Anna Karenina: Second Quarter

Well, it’s all getting a bit silly now. I’m half way through, and everyone’s all over the shop, tears springing from every orifice. Everyone’s unhappy apart from Kitty and Levin, who, 500 pages in, have finally decided to actually tell each other that they love each other rather than hiding away in their respective homes and pining over the hopelessness of life. That was a relief, I can tell you. Anna tells Karenin that she hates him and loves Vronsky; Karenin is understandably a little put out by this, but because he is a religious man and respects the conventions of society, he allows the affair to continue under the condition that Anna won’t see Vronsky in his own house; a perfectly reasonable and fair request. It was at this point that I started to like Karenin the best out of everyone; he’s a decent man, with a sense of honour and justice, sincerely wishing to do what he thinks is right and spare others humiliation and pain. He is angry and for a time wants to hurt Anna, but he can’t really bring himself to damage her reputation or make her miserable, despite the fact that she makes it perfectly obvious that she hates him. He might be worthy and dull, and completely incapable of expressing himself, but he’s a complex man, with a good heart, and he’s got the courage of his convictions.

This isn’t good enough for Anna, though; she is tortured by Karenin’s generosity and hates him for it. She can’t bear his presence, but at the same time, the thought of losing her position in society and potentially being ostracised from her son are prices she’s not sure will be worth paying for the reward of having Vronsky. Even so, she continues the affair and summons Vronsky to the house while she thinks Karenin will be out; unfortunately he isn’t, and so Karenin launches divorce proceedings. Everyone is distraught by this and tries to talk Karenin out of it, but he sees no other way. Then, horror! Anna is pregnant with Vronsky’s baby and nearly dies after the birth; she calls for Karenin, and over her almost-deathbed, they are reconciled amidst lots of tears and forgiveness, and Vronsky and Karenin are united over their love and concern for Anna. Karenin resolves never to divorce Anna, and thinks they can give things another go. But then – it turns out that Anna was just delirious, and really she does hate Karenin, because he’s been too nice to her – and Vronsky has tried (and failed) to shoot himself, and now Karenin has said she can have a divorce, if that will make her happy – all he wants is for her to be happy – but no, that’s still not good enough, and Anna has just gone off with Vronsky abroad, without divorcing Karenin, humiliating him in the process and also leaving her children behind.

There is of course – of course! – much more filler than this. Levin has been scything grass with the peasants in the countryside and having lengthy conversations with a variety of people with very long names about new methods of farming and social justice. He has also been writing in lots of notebooks about how tortured and pointless his life is without love. Kitty has been in a spa in Germany, recovering from a broken heart and idolising a saintly girl who looks after the invalids. Coincidentally Levin’s brother, who seems to add no purpose to the plot, is also in this spa, dying of tuberculosis. This makes Levin sad, but not as sad as living without Kitty does. Oblonsky and Dolly have been rebuilding their marriage, though Dolly is still unhappy and Oblonsky is still having affairs with ballet girls. There are also lots of other people who say things and do things but they all just become background noise after a while. As do the pages of descriptions of committee meetings and debates about the Russification of Poland and the rights and wrongs of when to mow hay. Anna Karenina is certainly an education, I can’t deny that.

There are, however, moments where it is all worthwhile. I am so intrigued by Tolstoy’s characterisation of Karenin. He’s a real enigma. At first he appears to be a dry and boring prude, incapable of love or affection, and interested only in his work. Anna’s contempt of him and her affair with Vronsky are understandable when Karenin is viewed in this light; she is a passionate, vibrant soul, and Karenin stifles her, failing to give her the love and adventure she craves to fill the yearning she has in her soul for something more than the conventional world of Moscow society. However, as the novel progresses, Karenin is fleshed out much more, and his complexity becomes fascinating. He is passionate, and deeply loving; he adores Anna, and his tender love of her baby daughter is a real hand-to-heart moment. However, whether due to his upbringing, his naturally reticent nature, or the conventions he is so used to following, he is totally unable to express how he feels to Anna, and ends up masking his feelings behind a facade of cool, often sarcastic, indifference. Partly this is a method of self preservation; if he doesn’t reveal his feelings, Anna won’t be able to hurt him. But she does, deeply, and continuously. He tries to make her happy, he tries to give her what she wants, he tries to do what is right, but every time she throws it back in his face. She transforms her guilt into blame and hatred, making Karenin into a villain when really it is she who is the selfish, cruel one, wanting everything without being prepared to make any sacrifices.

