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?