It’s impossible not to feel proud when you finish reading Anna Karenina: you’ve made it, man. You’ve worked your way through one of European literature’s greatest novels (greatest both figuratively and literally – it weighs in at over 800 pages) and navigated a cast-list with names so confusing – we’re talking to you, Stepan Arkadyevich Oblonsky (or ‘Stiva’ to his friends) – that it’s really very easy to forget who’s who and what’s what.
Having seen, and thoroughly enjoyed, Joe Wright’s adaptation of the Russian-set novel last year, however, I was inspired to give Anna Karenina a read. Based in the mid-19th century – at a time when social reform was transforming the country – Tolstoy’s book follows high society’s reaction to a torrid love affair involving one of the most prominent women in Russian society.
Ironically enough, the story begins with the titular character going to repair her brother’s (Stiva) marriage after he has been unfaithful with his family’s governess. She succeeds, yet in the process ends Prince Vronsky’s planned engagement to Kitty (Stiva’s sister-in-law), as Vronsky promptly falls for Anna instead. Whoops. As this drama unfolds, yet another hapless character, Levin, is hopelessly in love with Kitty, and spirals into a hopeless depression following her dismissal. Confused yet?
What follows is the briefest of happiness for Anna and Vronsky before their fall from social grace begins to rapidly set in, and both we and they are left questioning whether their love was ever based on anything more than lust.
Whilst Vronsky is relatively unscathed by the affair, Anna is banned from seeing her young son and forced to live life as an outcast. Anna spirals into paranoia, convinced that Vronsky is having an affair with the young Princess Sorokina. Anna’s unhappiness seals her fate.
Despite the tragedy of Anna’s situation, Tolstoy has created a character who takes control of her destiny and breaks away from the strict conformity of society. He also juxtaposes his characters stories to show how unfair social perception can be: whilst Anna is outcast for her indiscretion, her brother is almost lauded for her adulterous tendencies. Engaging and thought-provoking, Anna Karenina is a must-read.
Anna Karenina (Penguin Classics), RRP £8.99, is available to buy here
By Peter Byrne