At this point, I couldn’t care less what happens to Anna. Neither she nor Vronsky are likeable or sympathetic. I don’t think they’re romantic, I don’t think they’re tragic, I don’t want them to run off into the sunset, and I wish Vronsky had managed to kill himself so that Anna would have been forced to face up to her unhappiness and realise that an affair is not an answer to an emptiness inside her soul. When I first read Anna Karenina, I thought that Anna was marvellous and so brave for daring to fight for her freedom, but now I just think she’s behaving like a child. Expecting someone else to fill a void inside of you is never a good recipe for a successful relationship, and I can see now that even if she does end up going off with Vronsky, she still won’t be happy because she is one of those people who is always searching for something, always yearning, always expecting life to measure up to a dream that can never be replicated in reality. She’s Madame Bovary, really. And I couldn’t stand her, either.

So, our main protagonists, Anna and Vronsky are insufferable, both behaving like selfish, sulky teenagers who want everything their way OR ELSE (slams door). Karenin is pacing up and down, attending boring committee meetings with a soul perturbed by the actions of his wife, who he genuinely, no matter what solution he proposes, cannot please. I feel so sorry for him, and I am interested to see how he takes things forward. Frankly, my interest in Karenin is the only reason why I am still reading at this point. Levin and Kitty are very sweet and I am sure their married life will be lovely in the countryside, and Oblonsky is hilarious and a perfect indictment of the nice-but-dim lazy aristocrat with a devoted wife at home and a ballet girl or two on the side, but they haven’t drawn me in enough to make me care much about them. The endless chapters of committee meetings, painfully dated debates about minor constitutional issues that I’m sure were all the rage in the 1870s but have no significance to today’s reader, and waffle upon waffle about the best ways to mow hay or apportion land for peasants have eroded, sentence by sentence, my will to carry on.

In my opinion, Anna Karenina is not a masterpiece. Even Tolstoy himself thought it a very flawed work. It’s trying to be too many things to too many people, and isn’t particularly successful at any of them. I’m not blown away by the language (though obviously I’m reading in translation so I can’t place too high a value on this), I’m not blown away by the atmosphere, the characters, the plot – the novel in general is a bit all over the place, and doesn’t feel like a coherent, polished piece of writing. I understand that Tolstoy is using all his different characters for a purpose; to portray different types of love and marriage, and to debate what is important in life and what brings true satisfaction, but a lot of other 19th and 20th century novelists have written much better books that express these issues far more exquisitely and succinctly than Tolstoy. I’m sad to say that I’m not enjoying reading it much at all, and I am having to force myself to continue. I’m not entirely sure if I’ll make it to the end, but I’ll do my best. I can only hope that it will get better. How is everyone else getting on?

20 comments

  1. I think Tolstoy himself would be delighted by your post because you have responded to his characters as if they are real, living, flawed human beings. For me, in spite of the digressions which are almost everywhere in his fiction and which are less in the service of character or plot development and more just Tolstoy exploring/flogging his current philosophical, religious or political obsessions, no one has ever created characters that live on the page and in the reader’s mind as well as Tolstoy does.

    When I first tried AK, I was in college — and it was almost exactly at the point you have reached in the book, that I gave up. If anyone had asked me then, I would have given them a version of your post and moved on to Trollope or Wharton or Dickens. Years of life and work later, I still agree with everything you say, but this time I thought “even so, this is how people behave in real life, honorably or selfishly or lazily or passionately or complacently or rationally, decently or indecently, and they often do so without understanding why. People who behave badly often do resent those who have forgiven them. Lovers can be foolish or narcissistic or irrational or cruel. Even good men and women are bores when they lecture others or flog their ideas. These are real people.” Reading War and Peace now, and half-way through, I am even more struck by how real and universal the people and situations are.

