quite often, particularly when an event forces him to accept death as an inevitable end to his and everyone’s lives. This sparks him to question many things such as the Church, what happens after death, and the very meaning of life. Kitty poses a stark contrast to Levin. She is untroubled by such philosophical meanderings. The existence of God is self-evident to her. Purpose fills her life. Herein Tolstoy asks us to consider: is it worth it to struggle so to define our lives? What is the point of philosophy at all?
Pretty deep, if you can get past all of the whining and dilly-dallying Levin does. That guy defines “overthinking.” Sheesh.
This is the part of Anna Karenina that has aged the most poorly. It’s not Tolstoy’s fault that history now considers the events of 1870s Russia small potatoes compared to its 20th century self. Most of us are taught about the Communist Revolution, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the balkanization of East Europe, not the liberalization policy of mid-19th century Russia. Most of us modern reader don’t have the slightest understanding of how bold Tolstoy was in his views here.
The strand of political and social criticism runs through the novel from the first chapter on. Set against the backdrop of major liberal reforms in 1870s Russia by Alexander II, Anna Karenina covers the various ways that liberalism has affected agricultural society, the judicial system, the social classes, and so on. These issues are hardly relevant to the modern reader who most likely knows nothing about these changes, but for the contemporary reader, they were part of their lives. Tolstoy got into trouble for his negative views on the volunteers fighters of the war in Serbia. An increase in liberal and progressivism also occurred in society during this time, as Tolstoy skillfully depicits in the “edgy” circles in which Anna falls that champion romantic notions. These uber-cool, ultra-progressive folks who encouraged Anna to follow her heart were quick to turn their noses up at her when she became a ruined woman in society’s eyes. This is hypocrisy in the highest order. As such, Anna Karenina earns a place amongst the great works of social criticism such as Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Oliver Twist.
Literary merit and tastes are two distinct things. The former is based on more—note that I didn’t use absolutes—objective factors such as historical significance, character development, and style. Taste is simply your preferences for storylines, style, and characterization. Sometimes the two might overlap. Other times it doesn’t.
I, too, struggled with Anna Karenina. Even though I greatly admire Tolstoy’s characterization and plotting, I found myself putting it down and not returning. This is how it took me five years of on-and-off reading to get through it. I can say that Anna Karenina is a great novel in the same breath as I say “Too friggin’ long.” I prefer novels with snappier dialogue and less focus on the meandering mental state of characters. That doesn’t take away Anna Karenina’s brilliance. It just means that I’m impatient and whiny.