    1. Hi AJ, thanks so much for your thoughts and for presenting a more positive perspective! I think you’re quite right – part of the reason the characters in AK are so annoying is that they are human – they don’t behave in rational or understandable ways and I am engaging with them and having expectations of them as I would with real people, so Tolstoy is a great success at that. Even so, it doesn’t make the book any easier to slog through!!

      1. There was a section in W&P where I just knew Pierre was going to make the biggest mistake of his life (he did) and I just dreaded reading about it — I’ve developed QUITE a fondness for Pierre.

  2. Agreed, Rachel. Anna is such a blur of ambivalence and caprice that after the first quarter I thought had clearer insight into the personality of Vronsky’s ill-starred racehorse, Froufrou, than I did into hers. I did warm to Karenin, for the same reasons as you, but the grounds for his three voltes-face over the divorce seemed to become increasingly flaky (being persuaded by Oblonsky, for goodness sake?). In short, the incoherence and inconsequence are starting to wear me down.

    There is a good case for getting the Russians out of the way in one’s teens, or student years at the latest. The only two novels I still re-visit, and with admiration that deepens every time, are A Hero of Our Time and The House of the Dead.

    1. Yes it is all just a little bit ridiculous, isn’t it? You can take so much of people being melodramatic and capricious but after a while it becomes far too wearing. Perhaps the Russians have to be read at a certain time in life – I think I’m a bit too cynical for them now!

      I will look up those books, Bruce, thank you!

  3. I am in agreement with AJ’s comments. Levin and Kitty’s life seem to be what Tolstoy had in mind as an ideal marriage compared to that of the other characters. Anna was the perfect example of a confused, mentally ill person spinning out of control. I have a simple translation of the book and that has made a difference. I never finish a book I am not enjoying after 100 pages!

    1. Yes I think so too – he does portray them as the great romance, doesn’t he? Anna and Vronsky, it is clear, will never work. I don’t think Anna is mentally ill, just trapped in a life she doesn’t want without knowing what it is she wants. That’s her tragedy! I wish I could just put it down but I feel guilty…we’ll see how I get on!

  4. I think part of the problem is that 19th century, male novelists just aren’t very good at creating believable, going-against-society’s-rules and yet sympathetic female characters. Both Anna and Mme. Bovary are more caricatures than realistic if flawed human beings. I think it’s brave of Tolstoj and Flaubert to tackle the problem of women being dissatisfied with their lives in their books, but they just don’t understand women well enough to make their heroines’ actions and motivations believable. (I know this is a generalisation and there wil certainly be exceptions, I know, but Charles Dickens’ women for example – good grief!)

    I wonder what we would think of Anna’s story if it had been written by a woman. I’m suspecting Tolstoj’s rationale in writing this was ‘women are weak creatures, who can’t control their feelings and are not capable of seeing the larger consequences of their actions (Anna) while men – when not completely blinded by passion for an unworthy woman (Vronsky) – are in control of their emotions and will do the honourable thing because they can see woman’s weakness for what it is (Karenin)’.

    Maybe I’m being unfair here, but look at Tolstoj’s actual life and how badly he treated his wife, not because he was a bad person, but because he had no clue about what she wanted and needed from (married) life.

    Compare Anna’s story to Lilly Bart’s in ‘The House of Mirth’ for example, or even to Lizzie’s in Pride and Prejudice. Yes, she hurts Darcy by turning down his marriage proposal and says some pretty harsh things, but she keeps her dignity and gives a coherent explanation of her reasons for refusing him. If P&P had been written by Tolstoj, she would have agreed to marry Darcy on the spot out of ambition or weakness, and would have eloped with Wickham before the end of the honeymoon. (And then thrown herself under a horse-drawn carriage.)

    1. I’m not sure it’s quite as clear cut as you suggest in your second paragraph, Elke, particularly in the light of General Serpukhovskoy’s remark at the end of ch 21 of part III: ‘ Men make of love something enormous, but women are always terre-a-terre [down to earth].’

      This could be just a stray remark by a walk-on character, encouraging Vronsky to get a grip. On the other hand it could be a flash of self-awareness on Tolstoy’s part.

    2. I love your views on this Elke, and I am, by and large, inclined to agree. I think a lot of male novelists in general from that period struggle to capture womanhood and instead rely on stereotypes and ideals – Kitty especially is very one dimensional and the epitome of the ‘angel of the house’ – who never bloody existed in the first place!

  5. You’re right, maybe I am being a bit unfair. But is hard not to be biased in some way, looking at 19th century attitudes with 21st century eyes.

  6. The grass harvesting finished me off. I lost the will to live around page 250 and, alas, never picked it up again. Good for you for sticking with it, although I wouldn’t blame you if you felt compelled to walk away! And a wonderfully balanced and fair review here, given the trials and tribulations of getting through the book.

    1. Hahahaha! Yes, the grass cutting was a low, I have to say. It does pick up a bit after that but my patience is wearing thin now and I think I might give up…especially as next week is my last before going back to work and I won’t have time to finish it after then! Thank you – I did try to give credit where it’s due!

  7. Hmmmm. I don’t have formed ideas about this R – that is, what we are supposed to think of such powerfully canonical works as AK. Haven’t read it but got a copy which rather excludes me from direct opinions, but still…..

    Same with Proust. Is Remembrance OTP really such a great book ie worthwhile read? For me, its also largely proscribed by the sheer effort of getting through such long works (I read slowly) when you can whizz through several shorter novels with greater enjoyment. I will say however – I actually enjoyed the length of The Secret History because it was so comforting to return to again and again like a prolonged feast rather than a quick snack when you’re still hungry.

    I realise this is tangential but hey! – its me, Bop, and its you R, and the topic is books etc.

    Reading this incidentally. Not only is it inspiring and interesting, but parts of it could be used for teaching purposes – http://www.amazon.co.uk/Stop-What-Youre-Doing-Read/dp/0099565943

    – Bop

    1. We always said at school that classics were only classics because people needed to feel good about themselves after slogging through them, so they made them out to be better than they are! I have never bothered to read Proust, but The Secret History is genuinely brilliant – I loved every page!

      Thanks so much! Have added that to my wishlist, it sounds very good!

  8. I’m really enjoying reading your reviews of this book – the way you describe the events of the plot is exactly the way I remember thinking about the novel as I read it a few months ago. To be honest I’m surprised more people don’t give up during Levin’s lengthly foray into farming practices, that part just killed me. I also really agree with what you say about Tolstoy trying to make his novel into too many things for too many people, so true! The story has so much to it, it’s such a commitment to sit down and read it, and while some parts I found beautiful and tragic and well-written, this enjoyment was almost cancelled out by the elements of the story that had absolutely nothing to do with me or my interests. That being said, you’ve come this far and I think you’ll regret it if you don’t power through to the end! It’s a huge mission but it’ll be worth it to conquer such an ambitious read!

    I’m currently slogging my way through The Brothers Karamazov, another Russian gem of similar length. Dostoevsky’s style is a little different from Tolstoy but I can definitely seem some similarities, I’ll let you know what I think of the comparison when I’m done!

    1. Thanks Lauren! I am glad you feel the same way! The Brothers Karamazov was a slog for me too – I’m surprised you’ve found the strength to tackle another Russian classic so soon after AK – you brave woman! I think I will keep going…but I am heartened that I’m not the only one with very mixed feelings!

  9. I apologise for intervening for a third time in a relatively quiet thread but the coincidence has just occurred to me that two actresses who have played Anna on screen, Vivien Leigh and Nicola Pagett, were both diagnosed with bipolar disorder, then known as manic depression. Their respective casting directors would scarcely have discerned what was wrong medically but may nevertheless have sensed – how to say it? – an underlying volatility that was needed for the part.

    This fact is at least consistent with the view that the only fixed thing about Anna is her instability. I shall tiptoe round the related question of Tolstoy’s adequacy as a feminine psychologist and merely observe that apart from a couple of rigid bureaucrats (Karenin, Andrei Bolkonsky) and the holy fool in WP, Platon Karatayev, most of his characters are a bit (too?) fuzzy around the edges.

    1. Thanks for bringing that up, Bruce – I never knew that about those actresses and that’s really interesting. Perhaps there is a suggestion that Anna is perhaps mentally ill?

      I think Tolstoy’s characters err on the side of caricature/melodrama…but then I think you could say the same of many Russian novelists. Perhaps it’s a case of national temperament?! Us Brits are very reserved, after all!

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